The following article discusses the process of researching, planning and writing A Brief History of Montmaray. The article was first published in Viewpoint, Volume 16 (4), 2008
One of the benefits of being a writer is that many enjoyable activities - daydreaming, for instance - can be classified as 'work'. A Brief History of Montmaray began one day when I was very hard at 'work' - that is, I was staring out the window of my inner-city flat, wondering what it would be like to live in a castle. My mind's eye was suddenly filled with the image of a teenage girl, perched on a castle wall and scribbling in her diary. An aeroplane appeared on the horizon and she peered at it curiously. What was an aeroplane doing there? For that matter, where was she? Who was she? And what was she writing in her diary? I decided I had to find out more.
It soon became apparent that the girl was a princess who lived in the 1930s, which meant I would have to do some research if I wanted to turn her into a novel. Luckily, 'research' just meant 'lying on the sofa reading lots of books about a fascinating period of history'. My local library and the big bookstores in the city yielded several biographies and memoirs of the Mitford sisters, first-hand accounts of the Spanish Civil War and social histories of inter-war England, as well as novels by Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford and Mary Wesley. I also watched numerous BBC costume dramas and a documentary about Heinrich Himmler's obsession with the occult.
Simultaneously, I plotted out my story. My teenage narrator acquired a set of eccentric relatives, a crumbling island kingdom and a complex family history. I drew a map of the island, a sketch of the castle and a family tree. Freshly-discovered historical facts inspired new directions for the plot, which required further research. For instance, when I Googled Himmler, I came across Otto Rahn, a Berlin historian whose search for the Holy Grail was funded by the Nazis. His expeditions had taken him from Italy to Iceland. I decided that Otto had also visited my newly-invented island of Montmaray. The island itself slid up and down the Atlantic Ocean as I learned more about Otto's travels. Eventually it settled in the Bay of Biscay, halfway between France and Spain, conveniently close to Portugal (I had just given the narrator a pet Portuguese water dog).
About six months into this process, I looked at my haphazard piles of maps, photocopies and hand-written notes, and figured I really ought to get organised. I transferred everything to a big folder, each section bearing a label saying something like 'Spanish Civil War - International Brigades' or 'Nazi - Ahnenerbe - Otto Rahn'. Then I wrote key dates and historical events on index cards, and arranged the cards in chronological order. Other index cards were used for scenes from the plot. I laid out all the cards on my living room floor and spent a few weeks frowning at them, moving them around, adding new cards, discarding others. Finally I numbered each card, gathered them all up and set the stack next to my computer. At last! Now I could begin writing!
Except two pages into the first chapter, I realised I knew almost nothing about castles, homing pigeons, Cornish folklore, Tudor royalty, Portuguese water dogs, herbal remedies, the Holy Grail or how to make a Christmas pudding. Hooray for the internet! Did you know that you can download the entire text of Mrs Beeton's 1861 Book of Household Management, including 98 different pudding recipes? Or that a very informative 1886 magazine article about homing pigeons is only a couple of mouse clicks away? The internet also came in handy when I needed to research weather conditions in the Bay of Biscay, examine Queen Elizabeth I's handwriting and check quotes by Tennyson. I also resorted to internet translation sites at one stage, because, unlike my characters, I don't speak a word of French, German, Spanish or Cornish. (Fortunately, the editorial team at Random House is multilingual, so my mangled French phrases were corrected before the manuscript went off to the typesetters.)
I think the most difficult part of the research process was deciding what to leave out. I discovered some intriguing but irrelevant facts that I couldn't resist squashing into the story - the 1936 libel case involving a talking mongoose named Gef, for instance. I was also delighted to discover a word for the practice of writing on only one side of the paper. However, as this practice was an extravagance of which my impoverished narrator could only dream, the word 'anopisthography' did not make it into the final draft of the novel. I did manage to sneak in 'boustrophedonic', though.
I did so much planning for this novel that the actual writing went very smoothly. My first novel, The Rage of Sheep, required nine laborious and frustrating drafts before it was readable, because I didn't plan at all. In contrast, A Brief History of Montmaray needed only two drafts, plus a couple of weeks of work after my editor had read it.
Now I'm working on the sequel to A Brief History of Montmaray. I haven't started writing yet, but I've been reading about Virginia Woolf's servant problem, prehistoric sites in Dorset, Picasso's Guernica, the League of Nations, John F Kennedy's Harvard thesis, and how to curtsey in high heels and a floor-length ballgown. My index cards are filled with dates and facts and scenes. I have new characters, complete with family trees, a floor plan of my narrator's stately home and a map of Wessex. I'm ready to start writing! Well, almost. I just need to check a few little details . . .
The phone rings. It's a friend, who apologises for calling on one of my writing days. I must be very busy. "Oh yes," I say, turning down the sound on the DVD player. The opening credits of Gosford Park scroll across the screen as I reach for the popcorn bowl. "You're right," I tell her. "I'm working very hard."