Fly-on the-Wall Novel Research

June 21, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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imageOne of the goals of my research trip to Scotland for That Autumn in Edinburgh was to understand the trials and perils of having inherited a family woolen textile business and an historic home in the modern age. To understand the latter, I set out for Traquair House, the seat of the Maxwell Stuart family and the oldest, continuously inhabited home in Scotland.image

As I drove through the spectacular gates of the grounds nestled in the Tweed Valley in the Scottish Borders, south of Edinburgh, the “sunny intervals” were smiling on this impressive structure surrounded by acres of beautiful countryside and 5 separate farms belonging to the estate. The 21st Lady of Traquair is distantly related to Jane Maxwell of Monreith, who became the celebrated 4th Duchess of Gordon–and the heroine of my biographical historical novel, Island of the Swans from which I will spin a modern tale set some 200 years later!

imageThe house–whose owners, like so many in possession of these massive family homes–now offers accommodation to the public…and in stunningly grand style. But what is it like, I wondered, to have strangers sleeping in your beds and wandering about the front and back yards? In the case of Traquair, visitors could easily be swallowed up by the huge maze that takes up nearly an acre at the back of the house.image But what of the burdens for the modern-day titled person who inherited these piles of stones–perhaps without sufficient capital to sustain them? They still must keep the hedges trimmed, the linen washed every day to be ready for the arrival of the next visitors, and have breakfast cooked each morning for their discerning and not-so-discerning houseguests.

imageHow does the lady of the house cope with the weight of all that family history on her shoulders? Just how crushing are the death duties that come due when the older generation dies off and the next is faced with decisions about whether to keep the place going, give it to the government to look after, create a non-profit trust or museum property, or turn it into a (hopefully) profit-making enterprise?

And what about family members who, by an accident of birth, are not in line to inherit, but love a family home and its surroundings nevertheless, and often are envious and “unhelpful” when difficult decisions are made about the place where they grew up?

imageFor me, a former reporter for twenty-odd years for ABC radio and TV in Los Angeles, I find I simply can’t write about a place unless I see it for myself. Over the years I have trained myself to be “a fly on the wall” and observe the scene around me and allow the facts and the stories people tell me on these trips to take the plot wherever that newly-acquired information leads.image

When I start out conjuring a new novel, I usually have some vague idea of the characters and the nubbin of a plot, but what actually happens in the story tends to spring forth organically, based on what I discover on these journeys. How did the people live in the past; how do they live now? What are the social and economic forces at work in the modern era, as opposed to when life was very different for the wealthy and plain, ordinary folk?

imageI am always amazed and very grateful for the “kindness of strangers” willing to meet with me and talk to me about these subjects. A typical example was this week’s adventure when the 21st Lady of Traquair, Catherine Maxwell Stewart, graciously agreed to meet me in the breakfast room for an interview about her mother’s and her decision to carry on at Traquair House after her father died. This beautiful place now not only provides her family a living through house tours, overnight visitors, and various events like weddings and fairs held on the grounds, but also creates employment in an area that has seen the woolen trade devastated by global competition from the Far East in factories where workers earn a fraction of what the Scots were formerly paid.image

As I begin to grasp the lay-of-the-land and understand the way current circumstances are impacting those living in the Scottish Border country, which is both beautiful and challenging, ideas are bubbling forth for the Scottish descendants of Jane Maxwell and the American descendants of the “lost” Lieutenant Thomas Fraser of Struy–and I can finally reveal what really happened, in the end, to these star-crossed lovers.

I’ve had the time of my life on this trip, but now I can’t wait to get home to start writing…

[]: http://cijiware.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/image.jpg

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