On Being a Writer in Wales: L. J. Shepherd
It was September 2016. My car sat on the drive, packed with everything I would need for my new life in Wales. Apart from three years at university, I’d lived in Redditch my whole life.
That Sunday I would drive to Cardiff and start a new chapter. I arrived at a stranger’s house just under 2 hours after leaving my childhood home, feeling a little teary and shell-shocked.
Pippa and I had only ever had one telephone conversation. She kindly sent me a video of her house. It was a lovely, homely place with two Siamese cats and a view of the hills. Pippa was also an English ex-pat. She could tell that I was homesick.
I lodged in Pippa’s house for the first year I lived in Cardiff. She was a lifeline. Everything about my social life in Wales has been thanks to her; my friends, my love of the coastline, my knowledge of Cardiff’s restaurants. She coaxed me out of my room for sunshine and occasionally food.
It was work that brought me to Cardiff, and it was often work that kept me cooped up inside of a weekend, pouring over disclosure, preparing chronologies, and case summaries.
Pupillage – the year of compulsory training before barristers are fully qualified – is a gruelling experience. Never certain of your place, your judgement, or your potential to make it in the job, every waking minute is spent consumed by the fear of messing up.
For a whole year, I didn’t read any books which weren’t legal texts. It wasn’t until I became a fully-fledged barrister that I picked up a book again (a Ken Follett). Rediscovering the joy of reading helped to pull me from the brink of a depression.
I was malnourished, underweight, permanently sleep-deprived, liable to snap at anybody for breathing, and permanently on the brink of tears.
When my then boyfriend and I went on our first holiday after I qualified, all I did was read. He was so frustrated. He didn’t understand why I wanted to go to bed at 9pm and spend every waking minute with my nose in a book. But it was my life support.
It was still a number of years before my practice settled down and I felt confident enough to get a novel I wrote at the age of twenty-one out of the drawer.
By then, I’d been living in Wales for 3 years, my health had improved, and I was relatively happy as a barrister. I’d managed to regain something of a work-life balance, even if it meant working most Saturday mornings.
The novel wasn’t very good. It was a poor Agatha Christie replica with a ham-fisted attempt to shoehorn in some Rebecca Gothicism. Still, I sent it to agents and was roundly rejected by possibly every literary agency in the United Kingdom.
I realised I needed some help. I went online and found that there was a writing group in Cardiff; the Cardiff Writers’ Circle. They let me read out my terrible novel at my first meeting. It was the kindest and most constructive feedback I could have hoped to receive.
Yes, they wanted to know what happened next, but the prose was too purple, and I thought I was too clever by half. I went away and studied my craft. I enrolled on a creative writing course. Every Monday, I would turn up at Cardiff Writers’ Circle and read out bits of my novel.
On 16 March 2020, totally oblivious to the chaos which would ensue a mere week later, I drove to Criccieth to take part in a writers’ retreat at Ty Newydd run by Literature Wales.
While there, I finished my second novel, which was again soundly rejected. However, I made some fantastic friends on the course, Sarah and Alan, who are my first readers.
I realised that I no longer wanted to write historical fiction. I hated the research. What little bits of my weekend I had left over after work would be spent in the library researching things I didn’t care about. Instead, I decided to write a novel which required minimal research.
By now, it was November 2020, and the world was in and out of lockdown. I couldn’t have gone to the library even if I’d wanted to. I decided to write about a barrister.
I’d done numerous jury trials in the Crown Courts of South Wales. I could write about a criminal barrister without having to visit anywhere or read a book about it.
However, I didn’t want the novel to be like a bus driver’s holiday, so I decided to draw on my love of films like Memento and Shutter Island to write something with a high concept plot.
The novel is set on an island whose sheep-filled hills and jagged coastline bear a striking resemblance to Pippa’s summer holiday destination of Pembrokeshire. The court where the trial is set is based on Cardiff Crown Court; a majestic listed building in Cathays Park.
The Defendant is Welsh, mainly because I knew which police station he would be taken to. I wouldn’t have a clue where he’d go were he to be arrested in England.
I carried on reading out at the circle, which was held on Zoom during the pandemic. They continued to supply me with the same mix of feedback and encouragement which kept me going.
Within six months, I’d completed the first draft. Sarah and Alan kindly read it and helped me to get it into shape. By the end of 2021, I was signed up with a dream agent and a deal followed not long after.
The novel, The Trials of Lila Dalton, will be published on 1 February 2024 by Pushkin Vertigo, just over three years from when I first put pen to paper.
Though not set in Wales, it is a novel forged in Wales and inspired by the Welsh landscape. The novel’s scenery, courtrooms, hotels, and pubs are all inspired by places in and around Cardiff.
Eight years on from that day my car sat on the drive waiting for the next chapter, I now call Wales my home.
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