My Life As A Reader
People always ask me, "did you always want to write?" No, I always wanted to read, although I did "write" my first novels in the sixth grade: an adventure series starring me, complete with illustrations. I think each book was about five pages long. I also sat in our back garden under a huge cottonwood tree and wrote embarrassingly bad poetry, complete with illustrations. My poetry is still embarrassingly bad, but that doesn't stop me writing it.
I had an ideal childhood for a reader. I was an only child, living on a farm. I would take a book out to the middle of the alfalfa field in front of our house, lay down flat and revel in the fact that God was the only person in the whole universe who knew where I was.
In the tenth grade my Charlie Chaplain look-alike English teacher Mr. Hodgson, of blessed memory, told me the only book report he would accept from me was Wuthering Heights. I still think that's a strange choice for a 15-year-old, and as many times as I have read the novel and seen the movie (and even visited Howarth) I still don't understand it. But it "took". From that moment I was hooked on the English classics and to this day I read very little other than English authors. Jane Austen, of course, is my lifelong literary love.
I naturally majored in English and became a starry-eyed English teacher, aspiring to inspire my students to a love of great literature before I retired to become a full time mother.
My reading life has always gone by passions, finding a writer I loved, reading everything he or she (usually she) wrote, then feeling absolutely bereft when I came to the end. Much the same feeling as having a child leave for college, I later learned. My passions have included Norah Lofts, D. E. Stevenson, Mary Stewart, Rumer Godden, Elizabeth Goudge and Elswyth Thane with whom I carried on a delightful correspondence just before she died and I began writing professionally.
The writer that really catapulted me into writing, however, was Gerogette Heyer. Her Venetia became the springboard for my first novel Brandley's Search, reissued later as Where Love Begins, although my book was set in 1824, so can't be strictly called a Regency. That book grew into the six-book Cambridge Chronicles series.
In the early '80s I was part of the newly emerging and mushrooming inspirational romance market. Oh, the fun we had! At the suggestion of my special librarian friend, I read my way through New Zealand author Essie Summers, but when I returned to Jane Eyre I had to throw up my hands in despair. Why were we trying? No one would ever do better than that.
Those were great learning years, but my goal was to write more history as I had begun in the Cambridge Chronicles. This time, a grail search, fulfilling a lifelong passion that began with my first short story written in the third grade. I was convinced it was a work of genius, but I was worried because I knew every other child would also have written about Sir Lancelot saving the maiden from the dragon. After all-what other story was there to write?
Edward Rutherford's Sarum provided the perfect model for my epic Glastonbury. I had initially proposed a six-book series, but when I read Sarum I called Jan Dennis, my editor, and said, "I have a better idea." He had just finished reading the same book and knew he wanted to publish something like that. The amazingly well researched and beautifully written novels, both young readers' and adult, of Rosemary Sutcliffe as well as Ellis Peters (also writing as Edith Pargeter) consumed my reader's daydreams and fired my writer's imagination.
My Scottish epic The Fields of Bannockburn followed, fed by my reading Nigel Tranter, the consummate novelist of Scottish History. I treasure the memory of taking tea with Nigel Tranter at his home on the misty, marshy banks of the Firth of Forth where he let me hold a chip from the Stone of Scone.
At a writer's conference I confessed to Roy Carlisle of Harper & Row that I found plotting difficult and remarked, "I suppose I should read more mysteries." "Indeed, you should," he replied and generously sent me a boxful of Dick Francis and John D. MacDonald. Although I wrote four mysteries in the early '90s, I still considered myself primarily a historical novelist. But my leisure reading told the true story. The adage to "write what you like to read" was working itself out in my reading, if not yet in my writing. Wilkie Collins, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham all turned my focus more sharply to mystery writing.
At the same time, however, my spiritual life was undergoing a major change. While I will be eternally grateful for my rich evangelical background, the worship was leaving me famished. And so, my journey "up the candle" to Anglo-Catholic, was, as always, reflected in my reading: Charlotte Mary Yonge, Barbara Pym, Ronald Blythe, P. D. James, Susan Howatch, Kate Charles, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Phil Rickman.
The intense research trips that I had always undertaken for each book I wrote (I try never to write about a place I haven't visited-background is of extreme importance to me) became instead pilgrimages: Canterbury, Lindisfarne, Iona, Whithorn, Norwich, at each place staying in monasteries, convents or retreat centres. And then my daughter went off to a monastery on a remote hillside in Yorkshire to attend theological college and . . . Well, I don't want to give away too much of the plot.
--Donna Fletcher Crow