One of the pleasures (for me) in writing historical fiction is traveling to the places where the events I am writing about (and inventing) take place. So when I was working on Crispin at the Edge of the World, my wife and I traveled to France.
Somebody had to do it.
We flew to Bordeaux, rented a car and just drove south into the Dordogne, the old Aquitaine region. We went by way of my usual careful design, which is to say without any plan at all. We also had no idea that the traditional tourist season was a week off. Lucky us. That meant that places were just opening, and we’d be greeted by such as, “We’re not quite ready for visitors, but if you don’t mind staying in the castle turret, we can put you up.”
My high-school French finally had a workout.
Overall we were wonderfully well rewarded, with visits to ancient medieval towns, and walled cities like Bergerac. I saw and experienced places that existed at the time of my book.
I’m not sure where I was in my first draft of the book when we reached La Force. This was (and is) a tiny medieval town, which is, in fact, completely round, because a moat had been built around it. At one point on this circle, just outside the town, was an old church. All of it was quite enchanting, including staying in that castle turret. La Force became the scene of the climactic struggle in Crispin at the Edge of the World, where Bear was mortally wounded.
I need hardly say this was in no way part of my plan for the book. But to engage the senses in real places for a tale of imagination is an enormous asset. How does it all look, smell, and sound? And oh, yes, the food wasn’t bad. Not at all.
Just this summer I went to Maryland, to visit a site which is important in the book I am currently writing—an ancient cypress swamp.
My first swamp. Somebody has to do it. Who better than the writer?
The main point is, going on such a trip changes what I am writing, gives it a kind of life it never would have had before. It’s not an accident that folks have said that Crispin at the Edge of the World is a better book than Crispin, the Cross of Lead.
I agree, but then, I was there.