A good question and one that readers have often asked me and I’ve also asked myself. When I started writing the series way back – around 2016 was when I first started penning the first version of the book that would become An Autumn Hideaway – I swithered about whether I should set the story on a real island or make one up. Both had their attractions. A real place would be ready made and easy to conjure up in my mind’s eye. On the other hand, if I made one up, I wouldn’t have to worry about place descriptions being accurate and people complaining they’d been somewhere I’d written about and it was nothing like how I described it.
My mind kept going back to a trip I made to Mull in 2009. I’d started that trip with a few days in Fort William before journeying over to Mull. On the last day of my stay in Fort William, I slipped on the carpeted stairs in the guest house and fell! I landed awkwardly at the bottom with a twisted ankle. I still remember a pair of huge brown eyes looking down at me with a worried expression. They belonged to a very friendly black Labrador, who politely stood back until I gave it permission to come to me, then it made a big fuss of me as I sat on the floor, feeling like a complete headcase! Don’t you just love dogs?
I got to my feet, reassured the dog, and discovered I could still walk, so I assumed my ankle and foot weren’t broken but they hurt like mad. By the time I got to my car, my foot had swollen up and was covered in purple bruising. My travel companion for the week had to take the driving seat and we made a detour via the supermarket for me to grab a bag of frozen peas before we headed for the ferry at Lochaline.
Sitting in the car was ok. Mull is a beautiful island to drive around, taking in the view. The guest house we’d booked was at the southern end of the island between Bunessan and Fionnphort so it was quite a drive from the ferry. The trouble was, my foot wasn’t really letting me walk far at all. So, once we arrived at the guest house, I couldn’t exactly go out for a nice afternoon walk.
What I really wanted to do was read a book, and not just any book, specifically a book set on the island. The bruising preventing me having a big adventure there myself made me want to read about someone else’s. I did some googling and found nothing. The next day, I went to the bookstore attached to The Ferry Shop in Fionnphort. I didn’t find the romantic novel I was hoping for, but I did find a book entitled The Mull Diaries: The Diary of James Robertson, Sheriff Substitute at Tobermory 1842-1846. It wasn’t a fiction book but it was an interesting read nonetheless and I really loved reading James Robertson’s commentary on his daily life on Mull, his travels around the island and his interactions with the locals and visitors. Perhaps more intriguing as it was written over one hundred and fifty years ago. Something about reading it while I was there made it extra special and even more vivid.
That feeling lingered about as I wrote the early drafts of the book set on ‘an island in Scotland’. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it was. Kind of a place memory but also a sense of something missing. A gap I needed to fill. That grew as I wrote more. I wanted the main character to travel around the island and, even when I tried to imagine a made-up place, I kept coming back to Mull. I envisioned scenes taking place in locations I’d visited and I couldn’t shake the feeling of how happy I would have been if I had found a book like this that year I was stuck with a swollen foot desperate to read a novel set on the island I was visiting.
I think I made up my mind pretty early on that I wanted the book to be set on Mull but I still wasn’t sure if I ‘should’. Would people buy it? Would anyone be interested? What if I made mistakes in my descriptions as I mentioned earlier? I asked myself these and many other questions several times in the years before I decided to turn one book into a series. I also sought advice from other authors and friends in the publishing world. The consensus was that as long as I didn’t write anything offensive about the island (as if I would!) then there was no reason why I shouldn’t write about a real place.
And so I did. That one book became a five-book series, but when those five were finished I realised there were still more stories to tell, and so five became ten. Having the real Isle of Mull at my disposal meant I didn’t have to invent a world. I could tap into my own visits and set the stories in any number of my favourite locations. Obviously I made up the names of houses, farms, estates etc. but I kept the villages, beaches and landmarks. Some of my favourite inventions are the Glen Lodge Hotel which is randomly placed close to Salen, Creagach Farm where Beth lives which is loosely somewhere south of Calgary, the Ardnish estate which is close to that farm with wild cliffs nearby, and the dig site at Kilnarkie which is loosely based on Port-na-Ba beach and vicinity.
I’m so glad I chose to keep it real. So many of the comments I get praise the descriptions of the island. People who’ve been to Mull are excited to read about familiar places and people who haven’t visited get a burning desire to go! I’ve been told I should be on commission from the tourist board and had an awesome opportunity in April when the owner of a bookshop on the island approached me with the wish to stock the books. Not only was this the first time the books were in a bricks and mortar bookshop but also meant there was hope that someone like the me in 2009, who was desperately looking for a novel set on the island, would be able to walk into the shop and leave with exactly what they wanted.
And there you have it! That’s ‘why Mull?’
Photographs by Margaret Amatt
Covers designed by Margaret Amatt