Voice is one of those secret sauces that make a story special. The characters leap from the page and speak directly into your ear. They grip you by the throat and won’t allow you to turn away.
Lorna Fergusson’s short story “Salt”, has such a presence. This is the story of Ina, one of the herring girls, who makes her living in Yarmouth gutting fish. She and her sister are far from their home in Scotland during WWI. It’s a compelling story with a strong sense of character and setting.
“Salt” is the winner of the 2014 HNS London Short Story Award and has been featured in the HNS anthology, Distant Echoes.
I’ve asked Lorna to speak about her story and the inspiration behind it.
What was the inspiration behind “Salt”?
Lorna: The inspiration for the story came from my Scottish grandmother, who worked as a ‘herring girl’ in the early part of the 20th century. I remember her telling me she was in Great Yarmouth when World War 1 broke out and that she saw the troops leaving by train, with everyone thinking, as the cliché has it, that the war wouldn’t last long. That has always stuck with me: that she was a witness to history. She also told me about the hard living conditions – the gutting of herring, the women following as the men fished the herring shoals down the coast of Britain. I wondered what it had felt like, at a time when people didn’t travel much and certainly never went on package holidays, to be a young Scottish girl in an English seaport.
My only regret is that I didn’t ask her more! But when you’re very young you’re deaf to so many of the things older people say to you.
The voices of the characters are so strong, I could hear them clearly. What was your approach to making them authentic without slowing down the reader with dialect?
Lorna: As I come from the north east of Scotland, making the dialect authentic was absolutely no trouble at all! This dialect is commonly known as ‘Doric’ and it is a joy to write in it, although normally I don’t because the problem with writing in any dialect – and with writing in the language of the past, too – is that if you are entirely accurate, your modern readership may not understand what is being said. You have to strike a balance between that language being a barrier and it being something which individualises, flavours and colours the piece. With “Salt”, I originally incorporated quite a lot, because I was hearing those women in my head so clearly. I then pared it right back, but felt I had overdone it and something had been lost, so I put some back in. The dialect’s power relies on the sounds, so some words are variants of familiar ones – for example, ‘a’richt’ for ‘all right’, ‘oot’ for ‘out’ – and others are words whose meaning comes across through the context: ‘glaikit’ means ‘stupid’, and readers will probably get that from its sounds and the way the speaker utters it. I hope it was all clear, anyway!
“Salt” is a leitmotif in your story. What does it represent?
Lorna: Well, it has a practical, obvious meaning in that it is a preservative. It also stands for the sea and the dangers the fishermen face when they go out to catch the herring. It stands for the harshness of their lives but also a kind of cleanness and directness. It’s bracing, wounding and cleansing. It also stands for sorrow and the comfort of tears.
Does setting influence your writing, and if so how?
Lorna: Setting influences absolutely everything I write! It often provides the trigger for the story itself. My novel The Chase is set in the Dordogne region of France and grew from our familiarity with its history and atmosphere over the number of years my husband and I had a holiday home there. My previous HNS story finalist, “Reputation”, came from memories of walking the cliffs at Étretat in Normandy. I write about places I love, like France and Oxford and Cornwall and Scotland. I’ve been working for a number of years on a novel set in 19th century Spain and Canada. Landscape, atmosphere and the layers of human experience location is imbued with all speak to me and give me ideas. I love to create a sense of the spirit of a place through description and imagery. Place is a kind of character in itself.
Tell us about the research that went into writing “Salt”?
Lorna: As I mentioned, I already had the story-trigger from my grandmother, so I did some more research about the herring industry of the time, about the way the women gutted and packed the fish. Photographs were really helpful. I had visited Great Yarmouth years ago, but researched what its layout was like back then and where the gutting yards were and where the herring ‘quines’ would have lodged. Research is always fascinating and distracting because you could follow threads to so many different possible stories. I had to be disciplined and focus only on this particular tale. That it was destined to be a competition entry and had a deadline helped me avoid going down too many rabbit holes!
Thank you Lorna for sharing with us your inspiration behind “Salt”.
Lorna Fergusson is a novelist, editor and writing coach: she runs Fictionfire Literary Consultancy and teaches on various Oxford University writing programmes. Her work has won an Ian St James Award, been longlisted for the Fish Prize and shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and Pan Macmillan’s Write Now children’s novel prize. She has republished The Chase, originally published by Bloomsbury, and contributed to Studying Creative Writing for the Creative Writing Studies imprint. “Reputation”, a 2012 HNS Short Story finalist, appears in The Beggar at the Gate. She is working on a new collection of stories and a historical novel, the opening of which won Words with Jam Magazine’s First Page Competition.
The Chase is published by Fictionfire Press and is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Kobo. Her short story “Reputation” appearing in The Beggar at the Gate and Other Stories, is published by the HNS and is available from Amazon US, and Amazon UK.
About Distant Echoes
Gripping and thought-provoking stories of people, places and times past by writers from the Historical Novel Society.
A new anthology of nineteen award-winning and acclaimed historical fiction short stories.
Distant Echoes brings you vivid voices from the past. This haunting anthology explores love and death, family and war. From the chilling consequences of civil and world war, to the poignant fallout from more personal battles, these stories will stay with you long after the last page.
This selection of winning and shortlisted stories from recent Historical Novel Society writing awards includes “The House of Wild Beasts” by Anne Aylor (winner of the Historical Novel Society Short Story Award 2014), “Salt” by Lorna Fergusson (winner of the HNSLondon14 Short Story Award) and “Fire on the Water” by Vanessa Lafaye (winner of the HNSOxford16 Short Story Award).
If you enjoyed this interview and wish to hear about another contributor to Distant Echoes and their inspiration, check out my other author spotlights: