Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Taking my mind - and the dog - for a walk

Brockwell Hall, the Georgian house in my local park
Just now I'm in the fallow period before starting to write my next Swallowcliffe Hall book: Lady Catherine's Story, in which Kate Vye takes over the running of the Hall when her husband Edward inherits the title on the death of his father. I find walking really productive when mulling over ideas - a combination of being out of the house in the fresh air and moving along to a rhythm, which seems to help my mind make connections as well.

I'm trying to imagine the dilemmas Kate would face, becoming mistress of a place like Swallowcliffe: her relationship with her fearsome mother-in-law, now exiled to the Dower House (maybe even refusing to go?), her dealings with the servants, who are possibly reluctant to take orders from a young American woman, the state of her marriage to a self-centred husband, used to getting his own way. Her money has saved the Hall but Edward considers it his, to use as he likes. There's also the fact that, after 6 or 7 years of marriage, they still have no children. And always in the background is Edward's charming brother, Rory. Has Kate married the wrong man? Does he still love her? Will she ever be happy with the life she has chosen?  I must think about her upbringing and her American family, too: her relationship with her parents, and with her cousin, Julia, who has married an Englishman and settled in the country. Because I've written about the Vye family in various periods of history (and in fact Kate's ultimate fate is described in Isobel's Story), there are various facts that constrain me - the trick is to throw in a few surprises along the way.

From the collection of Patrick Lynch
I'm looking forward to getting to know Kate. Up until now, we've only seen her through other people's eyes: Polly, the servant who maids for her when she first comes to stay at the Hall in 1890; Eugenie Vye, Kate's sister-in-law, who considers her attempts to look after the tenants on the estate a waste of time and money; Grace, Polly's daughter, who works at the house during the First World War and sees Lady Vye return from an ill-fated voyage aboard the Lusitania. Now I must try to catch Kate's voice and let her speak for herself. A cover image certainly helps. After a long search, I've found this photograph, which seems to me to represent Kate perfectly: her beauty, her enthusiasm, her energy. If you've read the books, does she look like Kate to you? I'd love to know!
So it will take a few more walks in the park before I've made a start at working it all out, before the characters begin to take shape. I don't want them to be cliches. The housekeeper, for example: we're all too familiar with a Mrs Danvers figure, hovering in the corridors full of malicious intent. Yet she can't be straightforwardly wonderful, either; there must be something or someone for Kate to rub up against (although Edward fills that role very well). I'm slightly concerned that her life may be too hard. If her marriage is unhappy, will the story be overly bleak? Somehow I must find a way of bringing joy into it.

I also need to think about where to begin. I wrote Eugenie's Story in the form of a diary, so that the reader discovered events pretty much the same time as she did. The first three stories were all told retrospectively, however, with a short coda at the end in the present tense - as Polly watches Kate leave the Hall to be married, as Grace and Philip declare their feelings for each other, and as Isobel describes what Swallowcliffe Hall has become in 1939.  I think I might go back to that format. I may even have Kate starting the story by remembering her wedding, describing it quite differently from Polly. And Polly must come back into the story - she and Kate have a special bond - so I shall have to work out what's happening to her in 1900.

So much to decide! Now where's the dog lead?        

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