We flew out of Shannon airport on our homeward-bound journey. Lynn and I had bought our tickets separately so we weren’t seated together. For the Shannon-Philadelphia leg of the trip I took my seat by the window and a couple of young Irishmen sat beside me. They were on their way to San Francisco, a place where I had lived for eight years. So as the plane lifted off I left their world as they looked forward to visiting mine. They had both just turned 21. Their boisterous excitement was infectious and I laughed with them, caught in their delight.
My trip wasn’t quite over. Setbacks awaited me in Los Angeles when our Philadelphia-LA plane landed late in LAX, where we had a short connection. Seated in the very last row, I had trouble getting past the other passengers, and we had long lines and two slow buses across the tarmac to reach my gate. Lynn was well ahead of me.
By the time I found my gate, panting from my run, there were no passengers left, just an attendant standing alone at the gate. She asked me if I was Janet Fisher. Hopeful they were waiting for me, I answered yes in a gasping voice. She phoned the plane and shook her head at me. “They’ve already left. You’re too late.” No! That couldn’t be. “My friend is already on the plane,” I told her. “I have to be on that plane.”
The phone rang. The pilot had agreed to open the door for me. The plane hadn’t actually pulled away. I broke into tears. The attendant led me to the plane’s door. Once inside, I stumbled down the aisle as passengers applauded with smiling faces. Lynn was beaming and gave me a big hug when I sat down, still crying softly. She had begged them to wait, certain I was coming.
Exhausted, I settled back in the seat for the last leg of our journey, slowly recovering from that arduous finale to a long and wonderful trip—37 days of exploring the world of my ancient series.
During those 37 days I became steeped in the past, as I sought the places that define these stories.
I had the good fortune of meeting several archeologists whose work takes them into the ancient times. And others who simply love their history.
I felt the raw edge of cultures different from my own and the universal embrace of friendly people.
I immersed myself in the book settings and felt my characters walking along these places. As I walked with them I remembered their tears and joys. My own tears came, and my joy.
What was the best part of my recent trip to Greece, Portugal, the UK, and Ireland?
People have asked me the question, and that has to be my answer. Out of many remarkable experiences this one stands out for the majesty of the site–and for the unexpected thrill.
Imagine these towers whole. Step back 3,000 or 4,000, maybe even 5,000 years and imagine the watchful warriors of western Iberia holding power over a vast region from this lofty citadel overlooking the rolling hills and the sea north of today’s Lisbon, Portugal. Iberian characters in my series ruled here about 3,400 years ago.
Even the name sounds exotic, magical, pronounced zam´-boo-zhol.
I learned about this mysterious citadel when I was well into writing my fifth book in the series. Some of my main characters live on the south shore of Ireland, where warriors from Iberia have been stealing their children for slaves. I set up my fictional scenario in the beginning with only two tribes of Iberia being advanced enough to have seagoing ships that could reach Ireland, one on Iberia’s west coast (now in Portugal), one on the east (now in Spain). Imagine my surprise when I kept digging for information and learned that scholars believe there actually were only two city-states in the Iberian peninsula that enjoyed advanced civilizations during the period of my stories, one on the west coast, one east. When I read that I sat back in my chair. I had just made that up and it turned out to be true. Hm-m… Okay then.
The western culture was centered at Castro do Zambujal, the formidable citadel shown here. It had become a major setting for my books, and I needed to see this place. After leaving Greece this was the first research stop on my itinerary in Portugal.
I booked a room at Torres Vedras, the modern city nearest to Zambujal. Unable to find information beforehand on how to visit the site, which lay in the countryside a few miles from town, I inquired at the hotel desk soon after my arrival. The young woman at the desk said I would probably have to take a taxi out there, but she could arrange that with a young driver who spoke excellent English. She didn’t know of any tours but suggested I ask at the museum across the square.
