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Donna Fletcher Crow

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Donna Fletcher Crow (US) is the author of forty-some books, mostly novels dealing with the history of British Christianity. She is the author of The Monastery Murders series; The Lord Danvers Victorian True-Crime series; The Elizabeth & Richard literary mysteries, GLASTONBURY,A Novel of the Holy Grail and more. www.donnafletchercrow.com

Fay Sampson

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Fay Sampson (UK) is a writer of adult and children's fiction and non-fiction, including A MALIGNANT HOUSE, #2 in the Susie Fewings series, a British Crime Club Pick. http://www.faysampson.co.uk

Back in The Ruins

By Donna Fletcher Crow ~ September 29, 2011

Sally Wright, one of my favorite authors, celebrating the ebook release of Out of The Ruins, #4 in her superb Ben Reese mysteries, recalls the serendipitous experiences and the extraordinary people that brought her to the writing of this book and draws some valuable life lessons. Welcome, Sally, it's always an honour to have you visit "Deeds of Darkness' Deeds of Light."

The writing of Out Of The Ruins grew out of a lot of serendipitous experiences that gradually floated together in my brain to form a fictional pattern. Now it’s fun to look back and remember - for which I have to thank Donna Fletcher Crow, who got me thinking about how it happened. 

My feet got planted on the path in 1978 when my husband and I left our kids with my parents to spend a week on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia. 

I’d read a National Geographic article on Cumberland, and the photographs of its wild lushness made me want to see it myself. My husband was trained as a marine biologist, so we knew he’d be at least as interested. Put him on a beach with surf and sea creatures and he’s a contented guy.

For me it wasn’t just the wild horses, and the untouched beaches, and the three hundred year old live oaks sheltering the whole eight mile island, or the west coast lined with salt marshes sprinkled with ibis and heron. It was also the history of this fought-over island that crawled under my skin.

Nathaniel Greene, cavalry officer and friend of George Washington, owned it after the Revolution, but died before he could live there. His widow, Caty, gave Eli Whitney a crucial idea for his cotton gin, but lost her mainland house paying to fight the infringements of Whitney’s patent and had to retreat to Cumberland, where she built a modest farmhouse (before overspending again). 

Lighthorse Harry Lee, Washington’s finest cavalry officer and Robert E. Lee’s father, died on Cumberland on his way home to Virginia after an attempt at convalescence in the Caribbean. Robert was six when his father left and never had a chance to know him.  

But in the early days of the Civil War, before Bobby Lee led the Army of Virginia, he rode south to Cumberland to see where his Daddy was buried. After the war, when he knew he was dying, he journeyed back one last time to pray at his father’s grave. 

In the late 1800s Andrew Carnegie’s brother, Thomas, bought most of the island and built a mansion on the south coast (now a burned-out crumbling ruin where the novel’s denouement takes place) as well as a white pillared farmhouse. Today the farmhouse is Greyfield Inn, and is still owned by the Carnegies. 

When my husband and I stayed there that July (not the best month to visit, by the way, especially then when it wasn’t air conditioned) I became obsessed with the history all around me. 

A guest’s uncle had written about Caty Greene and I flew through his biography. And knew then, as soon as I visited the graves, and climbed around the ruins, and walked miles on the empty beach and watched wild horses graze, I wanted to write about Cumberland - especially the battle raging then (which still continues at more civil decibels) between the extended family, various would-be developers, as well as the US government which threatened to condemn the land and take it by Right of Eminent Domain to make a National Park. 

They ultimately did take most of the island, the south end and the north. So now ferry boatloads of tourists tramp across their land, while Greyfield sits serenely (and yet uneasily too) in the center of the island the Carnegies conserved so carefully for more than a hundred years. 

All that got me thinking. But it took me nearly twenty years to sit down and start writing. During that time I read biographies of James J. Hill, a Scottish immigrant to Canada, a man of admirable and interesting character, who, after he’d moved south to Minnesota, built the Great Northern Railroad without government money or land grants, unlike his competitors, by giving land free to settlers, thereby assuring customers the whole length of his line. 

I created a fictional brother for him who bought Cumberland Island in the late 1800s. I wanted to look at entrepreneurs then without dissecting real Carnegies. 

