ANDREW FFRENCH discovers the inspiration behind the intriguing tale in our latest Book of the Month.

THE BOOK: I was immediately hooked by the intriguing plot device at the beginning of The Distant Hours.

This is the scenario in Chapter One: A Lost Letter Finds Its Way – a mailbag abandoned in 1941, early in the Second World War, turns up in a house in London and the letters and cards are finally distributed to the intended recipients.

One of the letters, which arrives with the return address of Milderhurst Castle, Kent, is delivered to Edie Burchill’s mother, and the past begins to catch up with them.

It turns out that Edie’s mum was invited to stay at Milderhurst Castle when she was a 13-year-old evacuee by Juniper Blythe, a young woman living there at the time.

Edie becomes intrigued by the mystery of Milderhurst Castle, and her curiosity grows because her mother is so reluctant to discuss the past.

Fifty years on, she is drawn to the castle where the three Blythe sisters, now old ladies, still live.

Inside the decaying edifice, Edie struggles to unravel her mother’s past. But there are other secrets hidden behind the castle walls and Edie discovers more than she bargained for.

The author says her latest novel started out as a single idea about a set of sisters living in a castle on a hill.

She then drew further information from other sources including photos, maps and poems, Mass Observation journals and online accounts of the Second World War.

Her own visits to country houses and castles provided further inspiration, together with films from the 1930s and 1940s, and gothic novels from the 18th and 19th centuries.

She spent 10 months writing the book after conducting lots of research on Kent and the Second World War.

Sissinghurst Castle in Kent was perhaps the model for Milderhurst and the author’s own family history provided some colourful pointers, including a scandal, for one of her previous novels.

Ms Morton writes: “All families have secrets, and I drew on one of my family’s for The Forgotten Garden.

“It concerned a secret love affair and an illegitimate child, and there were once letters that had passed between the lovers.

“The letters survived longer than the lovers but unfortunately were all burned some years ago in the hope that no-one would ever learn their secrets.”

There is plenty of authentic period detail in The Distant Hours but the author doesn’t let research get in the way of a good story and the lively narrative style, packed with dialogue, keeps the 670 pages turning.

Researching your family tree is one of today’s most popular past-times but there can be some unpleasant surprises hidden away in those old electoral registers.

Like the celebrities who take part in the BBC show Who Do You Think You Are? Edie Burchill is in for one or two disturbing surprises.

The past is another country and sometimes it’s best not to go there, but Morton makes sure readers enjoy an intriguing journey.

THE AUTHOR: Kate Morton is an Australian author whose novels have been published in 38 countries and sold about three million copies. She is the oldest of three sisters and lives with her husband, a jazz musician, and their two sons, in Brisbane.

The House at Riverton was a bestseller in the UK in 2007 and the follow-up, The Forgotten Garden, also hit the top of the bestseller charts in 2008.

She completed an English Literature degree at the University of Queensland, and during her studies wrote two full-length manuscripts before writing the story that would become the 2006 novel The House at Riverton.

Before attending the University of Queensland, the author studied speech and drama at Trinity College, London, and also completed a Shakespeare course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

The writer loved books from an early age, and children’s author Enid Blyton was a firm favourite.

The Distant Hours was first published last year.

* The Distant Hours by Kate Morton is pubished by Pan Books, priced £7.99 but you can get it for half price at Waterstones in Oxford and Witney with the voucher printed in The Guide, the Oxford Mail's entertainment's supplement, available every Thursday.