An occasional series looking at the genesis of a story, from the initial spark of inspiration, through conceptual development, the writing process, and what happens next. You’ll find writing tips at the end, based on what I’ve learned along the way. In this blog, I’ll be looking at Little Feet, my Christmas-themed ghost story that appears in the newly released anthology It Calls From The Veil.
One of the stories I like to share with classes or mentoring clients, when discouragement seems to loom, is how long it took me to go from a completed first draft to a published novel with Edge of Heaven, my debut. (Twenty-two years, if you’re interested.) Little Feet beats that record by a country mile. Never give up .
That said, I’m not 100% sure when I first wrote Little Feet. I have a draft on my laptop that dates from 2001, but it’s not the earliest version; the earliest version is almost certainly on some floppy disk somewhere – it’s that old. Some time in the mid-90s is my best guess, and it wasn’t called Little Feet in those days. Back then, it laboured under the deeply unimaginative title of The Doll, and it was substantially different in several key ways.
In the story as published in It Calls From The Veil, Alison McCullough travels to snow-clad Donegal for a fairy-tale Christmas with her husband and young daughter. But when little Mia discovers an ancient, decaying porcelain doll in their holiday cottage’s garden, strange things begin to happen that make Alison fear for her family’s safety.
The only remnants of the first draft that made it through to the published piece are the doll, the snow, and – because I have a weirdly specific penchant for scary stories that happen in this kind of location – the isolated setting. Those similarities are at the core of the narrative, but the heart of the piece has shifted significantly.
Child to adult
A question I’m often asked by students is how to settle on the point of view from which a story is told. Sometimes, they’re asking whether they should use a first or third person narrator , but often they’re asking about the point-of-view character (or the main point-of-view character, if there’s more than one). There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all answer to that, because the voice through whom the reader experiences a story will profoundly affect the response that the text attempts to provoke. In this case, I think shifting the point-of-view character was the change that made this story publishable, and I’ll get to why in a moment.
Originally, the tale that became Little Feet was told (in first person) from the perspective of Alice, a teenage protagonist on holiday with her parents in the snowy highlands of Scotland. This, I suspect, is because at the time I wrote that draft I was a teenage girl on holiday with my parents (in the summery wilds of Ireland, but the point stands). Quite simply, I didn’t have the lived experience necessary to envisage the situation as it might play out from one of the other characters' perspective.
The trouble was, Alice was the focus of the supernatural events, so making her the point-of-view character was limiting to the text. She was the person experiencing the strange goings on, so, while I could have chosen to make her an unreliable narrator (I would absolutely choose to do that now, by the way), playing the story straight – as I did – meant that the threat level was relatively clear throughout. That removes tension, and without tension, the ghost story can’t deliver.
Instead, I had to find another way to raise the stakes, which I did through introducing a bodily threat to a different character, but that overall narrative arc feels forced, looking back. The haunted doll embodies zero menace; the story relies for its spook-factor on the vague sense of unease that prickles when we’re around explicitly humanoid dolls (all of which, I would argue, could potentially be haunted: I mean, LOOK AT THEM) . That’s lazy writing. You can’t make genre conventions do the heavy lifting for you.
To be fair to my teenage self, I wasn’t yet an adult. Other people were responsible for keeping me safe. There was no way for me to really get to grips with the particular existential dread that hits when, as a grown-up, you realise that the buck stops with you. Add that to otherworldly dangers against which there is literally no defensive script to follow, and you’re left with a much richer thematic seam .
And then I had kids. And there’s absolutely nothing like being invested with every fibre of your soul and being in the preservation of a small person’s life and health to make you feel utterly, hopelessly inadequate and unequal to the task. Not only does your own buck stop with you, but there are other little bucks to manage too – and not only are they the most important bucks in the world, but the owners of those little bucks seem to be heavily invested in doing as much damage to themselves as physically possible on any given day.
Now add ghosts.
I’ve always loved ghost stories. And I love ghost stories in which the POV character is at the centre of whatever malign supernatural sights may be involved, don’t get me wrong. But by transposing the acted-on-child POV of The Doll to the excluded-mother POV of Little Feet, I was able to introduce a new layer of panicked desperation to the threat. Alison is on the outside; Mia and the doll are locked into a dyad that, by necessity, seeks to withhold information from Alison, who needs it most. Horror is all about withholding information: if you can’t see the threat, you can’t protect yourself against it. In this case, the threat is just visible enough to be obvious to Alison, but not visible enough to let her see how to fight it.
Compare and contrast against Alice, who was bore physical witness to each of the supernatural scares. Nothing withheld, therefore no threat. The POV shift was, I think, what unlocked the story and shifted it from The Doll to Little Feet.
What's in a name?
On which note: the title. I was never happy with The Doll, but then titles have never come easily to me. And what’s in a name, anyway?
Turns out, quite a lot.
I don’t for a moment believe that a title can make or break a piece, and sometimes you’ve just got to go with what you’ve got. But I do believe that it can act as a calling card – that a well chosen title can intrigue a reader into making that critical first leap . And I also believe that the title, for good or ill, carries a little piece of its story’s soul.
