About Me

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I write well researched but readable historical and contemporary novels and some non-fiction. I live in a Scottish country cottage with my artist husband. I love gardening and I also collect the fascinating antique textiles that often find their way into my fiction. This blog is about all these things and more!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Curiosity Cabinet - Where Did The Ideas Come From?

Ardminish Bay on the Isle of Gigha
The Curiosity Cabinet (free on Kindle today and every day till Saturday) began as a trilogy of plays for BBC Radio 4. They were broadcast in the Afternoon Theatre slot, although I can't remember when that was: late 1990s perhaps? I know that the novel was originally published by Polygon in 2005 so it must have been a few years earlier, because I sat on the story for a while, thinking about what I needed to do to it to turn it into a novel.
The production (by Hamish Wilson) was excellent, as were the performances, and the plays were well received. But all the same, I knew I needed to make some changes and it was a long time before I realised exactly what they were.

The historical story was fine, but the contemporary tale was only 'alright'. Half there. It involved a divorced woman, her small son, and an old islandman. But there seemed to be something lacking.  It took a few years of mulling it over, going back to it and rewriting it before I realised that the modern love story should in some way run parallel to the historical love story - not that they should ever intersect. This isn't a genuine 'time slip' novel. Nobody travels back in time. But all the same, there was a sense in which I wanted the problems and tribulations of the past to be - somehow - worked out, resolved, in the present. And in order for me to be able to do that, I would have to find some way of the present reflecting the past, a fragile web of connections. But I knew it also had to be very subtle. Anything too obvious, anything too 'clunky' and the whole delicate structure would come tumbling down around my ears.

There were a couple of other things that inspired the story though. One was the true tale of Lady Grange who was kidnapped and spirited away at the behest of her husband (she was becoming something of an embarrassment to him in all kinds of ways!) and held on St Kilda for many years. Lady Grange was much older than Henrietta in the Curiosity Cabinet, Henrietta is a widow - and Lady Grange's story has no chance of a happy ending. But what fascinated me was the clash of cultures, the struggle which a lowlander would have to adapt and adjust to living on a small island where nobody even spoke her language. Something that could, and did, drive a prisoner to madness.

Some island flowers.

Years before, I had also dramatised Stevenson's Kidnapped (and its sequel, Catriona) for BBC Radio in ten hour-long episodes. Ten hours of radio. Can you imagine it? I don't think it would happen now! I loved both novels, still do - and both of them are, among so much else, an exploration of that clash of Highland and Lowland cultures. There is a scene, late in Kidnapped, where David Balfour and Alan Breck return to the House of Shaws to bring wicked old Ebenezer Balfour to book for his crimes. It always stuck in my mind for the little frisson it gave me when Alan Breck tells Ebenezer Balfour that David is his prisoner, and asks him whether he wishes him to keep or kill him. It is, of course, all a ruse, to get Ebenezer to admit his culpability (which he does!) But it struck me even then, how relatively easy it would be for somebody to disappear for ever into the wilderness of the Highlands and Islands.

Which is - in a way - what happens to poor little Henrietta, in The Curiosity Cabinet, kidnapped to the fictional island of Garve. There is a Garve in Scotland. There are several Garves, since the name means 'rough' and there are plenty of rough islands. My fictional Garve is a little like the Isle of Coll, but it's also like the Isle of Gigha, which I know well.  It may be rough in winter, but in spring and summer the island is full of flowers.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you a bit more about Gigha, and how the island landscape helped to inspire both The Curiosity Cabinet and a subsequent novel, Bird of Passage.





1 comment:

soknitsome said...

I read the Curiosity Cabinet early last year and loved it. Thanks for sharing the ideas behind it.