At the museum I asked the woman at the entrance if they had any tours to Zambujal. “Oh, no!” she said. “You can’t go to Zambujal now. The archeologists are working there. You’ll have to come back in September.”
I bent toward her, insistent. “That’s not going to work. I came here all the way from the US. I can’t come back in September. I need to see it now.”
I told her about my books and that I needed to see and feel this place and its setting so I could describe it. A man stepped up and I repeated my situation to him. We began talking about the importance of the site. Somewhere in there he stepped away and returned to tell me he had phoned Sónia Cravo, the head of the archeological project there.
He said I could take a taxi out to the edge of the site, take my pictures, and leave. Sónia might be willing to see me for a moment. She might not. I agreed. At least I would see the setting.
The man, perhaps sensing my disappointment, led me into the museum to show me a model of the site and pictures and many artifacts found there–pottery, tools, weapons, gold, and more. They did have a fine exhibit on Zambujal, and he was obviously quite proud of it. He introduced himself as Carlos, and we talked about the history, sharing our enthusiasm for that.
Back at the hotel I learned that the young taxi driver who spoke English was not available. An older man would drive me out to Zambujal. He didn’t speak English but the woman at the hotel would explain everything to him before we left. We agreed on a price for him to take me there, wait a few minutes while I took pictures, then return.
Wind whipped the car, carrying droplets of mist, as he drove over the green slopes and up the steep incline to the lofty site where archeologists in bright vests scrambled over the ancient stonework.
We parked nearby and a fellow strode toward us. I got out to explain that Carlos from the museum had said I could come take a few pictures. “Could I talk to Sónia?” I asked.
He left, and soon an attractive woman in a bright vest stepped across a rocky path toward me, dark hair blowing in the steady wind. She greeted me and I told her I was researching for my books with settings at Zambujal. A young man in a vest approached and she smiled. “Fábio speaks good English. He will go with us so he can explain.” She had been concerned about her own English. That was her hesitation in seeing me.
Fábio’s face lit up when he welcomed me, introducing himself as Fábio Rocha. “Fábio means wall and Rocha means rock,” he said, “wall from the rocks. What could I be but an archeologist?”
We all laughed. They began showing me the perimeter of the site where low rocks marked the line of the outer walls, and we took pictures of each other.
The wind never stopped, although thankfully the drizzle did.
As they led me through the site, pointing out the bases of the round towers and other features, they talked about their work there and I described my stories and how I hoped to use this setting, wondering if my ideas fit into the reality of their findings. They occasionally spoke together in Portuguese, and he relayed what she was saying. I showed them a photo I had just taken of the model at the museum, and they told me how the current walls fit into that whole.
They wished they could show me the inside, which they said was the most interesting, but that seemed to be off limits. Then Sónia rushed away. Fábio said she was going to see if the local authority would allow them to take me inside. Sónia hurried back, face aglow. They could take me in. We were all excited.
By that time they had been with me for almost half an hour. I glanced occasionally at my taxi driver who was strolling back and forth by his car, but I couldn’t give this up now.
They led me through the main South Gate into the interior of Zambujal. I felt like an honored guest. The gate gave me a sense of the restrictive nature of the place with its thick high walls and narrow passageway. I imagined my antagonist strutting into his domain, and my protagonist running down a narrow corridor, buffeted between her desires and fears.
Once inside, Fábio offered me a hand. “These rocks aren’t steady,” he said. Not only had I stepped into the inner workings of the archeological project, some of the surfaces were a bit challenging. We climbed to the top of a wall–wide by the standards of most walls, but narrow when you start walking across and look down on both sides. I readily grabbed a helpful hand.
We came out on top of walls overlooking the inner sanctum where the ancient Iberians had created loopholes for archers to shoot through, still plainly visible. This would have been the citadel’s last defense, where the elites could hole up if attackers ever managed to storm the outer walls. More walls were added over the years in several phases. It was amazing to see this enclosure still so complete after thousands of years.
