In fact, you could almost say she inspired the story. Five years ago, I visited the village of Cong in County Mayo, where some of the movie ‘The Quiet Man’ was filmed in the 1950s, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. A cottage there is called ‘The Quiet Man’ cottage.
It wasn’t the cottage used in the movie – that is in ruins now – but part of it is furnished like the original. When we were asked to sign the visitor book at the end of our visit, I happened to notice a signature at the bottom of the previous page – Maureen O’Hara. (Sorry the photo is rather blurred here on the screen!) Yes, she had visited the cottage the day before we went there, and we were told she visited Cong whenever she was in Ireland.
You know when something strikes a chord in your imagination? Maureen O’Hara’s signature did that for me, and I knew that I would include this somewhere in a future novel.
Fast forward about three years and I’m writing my spin-off story from ‘Irish Inheritance’ – and decide to have my heroine visiting a small cottage in Ireland, used in a 1949 movie, and seeing the signature of the Oscar-winning actress, Alice Vernon, in the visitor book.
At that point, even I didn’t realise the role Alice was to play later in the story. I first introduced her during a location filming scene when Charley, my heroine, was fooling around with her co-star (not the hero of the story, but another secondary character who developed his own personality as I wrote the story):
Before she could stop him, Josh had spun her around, put his hands around her waist, and flung her over one shoulder.
“Josh, stop it!” she squealed, and laughed as she beat her hands against his back and kicked her knees on his chest.
“No, no, my lady,” he growled in melodramatic tones. “I will not let you go, not until you surrender to me!”
The crew shouted out ribald comments as he carried her down the sloping lawn towards the lake.
Charley’s laughter came to an abrupt stop when she caught sight of a figure on the hotel terrace overlooking the lawn. She screwed up her eyes. Surely it couldn’t be—?
A second later, she knew it was. Her mass of curly auburn hair was now white and much shorter than she’d worn it when she was younger, but her oval face was the same, and she stood tall and erect in a dark green trouser suit.
“Put me down,” she breathed urgently. “Please put me down.”
“There’s someone on the terrace—”
Josh swung around and unceremoniously dumped her on her feet again. “Oh, my God. It’s Aunt Alice.”
Charley stared at him. “Aunt Alice? Alice Vernon’s your aunt?”
I intended to base Alice Vernon on Maureen O’Hara, but she had different ideas. Almost as soon as she spoke, she ‘became’ Maggie Smith (or rather the Dowager Countess in Downton!). I could see and hear her, and she eventually took an important role in helping my hero and heroine to sort out their problems. I really grew to love her as she developed during the story.
So did my readers. One reviewer wrote: Alice is a character who will touch your heart.
She certainly touched mine. If you asked me for my favourite ‘secondary’ characters, I think Alice would head the list.