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 ~ November 19, 2012
I've written before about the joy of research trips: Pennant Melangell, Burnley and Lindisfarne recently. And I'm planning another, rather closer to home, to evocative Cornish churches and pilgrimage sites which I may use in my next Aidan Mystery. More of that later.
But there is the tremendous liberation of going on holiday without another book in mind. Somewhere for pure enjoyment.
This autumn it was the Dordogne, also known as the Perigord, in France. I was attracted to it by the pictures of rocky river gorges and medieval castles perched on the cliffs above. What I hadn't realised, until I got the details of the holiday, was that those gorges are peppered with caves, some of them containing paintings and engravings which go back nearly 20,000 years. The most famous of them is Lascaux.
So it was a feast. Medieval towns like Sarlat, with picturesque half-timbered buildings. After World War II, France was less prosperous than Britain, and didn't have the money to pull down old buildings and build soulless new ones, until the time when we all began to realise the value of the heritage we were losing. Consequently, in the areas that avoided war damage, they have preserved much more.
And there were the chateaux, with breathtaking views along the River Dordogne. This was the frontier zone in the Hundred Years War between France and England, after Eleanor of Aquitaine married the English King Henry II and brought him the southern territories of Aquitaine and Gascony, which the French resented. English and French chateaux faced each other across the river.
Then there was the food. Open air markets teeming with local produce. Perigord is famous for its pate de foie gras, made from goose liver fattened by force-feeding the birds. The process is less barbaric now than it was. But what you actually saw on the menu was more things than you would have thought possible to do with a duck: breast, confit of leg, wing liver, pate, gizzard, cassoulet, rissoles. I probably ate it in some form every day.
But the truly astounding part of the holiday was the caves. The incredible paintings of horses, bison, stags, etc at Lascaux were found by some boys out hunting for the legendary treasure of a nearby chateau when their dog fell down a hole. One of the boys climbed down after it, and knew from the echoes he awoke that he was on the brink of a cave. The boys returned with lamps to investigate further. Even then, they were directing the light at the uneven rocky floor at their feet. It wasn't until one of them tripped that his light swung up and illuminated the ceiling of the cave. And there were a wealth of prehistoric animals depicted over their heads.
With floods of visitors, the paintings were starting to deteriorate and the cave had to be closed to all but serious scholars. Instead, they created Lascaux II. When I heard they had replicated the paintings, I wondered how that was possible, since the paintings must have been shaped to fit the contours of the rock. But I discovered they had replicated the major part of the cave system itself, accurate to 5mm. When you walk between these walls of paintings you quickly forget that it's not the real thing.
At Rouffignac it was better still. We took a little train 1 km underground and saw the original paintings made 13,000 years ago. It was thrill to realise these were people who lived with mammoths and woolly rhinoceros as everyday reality.
Les Eyzies de Tayac, where we were based, is little more than a one-street village. But it has the National Museum of Prehistory, which is the finest in Europe. They even have a cap of shells worn in the Stone Age.
And a mammoth bones and the skeleton of a prehistoric bison.
No, I'm not planning to write a novel about painted caves, or French food, or the Hundred Years War. But I have stowed away a host of sensations to feed my imagination. They may enrich novels in the future in ways I can't guess today.
The Hunted Hare, first in The Aiden Mysteries, will be published in the USA on Nov 1.
To learn more about Fay Sampson and her books, including the delightful Suzie Fewings family history mysteries, visit http://www.faysampson.co.uk/
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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