It’s not that I mind winter. No – I love the pale light, the incandescent sunsets over the estuary and the icicles dripping from the gutter on frosty mornings. But it plays havoc with my schedule.

I am, irredeemably, a lark. Morning is my bright time, my wide-awake and lively time, when words and stories fluff up their feathers in my brain ready to take flight into the airy spaces of the day. By afternoon it is all over. The birds have come back to earth, I can hardly remember what my name is and I’m good for nothing but mindless tasks.

And here’s the rub. In the long light days of summer my timetable naturally arranges itself. Mornings are for writing, but once done, all the afternoon remains for walks or swims or cycle rides, for pottering in the allotment among the lettuces.

The short days of winter put paid to that. Today is the 29th December, a full week after the winter solstice. The sun rose today at 8.38 and will set again at 3.43. Seven hours of daylight. On a dull day the streetlights are on by 3.00; the best of the day is over by 2.00.

On a sunny winter’s morning the conflict is acute. Shall I spend the morning at my desk, ignoring the precious sunlight streaming through the window? Or shall I seize the day and head outside into the light? It’s no contest. Somehow, the sunlight always wins. When there is so little light, it seems madness not to be immersed in it, not to feel the blood warm in the arteries and the cold fresh breath in the nostrils. I come back winter-elated and endorphin loaded.

But as the darkness drowns back remorse sets in. Only 3 o’clock, and all those indoor hours of darkness stretch ahead. It would be sensible to sit down at the desk and catch up with the writing I should have done in the morning. But that writing energy has gone. Sometimes I manage an hour or two. I do bits of research that become exponentially complex and leave me befuddled. I surf the internet and become distracted in every direction. I try to write up some notes. At last I give up and go and spend a long time cooking dinner. It’ll start coming together soon, I tell myself. I couldn’t have stayed indoors all day.

But it’s not coming together. Maybe if I was already well started on a novel there would be enough momentum for me to resist the siren calls of morning distraction. But I’m not. I’m at the beginning stage, the research stage, teasing out threads that might build into a narrative. If only it was a simple story all might be well. But the new territory is turning out to be more complicated than I could have foreseen.

I come from a north-east family with a long if shadowy history. How interesting to write about them, I thought. But as soon as I started investigating, like every other family historian before me, I found myself plunged in a morass of detail. Whole mornings pass deciphering an eighteenth century will or trying to track down a birth record. Different branches of the family become bafflingly complicated. The bare facts of births and marriages and deaths stare back at me with no clue as to the joys and suffering they contain.

There is more. To tell the story of a family one must understand the wider history of their time. The period I have chosen, safely remote from any contemporary descendants, is the eighteenth century. It has never interested me before –  the long march of the Georges enlivened only with cameo appearances from Bonny Prince Charlie, Enlightenment thinking, Pope and Milton and Fielding, periwigs and petticoats. No!  But now it has to be grappled with. In the first half of the century there are intriguing hints of a Jacobite connection – a rebel ring, a family chapel, an heir attaindered. Other men of my eighteenth-century family turn out to have been ship masters and navy men. I have to become familiar with Whitby ‘cats’ and Greenland whalers, with Admiralty Courts and press gang exemptions. The new money in the north-east of the eighteenth century was all in coal and ships, yet the land and countryside were still rooted in an older, remoter rural past. In a fascinating connection with my other novels, I discover that the Saxon/Norman church that saw the baptisms, weddings and funerals of my forebears was originally gifted to the Community of St Cuthbert by King Ceolwulf in the eighth century (see photo above)

I could occupy myself indefinitely with such fascinating detail. But a novel needs a plot, needs a pattern that draws together the threads. Perhaps, I tell myself, it will all come together if I go for a walk. It’s such a lovely morning, after all…..


Ancestral remains