Author Sara Gruen had a notion to tie a rope around her waist and plunge deep into the chill, dark waters of Scotland’s Loch Ness.
She did not. It’s a bit dangerous.
But even without such literal immersion, the “Water for Elephants” author nevertheless dipped far into Scottish history and culture for her new book, “At the Water’s Edge.”
The water in this title refers to the vast Highlands lake, headquarters of the celebrated aquatic monster. Gruen’s research included weeks of wandering the woods around it and daydreaming in lakeside castle ruins.
Never miss a local story.
And, oh yes, visiting pubs. She was the one in the corner, tapping away on her laptop, recording local color.
“I approach research for a novel kind of like language immersion,” she says. “I’m all in.”
Gruen visits Kansas City on Thursday to discuss her new novel, which takes place during World War II and hosts a variety of monsters, many of them the “inner” variety.
The best-selling author has written several novels, but “Water for Elephants,” set in a traveling circus, was the most acclaimed and the basis for the 2011 movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.
Gruen, 46, who lives in Asheville, N.C., with her husband and their three sons, says the genesis of “Water’s Edge” goes back to a trip to Scotland with her parents when she was 12, particularly to the Loch Ness village of Drumnadrochit.
In the novel, young socialite Maddie Hyde finds herself in the middle of a caper. She, her husband, Ellis, and their best friend Hank — an uppercrust American troika — head to Drumnadrochit to snag footage of the Loch Ness monster.
It’s more than a lark. Ellis was rejected for military service because of his color-blindness, a situation for which his father shames him. But it was his father who shamed the high-society family’s name years earlier during his own hunt for Nessie. Could a successful trip by Ellis fix all that?
For Maddie, though, it becomes a journey of many discoveries. Until then, her most important role had been as Ellis’ catch, the prettiest girl in the room.
“By the time I realized Maddie was the heart of the story, I had to go back and rewrite the first third of the book,” Gruen says.
Sometimes an author has to take a book where it wants to go.
There was never any question about place. Gruen loved the landscape at the lake, in turn stark, gorgeous and even dangerous, and the waterside ruins of Urquhart Castle, the epicenter of Loch Ness monster sightings for centuries.
“The thing about ruined castles is that you’re on the very ground where the wars were fought, the loves were forged,” she says. “To me that’s a really powerful thing. I especially like to be alone in the ruins.”
The book doesn’t need a glossary, exactly, but Gruen, with help from Gaelic speakers, had fun dropping in Gaelic lingo encountered by Maddie and company. There was a “stramash,” for example, and “houghmagandy.” (The first is a brouhaha, Gruen says, and the second, “the horizontal mambo.”)
Besides the monster motif, other themes emerge, including an examination of class conflict and this one: the importance of female friendships for women.
Maddie only ever had Ellis and Hank as friends. She comes to understand what she has been missing when trouble arises and she sees the village women in action.
“It’s almost this instinctive reaction to circle the wagons, with your girlfriends all around you,” Gruen says.
Maddie also makes discoveries about love and passion, for which Gruen issues no apologies.
“What’s wrong with a good love story?” Gruen says.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Who: Sara Gruen, author of “At the Water’s Edge” and “Water for Elephants”
What: A conversation with Vivien Jennings of Rainy Day Books
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Unity Temple on the Plaza sanctuary, 707 W. 47th St.
Tickets: $28 plus sales tax, includes one copy of “At the Water’s Edge” and admission for two. Go to rainydaybooks.com for information.