Authors and film makers have been using stately homes as a source of inspiration for centuries. Take Groombridge Place from my last blog post, Arthur Conan Doyle renamed it ‘Birlstone Manor’ for his fourth Sherlock Holmes novel, director Joe Wright turned it into ‘Longbourn Manor’ for his production of Pride and Prejudice and Peter Greenaway transformed it into the setting for his 17th century erotic murder mystery, ‘The Draughtman’s Contract’. Sometimes though, an existing house just doesn’t fit the plot and an entirely ‘new’ stately home is required.
Crime and suspense author Amy Myers is no stranger to hiding bodies, planting clues and creating villains but, as she explains below, designing ‘Wychbourne Court’, a fictional stately home owned by the Ansley family for her new book, ‘Dancing with Death’, wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be…
‘Creating a fictional home of the magnitude of Wychbourne Court in 1920s Kent, where my new crime novel series about chef Nell Drury is set, sounds so easy. I even thought that myself when I began, only to find out how wrong I was. Not only did I have to work out what had happened to the building since its modest beginnings as a farmhouse before the Norman Conquest, but the lay-out of Wychbourne Court had to fit in with the finer points of my plot. Where was the murder going to take place? How could the murderer avoid being seen? Where would the ghosts walk? (Oh, yes, ghosts play a part in the plot of Dancing with Death.)
The evolution of a stately home
The original farmhouse, even then lived in by the Ansley family, had grown with the status of the Ansleys and was largely rebuilt in Tudor times; in the 18th century it acquired two large wings, one of which became the servants’ wing. Easy enough to type those few words, but this took much burning of the midnight oil on my part. I pored over plans of large country houses to see how they coped with their servants’ working and sleeping quarters. None seemed to fit Wychbourne Court exactly and hence the need for creativity on my part.
The historical kitchen conundrum
Take the kitchens, for example. Of course the Ansley family could not be inconvenienced by kitchen smells up their noses. Of course it mustn’t be at risk from the many fires that could break out. Was the answer a completely separate block for the servants with an open corridor to link it to the main house? Possible, as at Petworth House. No, I decided. Not for Wychbourne. Too difficult for chef Nell Drury to be easily involved with what was going on.
Besides, it would be too far from the dining room I’d planned. Underground tunnel linking the two? No. That might rule out the servants as suspects. Could it be incorporated in the main house? No, Wychbourne had grown too large for that solution, and anyway the smells would be too overpowering.
The solution was to replace Wychbourne’s Tudor kitchen with a wing connected to the house to which the servants and waiters would have easy access. It wasn’t ideal, but it could be made to work. Then I realised the snag. Kitchens should be north or north-east facing which clashed with part of the plot. Plot therefore had to be changed, as did the old dairy which had to be both a fair way from the kitchen wing and also facing north or north east. Every brick and tile of the imaginary dairy had to be heaved up and moved.
Wychbourne Court is far from the elegant and immaculately planned house I had fondly imagined I could design, but then so are most stately homes. Their history is visible to all and therein lies their charm.
Nell Drury’s first case, Dancing with Death, has just been published and I have now begun the second. This time the requirements are entirely different. I can’t change the layout of the house, so the plot has to accommodate the nooks and crannies of Wychbourne Court. That’s fine with me. The house I created now seems to me as though it’s always existed.’
Amy Myers Top 5 Tips For Creating A Fictional Stately Home:-
1. Be prepared to change the layout as your plot progresses (and keep a note of what you’ve written about it in case you have to change it)
2. Think of access: live with the characters as they move about the house, needing access to various floors, rooms stairs etc. Also think what rooms and stairs etc they might need in case you mention them later, e.g. bathrooms, bootrooms etc.
3. Think of the house in context, i.e. design its grounds as well (often vital for the plot) and the village or farms etc surrounding the estate.
4. And don’t forget the points of the compass – which way the house faces, where the sun is etc
5. Don’t panic if your design isn’t perfect! We’re novelists, not Lutyens.
Thanks so much for taking the time to write this guest post Amy, as you know I love your books and can’t wait to read this new series.
And if you would like to know more about Amy, Nell and Wychbourne Court please follow Amy’s blog at www.amymyers.net chat to her on twitter or buy a copy of the book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I’d love to know what you thought.