Perhaps I should have expected when writing about a book about Lake District in the 18th century, given the wealth of legends, myths and magic that abound there, that odd things might happen, but it was still a rather chilling moment when I opened a guide to the area published in 1780 and found its original owner had the same name as my fictional hero. It was also a little strange that the volcanic eruption in Iceland stopped all those flights in Europe last year happened just as I was researching a similar event in 1783. I didn’t encounter any bogles while exploring Derwent Water, but standing in the middle of a stone circle with Skiddaw looming above us, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Come to think of it there was a hiker who looked a little other-worldly, so who knows?
Island of Bones is the third in my series of historical crime novels featuring Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther. Harriet is a rather willful landowner in Sussex and Crowther is one of her neighbours; a reclusive anatomist whose expertise she first drew on in Instruments of Darkness. Island is the novel in which Crowther’s mysterious and tragic family history rears into his present and begins when a tomb near his childhood home is opened and found to contain one more body than it should. It is a story of the power of legend, cunning-men, witches, greed, loyalty and the need to confront the past in order to overcome it. And there is a jackdaw in it too.
I often get asked where I get my ideas from, and though my boyfriend likes to remind me that he found a copy of ‘The Writer’s Idea Book’ on my bookshelf, the real answer is ideas come from the research. There is a great delight in the early stages of planning a novel when you can let yourself range free, gathering interesting and inspiring legends, myths and snippets that hint at other, bigger stories. I can’t help being reminded of walks along the lakeland beaches as a child looking for interesting stones; I would insist on taking home pocketfuls. That’s was research is like in its early stages, a gathering together of threads in the past, a name on a tombstone, a paragraph in a newspaper, a mention in a collection of legends. Those scraps take you off in any number of directions and after a few weeks or months you begin to see the shape of the novel through the haze.
I was brought up in North East England and my parents would often take my brothers and me to Keswick or Ambleside to sail and camp, making us part of the tradition of tourism in the area that was just beginning to take hold in the late 18th century. Instability in Europe, improved roads at home, and the beauty of the countryside meant the Lake District was becoming a fashionable destination. Walking along the shore near Lordore Falls at dusk where the crags leap up beside you, and Derwent Water reflects the last of the sun, I felt I was walking next to the poet Thomas Gray. He wrote so vividly of the terrible beauty of the landscape in 1769 he all but created the tourist industry single-handedly. It is fair to say though that it was the railways and Wordsworth who made tourism a mainstay of the local economy. Now William Wordsworth would have been 13 in the brooding, heat-soaked and storm-ravaged summer of 1783 so I’m sure you can imagine it was sorely tempting to have one of my characters encounter him, but I had to resist. That is the most difficult part of writing a historical novel I think, knowing when to leave the shiny pebbles on the shore for someone else.
Island of Bones is published by Headline