Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree

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In this episode of Tart Words, Suzanne Fox and Linda Hengerer are discussing Mary Stewart’s book The Ivy Tree and how she uses Brat Farrar, Josephine Tey’s fictional take on a real-life situation, to guide the reader in one direction before taking them somewhere else.

It was first published in 1961 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions.

Description from Amazon:

Whitescar is a beautiful old house and farm situated in Roman Wall country. It will make a rich inheritance for its heirs, but in order to secure it, they enlist the help of a young woman named Mary who bears remarkable resemblance to missing Whitescar heiress, Annabel Winslow. Their deception will spark a powder-keg of ambition, obsession and long-dead love.
The ivy had reached for the tree and only the tree's upper branches managed to thrust the young gold leaves of early summer through the strangling curtain. Eventually the ivy would kill it . . .

Mary, Queen of Plots is a blog about Mary Stewart. If you’re interested in book covers and book art, take a look at this blog post about The Ivy Tree.

Takeaways for writers:

In The Ivy Tree, missing heiress Annabel Winslow returns to her ancestral home Whitescar – or does she? Cousin Con has a plan to ensure his inheritance, and shows flashes of why Annabel might have left. The complicated family relationships are revealed as the story progresses, and misunderstandings are resolved as secrets are revealed.

Exercises for writers:

Secrets – How do you set up secrets? How do you reveal secrets? Do you plot out how secrets impact a character, or do you feel it out as you write? Not all secrets have to have life-altering consequences. In The Ivy Tree, Annabel is keeping her identity secret from both Con and Adam. Try adding a small secret into your work-in-progress: set it up and pay it off. Alternatively, write a short story and include a secret, big or small.

Family Dynamics – All families have undercurrents based on prior history. How do you incorporate that into your work-in-progress? How do you reveal the past without doing an “As you know, Sibling/Spouse/Parent/Cousin…” info dump? Show tension between family members in your work-in-progress without directly referring directly to why things are tense (they already know), but give context to the reader in some way to get the reader up to speed with the conflict. In The Ivy Tree, Julie has given Mary/Annabel information she didn’t have before. Can you do something similar by having one character share a memory that another character didn’t realize they had, and give the reader critical information for the story to make sense via that shared memory?

Familial Leverage – Con thinks he has leverage over Mary/Annabel because he can reveal she’s a fraud to Grandfather Winslow. Mary/Annabel knows the truth, but also knows how volatile Con is. How do you have characters in your work-in-progress use leverage to get what they want?

Cat and Mouse – In The Ivy Tree, Annabel knows she’s the real deal but she’s trying to keep that information from Con. For anything she does or says that he thinks she shouldn’t know, she finds a logical, recent explanation. In your work-in-progress, how do you show the subtext of a conversation between characters in conflict? Do you use physical moves to mask an inadvertent reaction? Do you keep in mind what information each character has that they don’t want to let the other character know, or know they know? Who wants to keep their secrets private, and who has the greater motivation to do so?

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