Sunday, 16 June 2013

Help - Queen Victoria has taken over my new book

~ Victoria at Loch Laggan, 1847, by Sir Edwin Landseer ~
Sometimes this game we call writing can throw up some remarkable surprises. At the start of the month I made a journey to Scotland to conduct research for my latest book, The Forbes Challenge. The journey was extremely successful and coloured in a mental picture I had previously seen only in black and white. The decision to get out there and live my writing can only ever be the right thing to do; but as I have discovered before, it is not without its (pleasant) risks!

My ideas blossomed, my characters attained new levels of reality, and in short what was originally intended to be a quick short story has grown into something altogether more ambitious. At first this was meant to be purely the story of James Forbes, but to a certain extent the reins have been seized by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

The Essence of the Challenge

The eponymous challenge is a relatively straightforward idea. Without giving the game away too much, the story revolves around James Forbes, a chronically ill geologist who is obsessed with the notion, put to him by his unstable and frequently drunk student Ewan Carr, that a lost glacier lurks somewhere in the heart of the Scottish mountains. Although once a noted explorer, Forbes is feeble and sick in the year 1847 and the daunting voyage into the Cairngorms will try his patience and resolve to the utmost. The "Forbes Challenge" is as much the challenge he faces against his own personal limitations as it is a tale of exploration and adventure.

Fine. A nice simple plot, suitable for a short story.

Plot Bunnies

But wait! A pair of Highland ghillies have appeared on the scene. They live at a (fictional) bothy somewhere in the wilds of Glen Tilt, and serve the Duke of Atholl under the threat of land clearance and estate reform. The son, Duncan McAdie, is impatient to leave Glen Tilt and find a new life for himself in Edinburgh despite the economic crisis. The father, Alec, is head deer stalker of the Atholl Forest and a loyal servant to the core, desperate to prove his competence and loyalty. Lord Glenlyon, who had managed the estate for years while the Duke was in a mental institution, has recently been created Duke of Atholl and is looking to make savings wherever possible. Alec McAdie is worried that he might be replaced by one of the younger, more ambitious foresters.

Ok, I think that can be fitted into a relatively short novella easily enough, provided the plot bunnies stop breeding.

Not so simple! It turns out that Prince Albert was in the area at the time, and although a rubbish shot he has seized upon the idea of bagging himself the estate's champion stag, a legendary beast called Damh-mor. He and the Duke, accompanied by the McAdie team and Albert's personal "Jaegers", gallop off on their quest one blustery and wet morning in late August.

Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edwin Landseer
Hm! The word count is starting to increase as the story gains in complexity, but it can still just about be reasonably classed as a novella.

Queen Victoria barges in

Not so fast! Research into Prince Albert inevitably led me to Victoria, a remarkable character who actually made the first recorded ascents of several Scottish peaks. Her love affair with Scotland became a national phenomenon and did a huge amount of good in promoting Scotland to the wider world. In the 1840s "Romantic Scotland" became a thing to people who were not Scots.

Victoria has elbowed her way into my book. Her character came alive while reading Lytton Strachey's classic biography, and subsequent readings of her personal diary have revealed many fascinating details that link her with my story.

It would be criminal not to include this fascinating historical figure in The Forbes Challenge. Her role will not be a major one, but it will add a new dimension to a book which has already quadrupled in length from my original estimates and grown in terms of stature and complexity of themes.

I have a feeling that she will also help to provide a moderating influence in an atmosphere charged with men either intent on geological discovery or shooting as many stags as possible.

This new book is proving to be just as much fun as I had hoped it would be!

Victoria in 1847. She doesn't look amused.
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