Writing a new book after completing a trilogy is surprisingly difficult. I hadn’t realised, during the years when I was writing Small Blue Thing, quite how much I had got to know my characters. Writing their speech had become instinctive – I just knew what they would and wouldn’t say, and I had a really clear picture of how they would behave. I was able to put them in a situation and see how it would work itself out.
With a new book all that was gone. I had a blank page – no back story, and nothing was right or wrong. Where to start? One of the places I looked for inspiration was the books my daughter was enjoying. She had piles of dystopian novels, almost all with a futuristic totalitarian regime, a feisty heroine who starts out as an ordinary teenager, and a brooding, handsome hero. What interested me, though, was my reaction as a reader to those dystopian worlds. If I was thrown into The Hunger Games, what would my fighting skill be? How long would I last? Would I have chosen Dauntless if I’d been in Veronica Roth’s Divergent world? How quickly would I have failed all the tests? And something much more interesting to me – how would Katniss survive in our world, not knowing any of the rules that we automatically live by?
Location was easy – there was never any question that the city had to be London. It’s a place I love and know well, and I wanted to explore the secret places which we occasionally glimpse but never get to visit. I worked in central London for many years, commuting in and either walking or getting the Tube, and the city never fails to inspire me. I would also walk around the back streets in my lunch break, looking for details which I could slip into the story, and I discovered an enormous amount about the infrastructure which is buried – and sometimes forgotten – under our feet.
I started to think about a contemporary story set in London, but colliding with a dystopian world. What if there was a whole community of people who lived secretly deep below the Tube network – people who had never walked in a park or drunk a coffee in Starbucks? How would someone from there deal with going on a bus? And how would someone from our world – a normal girl preparing for her GCSEs – survive in a subterranean society with a very different set of rules?
I still wanted to write about teenage friendship, and this time the focus had to be action. I couldn’t abandon the romance completely, but I knew that there should much less of it than in the Small Blue Thing books. The Beneath is centred around a friendship where things don’t work smoothly, and where the two main characters, Lily and Aria, argue and fall out sometimes. I ended up writing the book from both of their points of view – Lily is a teenager commuting to her school in the suburbs, and Aria is on the run having escaped from the community hidden under London. It was fun finding their voices and working out what would make them tick, and inevitably it took a few drafts to get them right.
Writing a stand-alone is much, much harder than completing a trilogy, but I loved creating a new world, building it up in my mind’s eye until I knew it well enough to let some new people in.
I hope that you enjoy it!
Thank you, Sue! The Beneath will be published on March 5 – you can read the first chapter below, and pre-order the book online here.