Wednesday 15 November 2023

Finding Treasure Island - Robin Scott Elliot on Scotland, Stevenson and Seeking a Story

“Where do you get your ideas from?” It’s a question I get asked all the time – and I’m sure all authors do. And every time I get asked my mind goes blank. But it’s a good question… if only I knew the answer, everybody’s answer. 

Where do you get your ideas from? I want to ask it of every author or movie maker. In fact, anyone who has created something that interests me. The scientist in their lab discovering, say, the Covid jag, the engineer who invented the jet engine. Where did you get your idea from Frank Whittle? What was the Eureka moment?

It was Archimedes, the ancient Greek scholar, who is supposed to have had the original Eureka moment – it’s a Greek word meaning ‘I’ve got it’. Legend has it he leapt from his bath and ran naked into the street shouting ‘Eureka’. 

Legend is not always right. I’ve made up a legend to tell the story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Eureka moment; the moment that was to change his life forever, the moment that set him on the course to become one of the best known writers in the world, a fame that lasts to this day more than a century after he died aged only 44 in Samoa. 

My ideas tend to begin as a muddle of thoughts. There is rarely a Eureka moment, although I did have one for my second book, Acrobats of Agra. They happen – and it feels fantastic when they do. There was a great deal of chance involved too. I was in a bookshop with my daughter, she was taking ages to make her choice (she loves books), I wandered downstairs, saw the history section (I love history), saw an old book on the Indian Mutiny that interested me, bought it and while reading came across a single line about a French travelling circus being trapped in the siege of Agra. Eureka! 

There’s a large serving of serendipidity in there too – several ‘What-ifs’. And that applies to Stevenson and his idea for Treasure Island.
Come back to 1881. Queen Victoria is on the throne, and staying near where my story is set. She’s on holiday at Balmoral, her Highland home (and makes a fleeting appearance in the book). 

The presence of the Queen is why Braemar, the nearby village, became such a popular destination. Stevenson arrived at Old Mrs McGregor’s Cottage in Braemar with his mother and father, his American wife Fanny and Sam, her teenage son, his old nanny, known as Cummy, Maggie, his parents’ maid, and a dog.
Stevenson was 30. He’d wanted to be a writer for as long as he could remember. And he was not a well man, had been sickly since childhood. Stevenson never thought he’d live a long life – so he really did worry time was running out. 

He’d written well-received travel books but had never managed to finish a novel. He contemplated turning his back on fiction. Perhaps history was the way to go, perhaps a biography of the Duke of Wellington… He needed something, anything, a spark… And then it started to rain – of course it did, this was a Scottish summer holiday – and Stevenson had to stop worrying about himself and turn attention to his new stepson.
Sam Osbourne was 13 and something of a lost soul. He’d been dragged from place to place through his short life. 

His father was an adventurer, a man always one break from making it big. And family seems to have come a poor second to his dreams of riches. The family shuffled around the wild west of the US and when his parents split, Sam, his younger brother and older sister, were taken off to Europe by Fanny, who fancied herself as an artist. 

It was in France that Stevenson first leapt into their lives, jumping through a doorway into a hotel in Grez-sur-Long, a small town south of Paris that had become an artists’ colony. By then Sam’s younger brother, Hervey, had died. His sister, Bel, was 10 years older. Sam felt alone. 

From Paris, they went to London, returned to California then back across the Atlantic to Scotland. In this strange new land – how different to California – Sam clung to his new stepfather. 

They developed a bond (much of the suggestion for this comes from Sam himself, but they do seem to have been close) and so one rainy afternoon in Braemar – imagine the rain smattering against the small windows of the cottage, the fire spitting and crackling – Stevenson reached for a piece of paper and drew a sketch to amuse a bored Sam. It was a map. A map of an island that over the course of the afternoon grew ever more detailed until finally Stevenson wrote two words on the bottom and handed it to Sam. ‘Treasure Island,’ Stevenson had written and here was the spark. Eureka! 

Treasure Island, a story that has sold millions of copies, been made into a movie time and time again and in a host of different languages. It’s a story that has defined the image of a pirate, a treasure hunt; it is the adventure story. Stevenson later wrote an essay on how he came up with the story. But, rather like some of his characters, Stevenson is an unreliable narrator. His later account of how he came up with the idea for Jekyll and Hyde – in a dream – is barely believable, and differed to other versions he told friends and family.

It makes for a good story though – and that is what Stevenson is all about. Perhaps it was freeing his mind of his worries just for one afternoon that helped Stevenson come up with Treasure Island; thinking about Sam rather than himself (what would have happened if it hadn’t rained?).

It wasn’t an original idea. Pirates had featured in plenty of other stories but then most ideas borrow something from other books, paintings, movies.

What Stevenson did was take his idea and make it into something unforgettable. In Finding Treasure Island I have tried to play with Stevenson’s idea and where it came from. Could it have come from Sam? Could Sam’s own adventures in the magical, mysterious glens, forests and hills around Braemar have foreshadowed Jim Hawkins’ trials and tribulations on Treasure Island?

It's Sam who tells us the story in Finding Treasure Island; this is his version of history. But is it true? Perhaps. But what is undoubtedly true is that it all started with a map; a map and an ‘Eureka!’ moment.
Writing challenge – draw a map. It can be an island, a treasure island, a forest, a town, your own street and house – anywhere – but it must include an X because as every treasure seeker knows, X marks the spot. Once you’ve drawn your map, which can include dragons or castles or swamps or multi-storey car parks and shopping centres, write a short story about it.

Robin Scott-Elliot has been a sports journalist for 25 years with the BBC, ITV, the Sunday Times, the Independent and the ‘i’, covering every sport you can think of and a few you probably can’t. He threw that all away to move home to Scotland and chase his dream of writing books instead of football reports. Once there his daughters persuaded him to write a story for them and that is how his career as a children's author began. Finding Treasure Island is his latest book and is published by Cranachan.

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