The Big Idea: Daniel Church
It was a beautiful summer’s day in 2014, and I was on my way to a funeral where I didn’t know anybody.
Social media does have its good side; over the previous couple of years, I’d got to know a lady called Debbie Pearson, an online friend-of-a-friend with whom I shared similar tastes in music, films, books, politics and humour. Only via Facebook and never face-to-face – nonetheless, we’d become reasonably good friends.
Debbie and her partner had been trying to start a family through all that time and, in November 2013, they learned they’d finally succeeded. By the summer of 2014, they were looking forward to welcoming their first child.
And then, on June 29th, Debbie came home and found her partner dead.
She announced the date of the funeral on Facebook as 17th July, asking anyone who wanted to come to attend. The baby arrived on the 14th, three days before the service.
Debbie lived – still does – in the Peak District of Northern England. If you don’t know where that is, it’s a huge area of hills and dales covering parts of the counties of Cheshire, Greater Manchester, South and West Yorkshire and Staffordshire, but mostly located in the county of Derbyshire. That was where I was heading that day, to a small village called Bonsall.
From Liverpool, where I lived, it was a lengthy journey of four hours by rail, so I took all the essentials with me: an MP3 player (I’m old school,) a good book, a pen and a yellow legal pad. As the lush green hilly countryside rolled by, I set out to write something, but wasn’t sure what. And so I did what I usually do in such circumstances, and wrote the first word that came into my head:
I’d no idea who Ellie was, but I knew she had to be doing something, so I finished the sentence: Ellie peered down the slope at the body.
What slope? What body? What had happened here?
I only wrote a couple of pages that day, because while I still didn’t know much about what was going on, I did know that this was starting to feel like the beginning of a novel, and I already had one of those on the go at home. So I put it aside and wrote a short story instead.
But by the time I put those papers aside, I did know a little more than I had at the start. I knew, for instance, that Ellie was a rural police officer – based in the same wild, rolling landscape the train was passing through – and that while it was summer in the train carriage, it was the dead of winter where she was. I knew, as well, that the dead man was a local troublemaker and hard case. Who had, nonetheless, frozen to death in the winter night, within sight of his home, because someone – or something – had left him too frightened to move from where he hid.
Ellie had no idea what he’d been so frightened of, or what was going to happen next, and more to the point neither did I. Maybe a vague couple of possibilities, but nothing beyond that. And in those days, I didn’t like to begin anything without a clear plan. Nonetheless, that opening scene stayed with me, even after I’d lost those scribbled pages.
By 2020, I finally felt able to try writing a book without a detailed plan. If I knew the next few chapters’ worth of the story, that would be enough to start with. Hopefully the next few chapters would have suggested themselves by the time those were done; if not, I could always sit down and plan them out.
So I wrote that opening scene again, more or less from memory. The body had to be examined and retrieved and taken somewhere – and as I learned from talking to Debbie, little villages in the Peak District could easily get cut off from the outside world by heavy snow and have to rely on their own resources and community spirit until it was cleared. And the dead man’s family – who weren’t likely to be much more pleasant company than he’d been in life – would need to be notified.
The big question I still didn’t have an answer to, though, was the question that ended up lying at the heart of The Hollows: What was out there in the night? I was seven or eight chapters in before I began to realise what it might be. But I was a good halfway through the book when the full extent of what was going on, and what was at stake, became clear.
The Hollows was a joy to write, and its characters a pleasure to inhabit – not only Ellie, but her friends like the local doctor, Milly Emmanuel and the vicar, Madeleine Lowe; the brutalised but brave Jess Harper, and her monstrous mother Liz. Many of them were inspired by women I’ve known.
The book is dedicated to my friend, Debbie Pearson, and to her son, Gus Lambert, who turned eight this year. It couldn’t, really, be dedicated to anyone else: not only was Debbie a constant source of help and advice throughout the writing, the novel quite simply wouldn’t exist without the two of them, and that train journey in the summer of 2014.