Saturday, 1 August 2015

Settings and Strange Coincidences by Patricia Elliott

Patricia Elliott blogs about the inspiration for her new novel, The House of Eyes: a Connie Carew Mystery, just published by Hodder Children's Books

Whenever I'm mulling over a new novel it's really important to me to find the right setting. The setting must reflect the whole mood and flavour of the novel, so much so that I'm never quite sure which comes first in my mind, the plot or the setting. By setting, I don't merely mean the landscape – countryside or city – but something much more specific and smaller in scale, like a particular house where my protagonist might live, or where vital events occur. If I can, I like to find that house in the real world.
An exciting adventure with plenty of red herrings plays out in a vivd London setting
WRD About Books)
The House of Eyes, my new novel, is a mystery story for 9 – 12s. Constance Clementine Carew is twelve years old and lives in London with her two aunts and step-uncle. It's 1909, the Edwardian age, a time of great confidence and optimism, and in particular, new aspirations for women.
Connie wants to be an anthropologist when she grows up, but for the time being she has to make do with studying her own, somewhat dysfunctional, family. When her long-lost cousin Ida returns unexpectedly - apparently from the dead - only Connie suspects she may be an imposter, out to claim the family inheritance.
            I had decided on the Edwardian period and my plot was more or less worked out, but I needed to find the right area in London in which to set the novel and, more importantly, the right house. The house itself plays its part in the story – 'the House of Eyes', Connie calls it, because the damp patches on the walls look like faces, their eyes watching her. (They aren't the only eyes watching her, as it happens.)  So I wanted to find a house that was dingy and decrepit.

            The area was easy. I chose South Kensington because I associate it with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys (Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was published in 1906). I imagined stiffly starched nannies pushing their charges up to Kensington Gardens in capacious perambulators and, indeed, as a baby Ida is seized from her pram on one such outing to the park. I also needed a large square for a garden party that takes place in the story, and Thurloe Square, its layout almost unchanged, fitted that perfectly. South Kensington is not far from Harrods, when Ida goes off on a shopping trip, with Connie tagging disconsolately after her. And even then, the number 14 bus ran down the Fulham Road, past the Town Hall, which was to feature in the story.    
            But finding the right house was not so easy. Nowadays the houses in South Kensington look immaculate and sell for undreamed of sums of money. In the Edwardian period it was also a smart area, being so close to Knightsbridge. Connie's step-uncle has once had money, but has since lost it; the household is looked down on by its posh neighbours for being 'in trade' and Connie is not invited to play with their children.
            I could easily have made the house up, and after a while I decided to do just that. Then by chance, one hot day last summer when I'd had enough of peering between the railings of Thurloe Square to work out my characters' movements during the garden party and was making my way back to South Ken Underground Station, I looked around and suddenly thought to myself, 'These houses look as if they were put up in a hurry by a speculator...'

            They were Victorian, with large porches, several storeys and a basement, and a balustrade running along the top – which Connie uses to good advantage in the story. They were all beautifully painted and well kept, but there was something about them that looked crude. It was't difficult to imagine one back then with a cracked and peeling exterior and ill-fitting windows, and a little girl in a straw boater and rather grubby sailor dress skipping down the steps.
            When I got back home I did some research. Sure enough, the houses, built some sixty years before Connie's time, had been constructed too quickly from shoddy materials and four of them had fallen down shortly afterwards. Damp plasterwork was blamed! In my novel I could even use the name that the street would have been called then, as it has since been changed.
            Of course, it was just coincidence, nothing more, that a house I had seen so vividly in my mind's eye should suddenly be there before me and might well have had a history of damp. But sometimes these strange coincidences do occur.    
            It's part of the magic of writing.                    

            Patricia Elliott, is the award-winning author of Gothic fantasies for children and Young Adults, including 'The House of Eyes' and 'The Pale Assassin'.  
You can find out more at and follow her on Twitter @PElliottAuthor