Mary’s Plots

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The way I write has developed through the Rossington series, but I generally start with my cast of characters and put them into a particular spot. I have an overall idea about what the difficulties and problems are likely to be, but then I start the characters moving and leave it to them to develop it. At least once they decided among themselves that I had the wrong person as the killer.

Obviously none of the characters are real people. I don't think I could just leave them to talk among themselves if they were, they'd already have such defined characters. Only one character is based on a living being, and that is Ben, who was inspired by my own collie.

My books

The Rossington Inheritance

This was written at least twenty years ago when I was short of books I wanted to read, and revised just before it was published.

I've always had a sneaking wish to offer afternoon teas, which is why it seemed natural for Lucy to try it at Rossington Manor. I'm sure it's been much easier seeing her through the process than doing it myself.

In fact, now that I think about it, each of the main characters reflects an interest of mine – books, heavy horses and environmentally friendly farming, archaeology, walking, cooking and eating.

The manor has been built up from a very fleeting experience I had many years ago of a new tea venture in the garden of an old Victorian house. We sat on the lawn in lovely sunshine, the only people on the ramshackle chairs. We waited, and we waited. Eventually a window opened in the old servants' floor of the house and a figure leaned out, demanding, 'Do you want tea?' As the answer was affirmative, if doubtful, the woman called back, 'You'll have to wait for my daughter. I'm looking after the baby.'

So we waited, and we waited, surveying what we could see of the grounds. On the second or third sweep I noticed the outlines of ruined buildings behind a screen of trees to the side of the house. I wondered if they were an older house, or even a religious foundation… and so later on the priory grew out of this tiny thought.

I think we did get tea eventually, but I can't remember what it was like. And I've never been there again.

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Death at the Priory

This was written shortly after the first book, and was being revised when the first was published. It is my favourite, even now when I've written six books in the series. There were no particular seeds to this story, it just appeared almost ready-made when I sat down to write.

Will's increasing interest in heavy horses reflects mine, which began in my teens when I first went to horse ploughing matches. It always pleases me to hear of working heavy horses, which are now used in more areas, such as timber extraction from woodlands. So I was delighted to read recently about Samson, the Dartmoor x Welsh Cob, used on a community farm scheme at Chagford in Devon (see Dartmoor Magazine, Spring 2012).

Isobel too is ready to move on to something new, her family responsibilities now over for a second time. Her choice of future reflects a visit I once paid to Florence and its neighbourhood, where I visited a small villa with a garden rather like the one around Isobel's convent building. With her embroidery she is doing one of the many things I would like to, if I had the skill. Which I don't.

I do have an interest in clothes, old as well as modern, and in historical fashions. So that influences what Anna and Lucy find in the attics at the manor.

Attics, and what can be found in them, are an endless fascination for most of us. Except perhaps our own, if they're anything like mine, which is crammed mainly with boxes of books I haven't read for years but may want to one day.

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Friends… and a Foe

This was written many years after the first two, when they had already been published.

Withern, the first seed in this story, was inspired by a house I visited at least twenty years ago. It was a hotchpotch of styles from earlier centuries, bolted one onto the other, and in a horrific state of repair, but its essential beauty and history still shone through.

A couple had taken it over and were attempting the stupendous task of renovation and conservation. I often wonder what that house looks like now. They were among the first people I came across to open their property to visitors during restoration work. Since then I have many times been to Godolphin House, just inland from the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall and now the responsibility of the National Trust. This too was originally opened by its private owners while renovation was underway, and the stables there had a faint, very faint, influence on Withern's. The main front of Godolphin House will be familiar to those who have seen the Poldark TV series – it gave me quite a start of surprise when I first saw it.

I have frequently visited elderly people in nursing homes, and it occurred to me how easy it would be to dismiss the reality of an issue that a confused old woman might ramble about. That was the second seed for this story. I didn't intend in this story for the killer to be the person it turned out to be, but the characters developed so that it had to be. And that was a surprise for me.

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Players and Betrayers

This brings in two of my major interests. I did it quite deliberately, because they were both there at the front of my thoughts, waiting to be included in this story.

The first interest was the dancing bear issue, which fortunately linked in with Isobel's past in India. I've supported for many years a small charity, which has worked with others to eradicate this practice. I won't go into details about what it involves. Any one who wants to know more can look at the International Animal Rescue website.

I was attracted to this particular charity for its approach to the issue, which recognises and deals with the human needs behind the animal problems. I was delighted that the last known dancing bear on the streets of India was removed to a sanctuary at the end of 2010, but the issue of abuse still of course continues in other ways.

The second seed was the zoo. Until I was an adult I hated zoos, because of the way in which the animals were kept. But I grew up on Gerald Durrell's books, especially enjoying My Family and Other Animals. They played a major part in developing my interest in and concern for the wildlife and habitats of our world. So inevitably I wanted to visit Gerry's own zoo on Jersey, dedicated to the protection and captive breeding of endangered species, in the hope that some day they may be returned to their natural homes. It's now officially known as Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, more familiarly as Jersey Zoo, and I could write for hours about it. But if you want to know more about Gerry and his legacy in the place that now bears his name, go to their website.

I've been able to visit Durrell on many occasions in the last decade, although looking after my elderly dog now means that I haven't been to Jersey for the last couple of years. But when I've been there I've been lucky enough to spend days at a time just sitting or standing, watching the animals.

