I began writing Shoot the Moon prompted by memories of a winter afternoon, when I went for a walk in Regent’s Park and decided to steal a boat. I can still remember the cold cut of air, gilded by rays of fading sun as I dragged it towards the water, my companion looking on in amusement. Just like in the book, I persuaded him that we should take it out onto the lake. And, just like in the book, after a few minutes of rowing we started sinking.
This was nearly forty years ago, and revisiting the park to take photos for my book tour, the feelings I felt that day – heartbeat quickening, the zinging lightness of first love – were now as elusive as the boy himself. And with that came a slight sadness; the knowledge that age has settled upon me with a deep sense of calm which, whilst protective of the heart, perhaps lacks the energy of those raw emotions.
That’s not to say, however, that writing Shoot The Moon was all about looking back. Indeed, one of its joys was finding places I’d never visited and knew nothing about.
The book is about extraordinary weddings, some of which needed extraordinary locations, and googling ‘unusual places to marry in Scotland’ led me to a bothy on Schiehallion, the Fairy Hill of the Scottish Caledonians. I rang the Highland Safaris office and asked if it’s possible to actually have a wedding there. ‘Oh yes,’ I was told, ‘plenty have.’
So, now I knew where the wedding would take place and, just as if I was planning my own, I looked for somewhere to hold the reception. Fortuitously, it turned out that Castle Menzies, located just outside Aberfeldy, is the perfect helicopter ride away.
I often wonder how writers used to manage before the internet. I soon knew exactly what the bothy looked like inside, I knew where my dancing would take place at the castle. I’d seen photos of hay rolls outside and knew that a forest veered up behind the granite walls. The only thing I got wrong was that the bothy was actually on a mountain looking across to Schiehallion, and there’s no way a helicopter could have landed in front of it!
From there, I needed somewhere for my couple to travel to, so I chose the Isle of Skye, and at this point, Google Earth became my guide as I travelled virtually along the road from Aberfeldy to the Skye bridge, taking note of the kinds of trees and castles the couple would see.
Late last year we’d planned a trip to the Outer Hebrides, and I suddenly realised that we could visit all the places I’d written about. So I yanked the book out my computer, where it had been languishing for a couple of years, and hastily acquired the many skills needed to publish it independently.
And I’m so glad I did. Okay, stealing a boat was fun, but there’s very little to match the excitement of seeing places you’ve written about come to life. The pub, where I’d imagined a gay couple living – one of whom cross-dressed for evening service – turned out to have its own story that was just as beguiling. Being offered tea and cake by the real-life version of a woman I’d imagined serving high tea and talking about corncrakes was equally delightful.
Gasping, as I walked onto the very same dance hall that I’d imagined in the castle, I could almost hear the thrum of feet, stamping to the beat of Scottish fiddles. And, leaving Aberfeldy via General Wade’s Bridge, my husband looked at me in surprise as I predicted the double line of poplar trees just over the hump.
People often ask why I don’t want to visit places before I write about them, and of course, sometimes it’s great to have done so. The diaries I kept, aged twenty, when living and working in India created the soul of a novel I set there. But the joy of seeing that you’ve perfectly imagined a place is possibly even more thrilling, and it’s why I’d always choose the back to front way.
And one final reason why I like to research a place, write the novel, and then go? Because by that point I’ve done most of the hard work and can enjoy the travel, and it’s only the photos left to take.
This piece originally appeared on the excellent Trip Fiction website. If you want to find books to read about any place you’re visiting, then this is the place to go.