Writing Sisters ... no way!

Thursday 14th March 2013 by Support

People often ask where I got the idea for Sisters, and the answer is I didn't really get the idea at all, if you see what I mean. That is to say, of course I got it, but not all at once, and that is true of all my writing. I begin with only part of an idea, and gradually it grows as I write and I end up with something much bigger than whatever my original idea was.

In the case of Sisters, I set out to write a modern version of a famous fairy tale. I won't say which one, but that should be enough of a clue ... all the other clues are in the book, if you take the trouble to look for them. I didn't think at all about what point of view I would use. It just seemed really obvious that the point of view of Cindy was the right one, so I started writing the story in the first person.

The first two pages of Cindy's voice just came tumbling out, all by themselves, and I was very excited, because it seemed to me that I had created this character all of a piece, just in the first two pages. I knew exactly what she was like just from those couple of hundred words. In my excitement, I showed the first two pages to my editor at O'Brien Press, and she said, Eugh! What a horrible character! She's appalling!

Yes, I said, isn't she just? I was still excited.

But the editor would have none of it. She suggested I go away and rewrite the first few pages in the third person ('she', rather than 'I', so that you as author are telling a story about somebody else, instead of pretending to be the person and speaking in their voice). Disconsolately, I picked up my two pages and went home.

I sat at my computer for about ten minutes and thought about how I might write the story in the third person, and then I gritted my teeth and said, To hell with that! and I kept on going in the first person. My instinct must have been right, because when I sent the whole of Cindy's diary to the editor, she very gallantly admitted that the first person was working after all (if there is one thing I like better than a person who is wrong when I am right, it is a person who admits it), and the publishers said they would be delighted to publish it.

But I was concerned that it was a bit short, and also I was a bit concerned that the story was told totally from the point of view of this nasty character I had created. I knew that what Cindy said was only her opinion on things, but I worried a bit that the reader mightn't pick that up and might see the world in the same rather jaundiced way that Cindy did. And it was at that point that I came up with the idea that the way to balance out Cindy's nastiness was to tell the same story, or roughly the same story, all over again from the point of view of one of the stepsisters. So really it was after the book was finished, as I thought at first, that I had the main idea for the book, if you see what I mean.

Then I had a lot of fun writing Ashling's diary, because of course the whole sequence of the story was already in place, and the fact that Cindy's part of the story was written in diary entries, with dates, made it very easy to plot Ashling's story against that pattern. So I would look at Cindy's diary entry for a particular day, and I would wonder what Ashling might have been doing on that day, and so Ashling's story grew very easily out of Cindy's.

I also came up with the idea of putting the two stories back to back and upside down, so that the reader could have complete freedom to decide which way they would like to read it ... first Cindy's diary and then Ashling's, or vice versa, or bits from one and bits from the other all the way through.

This book won the Bisto Book of the Year award, which was nice for me, but I have to say it was the book that came most easily to me. I wrote it very quickly and I hardly had to think about what I was doing. Sometimes I think it's odd that the book I found easiest to write and spent the least amount of trouble on was my most successful. But that's life.

Siobhán Parkinson