The Joy of Creation
One of the joys of writing fiction is that you can create your own versions of real places.
And you can give your characters the abilities, relationships and possessions that you would rather like yourself. Just as Dorothy L Sayers admitted that she gave her creation Lord Peter Wimsey the car and carpets that she couldn’t afford when she was an embryonic author, I have also delighted in giving my fictional characters the adventures and acquisitions that are beyond me. Like Sayers I too have created my own Oxford colleges and lordly piles for my characters to inhabit. I suspect it’s more fun than owning the real things – you have a lot of the enjoyment with none of the responsibility. As I face the reality of cleaning and repairs in my own little house, it’s fantastic to be able to conjure up my own equivalents of Sayers’ Shrewsbury College in Oxford or Duke’s Denver in the Fens.
But here I want to introduce you to more about this process of fictive creation, with the specific example of how I went about ‘building’ the ancient mansion and estate of Highfield Hall in north Nottinghamshire for Emma-Jane Austin and her book club to visit in ‘Night and Mr Knightley’. Her reading group, called the Rotics (Ro-man-tics without the ‘man’!), needed to enjoy a glamorous regency ball and I needed a luxurious location that was suitably grade-listed and gothic for the main murder of the story to take place.
I like to use real places wherever possible in my Oxford and Nottingham murder mysteries. But sometimes for the murder itself it can be less stressful to create one’s own setting, either because the murder has specific requirements that aren’t easily available in reality, or because as an author you don’t want the owners or managers of a real place on your case! I did check with the librarians at Bromley House Library in Nottingham that it was OK to have a body in their august library for ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’, the first Rotic Club mystery. But ideally I wanted a large stately home in Nottinghamshire in which to stage the first death in the sequel.
I searched the web for Nottinghamshire stately homes and the most suitable for my purposes seemed to be Thoresby Hall in Budby, near Ollerton. It won on both Location and History. I changed to name to ‘Highfield Hall’, taken from the eighteenth century Highfields House in Beeston which is now part of the University of Nottingham campus, but which was too small and in the wrong location for my purposes. But I had a sentimental attachment to the name, as “going on Highfields” when I was a child meant a trip to the beautiful park that surrounds the university buildings – playing in the Lido or taking a boat out on the lake and feeding the ducks, surrounded by swaying trees and rhododendrons in every possible colour.
But back to Thoresby Hall.
As with most stately homes in the UK, Thoresby Hall has had many incarnations over the centuries. The current building was built in 1864-71 by Anthony Salvin for Sydney Pierrepont, third Earl Manvers. It’s in the area of north Nottinghamsire known as ‘the Dukeries’ as it’s one of four grade-listed mansions all owned at some point by Dukes. The first member of the Pierrepont family to own the Thoresby lands was Robert, first Earl of Kingston-upon-Hull back in 1633, but he died in the Civil War in the 1640s. His son the second Earl built a large house around 1670 and the park was created by enclosing land from Sherwood Forest.
As with many stately homes, it was destroyed by fire, this time in 1746. The new build was about twenty five years later and the park was landscaped by no less than Humphrey Repton.
But some people are never satisfied. The third Earl Manvers tore this house down and paid Salvin to build the new one in Elizabethan Revival style, slightly to the north of the original.
And in this story of a typical English stately home, the inevitable happened when the sixth Earl died without a male heir and the title became extinct in 1955, and the house became a hotel. It is now owned by Warner Leisure and has 200 rooms and a spa.
I was immediately attracted by some photos online of the house lit up at night, which made me think of Halloween, the night of the regency ball in my novel. It gave me the idea of having eerie green, orange and purple lighting with black spiders’ webs projected onto the front of the building to greet the guests as they arrived.
I also liked the idea of a balcony or minstrels’ gallery in the ballroom and a patio with steps onto the lawns at the back with french window leading into the ballroom – all ready for a zombie invasion at midnight!
Using a website like www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk means that you can learn a lot of architectural terms referring to your chosen building. For example, Thoresby Hall has decorative iron cresting, a chamfered plinth, and quoins with chamfered rustication, mullioned casements, gabled dormers, obelisk finials, and corner cupolas. You don’t have to include these in your story, as it’s unlikely Emma-Jane or one of her friends would suddenly exclaim: ‘Wow, look at that chamfered plinth!’ But it’s nice to know. Apparently the Hall also has a “deep frieze”, but obviously not the sort in which you can store a body!
Making a Map
There was a useful map of the grounds of Thoresby Hall on its website. But I needed to landscape my own grounds, with appropriate maze and woods and summer houses, for the murder plot to work. So I drew a rough map of the grounds around my version of the hall with handy reminders, such as where I wanted the security cameras situated.
I decided to call the various rooms that the guests would be using after the names of colours, eg. the Purple Room, the Blue Breakfast Room, etc. This was before I read Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Red Masque’ in which he does the same thing, although his are arguably more scary! In my story, the grand house has already been converted by the mega-wealthy Fairford family into a hotel-cum-spa, apart from their own private apartments of course. A pity that the ‘Curse of the Fairfords’ means they might not enjoy it for long…
Using a real building and its grounds as my inspiration certainly gave me confidence in setting out the basic description and boundaries of my own design. It meant I had something ‘concrete’ in my mind all the time (even though Thoresby Hall is made from “rock-faced ashlar” – finely dressed stone), and there was a sense of realism as I had my characters moving around the place and having their adventures. It was particularly useful for keeping the timeline of the murder on track and all the alibis as I could look at my map of Highfield Hall and visualise very easily where everyone was supposed to be at any particular moment. I would definitely recommend drawing your own map even if you are using a real building or place with no alterations, as you can add your own details and timings to it that can easily get forgotten or confused as you write your book over several months. There were crucial details over the location of bushes and security cameras for ‘Night and Mr Knightley’ that would have been disastrous if I had muddled them up!
So I hope the original architects of Thoresby Hall don’t mind me borrowing details from their beautiful building. I really enjoyed adding my own fountains and statues and flowerbeds and spending time at my very own regency masked ball, even if I also then had to invent the murder that made the Halloween theme become a bit too real for Emma-Jane and her Mr Knightley…
To explore Highfield Hall with Emma-Jane Austin and the Rotic Club, you can go to: