Hanging on the wall in my writing cabin are two old hand-painted prints, about 2 feet across, in their original black japanned frames. My grandparents bought them as souvenirs when they were on board the R.M.S.Orsova, a ship carrying the mail and twelve hundred sea-faring passengers and crew. The young engaged couple were bound for Australia. The year was 1913. One image is of the ship in stormy seas, the other in calm.
Since a child I’ve always loved these two pictures. When our parents would take us to visit Nana and Pop in their little terraced cottage in later years, my sister would fly through the front parlour to find them, but I would always hover in front of the two ship pictures, staring at them, imagining the people on board and wondering where they were going. It was only when I was about ten that Pop told me he and Nana had sailed on that ship all the way to Australia, and I would beg them for stories about the voyage and what happened when they got there. They eventually came home with two-year-old Harold (who was to become my father), after seven years because Nana pined for her sisters. At least that was what they told me at the time. The truth was very different. If only I’d written it all down, as I only remember bits and pieces of their lives in Melbourne.
But the pictures were enough to give me the idea and inspiration to write my first novel, using my grandparents’ decision to emigrate to Australia as a trigger point for my heroine, Annie. But almost everything in Annie’s Story is fictitious and does not follow my grandparents’ story. I don’t want Nana and Pop performing somersaults in their grave thinking the readers will get the wrong idea!
It was a moment of connection when Tracy Chevalier gave a talk at a Persephone lunch one day on her best-selling Girl with a Pearl Earring. Apparently Tracy had Vermeer’s print on her bedroom wall since she was nineteen, and one day she wondered what story lay behind the girl in the painting.
I believe that behind every novel lurks a real-life snippet that inspires the author to get that story written down. In fact, if authors made a point of telling their audience what inspired them to write their novel, I am sure some fascinating stories would emerge.