Andrea here, musing on the stories we authors tell, and what sparks them. I get asked a lot about how I come up with ideas, and it’s impossible to give a simple answer. Inspiration comes in an infinite number of ways—many of them totally unexpected! And those serendipitous discoveries of fun things to weave into a plot often come from what many of us authors call the “Rabbit Hole” effect.
Sooo, what’s a Rabbit Hole? It’s what happens when I do a quick google search, meaning to spend a few minutes checking a simple fact or researching a specific fact . . . and lo and behold, some other detail within the text catches my eye. That results in another search, which leads to more fascinating details that draw me deeper and deeper into—you guessed it—the Rabbit Hole. (It can sometimes take hours to emerge!) (Above: Ernst Hermann Joseph von Münch)
Being a “pantser” (someone who writes by the seat of my pants) I’m always delighted when an “ah-ha” moment suddenly throws a new twist into my admittedly very vague outline. (Psst, don’t tell my editor this!) So, I thought I would share a recent Rabbit Hole incident to give you some sense of the strange and wondrous ways in which an author’s mind works.
I’ve begun noodling the very rough concept of a new Wrexford & Sloane mystery. It’s going to start with the murder of a librarian in Merton College, which is one of the oldest and most renowned of the self-governing colleges that make up Oxford University. Now, when I’m in the “thinking” mode, I’m easily distracted. I was sitting there musing about rare books and scholars when for no good reason—other than to procrastinate—I vaguely remembered that one of my Swiss ancestors was a historian, who had written some very scholarly books.
So on a whim, I googled him. (As the illustration above shows, my mother had a wonderful, elaborately hand-painted family tree that her father had made for her, and it’s come down to me. That’s the branch with Ernst and his wife and children. Thank heavens my mother, whose father’s name was also Ernst, didn’t name me Malwina!)
To my surprise, Ernst Hermann Joseph von Münch had short Wikipedia page—he’s a pretty dapper-looking fellow—and then my eyes widened as I read that he along with being a very well-respected scholar, he also became the librarian to the King of Württemberg in 1831. Another tap-tap on my keyboard then googled the King of Württemberg. (Right: King William I)
This is bad. Now I’m really down the Rabbit Hole.
Ancestor Ernst was librarian to King William I, who apparently was a rather good ruler. Liberal-minded at a time when other autocrats were trying to keep an iron grip on their powers, he made sweeping reforms and allowed Württemberg to become a constitutional state . . . But interesting as reading about William was, I found my attention caught by his father, King Frederick I. (Below: King Frederick I)
Talk about a larger-than-life (quite literally) character for a Regency-set novel! Frederick was 6’11” tall and as a lover of fine food and wine, he came to weigh 400 pounds. (In that day and age, he must have really stood out from the crowd.) I was surprised that I hadn’t run into him him before in various research because he’s intimately connected to some of the most famous people of the Regency.
In 1797, when Frederick became the Duke, Württemberg was just one of many small German dukedoms and principalities. But through his conniving with Napoleon —and because of his family connections—Württemberg was made a kingdom in 1805 in return for Frederick supplying Napoleon with troops. This was a little awkward, as Frederick was the son-in-law of King George III of Britain (he married the King’s eldest daughter after his first wife died) He was also the uncle of Tsar Alexander of Russia. Not only that, his first wife’s sister was Caroline of Brunswick, the wife of the Prince Regent. Talk about being in the center of Regency intrigue! (Below: James Gillray satirical cartoon of King Frederick's wedding night)
Frederick switched sides and joined the Allied Coalition, in 1813, causing Napoleon to make a very nasty remark about Frederick’s personal appearance, saying that God had created Frederick to demonstrate the utmost extent to which the human skin could be stretched without bursting. In return, Frederick is said to have remarked that he wondered how so much poison could fit in such a small head as that of Napoleon.
Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.
Now, you may be getting a sense of where I’m going with all this. How can I possibly resist adding Ancestor Ernst to my budding story idea. The idea is that he’ll make a “cameo” appearance as a Royal librarian who is visiting Oxford and will play a small role in helping Wrexford and Charlotte solve a complex mystery. (Okay, I’ll need to take some artistic license and make him Frederick’s librarian to fit the right time frame, but hey, he’s my ancestor, so I feel that I’m allowed to have some fun.) Frederick I did visit England occasionally, and given his relationships with the leaders of the era, he’s an absolutely perfect character to add another layer of intrigue to the story. (Above: Tsar Alexander of Russia)
So that’s a quick peek inside the admittedly odd brain of an author for a look at how ideas percolate . . . and how the Rabbit Hole can lead to really interesting discoveries. I’m delighted to have met King Frederick I, yet another fascinating and colorful character of the Regency.
How about you? Have you discovered any interesting surprises, unexpected connections or fascinating people in your family tree? And have you ever started to look up or research something and ended up going down a Rabbit Hole of your own? Please share!