From Hawaii to Bedford, via Hay-on-Wye – how a story might travel.

Yesterday, I was delighted to learn I had won third place in the Bedford International Short Story Prize.

I think most writers are pleased to have some recognition for their work – acceptance by a journal, a mention in a competition, whether it be long-listing or winner. I know there are those who say they are writing only for themselves, but stories are meant to have readers, and when those readers are expert in some way, there has to be some kind of satisfaction. Well, I feel it, anyway.

And for me, it’s always a particular pleasure if it’s a story I especially like, or has some significance. Or… if I have the belief that it’s a good piece of work, and deserves its moment in the sun.

All of these hold true of ‘Miss Bird Catches a Wave’, my Bedford success.

As soon as I finished writing it, I was happy with the result. And I hoped others would be, too. So I started sending it out, wanting to find a home for it. I couldn’t include it in my short story collection, as it didn’t fit in with my theme, so it would have to go elsewhere. The first positive response was when it was long-listed for the Yeovil Prize. That was good, but there was no publication. Then, because it is set in Hawaii, I thought I could try a few U.S. magazines. Well, Canadian, to be precise, in this case. American magazines often employ a ‘rounds’ system. If the first group of readers like your story, it gets moved on to the next round, for consideration by the editors. ‘Miss Bird’ made it through to this stage, and, although they didn’t run with it in the end, they said some good things about it, and it really is quite an achievement to get that far in this method of consideration (the percentage is tiny).

So, by now, I knew I wasn’t the only one who thought it was a good story. Next, it was short-listed for the H. E. Bates competition. Great, but still no publication. But I wasn’t going to give up.

Competition rules vary. Most don’t accept previously published work. Some won’t accept a piece that featured in another competition, even just a long-listed. Fortunately, the Bedford Prize was not one of these – it was okay, as long as the story hadn’t been placed.  So I entered ‘Miss Bird’… whenever… and was thrilled to hear it had been short-listed, because this meant it would now appear in the prize anthology. ‘Miss Bird’ in print, at last!

And, of course, I was even more happy to hear it had made third place, proving, as I thought all along, it was a good story.

What I think this shows is that you should never give up, if you have that belief. I haven’t mentioned the rejections I received for it, because, of course, there were plenty of those, too. But I kept submitting, and, in the end, I, and ‘Miss Bird’ got our reward.

Of course, all this relates to the finished work. But how did the story come into being in the first place?

It’s a story based on a real-life historical character – Isabella Bird, the Victorian lady traveller. Isabella is probably the most famous of that group, having written detailed accounts of each of her journeys, and been the subject of several biographies. She’s featured in other fictional representations before, including a novel about her romance with a Rocky Mountain desperado, and in a play by Caryl Churchill.

I first came across Isabella many years ago, when I was working in a second-hand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. This was, for me, the grown-up equivalent of the child let loose in the sweetshop. I would spend all my lunch hours and wages, roaming through the labyrinths of shelves, hunting for treasure. I loved everything about them, except, perhaps, that smell in the deepest basement, which was not simply damp, but more of a retch-inducing moulder.

My favourite section was the Travel; in particular, travel literature from the past by female authors. I began to buy as many of their books as I could – I couldn’t afford first editions, of course; sometimes it was no more than a Virago paperback, or a third edition of middling quality. But at least I had their stories. I loved reading about them – these women who journeyed to the furthest corners of the globe, when they should have been home, hiding from piano legs. Isabella was my favourite. I was even going to write a non-fiction book centred on the measures she and the others took to stay safe, while relating it to modern women’s travel, and made copious notes on the subject.

But before I completed this, we moved away from the area, and, as so often happens, the distraction of the move and the change of environment set life into a different pattern.

Then, a couple of years ago, I came across an article about Agatha Christie, claiming she may have been one of the first British people to surf upright, a skill she picked up when visiting Hawaii. The article even suggested it might be a good idea for a short story…

For some reason, Hawaii, surfing, a travelling woman made me think of Isabella Bird. One of her first trips was to the Sandwich Isles, as Hawaii was then known, and I had a vague memory that she had written about the natives surfing. Wouldn’t it be a better story to have a Victorian woman as the first British woman to surf? It certainly seemed to me that she might have tried – she tried most things; climbing volcanoes, riding astride (this she was not inclined to admit), falling in love with killer cowboys. 

So I dug out my copy of ‘Six Months in the Sandwich Islands’ (John Murray, popular edition, 1906, but with a map and some nice illustrations), and re-read her account. And yes, there were several references to the surfing islanders, and her fascination with them, though there was no mention of her having a go herself.

But this was fiction I was writing, so, if I, the maker of the story wanted it, yes, Isabella could do whatever she/I chose.

Yet, as I wrote, it seemed sadly unlikely that Isabella would succeed, surfing not being the easiest of accomplishments, especially when you’re a short, dumpy, middle-aged woman. And she would be disheartened by her failure, by the restrictions of her body, the moral boundaries of the time. Or would she? Rather, might she simply discover she was having fun in the attempt? And wasn’t ‘fun’ even more of an achievement for a woman of her kind?

So that’s what I wrote and was as happy with my ending as Isabella was with falling off her board and splashing around in the shallows with her new friends.

I love the fact that Isabella came back to me after all those years, and that I have finally written about her, though not in the way I ever expected to, all of which ties in with my belief that nothing is wasted.

And with the story winning third place in the Bedford competition and soon to appear in their anthology – well, there’s certainly no waste in that. In fact, it’s something to celebrate!

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