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 ~ June 2, 2014
We’re just back from a delightful research trip to Glastonbury, where I have set my latest crime novel, The Wounded Thorn. If I already have some knowledge of a place, it is good to write the first draft before checking out the details. That way, I know just where I want to set each scene and what I need to look for. If I do the research first, there is the likelihood that I will want to write a scene in a place I hadn’t expected at the start and failed to check while I was there. Nor do I know all the questions I need to answer.
New to me this time was the Chalice Well Gardens. I had been past on my way to the Tor, but never been inside. The gardens follow the course of a chalybeate spring, which stains everything it passes iron red. You climb the valley by a series of varied pools and waterfalls. Everywhere you look there are beautifully planted flower beds and quiet nooks with seats where you can sit and meditate. I could have gone round the whole thing in ten minutes, but it amply repaid a leisurely morning. At the head of the watercourse is the Chalice Well. The spring rises within a circular shaft, protected by a grating. The wooden lid is thrown back to reveal the vesica design of overlapping circles making a figure of eight, which is a feature of the gardens. This is a crucial spot for the new crime mystery. I had to check out whether you really could hide a knapsack behind it, so that it would be difficult, but not impossible, to spot.
Immediately opposite starts the path up to Glastonbury Tor. A stall selling ginger beer fortified us for the long climb on a sunny day. At the top is a single hollow tower which is all that remains of St Michael’s Church, destroyed at the Reformation. The archangel Michael is almost always the dedication given to a church on a hilltop. Think of St Michael’s Mount and Mont Saint Michel.
And there was, of course, the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. This was the site of an early Saxon church and is loaded with evocative legends that go back still further, to St Bridget, St Peter and King Arthur, whose grave is said to have been discovered here. We were overtaken by a delightful procession of miniature monks in black Benedictine habits, from a local primary school. No doubt they will have fun in the marvellous freestanding Abbot’s Kitchen, where the displays of medieval cooking allow children to join in. But I had a particular quest. Could you really smuggle a body over the perimeter of the Abbey after closing time? What does the private gate from the retreat house to the Abbey grounds look like?
And then there was the Glastonbury Thorn which is said to have grown where Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff on Wearyall Hill. The remarkable thing is that the Glastonbury Thorn, which flowers twice a year, is not a native species, but originates in the Middle East, possibly in Palestine. It was cut down by Cromwell’s men but the townspeople took slips of it and scattered them in gardens around the town. The 20th-century one grown again on Wearyall Hill was vandalised a few years ago and is now a bare stump, hung about with votive ribbons. Even the new sapling meant to replace it has disappeared. Yet flourishing Thorn trees can be seen elsewhere, most notably in the churchyard of St John the Baptist in the High Street. This is the only churchyard I have come across which has a labyrinth marked out in stones, with the invitation to walk it prayerfully.
Now, enriched by all these lovely experiences, it is time to write the second draft.
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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