Sail Away to Sea with Annie Stanley and Sue Teddern
Annie Stanley All at Sea- Sue Teddern
If you’re slow to nod off at night or your unlined curtains let in the dawn, you may well have found yourself listening to the Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4. The Sailing By theme tune used to annoy me but over the years, I’ve learned to love it and the soothing, sing-songy virtual voyage that follows: Dogger, Fisher, German Bight … Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea.
Obviously, I might feel differently if I was on a trawler in a Force 8 gale off Tyne or Trafalgar. But for all us landlubbers – I can’t even swim! – it serves as a kind of comfort blanket wrapped around our coastline, as reassuring as a cup of cocoa or cosy pair of slippers.
I honestly can’t remember how the Shipping Forecast became the structural spine of my debut novel, Annie Stanley, All at Sea. Why did I decide to send my messed-up heroine and her father’s ashes on a tour of the sea areas that surround our isles? It may have been one of those rare ideas that presents itself fully formed.
Once I’d worked out who Annie was and why she felt the need to embark on her journey – both literally and emotionally – the story started to take shape, aided by the sequence of the sea areas. I also decided that she would only make fourteen stops, knowing it would be too complicated to get her to North Utsire, Biscay or Faeroes. This had to be a route she was likely to complete.
I couldn’t recce every stop she made but I checked out a fair few. Or I chose places I’d visited before. Best of all, when I sent her along the south coast, where I’m lucky to live, the Bexhill and Brighton chapters required no research at all.
Annie begins her adventure in Cromarty (sea area Cromarty). I wrote this chapter with the help of Google, before I had a chance to visit. When I did, it was so reassuring to see that the landmarks I’d referenced were spot-on: the café where she meets a new friend; the community hall where she accidentally joins a ‘knit ‘n’ natter’ group; the little post office which plays a pivotal part in the plot. I’m not the only writer to write first and research afterwards and it’s hugely gratifying when your creative instincts are validated.
I’d seen a couple of TV documentaries about Canvey Island (sea area Thames) and it seemed like a good place to stop. So I sent Annie there, to be joined by her tetchy sister, Kate. I knew about the floods of 1953 but had no sense of how they had impacted on the community. I often plonk characters on a bench so that they can get chatting to a local and have a little moment of connection. After walking beside the sea wall and taking in the mural that relates the story of the floods, Annie gets into conversation with an old man, out with his dog. They connect, albeit briefly, because he shares with Annie’s late father a passion for famous Canvey Island band, Doctor Feelgood.
By the time Annie reaches Lulworth (sea area Portland), she’s ready – although she doesn’t know it yet – to make peace with her father’s new partner. I hadn’t visited Dorset in years so a trip there was necessary, in order to find the perfect location for this rapprochement. Swanage Pier provided me with two plot points that I would never have come up with purely via Google.
I also visited a writer friend who is a fanatical fisherman. He told me that the Shipping Forecast was long ago supplanted by modern technology. If you’re out for a day’s fishing, why wait several hours for the BBC bulletin when you can find the information instantly on your phone? I put these words into the mouth of a woman Annie chats to on a bench in Tobermory, Mull (sea area Malin). Annie is amused that the Shipping Forecast has become essential listening for non-seafarers like herself.
Annie’s final stop is Kirkwall, Orkney (sea area Fair Isle). She takes a tour of the island and has some revelatory moments about her future, while eating an ice cream in Stromness, and at the Neolithic Ring of Brodgar. My partner and I had taken a cruise – our first ever – to the final four sea areas of Annie’s journey so that I could send her on the very same cruise. I didn’t know how it would impact on her, or even who her travel companions would be.
That came later, back at my desk, as I cracked on with my first draft, sitting where I’m sitting now, with my faithful Shipping Forecast poster on the wall beside me. Annie has become a valued friend, as have the other important people in her life. I do hope you’ll love her too.
(If this was radio, I’d now gently fade up Sailing By and wish you a peaceful night.)
Thank you so much Annie and Sue! A fascinating premise for a novel and a heartwarming tale!
BookTrail Boarding Pass: Annie Stanley All at Sea