The Post-Retirement Novel
Learning the Craft
I started the part-time MA course in Creative Writing at Newcastle University three weeks after I retired from a full-time career as a public health doctor. The timing wasn’t great as we had a long trip to New Zealand already booked for late November, so I had to miss part of the first term. I coped with being mildly reprimanded for taking an ‘unauthorised absence’.
There were two main reasons for subjecting myself to being one of the least qualified (in the literary arts) people on the course at the same time as being one of the oldest. The first was that I have always loved reading fiction – anything and everything. My Dad had an impressive collection of those monthly book club bound editions of novels from DH Lawrence to Nevil Shute and a lot of 1950s sci-fi paperbacks – Isaac Asimov to AE Van Vogt. I read them all. As a student, the packing logistics for long trips abroad with my now husband were mainly about how many books I could take. He later bought me a Kindle with enthusiasm.
The second reason was that I had always wanted to write a novel and this very much crystalised as I started retirement planning. My work had been demanding, full-time plus, and included on-call. I knew I would need both structure and goals in that first year. I also knew that I needed educating in how to write fiction. Producing factual reports and papers had been part of my work for over 20 years. I knew how to write a lot of words to often tight deadlines and for different audiences, but absolutely none of this could be ‘made-up’!
I loved doing the MA course and learning the craft of writing fiction. It was a real pleasure to learn alongside younger people and an interesting challenge in not being the expert. I began to understand the art of writing creatively and then how to do it, and then I found the story I wanted to tell.
Why This Story?
The Midwife is set in 1840. It begins as a dual narrative: two characters, both living shadowed lives, survive through their work and their commitment to it. One is a well-respected male doctor in London with secrets to hide, the other is a woman in Northumberland who has lost her past but finds her skills as a midwife. The narratives inexorably, but perhaps surprisingly, come together in the final section of the book. This was a time of massive social divide. Marriage was the norm and pregnancy was both a required duty and a source of real fear.
The Midwife evolved from my final dissertation for the MA. There were two separate inspirations for the novel. The first was outrage, as a public health doctor, at the renewed attacks on women’s reproductive rights over the previous five years. How could I communicate how fearful childbirth can be (and sadly still is in many countries) if women do not have access to services and support? The second was a specific moment - the sound of boot heels on a cobbled street in Alnwick, Northumberland - which gave me an image of one of the characters and the idea for time and place.
It was important to me to create settings which were rooted in the physical reality of the time, not only the death and disease but also the smells and the sounds, and the contrast between the cold and hunger of the poor and the opulence of the newly built London squares with their gaslights and cobbled roads. My characters evolved within that reality and were shaped by it.
I also wanted them to express the many additional constraints on women’s lives: the rigid social structures, the enforced roles, and the conflict between identity being defined by motherhood and the fear of childbirth itself.
There are lots of hoops to go through to get a novel into a bookshop. Having learned the craft of writing there is the hard slog of getting the words out. Then there is the pain of rewriting and editing and always the words of my excellent tutor on the MA in my head - “tighten up, tighten up, take the words out!”
Mid-2019 I started the even worse slog of finding an agent. The rejections were encouraging and polite, with some thoughtful comments, but they were still rejections. I was used to having academic papers turned down, but it feels different, more personal, when it’s a creative piece.
So in May 2020, in that terrible time, our lovely grandson was born far away and we couldn’t go to see our daughter and him. Two days later Debbie Taylor from Mslexia phoned to say I had won the Novel Competition. At first I didn’t know how to respond. I am of course very grateful. Through that I was found by my wonderful agent Charlotte Robertson and she found a publisher – Pan Macmillan, also wonderful. The whole process of structural edit, copy edit and proofs, then cover design was not too onerous. It was more like the sort of work I had done on reports and papers in my old life.
What Have I Learned?
I retired in 2015 from a professional career which to an extent defined me. I have other longstanding roles as a mother (and now grandmother) and wife and carer and I am now a trustee for three charities. Somewhat belatedly, I have realised that I am not actually retired. Writing is a new career, and I am very lucky.
Author - Tricia Cresswell
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