Finding Inspiration in Place


A little while after Bitter Orange was published in the UK, the author and blogger, Isabel Costello asked me to write something for her ‘literary sofa‘ website. If you don’t know it or her, she hosts a huge number of fascinating posts, author interviews and book reviews. This is the piece I wrote, republished here, about the inspiration for the location in Bitter Orange.

There’s a place not too far from where I live called the hangers. It’s a short range of wooded twisting hills, so steep-sided that they haven’t been cultivated or much changed by humans, and the trees that cling there – beech, lime, yew and ash – are ancient. I regularly walk the footpaths snaking through these woods, and when I was looking for a location for my third novel, Bitter Orange, the hangers’ ghostly beauty seemed perfect.
Bitter Orange is set in a dilapidated country house called Lyntons, and deciding which house it could be based upon was never going to be a problem. About ten miles from my house in the opposite direction to the hangers is The Grange, is a neoclassical property managed by English Heritage. In the grounds there is a lake and a small flint grotto, but most of the surrounding countryside is undulating farmed fields, beautiful in their own way, but not dramatic enough for what I had in mind.
So, I shifted my house ten miles east and set it down right at the foot of the hangers. That’s one of the perks of being a writer – I can move anything to anywhere else, even whole country houses. Now the hills and woods corralled the house, keeping whatever was there isolated and contained.


The original (real) house was built in 1660, red-brick and square, but in the early 19th century it was transformed into one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in Europe. The land around it was built up so that the basement floor was completely underground, and at some point all the windows in the attics filled in so the servants mustn’t have got much daylight unless they went outdoors. In its hey-day The Grange had 24 indoor servants, while the estate supported 100 households.

But two world wars changed life for many English country estates and due to death duties their owners could no longer afford their upkeep. Many houses fell into disrepair and were consequently abandoned or demolished. (In 1955 England lost one house every two and a half days.) And The Grange was no different. It was last inhabited in 1964, and in 1972 it was almost demolished by the Baring family who had bought it, until the government got involved and the house was preserved.

And so it still stands today – preserved but unrestored. The outside is open to visitors (and free) all year round, but the inside is only accessible on certain dates for tours. And if you get to go inside you’ll understand why. Most of the interior has been ripped out, and many of the ceilings have gone (netting hangs under them to collect the falling debris). Plaster has gone from many of the walls, but enough remains to give this house an eerie atmosphere of a place kept in suspended animation. A house stopped in the final moment before disintegration.

Once I’d decided that my characters would live in a house inspired by The Grange for the summer of 1969, I visited the outside often, walking around the huge cedar of Lebanon trees, and down to the lake. The orangery (once renowned for its innovative system of channelling rainwater down its interior pillars to water the plants) now houses an opera company – The Grange Festival. The Festival hosts open days and the house is usually open as part of England’s Heritage Open Days scheme.

I visited the interior on as many occasions as I could, and I also wrote to English Heritage to ask if someone could show me around. Richard, the caretaker kindly took me into every room possible (there are still stairs up to the attic, but there are very few rooms that are safe) including every room in the basement. Here, the opera company stores its costumes and props, and so illuminated by bare bulbs I saw dummies and masks, brooms and top hats. As we walked around, Richard told me about the ghosts that haunt The Grange and confessed that sometimes even he (a down-to-earth type) doesn’t like to be there alone. I could see why. At least one of those stories made it into the finished version of Bitter Orange.

In the novel there is a bridge over the lake and follies in the grounds that Frances, the protagonist is commissioned to examine, including a mausoleum, obelisk and ice-house. It took me two years to write Bitter Orange and the landscape surrounding the house is so firmly fixed in my mind that when I go back there now, I look around and always think, but where is the bridge, where are the follies, and why aren’t there any hangers surrounding the house?

House photo courtesy of http://www.alresfordheritage.co.uk

 

My Writing Process

 

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A sense of place

Vicki Goldman, a writer and book blogger recently asked me to write a piece about my writing process, which she posted on her website. She’s read and reviewed hundreds of books, if you’re looking for your next read, you should take a look. Vicki has kindly let me post the article below. 

I’m just beginning to write my third novel, and it’s taken until now to work out if my writing process is different for each book, or what similarities there are.

What I’m only just realising is how important it is for me to have an idea of place before I start. Where do my characters live – country, area, type of house, room – I need to be able to see the space they inhabit before I can really get to grips with the story.

And it seems after two and a bit novels, I’m a big follower of the process that E.L. Doctorow talked about in his famous quote: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I’m not a planner. I have a vague shifting idea of an end point; perhaps who will live and who will die, but no idea how that life or death will happen. I start with one or two characters, drop them into a location, and see what they do. If it’s going well, by about a quarter or a third of the way through the characters take over and will sometimes refuse to do things. This isn’t anything spooky, it’s just that I know in detail the type of people they are, their habits, their likes and dislikes, and this in depth knowledge begins to help the story along. In my second novel, Swimming Lessons, I had two characters who I wanted to get together quickly, but they took chapters and chapters to do it. I’d put them in a room together and they would barely look each other in the eye. In the end I had to let them do it in their own time.

I don’t like writing. Perhaps it would be easier if I were a planner, but because sometimes I really don’t know what is going to happen next, it can be difficult. I treat it like a job; it is how I make my living, so I sit down at my desk at 9am and stop at 6pm. I do lots of other things during those hours, of course – I’m easily distracted – but that is my working day. What I do like however, is editing. Oh, to write The End on a first draft! Once I have 70,000 words or whatever, then I can have fun – cutting, moving sections, working on the structure – and then playing with the words, making sure each one is right, that sentences flow, that it all has a rhythm when I read it aloud.

However, I do edit a bit as I go along. It’s impossible for me to write without going back a short way each day and reworking. My new words are so abysmal that if I didn’t go back and edit a little bit then the writer’s doubt that we all suffer from would be too inhibiting. But I set myself some rules: Whenever I sit down to write I must also add new words to my manuscript. I’m never allowed to just edit until I’ve finished. Even if I only have ten minutes writing time, just three or so of those can be spent editing. If I have a full day available then I aim for 1,000 words (but I’m secretly happy if I get 800 down). At the end of each day I keep a tally of what my new word count is and a line of two of what I did and how it went. Very often I write something like, ‘I can’t do this, why am I doing this?’. And to keep the internal critic at bay while I’m writing I allow it a few words of its own now and again. So, in the middle of a paragraph I might write in square brackets [this is rubbish], and then carry on writing. It’s also reassuring to know that if I’m run over by a bus before the manuscript is finished no one will think that I believed it was any good.

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Our Endless Numbered Days has recently been published in paperback in the UK, and is both a Richard & Judy, and Waterstones Book Club Pick. Read Vicki’s review of Our Endless Numbered Days.