Friday, July 02, 2010

In Search of a Story

There are times when, against my better judgement, I am tempted to believe that there is some kind of master plan, a guiding hand which determines the shape of all plots.

How else to explain the serendipitous nature of my research trip to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland?

I arrived on the islands in search of several locations for the second book in my Lewis Trilogy, and some obscure pieces of information which I knew I could only find locally. I needed to track down an island care home for the elderly which would also accommodate Alzheimer patients. I required to follow the investigative steps of a detective trying to trace a murder victim's roots. I had to find a community which had absorbed orphans and children from broken homes sent to the islands by local authorities during the first half of the twentieth century.

And, of course, I was in search of characters to populate my story.

What I could never have foreseen was how all these elements would fall into place in a series of fortunate coincidences, and happy accidents.

On Day One I was crossing the street in the fishing port of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, when I heard a voice calling out: "Peter May!" There, driving the car which had stopped to let me cross, was an old friend and colleague from my filming days on the island fifteen years before.

Over lunch, and a lot of catching up, he told me where I could find one of the island's main care homes. I followed his directions and was welcomed into the home by the staff who took me on a tour of the facility which had, exactly as required, a twelve-bed Alzheimer unit.

Later in the day I went shopping in the local supermarket. To my amazement, as I left, I passed a table laden with books and leaflets on the treatment of Alzheimers, from the perspective of both the patient and the carer, along with all the information I would need on the care of the condition on the island. Exactly what I required.

The following day I drove south, leaving behind me the strictly Protestant northern islands of Lewis and Harris, and heading for the more liberal Catholic island of South Uist. Just before reaching the ferry crossing at the southern tip of Harris, I pulled in quite by chance at the Seallam Visitor Centre. There I discovered an old man whose hobby of sixty years ago had turned into an obsession, and culminated in the most comprehensive genealogical record of the islands. Exactly what my investigator needed.

I had an hour to reflect on these strange coincidences during the ferry crossing to North Uist. The seascape reflected my almost eerie sense of pre-destination. For once there was no wind. The sea was dead calm. The sky was overcast, low cloud blurring to a mist that diffused the horizon so that it was impossible to tell where the sea ended and the sky began. The dark shapes of rocks and islands drifted past as we seemed almost to glide across the straits.

It took me another hour-and-a-half of driving over narrow causeways, through a dramatic landscape of mountains punctuated by ragged scraps of silver water, before I reached my destination in South Uist.

Just across the Sound lay the misty Isle of Eriskay which, it transpired, had once been home to hundreds of those displaced children from mainland Scotland, so cruelly sent to unknown families and uncertain futures in a strange land. And there I found myself in conversation with some of the descendants of those poor abandoned kids, listening to stories of slavery and abuse.

And then there was my host whose flamboyant lifestyle was in total contrast to the island culture all around - a perfect basis for that elusive character I had been seeking.

I loved South Uist, and Eriskay, the wonderful silver sands with their turquoise-streaked waters, and the distant shapes of Barra along with a host of smaller islands.

I will return there once more with the writing of the book, ever mindful of the strangely serendipitous nature of my trip, and the ghosts of a generation of lost children speaking to me from out of the mist.


Vicki Delany said...

Some great stories out there.

Donis Casey said...

Sometimes things are so serendipitous that one wonders about the nature of reality. Especially when it comes to writing. Some stories find someone to tell them, no matter how long it takes.

peter_may said...

There are, Vicky. And that's a nice way of putting it, Donis. I think this particular story definitely found me!

peter_may said...

Sorry... Vicki!!!