Sharon Telfer


In conversation with team member Alison Woodhouse, Sharon reveals how her prize winning story ‘Under a Whalebone Roof’ evolved and has some sage advice about persistence and redrafting. Our 2020 anthology is available from adhocfiction and Amazon in both paperback and digital versions.

Sharon lives in the Yorkshire Wolds, where she works as a non-fiction writer and editor. She started writing fiction in 2015. Her flash fiction has won prizes, including the Bath Flash Fiction Award (twice) and the Reflex Flash Fiction Prize. In 2018 she was awarded the New Writing North/Word Factory Apprenticeship for emerging writers. Her work has been selected for the Test Signal anthology of the best contemporary Northern writing, to be published by Dead Ink Books and Bloomsbury in 2021. She tweets @sharontelfer.

  • Congratulations again on your beautiful story, ‘Under a Whalebone Roof’, which was awarded a very well deserved second place in our 2020 competition. Could you tell us a little about the story’s journey; how it started out, whether it changed much along the way?

I was so intrigued to see that Marissa’s first prize winner started life in a Tom Vowler online course, because mine did too! But that class, back in November 2017, had to be cut short. A few weeks later my father died, and I shelved my writing. In February, I realised the deadline for the Word Factory/New Writing North Apprenticeship was approaching fast. I’d promised myself I’d apply. I remembered my draft and finished it over an intense week. I’d completed a story and entered for the award. That felt enough.

Much to my amazement, I was awarded the Apprenticeship. It’s a fantastic scheme (apply if you can!), but the story’s only part of the application and there’s no publication element. So I had a story to place. Out it went. I sent it to a magazine that felt a good fit, but heard nothing back, not even a rejection. After waiting an age, I sent it to another. Again, long wait, no reply. I spotted a competition whose judges I thought might like it. It didn’t even make the very long longlist of 100 titles. I sent it to the Costa and Commonwealth prizes not expecting it to get anywhere. It didn’t. I sent it to a dream magazine. This one did get back to me. They liked it, but had published a lot recently on a similar theme. I wasn’t sure my story would ever be published.

With each rejection, I reread and revised the story. What might be losing an early reader? Was the context clear? Was there a strong emotional connection? Was I giving readers enough information – without it being a lecture? The core story, main characters and style didn’t change, but I kept looking at the order of different sections, tightening the pacing, creating more depth, and streamlining the action. The titles switched. The wordcount expanded. I added more seals. Then I entered it into Bath. Maybe it was the seals that made the difference.

I suppose the moral of this, taken with Marissa’s interview, is: don’t give up on a story if it’s one you feel deeply. But don’t stubbornly whizz out the exact same draft. Always take the time to reassess your story. Use that distance since you last submitted it. Could it be sharper, clearer, more engaging? Try to read it again with a stranger’s eye. You’ve already imagined some characters. Imagine one who’s reading this story for the first time.

  • Place is a very important part of your work and you use very sensory, visual details. Are you a writer who starts with setting or maybe an image, rather than a plot idea or theme?

Often a place or a setting is the first seed of a story for me, usually as a specific scene or location. It could be somewhere I’ve visited, somewhere I’ve heard or read about, somewhere that just comes into mind, triggered by something I can’t necessarily pinpoint. I wonder about what might happen there, who might be in that landscape and why, what kind of experience they might have. The story grows in that thinking time, often before I write anything down, when I’m out walking or doing chores. I’m drawn to the short form, because it very much focuses on experience. I find plot very difficult!

This story is, and isn’t, set around the prehistoric village of Skara Brae in the Orkneys. We holidayed there around 20 years ago, and the haunting landscape has stayed with me since. I did a lot of research when writing this story. That provided valuable details to deepen and anchor the storytelling. But often I find research is a form of sifting possibilities, a time for the story to settle and decide what it wants to be. In the end, the island is an imagined place. It only exists in this way in this story.

  • You have a collection coming out with Reflex Press later this year. Can you tell us anything about it?

It’s a flash fiction collection called The Map Waits, coming out in the summer. It’s a mix of published and unpublished pieces, from when I started writing in 2015 up to last year. There are contemporary stories, historical(ish) ones, speculative, magic realism, narrative, prose poetry, segmented stories. Bringing the collection together was fascinating, recognising what themes thread through different types of stories written at different times. I took the title from my flash, Terra Incognita, which won the Bath Flash Fiction Award in June 2016. It felt fitting as many of the characters are poised at a moment of reflection or some kind of turning point. Some take a new direction, some don’t. What will happen next is uncharted.

  • Finally, any advice for writers thinking of entering the 2021 Bath Short Story Award?!

Write with a spirit of discovery. You’re going to spend a lot of time with your story. It has to absorb you, reveal something to you as you go, although you might not realise straightaway what that is. Under A Whalebone Roof is about what people do and don’t leave behind them after they’ve gone, and of course that’s all tied up with grieving for my dad as I wrote it. But I never thought, oh I’m going to write a story about grief. I started writing about a place that had lodged in my memory and the story came and found me there.

Taking a Tom Vowler course seems like a good idea too!