By Clare Flynn
People often ask me how I choose the location for my books. But it often feels as if the location chooses me. I’ve just completed a four-month trip round the world and much as would love to set a book in Hanoi or Ankor Wat, it just doesn’t work like that. I have no say in the matter! It’s as if I get a message telling me I have to set a story in a particular place and the characters immediately start to form in my head and won’t leave me alone until I do. Characters and place are inextricably entwined for me.
In the case of The Gamekeeper’s Wife, I was about to start another book altogether when I arrived for a four-day break at Keeper’s Cottage, a former gamekeeper’s house on the Shuttleworth estate at Old Warden in Bedfordshire, England. As soon as I clapped eyes on the Edwardian brick cottage with its outbuildings – former nesting houses and kennels – I knew I had to set my next book there. The one I was already working on would just have to go on the back burner.
Over the course of the next few days (aided by the absence of internet, TV, radio and the lack of cellphone coverage!) I came up with my characters and the premise for the story. The plot itself developed as I wrote it. If I try to plan in detail, I always wander off piste – or more accurately the characters lead me off it.
My main characters are Christopher (Kit) Shipley and Martha Walters, the eponymous gamekeeper’s wife – or rather his widow as her husband was killed in the First World War while serving in Kit’s regiment. Kit himself had his leg blown off below the knee, and now, in 1919, is trying to pick up the pieces of his shattered life. The death of his elder brother in the war, and the consequent death of his father from shock, thrusts an unwilling Kit into running the family business and large country estate with all the attendant responsibilities.
I wanted Kit to have been set on a very different course prior to WW1. What could I give him as his passion in life? What pursuits might have appealed to a rather academic second son, who had never expected to inherit? I wanted it to be something Martha could relate to – nothing too esoteric – but at the same time something that would drive Kit’s socialite American mother to despair. I also wanted it to be something he could still pursue in his spare time, albeit in a more limited way than he had hoped before the war ruined everything.
Another location had caught my imagination during my stay at Keeper’s Cottage and helped me find the solution. Within the Shuttleworth estate is the restored Swiss Garden, created between 1824 and 1832 by Lord Ongley, 3rd Baron of Old Warden. In the heyday of the baron’s life, it was the scene of lavish parties, where guests wandered between hillocks and streams, past artificial lakes, stopping to enjoy the view from the various follies and summerhouses he constructed to create a magical alpine wonderland. After long neglect – notably after the Second World War – the garden was rescued and restored at the turn of this century and is a fabulous place to wander through. It even has a peacock. I stole and adapted aspects of the Swiss Garden to create Christopher’s slightly less ambitious Sunken Garden. The creation of his great grandfather, Kit decides it will be his mission to rescue this lost garden and breathe life back into it.
The other notable setting in The Gamekeeper’s Wife is the Far Eastern island of Borneo. I’ve never been there, but I decided that Kit, after studying Botanical Sciences at Cambridge would become a plant hunter. During the 1920s, plant hunting was a popular pursuit and many of the plants now familiar in our suburban gardens came from this period and the passions of an elite group of gentlemen-explorers. Another spark that fuelled this choice was my memory of visiting The Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens and seeing the vibrant collection of colourful botanical paintings this intrepid single woman created on her adventures across the world, first with her father and then alone, between 1867 and her own death in 1890. Among the numerous exotic locations Marianne visited was Borneo. I decided to send Kit there too, a few decades later.
The history of Borneo and the Protectorate of Sarawak, ruled by a white British Rajah and his descendants, the Brooke family, is fascinating. During the time Kit was there, hunting for pitcher plants and the rare Rafflesia Arnoldii, an enormous carnivorous plant with an unspeakably foul stench, the last Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke, occupied the throne. Brooke, who, like Kit went to Cambridge, died in London in 1963 and had the following totally fabulous entry in Who’s Who:
“led several expeditions into the far interior of the country to punish head-hunters; understands the management of natives; rules over a population of 500,000 souls and a country of 40,000 square miles”
Not having been to Borneo, I had to do a lot of research to enable me to understand the challenges that would face Kit as a plant hunter – particularly a disabled one. As well as poring over maps, Google Earth, and guide books, I read various biographies of missionary wives, plantsmen, and other travellers, until I’d built up a picture of the terrain and conditions and some knowledge of the indigenous tribes Kit would have encountered.
Obviously, I’d always prefer to visit a place and get to know it in depth first hand. But it’s not always possible, so I do my best with what is available. Right now, I’m writing a book set in nearby Penang on a rubber plantation. I have visited Penang briefly but don’t know it well and I’m currently working up a fiendish and expensive plan to go back there in a month or so. While research can give you a lot it can’t replace actually being in a place, soaking up its atmosphere and its sounds and smells.
If I do go back to Penang, I may include a little side trip into the rainforest on the mainland. I’ve heard you can do a short expedition to seek out the Rafflesia Arnoldii. But that could well be one smell I won’t want to remember!
Clare Flynn is the author of nine historical novels and a short story collection. Her next novel, Storms Gather Between Us, is published by Canelo on 17th June 2019. You can download a copy of The Gamekeeper’s Wife for only 0.99 until 12th June on Amazon.
Twitter – @clarefly
Facebook – /authorclareflynn
Buy link https://mybook.to/gamekeeper
Picture credits –
Keeper’s Cottage, with permission of Mary Longhurst
The Swiss Garden, Shuttleworth, author’s own
“Rafflesia arnoldii… a parasitic plant” by Antoine Hubert is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
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