Finding Fairy Dust


It’s the question all writers are asked, and one – let’s be honest – we rarely know the answer to. “Where do you get your inspiration?” Erm …

If we’re honest, inspiration often feels more akin to desperation. We don’t like to admit that we tossed out fifteen other ideas before stumbling across one that stuck, because it doesn’t sound quite dreamy enough. Unfortunately, much of the reality of writing isn’t dreamy, and yet there are times – glorious, twirl-worthy times – when it is dreamy, and magical, and everything we hoped it would be.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, or nowhere. We might grapple with an idea and wrestle it to the ground, we might fall in and out of love with an idea many, many times before we commit to writing it, and perhaps it isn’t the writer who finds the idea at all, but rather, the idea that finds the writer. This, I buy into. This, I like – the notion of ideas circling above us all like planes in a holding pattern, waiting for permission to land. It’s an idea Elizabeth Gilbert shares in Big Magic when she talks about a great idea she once had but never did anything with, only to discover, years later, that Ann Patchett was writing a book with the very same premise. Gilbert believes that because she’d ignored the idea it wandered off to find someone else to play with. She wasn’t angry with Ann Patchett for using ‘her’ idea, because the idea was never meant for her in the first place. “All I know for certain is that this novel really wanted to be written, and it didn’t stop its rolling search until it finally found the author who was ready, and willing, to take it on – not later, not someday, not in a few years, not when times get better, not when life becomes easier, but right now.”

I’m sure this has happened to us all. That excruciating moment when you read about a new book which is EXACTLY the one you’ve been thinking about writing, or once thought about but never got round to working on. Dang it. There’s little point seething with envy. Far better to accept that the idea simply wasn’t meant for you, move on and open yourself up to the idea that is. This was certainly my experience in writing The Cottingley Secret.

Having grown up in Yorkshire, England, I’ve always known about the Cottingley Fairies hoax, when two young girls claimed to photograph fairies at the bottom of the garden. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about these ‘Yorkshire Fairies’ in the 1920s, the girls’ photographs unintentionally became public knowledge and fairy fever swept the nation. The truth wasn’t revealed until 1983, when I was an impressionable twelve-year-old.

The fairies, and the girls, have long fascinated me, but it wasn’t until a writing workshop in 2013 when the Cottingley photographs were used as a writing prompt, that the idea to write about them first came knocking. Not many in the writing group knew the images, but I did, and I was excited. I scribbled sketchy ideas: wanting to know more about the girls, why they’d taken the photographs and why they’d hidden the truth for so long. My notes went into a file, and I got on with the business of writing other novels. The idea to write about the Cottingley Fairies was there, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2015, when I was thinking about ideas for my fourth novel, that it was fully acknowledged. This was the moment when the idea stopped tapping me politely on the shoulder, pulled up a chair, and said, ‘for goodness sake, woman! Pay attention to me!’ This happened in the form of a conversation with my agent, who casually asked if I’d ever thought of writing about the Cottingley Fairies. It was an amazing coincidence. I’d never mentioned the Cottingley fairies to her. She didn’t know about twelve-year-old me, or the writing workshop prompt, or all the articles bookmarked on my laptop.

Goosebumps, people! Goosebumps!

And that’s not all. Neither of us realised at the time that 2017 would mark the centenary of the first Cottingley photographs – and 2017 would be my publication year.

There’s more!

Hazel Gaynor by Deasy Photographic

Soon after the conversation with my agent, I found a website which mentioned an incomplete memoir by Frances Griffiths, the little girl in the most well-known Cottingley photograph. What I didn’t realise when I ordered the book for my research, was that I had contacted Frances’s daughter. Her daughter! And she lived in Belfast, only a short drive from me. To make this family connection, to meet Christine, and through her to understand her mother better, to discover the real heart of this fairy tale, was pure, twirl-worthy magic.

Writing historical fiction always poses its particular challenges, and writing The Cottingley Secret – about a real person, while in contact with family members – provided a whole new set of challenges. But what wonderful challenges, and what an enriching experience it was. I kept a photograph of Frances and the fairies on my desk while I wrote The Cottingley Secret and I often felt Frances was at my shoulder, making sure that having finally accepted the idea, I got it right.

So, yes, much as I subscribe to the notion of fairies, I fully subscribe to the notion that ideas find the writer. As Gilbert also says in Big Magic, “I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer, and that’s how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least. But sometimes, it is fairy dust …”

And that’s why we write, why we create, because we are all farmers and fairy dust, and we all – on the good days – believe in our ability to create our very own magic.

We just have to open the door and let it in.


Set between the early 1900s and the present day, The Cottingley Secret reimagines the events surrounding the famous Cottingley fairies hoax. Its publication will mark the centenary anniversary of the first Cottingley photographs, taken in July and September 1917.


About the contributor: Hazel Gaynor is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of A Memory of VioletsThe Girl Who Came Home, and The Girl from the Savoy, which was an Irish Times and Globe & Mail Canada bestseller. The Cottingley Secret and Last Christmas in Paris will be published in 2017.

Posted by Claire Morris

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