Former Dorset Echo features writer Nicola Rayner is celebrating the publication of her new novel, which has been dubbed 'the new Girl on the Train'. She tells Joanna Davis how her long term dream to write a book became a reality.

HOLDING her debut novel in her hands was an emotional moment for Nicola Rayner.

The writer, 39, who cut her teeth on the Dorset Echo as a trainee features writer, was delighted to unpack a box containing copies of The Girl Before You, a psychological thriller which has been compared to the likes of the best-selling The Girl on the Train.

It had been Nicola's ambition to write a book since she was four-years-old. Everything changed for her when her book was chosen as runner-up in Cheltenham First Novel Competition in 2018 and her prize was representation from a literacy agency and a publishing contract.

She said: "It was really emotional receiving the box of books in the post. After years of working in magazines, I thought I might be a bit hardened to that process – often by the time a magazine arrives from the printer I’m tired of looking at it because I’ve read it so many times already. But receiving my book was completely different, I sat on the kitchen floor and had a little cry. It felt like I’d kept a promise I’d made to myself."

Nicola, who now lives in west London with her husband Jason and dog Chota, has dedicated the book to her mother and husband who she says, have 'listened to me blather on about it for years'.

The Girl Before You is a suspenseful mystery about the disappearance of a university student. The parallel timeline thriller is told from the perspective of three women.

Abergavenny-born Nicola decided to pursue writing instead of becoming a vet when it came to choosing A-level options.

"My mum unearthed a childhood drawing of mine recently. It’s a self-portrait. I’m sitting at the kitchen table with an exercise book in front of me and I’ve captioned the picture 'me doing my book' – I must have drawn it when I was about four, which gives you an idea of how long I’ve wanted to be a writer – and also how long it can take to complete a novel!"

Nicola describes the process of writing The Girl Before You as 'laborious and fragmented'.

"It’s taken quite a few years," she said. "When I started, I was working full-time as a magazine editor and writing in my lunch hour and at weekends. I went freelance in 2017 to finish the book. That made things a lot easier and now I can spend a fortnight or so focusing on my creative writing, if I need to. I’ve done various bits and pieces in my time as a freelancer – everything from editing in-flight magazines to subbing at The Lady – but my main area of specialism is dance journalism and that’s what I spend the majority of my time on at the moment."

She counts contemporary writers Sarah Waters and Kate Atkinson as her biggest influences - 'they write beautifully crafted suspense novels', Nicola says.

"When I was a teenager, Daphne du Maurier was a huge influence and her novels Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel have stayed with me forever. They’re stories about whether we can trust the people closest to us and I guess that question is at the heart of most psychological thrillers and domestic noir."

Inspiration for her book came from different places, Nicola said.

"I had a near brush with death in my twenties and I think that made me think carefully about how fragile the line is between our normal, everyday lives and the stuff of murder mysteries and thrillers. At the beginning of The Girl Before You, the protagonist, Alice, spots on a train a girl she’d been at university with who was thought to have drowned. The idea of someone disappearing – but also seeming to come back – is one that has interested me for a long time. As I live and commute in London, I tend to get my best ideas on trains, which is how this one began."

And some of her own life feeds into the novel, Nicola says.

"Like Ruth, the missing girl, and her sister, Naomi, I’m from Wales and lost my father when I was young. Another childhood experience that makes it into The Girl Before You is being swept out to sea, which happened to me in west Wales with my sisters and a group of friends. That enduring fear of water is definitely there in the novel. Plus, Kat, Ruth’s best friend, and Richard, Ruth’s ex-boyfriend, are journalists, which is a world I know, of course."

Nicola, who joined the Echo in 2007 and lived on Portland, remembers her time in Dorset with much affection.

"My role at the Dorset Echo was my first full-time staff job as a writer and it was absolutely the best place to begin. I have such happy memories of my days as a features writer on the Echo and getting to drive around the beautiful Dorset countryside and interview authors. I still maintain there’s nowhere more stunning in the world than the views from the coast road on a sunny afternoon.

"During my time in Dorset I also made some wonderful friends whom I count among my very favourite people today more than 10 years later."

Although Nicola thinks her approach to writing her first book was 'rather haphazard', she said joining a local writing group was 'really helpful' for support and consistency.

She said: "Writing is a lifelong project, I think, and persistence is everything. When I was a child, my father kept the famous Calvin Coolidge quotation taped inside his briefcase: 'Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not... Genius will not… Education will not… Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.' I think those words had a big effect on my siblings and me."

*The Girl Before You by Nicola Rayner is published in paperback by Avon Books, a division of HarperCollins. An ebook is also available.