Monday, October 01, 2012

A Sense of Place: Donna Fletcher Crow Discovers Her Sleuthing Settings

Donna Fletcher Crow, author of the Monastery Murders, visits the Kingdom Books blog today to demonstrate how place -- whether New England or England -- can evoke the twists of a mystery novel. It's a pleasure to welcome her as guest author here today. We share authorship in Stacy Juba's amazing authors' anthology 25 Years in the Rear View Mirror -- and I was excited to discover the strong connections to "place" as well as history in the books Donna writes. Thanks, Donna, for bringing us into your "sense of place."
We lived in New England for three years long ago when my husband was in graduate school. Although I was happy to return to family and friends in the West, I found myself crying every autumn. I wanted to drive down those little country lanes overhung with blazing red and gold maple trees. I wanted to stop at little roadside stands to buy pumpkins and little jars of homemade jam. I wanted to eat at some historic, 200-year-old inn. I was homesick. Nothing else looked, smelled, or felt right.

That experience played a large part in developing my sense of place and I have found over the years that it is a sense that has served me well as both a reader and a writer. A well-developed background is still one of the most important — maybe even the most important— aspect of any book for me. I know— I’m a mystery writer— it should be all about plot. But plots have to happen somewhere, and that somewhere can be all-important in how effective the things that happen there are.

Author at Work! Research ...
So it probably comes as no surprise that research is an important— and one of my favorite— parts of writing. I try never to write about a place I haven’t visited, and since I live in Idaho and most of my books are set in England, this can pose a considerable challenge. I make a research trip across the water every year or so and try to make each trip count for more than one book. This means I have to have my book or books planned before I go so that I can arrange to visit the exact sites I need.

I have found through the years, though, that too careful planning can work against me. If I focus too sharply on what I think I need to know I might very well miss what that location really has to offer.

As you would expect, since atmosphere is so important to me, I choose evocative places to set my books. Most often these are the remote sites of a crumbling monastery or a desart where an ancient Celtic saint withdrew for inspiration. Staying open to the ambiance and how it might affect my story is one of the most important parts of being there.

Let me give you two examples of how place produced plot from A DARKLY HIDDEN TRUTH, book 2 in my Monastery Murders series which is set largely in the Norfolk Broads, a choice I made because I had heard how evocative the whole area is.

The Broads, Father Antony, explains to  Felicity, my American heroine, are, “A very unique corner of our little island.  A vast area of wetlands that were used for peat excavation from Roman times.  Sometime in the late middle ages or so the sea levels rose and the pits filled with water.  It formed seven rivers and sixty-some wide, shallow broads that were used for transportation for centuries and recreation now.”

I couldn’t wait to get there. I could already see the mist rising from the flat, green land, hear sea birds cry and long-departed monks chanting their office.

St. Benet's Abbey
My first stop was St. Benet's Abbey. I had been told the ground was so wet that the ruins simply sank into the ooze after the Dissolution. That didn't turn out to be exactly true, but it was wet enough that one could imagine it happening. And, oddly, the Victorians had built a drainage mill in the center of the ruins of the monastery gatehouse. When I entered that conical brick structure with its round roof open to a leaden grey sky I looked down at the muddy floor beneath my feet and thought, "What a place to bury a body!"

Then I visited the beautiful St. Helen's, Ranworth, known as "The Cathedral of the Broads."  I chose it for accounts of the bogs and mists being so heavy that Cromwell’s vandals couldn’t get to it to destroy it. And, indeed, the exquisite medieval paintings are still there (Yes— they serve as clues). And then I turned to the most distinctive feature of St. Helen’s— the tower. In the midst of the process of negotiating the 89 uneven steps, 2 ladders and a trap door the visitor is warned of before starting the upward climb I knew I’d found the perfect spot for a chase scene. But can Felicity manage it fast enough to save Antony's life— and her own?

Donna Fletcher Crow is the author of 40 books, mostly novels dealing with British history.  The award-winning Glastonbury, A Novel of the Holy Grail, an Arthurian grail search epic covering 15 centuries of English history, is her best-known work.  She is also the author of The Monastery Murders: A Very Private Grave  and A Darkly Hidden Truth, as well as the Lord Danvers series of Victorian true-crime novels and the romantic suspense series The Elizabeth & Richard Mysteries. Donna and her husband live in Boise, Idaho.  They have 4 adult children and 11 grandchildren. She is an enthusiastic gardener. 
To read more about all of Donna’s books and see pictures from her garden and research trips go to: 
You can follow her on Facebook at:


Stacy Juba said...

Wow, your writing is so vivid that I feel like I'm there, Donna! I only saw London when I went to England - hopefully someday I can get to England again and do some further exploring.

Beth Kanell said...

Thank you so much for hosting me today, Beth. And I love your article on "Stories From Cemeteries" on my blog: this is an especially fun exchange since we'll be meeting in person so soon! Can't wait to see you at Kingdom Books! -- Donna Fletcher Crow

Sheila Deeth said...

Plot creates action. Place creates suspense maybe.