The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
An author’s life and writing process is often misunderstood so when I read the synopsis of The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, I knew I had to read it. It is about an author that is writing an historical novel about the Jacobite rebellion of 1708. She chooses to write the story through her ancestor’s eyes and much to her surprise she finds that everything she writes turns out to be historically accurate.
When the images and the words are flowing, it is called many things, including “finding your muse” or being “in the zone”. The best way for me to describe it is the outside world falls away as if the author is looking through a portal to another world, another place, another time. The characters there become more real than those in the author’s orbit as the plot, the challenges, the heartbreak and triumphs take center stage.
Kearsley describes this process flawlessly; the characters that prod at the author in the middle of the night until she arises and writes down their words… Their circumstances looming even in the light of day… And the sadness that creeps in once a book is completed and the characters must be set aside.
Within The Winter Sea is the book the author is writing, which takes us back to 1708 Scotland and King James’ determination to win the English throne, casting the Catholics and sympathetic Protestants against those opposed to a Catholic king. It is a story I delved deep into with the writing of Cloak and Mirrors and the historical book, Checkmate: Clans and Castles. It was hard for me as an American to imagine the wars and conflicts between the Catholic and Protestant faiths, which began in earnest in Scotland and Ireland during the time of Henry VIII and continue even today in parts of Northern Ireland. Yet more wars have been conducted in the name of organized religion than any other cause.
Kearsley’s story unfolds like one told by Daphne du Maurier. It takes the reader back to the early 18th century, to horses and carriages, manor houses, class systems, allegiances and betrayals, and the high price many must pay simply to exist. At its heart is Slains, a manor house set against the sea, and through her expert descriptions, she transports the reader to the cove next to the water, to the rolling waves and cloudy skies, and to the horizon where our heroine watches for the sails of a ship that will bring her love back to her—and herald the beginning of war.
As the author within the story pieces the scenes together, she finds that everything she writes is true, despite believing initially that the fragments and images were simply brought forth by her imagination. It is an intriguing plot twist and based on recent scientific evidence, a theory known as genetic memory or ancestral memory.
There are three types of memories and two, procedural memory and semantic memory, can indeed be inherited. It is even theorized that savants are demonstrating ancestral memories since they often show aptitudes in music, art, mathematics and languages at such an early age that they could not possibly have learned it during their short lifetime.
Far-fetched? Consider this: what is an instinct? When a newborn colt struggles to rise to its feet within moments of birth, what compels it to do so? One theory is the generations of horses before it learned that the ability to run could save them from predators. While breeding angelfish, I learned that fry during their most vulnerable period could literally jump across the tank at any sudden movement or sound. Without that unexpected jump, they would most likely be eaten in the wild. Sea turtles break out of their shells on a beach and know to make their way to the water, braving threats and challenges along the way. Couldn’t each of these instincts be attributed to generations before them that learned these are the ways in which to survive?
The answer is yes, and now science is mapping the genome that allows these memories to be passed down from one generation to the next, ensuring the survival of the species.
Kearsley takes this a step further, with genetic semantic memory. As the author within her story writes the scenes of her ancestor, she knows things she couldn’t have possibly have read or been exposed to otherwise. And though it is left to the reader to determine whether it is coincidence or inherited memory, the argument for the latter is compelling.
When I was writing Songbirds are Free, there were fellow authors and friends that thought I must have been Mary Neely reincarnated, because the scenes I envisioned, the places she was brought, the experiences she had, later were confirmed to be true. While I never believed I was Mary Neely reincarnated, the concept of genetic memory appears to be far more plausible. Since I was very young—in fact, as far back as my earliest memories—I have had a fear of being kept prisoner. It is not a fear of attack or death, but rather held against my will and to this day, I cannot read a book or watch a movie about someone caged or made a slave. It wasn’t until I began writing Mary’s story of her capture by Shawnee warriors and her three years as a slave in which she tried time and again to escape, that the pieces began to come together in my mind. By the time I finished the story, I felt as though I no longer feared capture—perhaps because I knew Mary, in the end, did escape and find her way home. But the question still remains: since I was obviously never captured and held against my will in this lifetime and the fears were there long before I began to read or watch television, where did they come from?
Whatever your beliefs, if you enjoy history, romance and suspense, I strongly recommend Susanna Kearsley’s The Winter Sea.