Another book in a year – Once Upon a Valley

Here we go again

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to write a story that begins ‘Once Upon a Time’. (A story that means something, that is, rather than just an obvious re-working of already well-known tale.) But there were always too many other projects, so it remained firmly on the back burner.

As 2020 dawned, work on two of my books were proceeding nicely. A trip to Bergen was planned to help complete key sections of Earl of the Southern Vale. Meanwhile, final edits were underway on The Rescued Year. Following feedback from trial readers, there was just a refining of the backstory to the latter. A backstory which included the near-future world setting having been afflicted by a strange (ahem) virus…

And then COVID-19 happened. All of a sudden it was definitely not the time to launch The Rescued Year, and nor could the research trips for Earl of the Southern Vale really be called ‘essential travel’. Still, far worse things have happened in the last two years to far better people than one aspiring writer seeing their projects grind to a halt. So, with the lockdown restrictions in place in the UK, what else was there to do? Just pick up that pen and start filling some beautiful notebooks with something fresh…

Set of notebooks used for the story

Once Upon a Time…

“Write from what you know” is a common saying. For me, the setting is as important as the story. As many know, Shetland has long been my inspiration (directly or indirectly), but a trip north wasn’t on the cards. Instead, I turned to somewhere I know so well I don’t need a visit to recall it: the beauty of Snowdonia. Or more specifically, the wooded slopes, clear air and idyllic location around Betws-y-coed. (a.k.a., Weissdale – yes, I know, in name if not place I ensured Shetland still had a role!)

That gave me the tapestry; though the story isn’t set in Snowdonia, it helps provide the scenery. I already knew some of what else I wanted in this story/world I was creating. Somewhere in the future (but not too far in the future; A world where things weren’t necessarily going great, but perhaps not as gloomy as in A Rescued Year; A settlement that was so remote from the centres of power that it would feel a world apart to any stranger. If you’ve read my article on getting ideas for a story, you’ll know I build my work around key scenes. And what better way of exploring this world than through the eyes of a stranger arriving in the remote valley?

Thus the opening of the story was born, as we descend from the summits into this world.

A wooded hillside in snowdonia

It begins

“Once upon a time, a horseman came riding over the top of Ronas Hill. His horse raised slow clouds of snow from the dead ground while he shivered inside a jacket that looked two sizes too large and several feathers too thin. He reined in the beast as they reached the crest and he stood up on the stirrups, surveying the landscape around and behind them. Other snow-capped hills littered the way to the horizon, grey beneath the cloudy sky, valleys hidden beneath the rampaging forests which lay in between.”

That was pretty much ‘it’ in terms of the opening scene I had in mind as my pen’s nib touched paper: A stranger from the cities, Kris Saunders, almost swallowed up by the landscape around him. New to such wilderness, almost as new to his horse, and still fairly new to the exalted rank of ‘Messenger’.

Of course, there was more to my initial ideas than just that. For example, I had snapshots of the cast who might be in the tale. And with a story beginning ‘once upon a time’, there certainly needed to be a ‘princess’ at the heart of it. (One who was self-reliant at that; no hapless Disney princesses, thank you.) There were also real people making a life in this remote valley; including someone – even a few – who would be a foil to the lead character. Naturally I had some crisis for the characters to deal with, though we don’t necessarily get to see that right away.

I also had other key scenes in my mind, including both a few ‘waymarker’ scenes and how the final scene looked… Not all of those made it into the final cut, but relating those here would give you some hefty spoilers!

So, I just let my pen flow, I let the characters act things out, I listen to them talk. Some parts of the tale changed from what I imagined, some of the characters differed from my initial thoughts. Some of the changes were quite different! But that’s the way writing often goes, and I will leave it up to prospective readers to judge the end result.

Woodland in the autumn

So what happens next?

Well, as you might imagine, the Messenger carries with him not just a message but many secrets. And for a ‘city boy’, things don’t go the way he expects in such a remote place as Weissdale…


I see, you mean what happens next in terms of getting the book out?

Currently it’s with the second-stage proof-readers. Depending on how much work they give me, and the final copy edit, I’m hoping to publish this year, hopefully by Summer. This will initially be as an e-book, though I am looking at physical copy options to follow.

Once this first book is out, it will hopefully pave the way for the others which are already queuing up ready to follow (whether through the same publishing method or other channels). Though I expected that to happen with The Rescued Year back in 2020…! Needless to say, there’s already more stories I’m drafting up and storyboarding. If there’s one good thing that the past two years have taught us, it’s that our minds can take us anywhere, even when our bodies can’t.

Last edited: 29/01/2022