Yes, that’s very metaphysical and philosophical, but here’s what I mean, with examples. Edge of Heaven is a science fiction thriller about a deadly pandemic (sorry, but I swear it wasn’t on purpose) and the behind-the-scene political machinations that enable the virus' spread, but the title speaks to its heart. And at its heart, Edge of Heaven is a story about struggling to survive on the knife-edge of a socially unequal, damaged society. About the way that hope feeds resilience. About love and the beautiful things it makes us do. Blumelena is named after its secondary character, from whom the narrative conflict flows, but it’s also the question at the story’s core: what is a blumelena? And with a name so unique, so difficult to pin down and quantify, what does that say about Bloom herself? Long Anna River is about the power of grief and the destruction it wreaks, but the title speaks of the place that embodies that pain and, ultimately, allows healing to happen – all encapsulated in a childish inversion of the name of the central location.
So it was with Little Feet. When the story was called The Doll, it was about an object. An uncanny object, and one that’s the locus of unsettling and inexplicable events, but it’s the object itself that sets the tonal expectations. Little Feet, on the other hand, describes something far less fixed. In the context of supernatural fiction, there’s not enough information to determine the locus of the threat from the title – it simply speaks to the deep, visceral fear that accompanies the sound or presence of something that can’t be explained. To me, it evokes the pitter-patter of tiny footsteps in a deserted hallway, and that sets my spine tingling all by itself. Because, in fact, this isn’t a story about a haunted doll. It has a haunted doll in it, but if that were the fundamental threat, it would be easy to avoid. Just… don’t be where the doll is. Job done. But pitter-pattering little feet where little feet should not be? That’s a different beast. (Literally.)
The path to publication
Anyway, it took me much longer to realise all of this than it probably should. The story was conceived as The Doll and remained The Doll for well over twenty years, during which time I shopped it around with dwindling enthusiasm until I eventually ran out of steam some time in the 00s. After that it remained, unloved and unlooked-at, in an eponymous folder on a series of computers, while other short stories that had emerged closer to completion found homes in print.
And then lockdown hit.
Now. I’m a writer of dystopian fiction, and I’d just released a novel about a deadly new virus ripping through the population when Covid started doing its thing. I wasn’t, as it turned out, super enthusiastic about writing more of the same when my sci-fi world unexpectedly came to life and shut down civilisation for most of 2020. Instead, for reasons I suspect are deeply predictable from a psychological perspective, I began to write horror. Lots of horror.
In this creative spirit, I produced A Depth of Years (recently published in Lamplight Magazine, which fulfilled a long-held writerly ambition) and a couple of other, as-yet-unpublished pieces about ghosts getting up to no good. And then there was The Doll, which I’d always kind of liked, but which I knew wasn’t up to much.
I wondered if I could change that.
A submissions deadline helped kick me into gear: an anthology that intrigued and appealed to me was looking specifically for stories set around Christmas, and they were open to genre fiction. I felt there was something in The Doll, not yet realised – and it was set at Christmas time, albeit obliquely. So I sat down to work out what was wrong with the draft as it existed, realised that the answer to that was “pretty much everything”, and rewrote the thing. I’m not sure that I’d consciously identified any of the above issues in the earlier drafts – that level of critical engagement usually comes after the fact, for me – but for the first time since I’d completed the initial draft, I instinctively had a sense of which direction I ought to take it instead. It’s one of the easiest rewrites I’ve ever done.
The final version – still not quite called Little Feet, though I absolutely knew by now that it shouldn’t be called The Doll anymore – didn’t end up in the anthology that inspired me to sort it out. But I did have a story, now, that was ready to start submitting again. I’m not one of those organised, meticulous submitters; I’m more piecemeal about it, and my process is very much “Oh! That looks like a fun publication. Let me see what I’ve got that might work…” so it took a little bit of faff before I came across the open submission call for It Comes From The Veil.
But, I should add, there were no more rejections between completion and acceptance. As soon as The Doll became Little Feet, it found its home.
What’s in a name? Not enough to make the difference between rejection and acceptance, not on its own. But when the soul of this story demanded a change of title… that’s when I knew I’d found its heart at last.
It was never supposed to be about the doll, you see. Once I understood that much, I understood how to write it. It took me a while to get there, but I did get there in the end.
Tips and tricks
 Never give up, though, seriously. That’s it. That’s the advice for this bit. There are some stories that just hang on in there, no matter the rejection they meet, and if you keep plugging away, revising, refining and resubmitting, you’ll almost certainly get there in the end.
 For what is, I think, the best, most accessible, and just-the-right-amount-of-comprehensive look at how POV affects narrative and vice versa, read Scott Westerfeld’s blog post on Single Limited Viewpoint. It’s great.
 Yes, I absolutely agree that a child’s fundamental lack of self-determinative agency is also a rich source of narrative tension in stories predicated on events in which they’re unlikely to be believed. When you are limited in your power to save yourself, and authority figures won’t save you either because they’ve decided you’re making it all up, that’s terrifying. That wasn’t the story I was writing, though, and it showed.
 I have, for example, bought books purely on the strength of their title. The most recent example that springs to mind would be a – yes – ghost story called Man, F*** This House. How could I not? Seriously, wouldn’t you?
Tips, tricks & advice to help your writing shine
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