Anatomy of a Novel: A Brief History of Montmaray
Guest post by Michelle Cooper
I grew up on an island in Fiji and spent a lot of my holidays climbing over rocks and into caves, collecting driftwood, messing about on boats, and trying not to get killed by sea snakes, falling coconuts and sudden tide changes. However, my main inspiration for the fictional island of Montmaray came from the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago at the southernmost tip of England. The wild weather, shipwrecks, fleeing aristocrats, stone fortifications and puffins of Montmaray were all borrowed from the history of the Isles of Scilly. To make my story plausible, I also needed to know about everyday island life (How do residents get their mail? What do they use for fuel? What happens when someone gets sick?), so I spent a lot of time reading about modern communities in the Pitcairn Islands, the Channel Islands and the Azores.
Who wouldn’t want to live in a castle? It would be awesome – apart from the icy draughts whistling through the cracks in the walls, the damp stone floors, the tiny windows and the antique plumbing. I’ve never seen a real castle because I’ve never visited Europe, but luckily, there are lots of books about the subject. My favourite is The National Trust Book of British Castles by Paul Johnson, which traces the history of British castles from Iron Age forts to nineteenth century ‘imitation castles’ such as Balmoral. Whether you need to know what an ‘aumbry’ or a ‘quoin’ is, or just want to gaze at hundreds of beautiful photographs and illustrations, this is the book for castle fanciers.
The Holy Grail and Otto Rahn
The story of the Holy Grail has everything – a mythical treasure, knights on a noble quest, modern-day conspiracy theories, even Nazis. Those Indiana Jones films weren’t completely fictional, because Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS, really was obsessed with finding the Holy Grail. In the 1930s, the Nazis funded an organisation called the Ahnenerbe, which attempted to prove the superiority of the Germanic race. One of their researchers was a young historian named Otto Rahn. He had such a bizarre career and died so young, in such mysterious circumstances, that I couldn’t resist weaving him into my story.
Portuguese Water Dogs
I first read about these dogs years ago and was fascinated by them. Portuguese Water Dogs have webbed feet, large lungs and strong muscles, making them excellent swimmers and divers, and they were traditionally used by Portuguese fishermen to herd fish into nets, retrieve objects dropped overboard, and carry messages to other boats or to land. The breed is described as clever, loyal and full of energy, so I thought a Portuguese Water Dog would be a perfect companion for the royal children of Montmaray. At the time I was writing the book, the dogs were a fairly rare breed, but just before A Brief History of Montmaray was released in North America, President Obama’s family acquired a Portuguese Water Dog called Bo. The puppy was given to the Obamas by Senator Ted Kennedy, who had several Portuguese Water Dogs of his own. Young Teddy Kennedy met the FitzOsbornes and their dog Carlos in the late 1930s, when he and his family lived at the American Embassy in London – which is when the future senator developed his love of the breed.*
*This last sentence is not actually true.
The Famous Five
One of the early reviews of A Brief History of Montmaray described it as the Brontës mixed with the Famous Five. After I’d finished feeling insulted (about the Enid Blyton bit, not the Brontës), I realised the reviewer had a point. A group of cousins. A tomboy. A dog. A mad uncle. An island, a cave, secret tunnels, Cornish smugglers, and foreign villains searching for hidden treasure. All those Famous Five books I read as a child clearly had more of an effect on me than I’d realised.
Most novels can be improved by the addition of a giant squid. For example, The Great Gatsby is a very good novel, but imagine how much better it would be if there was a giant squid living in Gatsby’s swimming pool. I like giant squid because they lurk about mysteriously at the bottom of the ocean and make good metaphors.