Back in 2012, I published my first novel, A Time For Silence. It was a stand-alone novel and I didn’t intend it to be the first of a series. There were to be no sequels. But the story never quite left me alone. I knew where all the characters, past and present, were heading, but where had they come from? What fertile soil had made John Owen the man he was?
I wanted to explore that question and I did, initially, in a short story, A Time To Cast Away. But having written that, it still wouldn’t let me alone. It kept growing in my mind. The stark, spare focus of a short story wanted to put on weight, light candles to bring in the surrounding stage, and I finished up writing a full-blown prequel, The Covenant.
For once, when writing a book, I couldn’t start with a blank page. My metaphorical notebook came with words already written on it. Scattered through A Time For Silence are small hints and references to a past before the earliest chapters (which goes back to 1933). My modern-day heroine, Sarah, spends much of her time researching it. She goes to the National Library in Aberystwyth and searches through 19th century census returns as well as old newspapers. She discovers that the cottage of Cwmderwen had not been the home of the Owen family for centuries. Thomas Owen had only settled there sometime between 1871 and 1881, with his wife and children. Later, visiting the chapel graveyard in search of John Owen’s grave, Sarah is able to fill in more about the old family.
“I glanced at the graves encircling his. In the row behind, to one side, was an older grey slab. Mary, wife of Thomas Owen of Cwmderwen, died 1900, aged 60. Also the above Thomas Owen, died 1912, aged 76. Also Thos. their son, died 1882, aged 16, also Leah Owen, their daughter, died 1919, aged 45. A positive encyclopaedia compared with John’s gravestone. Yes, I’d seen Thomas Junior and Leah on the census, along with two other daughters who must have upped and married.Another stone stood beside it, blurred with lichen, but I could make out the names of John’s mother Ann, died aged 28, and two of his infant siblings. What about his father, Francis? I couldn’t be sure but there was a small stone further along inscribed F.O.1922.”
Sarah also finds details of other people, including the George family, nearest neighbours to Cwmderwen.
“There were flowers still fresh on one grave, polished black marble with gold lettering. Evelyn George, died 1992. There was a space under Evelyn’s name. Waiting for William? I guessed she was his wife. Next to it, a large grey stone read, ‘David George, of Castell Mawr, died 1929, aged 59, and Elizabeth, wife of the above, died 1955, aged 81.’ This was the Castell Mawr plot.”
These details, along with a few other slipped in, set the limits on the story contained in The Covenant, but they also inspired it, giving me a ready-made cast of characters from the names on the gravestones. Who were they? What did they do, think, say, feel? What impression did they make on the isolated community of Llanolwen, in the wooded wilds of North Pembrokeshire?
The detail that nagged at me most was “also Leah Owen, their daughter, died 1919, aged 45.” The Covenant is the story of Leah Owen.