I am fascinated by ideas. How do authors keep coming up with fresh, original ideas which make an intriguing premise for a book. Location, character, structure – where does the inspiration come from and what do writers do with that first, precious seed of an idea? How does it become a fully formed novel?
For me, inspiration has come from a number of different sources. For The Girl Who Came Home I knew that I wanted to write about Titanic and when I read about the group of Third Class Irish emigrants from Ireland who sailed together, I knew immediately that I had found the inspiration for my book. With my second novel, I was inspired by a fascination with the lives of London’s flower sellers. This partly stemmed from a love of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the musical adaptation My Fair Lady. I wanted to find out more about the women and children who led such a pitiful existence and yet were surrounded, each day, by the beauty of the flowers they sold and the elegance of the ladies and gentlemen who bought their flowers.
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole is a sweeping story told in letters, spanning two continents and two world wars, which captures the indelible ways that people fall in love, and celebrates the power of the written word to stir the heart. My first question for Jessica was all about inspiration and how the critically acccalimed novel had come about. Jessica told me, “I had long wanted to write a novel told only through letters, but lacked the characters and place to tell such a story. I found them on a family vacation on the Isle of Skye. Something about the island, with its indescribable landscape, all of the crags and lochs and gray sea all around, called out to me. I was taken with not only the beauty but with the poetry infused in the very rocks. I could imagine a character, a dreamer writer out of place amongst the fishermen and crofters, yet still so bound to the island. It was a place so tied to its own legends and history that you could trace the years just through the place names marked along its coasts. I was also struck by its isolation, so far from the big cities on the mainland and even farther, in so many ways, from Europe. An island, cushioned by its location and its own culture, from the world wars, would be, I decided, a fascinating setting for an epistolary novel.”
So how did that ‘seed’ of an idea manifest itself and develop into a fully formed concept for a novel? Jessica explained, “That little scrap of an idea unfolded slowly into a whole story as I wrote. Other than wanting to write an epistolary novel, I didn’t know anything else about my novel. I let my two main characters—one a reclusive poet and the other an impetuous college student— introduce themselves through letters and then let the plot develop organically from there.”
Working in this free flow way, allowing the story to guide you can be very liberating. I asked Jessica if those two characters changed much as she wrote: “Elspeth’s character didn’t change too much from that very first letter she wrote. David’s did morph over the course of writing. Initially, though he was bold on paper, he was more self-correcting in his life off-page. Then I brought in college pranks—purloined trees, painted horses, misplaced cows—and his character seemed to come alive. I needed him to be unflinching in everything so that he could act as a foil to Elspeth’s fears.”
I asked Jessica how she had set about researching two World Wars and the two very different locations in the novel. She told me, “I was lucky enough to be living in Edinburgh while researching Letters from Skye, and made good use of the Scottish history room of the library and of the many secondhand book shops in the city. I was able to track down some wonderful little memoirs and out-of-print history books that really helped me to understand the attitudes and culture of both Skye and Edinburgh during the wars. I was also fortunate to have access to oral histories, through people I met in Edinburgh. Some shared their family stories of life in Scotland during the two world wars; some shared their own stories. I was able to bring those details—the things they worried about most of all, the things that brought them joy in the midst of war, the memories that still lingered after all that time— into my writing.”
Getting your debut novel into print is an amazing experience, I asked Jessica what had surprised her most about the process of writing and publishing Letters from Skye. She revealed, “The thing that surprises me most about the publication process is, I think, the enthusiasm. For a novel written almost in secret and then held close to my chest for years, it’s amazing to me to see so many people reading and connecting with David and Elspeth the same way I always have. I’m surprised, overwhelmed, and completely touched that my characters and their story resonate with so many readers out there.”
If you needed any further temptation to read this intriguing novel, watch the beautiful trailer for Letters from Skye, which was filmed on location, below:
Letters from Skye is published by Ballantine (US) and Windmill Books (UK). Find out more about Jessica at http://jabrockmole.com/ or follow her on Twitter @jabrockmole
(c) Hazel Gaynor
Hazel Gaynor runs writing.ie‘s Carry on Writing blog and is an author and freelance writer. She started writing when she left her corporate career in March 2009; initially focusing on her award-winning parenting and lifestyle blog, Hot Cross Mum. She has since gone on to write regularly for the national press, has appeared on TV and radio and writes a book review blog for Hello Magazine as well as guest blogging and writing regular features for writing.ie.
In March 2012, Hazel self published her debut novel ‘The Girl Who Came Home – A Titanic Novel’ , which quickly went on to become a no.1 bestseller on Kindle and was recently made available in paperback format through Amazon Createspace. The Girl Who Came Home will be republished by William Morrow (HarperCollins) in April 2014, with Hazel’s second novel ‘Daughters of the Flowers’ to follow in early 2015.
Originally from North Yorkshire, Hazel now lives in Kildare with her husband and two children. She was the recipient of the Cecil Day Lewis Literary Bursary for Emerging Writers in October 2012 and appeared at Waterford Writer’s Weekend in 2012 and 2013.