Several years ago, I had an idea for the holidays: I would write a short story to read to my wife, Theresa. Ghost stories are, for some reason, a tradition in Britain; the Cambridge don M.R. James, whose work I admire, wrote ghost/horror stories to be read at Christmastime to his friends. They usually featured a mild-mannered antiquarian like himself and would begin slowly with bits of scholarly detail, very dry. This would go on for about two pages—the stories are quite short—before readers realized, 10 or 15 pages later, that they'd never sleep again.

At the time, I was working at home, on the computer; like many self-employed people are aware, this involved long nights. Somehow, the idea for this story came to me late at night. I knew the general arc almost at once. I also knew I wanted to make a strong woman the hero. Soon, however, I found that I had to explain this or that, I had to get my people from here to there, etc. I wanted to make the story historically accurate and vivid, which involved a lot of research. Finally, I realized the story was going to have to be a novel.

Check out other installments of our 'How I Did It' series with E. Van Lowe and Kate White.

Then I got very busy with other things and had to put the story away. Some years later, when things were less hectic, I returned to Something Red and finished it.

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something red I’ve been an avid reader all my life, and I studied medieval literature in college and in some grad school courses. Between reading and formal study, I realized that I had a feel for the period. I wanted the architectural isolation of a snowed-in castle—nowhere to go, just you and the monster. The movie Alien functions this way, as does John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella, Who Goes There? (the basis for the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World).

I may have thought I knew a lot about medieval life, but I’d come upon something and think, “Wait, I need to know a lot more about this, just to write one paragraph.” So while I knew a fair amount, I probably learned an equal amount about the 13th century while writing this book. I chose to set it in the north of England because of the region's fiercely independent culture, because I needed those mountains for my characters to struggle with, and because Northern England has not often been used as a setting.

When I write, I know the story I’m going to tell before I begin—the very general outline of the book, as well as some of the major scenes that will occur. I write scenes as they come to me and try to fill in the outline; I don’t necessarily write in sequence. When I realize I don’t know enough about something I feel is necessary to the book, I stop and research the subject. Eventually, the major sections are complete, and then the links between them are done. Finally, after the book is finished, I go over it a few more times, polishing the language.

I found that the “voice” I had developed as a poet translates fairly well to prose. Several people have been kind enough to remark favorably upon the quality of the writing in Something Red, and that was important to me. As the excellent Jack Vance, a jazz aficionado, once said, “The prose should swing.”

Fortunately, I had a background in editorial services, including computer typesetting and page composition, so I was able to design and set the book to my satisfaction. I then self-published it through CreateSpace.

George Hiltzik, my agent, showed Something Red to Emily Bestler of Emily Bestler Books (an imprint of Atria Books, a division of Simon and Schuster). Emily was pleased enough with it to publish it under her imprint. The experience of working with a major publisher has been, I must say, wonderful. At some point, you become aware that there’s a little army doing various things to make people aware of your book, ensuring that people around the globe have access to it. What a great feeling! It’s a joy to work with professionals—look at the beautiful and evocative dust jacket the Simon and Schuster artists came up with.

What did surprise me, though, was the feeling of friendliness and intimacy that I got from the crew at Emily Bestler Books, from Emily herself to all the others at EBB: editors, copy editors, publicists. Everyone.

Douglas Nicholas is an award-winning poet whose work has appeared in numerous publications, among them Atlanta Review, Southern Poetry, Sonora Review, Circumference, A Different Drummer and Cumberland Review, as well as the South Coast Poetry Journal, where he won a prize in that publication's Fifth Annual Poetry Contest. He is the winner of many honors, among them an award in the 1990 International Poetry Contest sponsored by the Arvon Foundation in Lancashire, England, and a Cecil B. Hackney Literary Award for poetry from Birmingham-Southern College. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife Theresa and Yorkshire terrier Tristan.