I guess it’s a little unusual for a garden wall to give a writer an idea for a novel. But that’s just what happened to me. And this is how I used it: the young heroine of my book Whales and Strange Stars, is gathering windfalls in the orchard – and accidentally overhears an odd conversation taking place on the riverbank nearby. The tall orchard wall stands in between, so she can listen unseen. This eavesdropping becomes a habit, with alarming consequences.
Wait a moment, you say. Is this a real wall you’re talking about? The answer is yes. And no. It was a real wall, once upon a time, and you can see it in my photos just beyond the moored boats – and the tops of the trees in the old orchard behind it, too. This was our old mooring at Grove Ferry, in Kent, as it was about fifty years ago – a place I knew down to the last little plant growing under the landing-stage. So naturally I used it in the story. I picture the fictitious Belle Isle moored here, on the brink of the open marshes and in the shadow of the old wall. Many of the crucial moments of the story happen just here in a place that was intensely important to me when I was young. It still is – but only as a figment of memory and imagination.
The wall itself is long gone – demolished – and you would struggle to recognise the same spot today. I have stood just there in recent years and been unable to tell exactly where the mooring was, or where the old wall ran. It is all part of a riverside pub garden now, and I don’t mind admitting that the longing to see it once again as it was in our happy family boating days is intense. The world moves on, of course, and the only way I can preserve these well-remembered and beloved details is to incorporate them into the fictional Wych Ferry of my story. So the old wall, the orchard and the mooring place all play their parts season by season, just as they did when I knew them for real.
Perhaps it’s the job of the older person to preserve and mythologise the past in this way, and I’ve done my best. So you see, not only ivy grows on old walls – sometimes books do, too.
Whales and Strange Stars, published by Crooked Cat Books
What’s it about? A sea captain passes through the forgotten port of Wych Ferry, and whiles away an hour relating his traveller’s tales to young Rosamund Euden. He tells her that the stars are different, if you sail far enough, that the horizon isn’t quite real, not when you get there; he speaks of sea serpents and whales, and mysterious islands. To an impressionable girl who has never left her home, the whales and strange stars of his stories come to symbolise the great outside world she longs to see. The sea captain moves on, unaware of the dramatic events he has set in action as Rosamund’s search for adventure leads her into a world of dangerous secrets in the marshlands of eighteenth century Kent. Torn between loyalty to her uncles, and her desire to discover what lies beyond the marshes, Rosamund seeks help from an unexpected source. But who can she really trust?
‘I really enjoyed this very different read… It’s a fascinating story filled with interesting characters.’
‘The sense of place is perfectly captured, and the writing just dances off the page. Highly recommended.’
‘I loved the way in which the author made the period and the setting come so alive in this book.’
‘Combining history with fantasy the lyrical prose flows across the pages. The plot ripples and twists just as a river eddies.’
‘It’s quite a unique type of book that meanders along like the ebb and flow of the river tides in the book.’