Saturday, May 25, 2013

Places for the Imagination

My novels are character-centric with the main focus on character development and interaction. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of my novels are inspired by people.  My historical biographies and biographical fiction, obviously, were inspired by real historical personalities, whose stories fascinate me -- Leonidas of Sparta, Edward the Black Prince, General Friedrich Olbricht. Other stories were inspired more by the “footnotes” to history – an passing reference to an individual act of courage or compassion in the description of mainstream historical events, a short description of a donor or grave in a half-forgotten church, a local legend of dubious veracity that nevertheless captures the imagination….
Yet almost as important as people are places.  I firmly believe that my interest in history and historical fiction started at the age of four when my father took me to the Coliseum in Rome. While my mother and older sisters took the guided tour, my father (wisely) decided a four year old would be bored by so much information. So he took through the Coliseum alone and confined himself to the essentials. “This,” he told me, “is where the Romans fed the Christians to the Lions.” Now that was fascinating to a four year old.
I spent the rest of the afternoon (or however long the official tour lasted) looking at the Coliseum and trying to imagine where they had kept the lions? where the Christians? Was there no way to escape? What if a lion got loose among the spectators? You see how rapidly this can become a novel?
Of course, at four, no novel evolved, but the process of thinking about the places I visited as the site of historical events and the stage set for personal drama had started. It was helpful that Rome was only the start of a tour that took us to Florence and Venice, then up the Rhine and finally to Denmark and England, where we had family. Two years later we were in Brazil, and my imagination was ignited by a visit to the decaying city of Manaus on the Amazon. That indeed inspired me to my first novel, a tale of an Indian boy following the Amazon to the sea. (Any resemblance to childhood books about travelling down the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Mississippi is pure coincidence, of course….) I was in second grade.
At fifteen, the family returned to England. By now I loved to read as much as I loved to eat and breathe. I had not stopped writing since that book about the Amazon. Now, however, I was living in the midst of history. We lived in Portsmouth. Nelson’s flagship the Victory was within walking distance of our Victorian townhouse. The view out our front bay window was of the Solent, the Isle of Wight, the Royal Navy patrolling the grey, white-capped waves….
Although I never wrote a novel about the Royal Navy in the age of sail, I soon became fascinated with Britain in WWII. I visited the Imperial War Museum and touched the wings of Spitfires. I went to Tangmere, so close to Portsmouth, and gazed out across the peaceful, grass airfield, while hearing the gentle peace shattered by the jingle of a telephone, the call to “scramble,” the roar of Merlin engines and the distant thud of the falling bombs. It took almost two decades and various false starts, but when Chasing the Wind was published in 2007 it was praised by one of the few surviving RAF fighter aces of that war, Wing Commander Bob Doe, as “the best book” he had ever read about the Battle of Britain. Doe wrote in his shaky handwriting a letter I treasure to this day, in which he says I “got it smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots.”
No amount of sales is a higher accolade for a historical novelist than for someone who lived through the time and events described in a piece of fiction to say the novel got it right. That is why, to this day, I consider Chasing the Wind (Kindle title: Where Eagles Never Flew) my best novel.
 
 
 
But England is a treasure chest for inspiration, and my biographical novel of Edward Plantagenet (more commonly known as The Black Prince) has also taken shape and flight from visits to Berkhamsted (his childhood home), Restmorel, Kenilworth etc. etc. Edward, however, was not only heir to the crown of England and Prince of Wales, he was the most brilliant English commander in the Hundred Years War and Prince of Aquitaine. Through Edward I therefore came to know the South of France – or was it the other way around?
In any case, there are few places in the world more inspiring to a historical novelist than Carcassonne, Narbonne, Albi, Moissac, Fontfroid, Najac….. And then there was Cyprus.
In the weeks and months ahead, I will be selecting some of my favorite places, places with connections to my individual novels, and introducing them to you. I hope my descriptions will inspire you to visit these unique places – either in my books or in person.

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