I've always been particularly fond of bears, so have spent several hours with the Andean bears, whose breed was the inspiration for Paddington. And with the maned wolves, who look like large foxes on stilts, with their terrifically long legs and beautiful ginger and black colouring. But I've also spent time with animals I wasn't originally so fond of, and have developed an affection for orangutans and gorillas as a result. Smaller mammals had never generally attracted me, so the tamarins and lemurs were a later interest. The exception to this was otters, which I have always liked watching at Durrell, and I know that the latest pair of Oriental short-clawed there have bred successfully. I am elated that so many otters are spreading across England in the wild, even if the chances of seeing them are minimal.

For those of you who also know Durrell, the place which I still think of as Gerry's zoo, you won't recognise it in this book, although bits of it may seem strangely familiar. This is my zoo, from my imagination. But I hope to write more about the animals I have watched at Durrell on the site in due course.

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The Watcher on the Cliff

I have long wanted to revisit in my imagination the stretch of the Lizard coast that I know and love best. My dogs and I have walked here for many years, and it's where I think we have all been happiest. That's why this book is dedicated to Tirn, my collie, who in his youth and in his prime roamed the cliff paths and beaches with me.

Those of you who know the area well may pick up traces of the real place. But essentially what appears into the book is my imaginary version of the place, so please don't write to tell me my description is faulty! It isn't, it's just not a reflection of the real place.

Serpentine working is something I always associate with the Lizard, and the little shops in Lizard village specialise in carved serpentine pieces. Many years ago I bought a red serpentine egg, which came with a lovely tale. The man who sold it to me said that his father had found a lode of red serpentine, more rare than the other colours, and had brought back a specimen. He had then been taken ill and died before being able to tell his family where he had found it. My egg, needless to say, came from that solitary specimen.

For those who do know the Lizard, I'm sure you recognise Polpeor Café in the place where Anna and Mike have breakfast. Not an exact description of course, but I couldn't possibly write about the Lizard without including a faint nod towards my favourite place for tea (and lunch and coffee). For my description of its culinary and landscape delights, look at Tea Time on my site.

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Don’t Come Back

Now that my dog is older and frailer, trips to the Lizard are less easy to make, so we have moved our walking to Dartmoor. As a child I was never particularly fond of it, and when migrating to it recently now I was afraid I'd miss the sea. But in fact Dartmoor has taken a hold of me, with its huge open spaces, its rocky summits with granite ramparts just like castle ruins, its complete silence, the amazing sunsets (and occasionally the sunrises). And my dog loves it. I think it, like the Lizard coast, reminds him happily of his birthplace, which was close to the sea on a rugged Scottish island. So Dartmoor had to appear in this book.

Church houses have always interested me, as I haven't come across them to such an extent elsewhere. They come in a variety of shapes, often as restaurants, but you can visit one at Widecombe, now a National Trust property. Berhane's Church House is an amalgamation of a number I have seen, with a bit of imagination added too.

Tin mining has happened for many centuries on the moor, and its traces are still visible if you look in the right places. And so are the earlier settlements. Grimpound is perhaps one of the best known, but my favourite is the medieval village at Houndtor, especially in the spring when it's surrounded by a sheet of bluebells. The layout of the houses can be clearly seen, with living quarters above the animal shippons, whose drainage channels are often still visible. The format is still found in surviving long houses, now generally adapted for modern living. I had hoped to include these details in this book, but somehow Mike never did get to his village.

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The Gathering Storm

The setting is close to idyllic, but the human relationships aren’t. And it’s the characters that really drive the plot this time, as I started developing the story from the realisation that Lucy and Hugh’s marriage is in difficulty.The gradual uncovering of Hugh’s family background during the story reveals how it has influenced his present attitudes. And however well a relationship is going, it can still be stymied by unseen forces. Those forces grew and grew as I wrote, taking on intentions of their own, and triggering reactions from both partners. So I begin to wonder even more how well he and Lucy are really suited, and so do they. But I don’t know the answer yet. I’m waiting for them to tell me.

I enjoyed going back to Withern, seeing how it has developed under Lucy and Hugh’s care, but it was perhaps harder to write about than creating their setting from scratch. I had to try very hard to get the details accurate, whereas with new surroundings I don’t have this responsibility. The only added piece of background to the place was the discovery of the little chapel in the fields. This reflects my liking for such places, and their simplicity, and has its birth in a number of such sites that I have discovered over the year. There’s the tiny exposed chapel high on the south Devon cliffs at Rame Head, overlooking the sea south of Plymouth. And there’s tiny Culbone church sheltered from Porlock Bay by a bank of woodland on the North Somerset coast. I love coming across these places, especially by the sea, so it was fun to find one for the Rossingtons – even if theirs is inland.

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The Witness

The mystery woman was the key to this plot. I'd had her in mind for some time, wondering how her presence would stir the relationships between my main characters. It was only when I decided on her role, why she would be in the story, that I grasped the rudiments of her personality and began the plot that formed around her.

Developing the storyline was an interesting time of discovery for me, particularly finding out how Anna and Lucy reacted to the mystery woman. That of course was affected by how Hugh reacted to her. It’s been a reaffirmation that men, at least in my plots, think differently to women.

It’s been some time since I went back to Rossington Manor, and I was interested to see how the priory had been converted into holiday apartments. Of course these can bring in a whole range of characters and keep them relatively in one fairly enclosed spot. It was such a clever idea, developing the priory – I wish it had been more mine than Will’s.

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The things I hate most about writing

Finding titles. Rereading my work after publication.


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