Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.
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Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History
A traveling researcher engages people and places from Britain's past and present, drawing comparisons and contrasts between past and present for today's reader.
By Fay Sampson ~ August 30, 2012
Half the fun of writing novels is the research. But when is the best time to do it? If it's an historical novel, then it's really important to steep yourself in that period before setting pen to paper or opening that new document. You need not only to read what has been written about the period, but things written in that period. You want to capture something of how people thought, as well as lived.
Place is very important to me. My first children's novels arose from places in my native West Country that cried out to have stories written about them. The challenge was to find the story that fitted the setting. It has continued to be a significant element in my books, including fantasy and historical novels.
More recently, I have strayed into crime fiction. The first series, the Suzie Fewings novels (Severn House), centre on a woman researching her family history. Though the places in the books are fictitious, they are based on the research I have done into my own and other people's family history. The settings are all inspired by real places. The newer series, the Aidan Mysteries (Monarch) are set in sacred places around the British Isles. This choice of real settings has added a challenge that 'loosely based' locations don't have. In the latter, I don't need to be 100% accurate. There is greater need in the second series to get the details right.
Of course, I need a working knowledge of the place before I start the story. But I wouldn't have chosen that location if I hadn't already been there and been inspired by it. The first, The Hunted Hare, is set in the remote pilgrimage site of Pennant Melangell in North Wales. The one I am working on at the moment, Death on Lindisfarne, speaks for itself.
I had been to Lindisfarne, now officially known as Holy Island, twice before, but only for day visits. It is a low sandy island off the coat of Northumbria, only accessible by a causeway when the tide is low enough - or by the more evocative route of the Anglo-Saxon saints on foot across the wet sands.
Since I had that working knowledge to begin with, I chose to wait until I had nearly completed the first draft before going there for a more extended stay. That way, I had a clear idea of where the various scenes would be set, and what questions I needed to answer.
We stayed in the small village at the guesthouse of the Community of St Aidan and St Hilda. From there I set out to explore the various locations: the ruined priory, the church, the medieval castle on its rock, the little off-island, which St Aidan and St Cuthbert used to retreat to, and the more remote northern shore.
The sacred history of the island runs through the novel, but the story is set in the present day. Just as the sanctity of the old abbey was violated by Viking raids, so now, violent crime disrupts the peaceful week Aidan and his daughter Melangell had looked forward to. Accordingly, I needed to find out how the emergency services work on the island. It is far from straightforward. There is no resident police officer or doctor. The only emergency service based on Lindisfarne is the Coastguard and Rescue Service, staffed by part-timers. Other assistance has to come from the mainland - no simple matter when the tide is up and the causeway closed. I needed to speak to a coastguard.
I struck gold. One of the staff at the Open Gate where we were staying was married to a coastguard. I was introduced to him and he generously answered my long list of questions. How would the coastguards respond to such a call? What would happen if...? How would the police...? What about the ambulance? In addition, he gave me invaluable insight into the tides and currents off that northern coast. I was able to find out what would, or would not, have happened to a body entering the water at a certain point. That was to prove a turning point in the crime investigation.
It wasn't all plain sailing. On the first day, I was negotiating some dodgy stepping stones on a flooded track when I slipped and fell into shallow water. The camera in my pocket was submerged, and no longer talked to me after that. So I wasn't able to take all the photos I had planned to refresh my visual memory. It drove me to write up my notebook with particular care.
So now the first draft is finished and the synopsis is in Monarch's hands. Now I have to do the second draft and make sure all the lines I've started are properly tied up.
Quite apart from writing and publication, the magic of Lindisfarne has become a deeper part of my life.
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
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