A close friend of mine decamps from the UK every year to Italy in order to get any writing done. You might think the climate had something to do with it, although it can be just as cold in the wilds of Tuscany as it is in the wilds of the Derbyshire Peak District.
I’ve managed to get quite a bit of work done over the first half of this year. Nevertheless, when I set off for the Aveyron area of southern France at the beginning of July for a month’s house and cat-sitting, I had hopes that my own writing retreat would prove fruitful.
One of the reasons for this was the company I was keeping. I travelled down from the UK through France with my American friend and fellow crime author, Libby Fischer Hellmann. Libby was on a deadline for a book she needed to finish. I really wanted to come back with a decent start made on the next in the Charlie Fox series.
At the same time, we wanted to get out and see something of the surrounding area. Libby had spent time in France years before, and her French came back to her like she’d never been away, whereas I’m a stumbling linguist at the best of times. We agreed that we would spend the mornings chipping away at the word-face, and the afternoons out and about, part exploring and—for me, at least—part researching locations where I’d like to set the book I’m working on right now.
I confess to a certain apprehension. This is the first time I have taken my own, right-hand-drive car onto Continental European roads. Fortunately, coming from the States, Libby found it natural to remind me to stay on the correct side of the road.
We took the traditional Dover-to-Calais route and our first stopover was a short hop down the coast, arriving at the Normandy beaches in thunder, lightning and flash-flooding. I was doubly glad I’d remembered to use Rain-X on all the glass in the car. Call me old-fashioned, but I do quite like to be able to see where I’m going when I’m behind the wheel of a vehicle. With that, and Mrs Google doing sat-nav duties and sending us into fits by mangling the French place names—“périphérique” became “perry-ferricker”—we arrived in good time and good temper.
The following morning was the Fourth of July. We visited the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. A stunning setting for a sobering experience. Row after row of white grave markers looking out over the tranquil beach they died to secure. That place, on that date, brought home the true price of independence.
There are certainly themes here that resonate with the new book, and after visiting I wanted to try to include them in the story.
We were not the only ones making a trip through France. In Tours, heading south, we chanced upon a Slovenian-registered big Honda, so laden down with luggage it was hard to spot the make, never mind the model. No doubt the rider, too, had stopped off to see the beautiful cathedral.
The place we were looking after is in a small town in the Aveyron area between Toulouse and Rodez, lovely open roads with little traffic, winding down to river valley bottoms with narrow stone bridges. Villages with medieval architecture of picture-postcard prettiness.
Belcastel was one such example. Set on a steep hill by the side of the Aveyron river, the ancient castle began life in the ninth century before falling into disrepair at the end of the seventeenth century. It was purchased by a French architect in 1973, who restored and extended it to the current building.
Today, the Château de Belcastel houses exhibitions and art, and it’s even possible to stay there. Not wildly expensive, either, considering the views, not to mention the fact guests have their own moat.
Working in someone else’s house, both Libby and I discovered, certainly has its advantages. For me, the temptation to renovate was removed from me. For Libby, deeply engaged with current American political shenanigans, the lack of twenty-four-hour news channels was a boon to her creativity and productivity.
I found a shady spot in the garden that appealed to me, with the butterflies flickering over the lavender and two cats to keep me company.
So, has our French writers’ retreat proved successful? Well, by the time I took Libby across to Toulouse to catch her train for Paris, where she spent a few days before flying home, she was a few pages away from the final chapter of her latest novel. And this was something she’d feared at the outset she would not be able to complete in time to meet her deadline.
As for me, I’d cautiously hoped to end my sojourn with perhaps a 15,000-word opening to the next Charlie Fox book. As I write this, I have already reached 17,000 words and should have a solid 20,000 done by the time I head up-country again next week for my return ferry.
So, having another writer—or maybe even other writers—present to encourage or lead by example, is clearly very good for me. I shall definitely be repeating this method of working. And the sunshine, lovely fresh food, and open roads of southern France proved a very good place to do so.
This week’s Word of the Week is peradventure, a Middle English word from the French par aventure, meaning perhaps as an adverb. As a noun, it means to have doubt that something is indeed the case, and is often used (when it’s used at all, as it’s a fairly archaic word) in a humorous or slightly mocking context.
Today is also the final installment of the #BlogTour for DANCING ON THE GRAVE. Thank you to everyone who joined me along the journey, and especially to those who invited me to contribute an article, or interview, or who reviewed the book to celebrate the launch at the start of July.