As promised, Alison McQueen is guest blogging here today on a topic I am always curious about--the inspiration for stories and what goes into the writing process. Born to an Indian mother and an English jazz musician father, Alison McQueen grew up in London. After a convent education, Alison worked in advertising for 25 years before retiring to write full time. In 2006 she was selected from an impressive long list to join The Writer’s Circle, a group of 8 top writers to be groomed by the UK film industry as the new generation of British screenwriters. She has written seven novels, including Under the Jeweled Sky and The Secret Children, which was inspired by her life.
So, now I'll turn things over to Ms. McQueen:
Thank you for having me on A Work in Progress. The title of the blog raised a small smile from me as I find myself yet again falling down the rabbit hole, researching the novel I am currently working on. During the research process, one thing invariably leads to another and before I know it I have lost track of what it was I was looking for in the first place.
My writing room is currently awash with papers, some of which I have pointlessly organized into files, as though that will give me a sense of achievement. There are piles of articles, documents and handwritten scraps on every available surface, many of which will make no sense at all when they eventually surface.
The research for Under The Jewelled Sky took months. At the British National Archives, I unearthed declassified documents from the 1957 Macmillan government, rubber-stamped Top Secret, which would have caused a great deal of diplomatic embarrassment should they have been leaked at the time.
The story was inspired by memories of my mother’s friends; the women I would eavesdrop on, the hushed voices and grave expressions passed over teacups. Many of them had grown up in India in the days before such things were openly spoken of, but it was all there: domestic violence, unwanted pregnancies, addiction, ruin, and occasional salvation.
Bad marriages were commonplace, but divorce was unthinkable, and the brittle veneers of fake harmony were part of the everyday landscape. Morals and ethics were knotted up with religious doctrine and stiff upper lip. Respectable people did not wash their laundry in public, nor did they question what went on behind the closed doors of their neighbours’ houses.
Part of the novel is set in a maharaja’s palace. Although the fictional palace and its location are anonymous, I did have an inside track into life inside an Indian palace. In her twenties, my mother (born in 1928), was hired as the private nurse to the Maharaja of Indore’s mother-in-law. She arrived there from Bombay and was shown to her quarters, an enormous suite in a grand building set across the grounds from the main palace.
A car was sent for her every morning, but she said that she preferred to walk. So off she would go, strolling through the grounds while the car followed along a few yards behind, driving at snail’s pace in case she should change her mind. Her breakfast would be served to her on a solid silver service, with a footman standing by should she want for anything.
From what she has told me, I am not sure that she handled it particularly well. She said that she didn’t want any fuss, which was quite the wrong way to go about things in a palace. There was also an incident when she was caught preparing her own boiled egg, which didn’t go down at all well. The cook was quite overcome with grief, and my mother never ventured to lift a finger again.
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Many thanks to Alison McQueen. Be sure to check out her book, Under the Jeweled Sky.