The first point is the most obvious one – but it’s easy to forget. Find out about the history of the house. Doddington Place was built in 1864 for a member of the Croft family. So the story can’t go back any further than that. This is not the setting for a medieval ghost tale or a Regency love triangle.
It was sold at the beginning of the 20th century to Mr and Mrs Douglas Jeffries. Mrs Jeffries had been Maud Oldfield. She said that she decided to buy it for the view, before she even went inside. It now belongs to her great-nephew, Richard Oldfield, who lives there with his wife, Amicia and their family. Amicia says that ‘Aunt Maud’ built the Edwardian rockery ‘because Mount Ephraim were building one and she was determined to keep up.’
The starting point for your lead character….
It is these two fragments that can create the starting point for a character and for a story. You never knew Aunt Maud, which is good. The most important things about creating characters for novels is that you must invent them. All writers try not to write novels around thinly disguised versions of their next door neighbour or their first boyfriend. Changing someone’s name and the colour of their hair isn’t enough. Your characters need to be yours from the heart of their being.
Then find your character a name. She will have been born in the late 19th century. Search for popular late Victorian children’s names. Some, like Edna, Gertrude, Minnie and Bessie, don’t sound right today. Others, such as Martha, Alice and Florence, are back in fashion, and possibly too contemporary. At number 26 in the ‘top 100 most popular Victorian children’s names’ is Pearl. I like Pearl. I think it would work in this context. Or Clara. For now, I will choose Pearl.
The architecture and the scenery can flesh out the detail…
So Pearl has bought an imposing red-brick house with Dutch gables overlooking stunning Kent countryside – without going inside. She is impulsive, therefore. Is this flaw – her impulsiveness – going to prove her downfall at some critical point? Is she trying to prove herself, and if so, why? The Edwardian era was massively snobbish, and also staggeringly wealthy, so it’s reasonable to suppose that everyone was trying to impress everyone else. Once again, remember that you have left the real Maud’s story – this is Pearl’s life and you can give her whatever back-story you like.
Maud’s competitiveness over the creation of an Edwardian rockery to beat Mount Ephraim’s gives you another starting point for Pearl’s character. Visit the two rockeries – both gardens are open to the public. The Edwardian rockery at Doddington Place has recently been restored by Richard and Amicia. It cascades down the hillside, its massive stones and century-old conifers dwarfing a rill of water that tumbles down to a delightful pool. Beyond it, parkland and trees drop down to the winding Faversham Road – hidden from view – and the neat, green farmland rises up on the other, sprawling across the horizon.
The age of the house, the age of your heroine and the age of the story…
It’s time to decide Pearl’s age, and to start to create her husband. Will he be older than she is? Firstly, let’s decide whether Pearl is young and enthusiastic, a newly-married bride in her early 20s who has no idea how hard life can be. Or will she be a woman who has already made mistakes and had disappointments – in her 40s or 50s, perhaps? One important point is that we know – although Pearl doesn’t – that the First World War is about to sweep away her luxurious lifestyle. The gardeners who tend the rockery will leave, and they are unlikely to return until the late 20th century. A generation of young men will be butchered. We need to decide if it will be Pearl’s husband or her sons, even if we haven’t yet fixed the story line.
So we need to decide when the story starts and finishes. If you’re using the rockery as a pivot to the story, it was unlikely to have been started before 1900 and probably would have been finished before the War began. Around 1909 would make sense.
Now create the anatomy of a story…
I think Pearl is a young bride in 1909, married to Neville. Or perhaps even Gerald (see the Top Victorian Children’s Names list again). Pearl and Neville are both in their early twenties, and I will have them span the new British aristocracy – Pearl will be a grand-daughter of a great old English Dukedom, and Gerald (or is he Neville?) will be from the second generation of newly-wealthy merchants, educated as a gentleman, but perhaps not sure of his station. Pearl and Neville met at a lunch party, and, as was common in those days, they barely knew each other when they married.
An Edwardian rockery was a major engineering feat. It is quite different from little banks of rocks studded with alpines that came to represent ‘rockeries’ in the mid 20th century. In spite of the fact that rockeries were fashionable at the time, I think there may be more to Pearl than competitiveness with her neighbours. Why does she set out on this project? And is she doing it with Neville – or against him?
I think that Pearl creates the rockery after she discovers something terrible. It might be a tragedy in the village, or in her own family, or it may be something unforgiveable that Neville has done. Perhaps their first child dies, and they are no longer able to communicate. Or someone else dies, and it seems that it may not be an accident after all.
Pearl walks in the woods at Doddington Place, followed by her two naughty little dogs. As she looks out over the garden and fields that she now loves, she’s determined to make something special. Something that will change the landscape of her beloved home forever.
So what do you think Pearl and Neville’s secret is? This is your story, too. Should she be called Pearl or Clara? And you will have to re-name Doddington Place – you are only being inspired by it, not reproducing it exactly on the page. What name would you choose for a red-gabled house on the hill surrounded by glorious gardens and green parkland? Leave a comment to take the story on.
Next time: How visiting places helps your novel’s research – blending fact and fiction in the Doddington Place Gardens.