Saturday, 13 April 2013

An inconvenient truth about inheritance

As I was working on the final chapter my novel, in which some legal ends are tied up after one character, Uncle John, has been killed, I thought I had better do a bit of research on who inherits if someone dies intestate without direct descendants. I discovered that my heroine, Sarah and her brother, David, as the offspring of his sister would inherit a huge manor house, plus the Gatehouse where Sarah lives. This was not something I wanted to happen! For one thing, David’s wife Deb (also Sarah’s best friend) stands accused of the manslaughter of Uncle John at the end of the novel. It would not look good for her if she and David stood to inherit after his death! More than this, though, this is not a Jane Austen novel (no disrespect), in which the heroine's trials and tribulations end with her taking her rightful place of mistress of a huge estate. In the words of the song, it's not about the money, money... An inheritance would be a huge distraction from the conclusion to the themes of the novel. This inconvenient discovery made me feel as though the plot of the novel had taken on a life of its own and was using legal reality to skew my intended outcomes.

I pondered all this on an early morning run, pounding the pavements in the cold and thinking it through. How could they not inherit? Should the uncle have left his property to someone else? This seemed very unlikely since he was close to no one apart from his twin sister. Battersea Dog's Home? He shows no affection for dogs. I realised I was going to have to plant the idea earlier in the novel that he might leave everything to someone else, perhaps maliciously in order to prevent his sister's offspring from inheriting.

I eventually decided to have the uncle’s own father threaten to 'leave it all to Battersea Dog's Home' as a way of needling his son into working hard so that he could run the Clinic in future. The uncle mentions this to Jim, Sarah’s husband, when he is inquiring about their status as tenants at the Gatehouse. This solution allowed me to delve deliciously into Jim’s lingering insecurity and prickliness about class at the end of the novel:
Battersea Dogs’ Home. When he had heard about the will, Jim had pictured himself on that sofa in Reception in his football gear and squirmed with shame and resentment, seeing now that through his icy politeness, Briers had been sneering at him. How stupid, how incredible to bother feeling that about a man who was murderous and depraved; ‘Dr Sicko’ the tabloids had called him when it all came out in the media furore surrounded Deb’s trial. He had almost taken everything from them. Why even care that he had thought Jim a gold-digger and laughed in his face?’

This need to disinherit my heroine turned out to have an upside. It focused me on the theme of inheritance that already runs through the novel. What do we inherit from our parents? Curses? Mysteries? Strengths? Weaknesses? The issue is all the more poignant when, like Sarah, we have no memory of the parent to give us clues.

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