OK Google, What Happens When A Goat Eats A Bra? by Holly Hepburn
I often think about what it must have been like to be a writer in olden times (by which I mean B.I. – Before Internet). How did you do a quick fact check on the sunset time on 23rd February, establish accident hotspots around York or clarify when the UK began using hallmarks on jewellery and how they might look? (Two of those three are current tabs I have open in Google, and the goat query is thankfully now closed…)
Was being a B.I. writer some kind of heavenly existence where you could absolutely make everything up, safe in the knowledge that most people wouldn’t have the means or resources to fact-check you? Or did those Before Internet novelists live in fear of receiving a hand or typewritten letter from a reader, telling them they had Got Something Wrong? Did they hot-foot it to the local library to consult the big books of the reference rooms every time they had a question, trusting in the authors who had written those books to get it right? Just the thought brings me out in a light sweat of panic, both at the concept of going outside and the idea of having to scour a reference book, possibly for several hours, to check an inconsequential detail for a plot point in a novel. How long did it take to write a book in those far-off pre-internet days, anyway?
I can safely say that Coming Home to Brightwater Bay would probably have never been written without the internet. I’m the kind of author who checks everything (including the average length of the underwire on a UK bra) to ensure the world of my story is as accurate as I can make it. Never was this more relevant than when I dreamed up a book set on the beautiful Orkney Islands – because I wrote the whole thing without going there once.
I feel a bit embarrassed admitting that – the thing I hear most from readers is how much they loved the descriptions of the places Merry visits during her six-month Writer in Residence tenure on Orkney, how much the book made them want to visit Skara Brae and Hoy and North Ronaldsay, or to see the aurora dance against a midnight sky where the Atlantic Ocean meets the North Sea. How can I admit that I’ve never been to any of the places I’ve written about? That I used Google Maps and Street View and the photographs of my friend Rowan Coleman to create a vision of these incredible islands. Am I some kind of fraud?
And the answer is, of course not. I’m just doing what every novelist in the world, past or present, does – using my imagination to build a world, then inviting a reader to step inside and live there for a while. Whether the world borrows from reality or not, the skill lies in describing it and making it real and I tried really hard to make Orkney come to life for this story; when my setting was as breath-taking as those islands, how could I fail to do it justice?
That said, I’m really grateful to have the infinite resources of the internet at my disposal – the Trip Advisor reviews, online photos from people who’d been to the places I was describing, the whole Highland Park Distillery website and the timetable for the car ferry crossings from Houton to Lyness. Not to mention the Instagram account of Lasse L Matberg (@lasselom), who was the inspiration behind the character of Magnús Ólafsson. So really it was the internet that made this book possible.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just be making really sure I got every single detail of Magnús absolutely right. I may be some time…
All photographs by Rowan Coleman, used with kind permission