When A Short Story Gets Completely Out of Hand by John McAllister

A book I’ve really been looking forward to, The Station Sergeant by John McAllister, was recently released by Portnoy Publishing. My review is forthcoming, but today I am extremely pleased to be able to host John for a guest post about how this novel came to be. As seems to be the case more often than those of us who aren’t authors may think, it appears that The Station Sergeant was the result of another character who just had a mind of their own and a story too big to be limited to a ‘short.’

John McAllister‘Barlow’ wasn’t supposed to be a novel called The Station Sergeant. He wasn’t supposed to be the inspiration for five stories. Barlow was only a ten minute exercise in the discipline of writing regardless of time or tiredness – that got out of hand.

During 1998 / 99, I was running my accountancy practice AND doing a full time Masters course in Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin. That often meant a five o’clock rise. Two hours creative writing followed by hours in the office then a late morning train to Dublin and getting home near ten o’clock at night. I always wrote on the train but one night I was particularly tired and promised myself that I’d write for only ten minutes and then sleep the rest of the way.

I poised my pen over the scratchpad with absolutely no idea what I wanted to write about. A childhood memory of a local policeman, John Barlow, came into my head and I wrote it down. More memories came back of the things the man had got up to and I scribbled them down as well. Ten minutes and a page of notes later Station Sergeant Barlow was striding through my imagination.

I wrote five stories about Barlow as part of my submission for an M.Phil. in Creative Writing, included them in my short story collection, The Fly Pool, and then forgot about Barlow. Except that…

People kept contacting me about The Fly Pool, and always they wanted to talk about the Barlow stories and the memories they invoked of their own childhood. On top of that, one of my best friends – an ex-IRA internee who makes the shape of the cross with his fingers if I even mention the Royal Ulster Constabulary – kept nagging at me for another Barlow story.

Way back I had started a sixth Barlow story but never finished it. To please my friend I picked it up again and what was supposed to be a short story got completely out of hand.

John McAllisterI sent the first ten chapters of the first draft of what was now a novel to another former internee and good friend, Sam Millar (Author of On the Brinks and the Karl Kane novels). Sam generously took the time to critique each chapter in terms of plot and tension. From his comments I realised that I had put enough childhood memories of my hometown of Ballymena in The Station Sergeant to do a trilogy. I transferred sixty percent of the original book into a holding file and started again.

Suddenly a minor theme in the first draft took fire in my mind and The Station Sergeant as it now stands was born.

Even before the book starts Station Sergeant Barlow has enough problems. His marriage is on the rocks; his daughter has ‘found’ boys and he’s terrified she’ll get pregnant; and the old District Inspector, who let Barlow run things his own way, has died and the new man wants Barlow transferred and demoted.

On top of that Barlow’s old wartime Commanding Officer, the honourable Major Edward Adair, GC, is now the town drunk living in a wooden hut under Curles Bridge. Barlow is charged with keeping Edward out of trouble but Edward seems to attract trouble to himself.

The last thing Barlow needs is to have a deranged former soldier roaming the countryside, cattle being stolen out of the fields and people being murdered, apparently at random. To add to his problems he falls in love with another woman.

In the end, to protect both his family and the community, Barlow has to put himself in harms way.

The Station Sergeant is available from Portnoy Publishing (ISBN: 978-1909255005). The Kindle version is available now via Amazon US and UK. The paperback is out via UK booksellers, but won’t be released in the US until September.

John McAllister was born in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, in 1944. His publications include: The Fly Pool and Other Stories (Black Mountain Press, 2003) and a novel, Line of Flight (Bluechrome Publishing, 2006). He is the editor of Hometown (ABC Publications, 2003) and co-editor of Breaking the Skin (Black Mountain Press: 2002), a double anthology of prose and verse for the twenty-first century. John also contributed to the widely acclaimed anthology Requiems for the Departed. The Station Sergeant, available from Portnoy Publishing, is his most recent novel.


  • John McAllister

    May 23, 2013 - 2:44 PM

    Sabrina, when I thought about it, every and I mean every character in the book lived, if only as a compilation of two or three people. Likewise the buildings and the farms used actually existed in or around my hometown, though I changed many of the locations to suit the plot.

  • sabrina ogden

    May 16, 2013 - 3:17 PM

    I’m always interested in how characters come to be. This novel sounds pretty amazing, and I think it’s great that the completion of your short story “got completely out of hand”. Wonderful post, John.

    And I’m looking forward to the review, Elizabeth.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.