As writers we find inspiration in all kinds of places, but there’s one source it’s easy to overlook – a museum. I don’t spend hours traipsing around museums, in case you were wondering – I’m not that cultural – but on Saturday afternoons when I used to see my Aunt Peggy she would always want to go out, whatever the weather, and the museum was convenient and warm – and free. We always managed to find something new and fascinating to look at, and although Peggy has gone now, I still like to pop in when I’m nearby.
Brighton Museum is in the grounds of the Royal Pavilion, and it’s not all about ancient relics. One of the first things you see is a 1970s Italian-made sofa shaped like a huge baseball glove. Imagine it in somebody’s home. Is the owner a young man with a love of sport and a penchant for cutting-edge design? Does he live in a glass-fronted apartment, a remote country mansion or a crumbling Edwardian villa? Who sits beside him on the sofa? His wife, his lover, his best mate? Or is he a loner, surrounding himself with beautiful things while keeping the world away from his door? The sofa might not be in anyone’s home. It might be the prize lot in an auction room. Who will bid for it, and why is it so important they win it? Take any of these scenarios and a whole cast of characters emerges, along with the seeds of a plot if you’re lucky.
This beautiful little bag from the costume collection could have been handed down through the generations. Who owns it now, and what does it mean to her? And how about a 1901 postcard entitled ‘Off to Brighton’ with the handwritten message on the back: ‘Dearest May, Could Mother send a chicken on Tuesday, if so could you send a card, hope Mart got home safe, Much Love Es’ ? There, in the briefest of messages on a humble postcard, is a ready-made family with all their stories and adventures waiting to be written.
We have a smaller museum in Hove which houses a collection of toys from bygone days as well as all kinds of weird and wonderful objects. Last year they held a special exhibition about all things blue in nature. You might then think of blue eyes, a blue dress, a ring with a precious blue stone, and there’s a brand new heroine emerging when you thought you were simply admiring a butterfly. Or you might just come up with a book title containing the word ‘blue’ and let the story follow.
A couple of times a year I meet up with a friend in London and before we gravitate towards wine and lunch, we fit in something touristy and vaguely cultural. Once we went to the Foundling Hospital Museum in Bloomsbury, and there I found the theme for my novel ‘Remarkable Things’, to be published by Crooked Cat Publishing. In the mid-18th century, mothers giving up their babies to the institution would leave with them small objects, some ornate and made of valuable materials, others scrappy and grimy. These tokens were a unique way for mothers to identify themselves should they ever return to reclaim their child. Among the examples I saw were a thimble, a doll’s arm, a ribbon and a hazelnut shell. You can’t help but be moved by such things, and I was at the time, but it wasn’t until afterwards when I was reading the leaflet I’d picked up that I had the idea for a story based around the tokens. But I didn’t want to write a historical so I took the idea of a collection of keepsakes being left with a baby being given up for adoption and brought it into in more modern times. The story begins in 1955 with the birth of the baby, then moves to the present day, with the tokens being a recurring theme throughout.
If you’re like me you’ll want to commit your ideas to paper as soon as you can in case they slip away, which is when you head to the museum café and indulge yourself with coffee and cake while you scribble away in your notebook.
(Sofa, bag, butterfly and postcard images are reproduced here by courtesy of The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove)