A bridge, a battle and a rebus

The inspiration for a new novel can come in many different ways. At events I’ve attended recently I’ve listened to authors Celia Rees and Erin Green talk about the inspiration behind some of their novels, and at the recent BPA Away Day with Emma Darwin we practiced building a story from a location, a character, an event, block-by-block like a child with a set of Lego bricks.

The initial inspiration for The Woman in the Painting was the Civil War Battle of Islip, which took place in April 1645. As a lover of history, the lure of a genuine event, which had taken place less than half a mile from my front door, was one I couldn’t resist. However, I didn’t want to write about a battle. I wanted to write about the people who might have been living in Islip at the time, and imagine how their lives would have been influenced by national events. So I started to create my fictional world.

The other aspect of history that fascinates me is how it continues to influence us today. (I could wish that the human race would learn from it, but that’s another subject altogether!) I remember one of my sons once asking me why he had to learn history at school. He thought it was a pointless waste of time. My answer was that if we forget everything that has gone before – the good and the bad – we no longer know who we are. With that in mind, I wanted my novel to bring the past into the present, hence the timeslip format. I love reading books in this genre anyway, so why not write one? 

I didn’t want to go down the route that has been done so many times before though, and have all those historical connections based within a building – an old house, castle, stately home or the like, with crumbling towers, overgrown gardens and ghosts hiding in every corner. I pondered many alternatives – an old book, piece of jewellery or item of clothing purchased from a second-hand shop were my favourites – and started to play around with ideas for a plot. That’s when I saw a picture of the rebus of John of Islip in the little book that traces the history of the village, and in my head everything fell into place. I knew how I was going to build those connections through the past and into the present.

Of course, the engraving of the rebus on the signet ring in The Woman in the Painting is a simplified version. In the picture accompanying this post, the rebus is embroidered on a sort of hanging tapestry, I believe by members of the local Women’s Institute, and has at times been on display in St Nicholas Church in Islip. The version pictured in the village book is a different design, as is the stone carving of the rebus at Islip chapel in Westminster Abbey, but regardless of the finer detail of the design, the rebus does what it is supposed to do – it’s a picture that describes the name of a person. 

So, I had my inspiration. Next task to write the book.