I liked Newcastle as a city, on the whole, but the period I spent living there was pretty tough going.
I moved there, maybe five years ago, for my first IT contracting job. At least, I thought I was moving to Newcastle; actually, due to an utter lack of research, I ended up living in a new build of flats far out of the city on the outskirts of North Shields, an area so bleak and fog-laden and generally terrifying that it took me three months to convince myself I hadn't accidentally relocated to Silent Hill.
The place where I worked was even worse, one of those nightmarish so-called 'business parks'; has there ever been a more transparent attempt to make something horrible sound fun? I was living alone, and I didn't know many people nearby. I hated the work. My second winter there was one of the harshest of recent decades, and I was doing most of my traveling on foot or bike. It was a hard time, all told.
The things that made it bearable weren't exactly the kind of things you might expect. High on the list was the nature reserve that abutted bizarrely onto the business park, perhaps meant as some sort of apology. In contrast with almost everything round about, it was an amazing place. There were all sorts of different habitats hidden away inside a relatively small space, and lots of wildlife that you wouldn't expect to stumble across in an urbanized area just outside of Newcastle, like deer and longhorn cattle. And there were a family of swans that I got weirdly attached to, just from seeing them day after day after day in the lake I cycled by.
I've always hated that whole "write what you know" rule, and tried to ignore it as much as possible. It's great advice if you're Oscar Wilde or Ian Fleming, but fairly rubbish for the rest of us. On this one occasion, however, I did write what I knew. Well, a bit of it, anyway; the bare bones of that last, bitter winter in the distant outskirts of Newcastle became a flash tale called For Life. It's one of my rare forays outside of genre fiction, a little story about death, rebirth, relationships, change, all that stuff. But mostly it's about the swans, and the snapshot I got of their existence went in more or less intact.
The first time I sent For Life to Flash Fiction Online, it was rejected for being too gloomy; they'd had a glut of downbeat stories around about that time. But editor Jake Freivald liked it, and suggested I try them again in a few months if I hadn't found another home for it. When a few months later I hadn't, I sent it in again. That time I got a nice hold request saying that it had been positively received, although at least one of the proofreaders had found it overly depressing. A month or two later, (and a week or two ago now), it was accepted.
Funnily enough, I've never thought of For Life as being such a sad story. I think it ends on kind of a hopeful note. Then again, perhaps that's because so much of my own life went into it, and because of my knowing what happened after the story, at least those bits of it that were mine ... that sometimes, the tough times are just life's way of getting you ready for whatever comes next.*
* Funnily enough, Justine Lee Musk recently wrote a superb article on this very subject here.