Julia Stuart talks about The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise
Authors famously don't like to be questioned about where they get their ideas from. I suspect it's because they're asked it so often. Yet I still think it's one of the most salient questions a reader can ask. You can't write a book about a menagerie of exotic beasts housed at the Tower of London, a beefeater who collects rain samples, and a chaplain who writes erotica and expect not to have to account for it somewhere down the line.
I have a plump blue folder on which I've written the words "book ideas", in the hope that it will provide me with some. It is filled with articles torn out of newspapers and magazines that have either made me laugh or tugged at my heartstrings. They are not fully formed plots (alas), just scraps of intrigue that may be useful one day, if only for a scene.
The inspiration for The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise came from an article I read in a weekend supplement. It told of the beefeaters who not only worked at the Tower but lived there, quite literally being locked in at night. I thought it was a great setting for a novel, but couldn't come up with a plot, so I put it in the folder and got on with my first book. When that was done, I was drawn again to the Tower community. I paid a visit and bought numerous guidebooks hunting for inspiration. I then came across the tale of the Tower's menagerie, which spanned 600 years and finally closed in the 1830s. Further research unearthed the fact that the Queen was still being sent animals in the 1970s, many of which were kept at London Zoo. I decided to bring them back to the Tower and institute a modern-day menagerie.
Choosing its inhabitants proved much easier once I'd found an animal encyclopedia in my local bookshop. As I read through it, I noticed some of them had curious characteristics. It mentioned a tiny shrew that could expire when under stress, a compulsive overeating glutton, and lizards that could run on water in emergencies. I found the monkeys that flash their private parts when they feel under attack at London Zoo (a sign offered that helpful nugget), along with the bearded pigs.
In the novel a bearded pig is thought to have escaped from the zoo, and deluded members of the public send newspapers their grainy photographs of it running through their gardens. This comes despite the fact that the pig is actually locked up in the Tower. The inspiration for that was simply the British public's love of an escaped animal story. I don't know why we like them. We just do. Particularly in the summer when the sun has finally come out and we're all a little startled.
Naturally, all my ideas don't come from my blue folder. Some arrive from a dusty, foxed part of my head while I'm getting on with life, or once my hands are over the keyboard. A chaplain who writes erotica? No idea what sparked that one off. A collection of rain samples? Couldn't tell you. A romance between two elderly people as they lie dying in the hospital? Search me.
So what potential scenarios lie in store for the future? A quick delve into my folder reveals a story about a happy, plump seal being found on a grass verge five miles from the sea; a man who fired cannons to greet historical ships being given a 12-month conditional discharge for breaching his firearms license; an invasion of Liechtenstein by Swiss soldiers that no one noticed; and the Princess Royal's secret obsession with lighthouses. I'm not sure whether any of these curiosities will make it into my third novel, but there's every hope for the fourth.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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