But the plot wasn’t alive yet. I had interesting sidelights, I thought; amusing minor characters, settings I found appealing, bits of information about painters and wildlife illustrators and explorers, irritating academic hassles for Ben Reese, my college-archivist investigator, to fight. But the heart of the book wasn’t beating. 

That was when a friend called and told me she’d met someone I ought to interview. She’d been visiting the homes of housebound parishioners from her church, and talked to a woman who’d been bedridden for years with MS. Girls from the local college cared for her, fifty or more over the years, and yet she clearly took care of them as much as they cared for her, testified to by countless cards and letters taped to the walls of her room. 

I visited this woman, and came away knowing how to write the book - humbled too and swearing I’d never complain again (but did, undoubtedly, before the day was out). 

She’d told me that only when she’d gotten sick, when she couldn’t work and had nothing but time, that she finally paid real attention to the people who crossed her path. She said all these girls had troubles, and most of the time there were few adults who took an interest and tried to mentor them, and now God had given her a chance to help them herself.

That’s how the Cumberland story came to revolve around a character based on her, who I saw as a great example of what we’re supposed to do when pain and suffering change our lives in ways we don’t expect. 

I had so many interesting experiences like that as I worked on the book that I ended up dovetailing several into the novel itself. That’s probably true of all the Ben Reese novels. Certainly, if I hadn’t known the real archivist-ex-WWII Scout who’s the model for Ben Reese, my life would be much less satisfying and interesting than it is. 

Not only has he helped with all the books and become a close friend, I’ve learned to respect our WWII generation in ways I wouldn’t have without him. He’s taught me so much about what an archivist knows too - art restoration and history, rare coins and ancient texts - he’s enriched my whole life. 

But writing Ruins also led my husband and me to places we love and go back to - Cumberland, Beaufort and Charleston - as well as books, and history, and people we care about still. 

Since I’m writing this piece for serious readers, I’ll give a book example. In Charleston I stumbled upon an autobiography, Diary Of A Woman Rice Planter by Elizabeth Allston Pringle, and was deeply moved by her experiences. Everyone I’ve recommended it to has liked it. And she helped me understand how strong women had to be then, in the post-Civil War South - and, presumably, the North - and how broad their influence often was, for either good or ill. 

She also made me see, without allowing any wiggle room, that my life has been easy and charmed in too many ways to count. The real Ben Reese has taught me that too, because of the wit, and kindness, and humor he’s used to cope with the wounds he suffered in Europe in 1945. 

So writing teaches the writer. 

And I know I shouldn’t let a day go by without being grateful that I get to do what I love.  

    

Donna Fletcher Crow (US) is the author of forty-some books, mostly novels dealing with the history of British Christianity. She is the author of The Monastery Murders series; The Lord Danvers Victorian True-Crime series; The Elizabeth & Richard literary mysteries, GLASTONBURY,A Novel of the Holy Grail and more. www.donnafletchercrow.com

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Reader Comments:

Fascinating story, Sally. Yes, I have found over the years that when I need something for a novel it's always there somewhere--I just have to look in the right places.

And, yes,say "Thank you!" for the privilege of being a writer--even on the bad days.
-Donna, September 29, 2011

Cumberland sounds like a magical place. It's amazing how a novel is never just written, but grows out of a hundred big and tiny pieces that somehow all come together. So glad to see you here, Sally, and learn more about OUT OF THE RUINS!
-jennymilch, September 29, 2011

Oh, this sounds fascinating, Sally. I have a friend who used to work at Greyfield but have never visited Cumberland myself. Will do so soonest through the magic of your words.
-Vicki Lane, September 29, 2011

So true, Jenny. Novels do, indeed, grow. people often ask me how long it takes to write a book. Well, if I count my lifetime of reading, that would be more candles than I can count.
-Donna, September 29, 2011

I would say that reading teaches the writer.
We learn so much by reading the experiences of others, real and imaginary.
-Jacqueline Seewald, September 30, 2011

Yes, Jacqueline, and i always tell my students when I teach a writing class to read the very *best* of their genre. We need to feed on the classics as well as bestsellers.
-Donna, September 30, 2011

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