By the time we left the interior Sónia and Fábio had been with me almost an hour. I thanked them profusely for the time they were giving me. Fábio said, “Why do we do this work if we don’t share it with the people? This is why we do it.” I so appreciated that sentiment, and their generosity.
We exchanged contact information and they invited me to write and ask if I have any questions. When I did write to thank them they wrote me back and repeated that kind offer. I was thrilled. I gained so much in that time with them, between the feel of the place and the discussion of where my story fit in. But their warmth surrounded me as well. I felt a little sorry my Iberians were the bad guys, although Fábio laughed about that, and I assured them there would be good people there too.
The last picture on the site shows Sónia looking across the walls to the hilly countryside below–and my taxi waiting. Fábio said you could see the ocean from there on a clear day. At the time of my story the sea filled one of the valleys and formed a narrow bay that came close to Zambujal, where it might have offered shelter for ships.
I apologized to the taxi driver for my long stay and promised I would pay more than we agreed. The numbers had ticked up on his meter. Although he didn’t speak English, he understood.
Back in Torres Vedras we settled on a price that made us both happy. It had been worth every euro.
I also went back to the museum to thank Carlos for his help, and he was delighted to hear about my wonderful tour.
Zambujal shall always remain for me a magic place.
Before I launch into Day One about my recent research trip through Greece and Portugal, the UK and Ireland, it occurs to me that it might help clarify my reasons for this journey and my reasons for writing the ancient historical series if I backtrack to the beginning. My focus on the Greek Isle of Crete started in 1994 when I set out to research a mystery novel on that exotic Mediterranean island. I had been writing books and pursuing publication for about 14 years, without success. I had moved from Roseburg, Oregon, to San Francisco in late 1989, ending a long-term marriage, and I was seeking answers for my life.
During this time I read a New York Times bestselling book by Riane Eisler called The Chalice and the Blade, where she describes nothing less than the overturning of the world’s cultural norms from woman-centered civilizations to a patriarchal world ruled by contentious warriors. I was fascinated. One chapter stood out for me, where she describes Crete as the “essential difference.” Because of its isolation in the Mediterranean Sea, this island remained one of the last holdouts of those woman-centered cultures. Its primary city of Knossos offered stunning revelations about these Bronze Age people when archeologists began uncovering the fabulous ruins some 100 years ago. Eisler describes Crete as the highest technological culture ever found where women were not dominated by men. I wanted to see this place.
When I visited Knossos and stepped into the partially reconstructed ruins of its central structure, the place seemed to wrap itself around me like a mother’s loving arms. I no longer wanted to write my mystery novel. I wanted to immerse myself in this world and come to know the mystery of the ancients who once thrived there.
The British archeologist Sir Arthur Evans who uncovered Knossos in the early 1900s was struck by what he found–grand staircases and pillar-lined corridors, technological wonders like flush toilets and an elaborate drainage system, frescoes revealing a free and sensuous lifestyle with women standing proud at the center. He believed he’d found a matriarchy but as a man of his times he thought they needed a king to run it. He saw this as the Palace of King Minos mentioned by Homer and Hesiod. But later scholars suggest it may have been a temple, an idea I adopted for my books, and I drew from one of Eisler’s thoughts on King Minos, depicting him as a Mycenaean warrior with designs on Crete–and a couple of Cretan women.
While in Crete I met a man who helped me understand the attraction, the delight, the frustration that can happen when cultures clash. The experience found its way into my story which opens on this peaceful isle on the day the warriors come.
The frescoes shown here are reproductions of originals that are housed in the excellent Archaeological Museum in nearby Heraklion, Crete, the island’s primary modern city. The bull-leaping fresco appears in the opening scene of my book now called Beyond the Waning Moon. And readers will experience a bull-leaping event in the second scene when the protagonist faces a fierce bull in the court.
I wrote the book and continued editing and revising for several years as I sought its publication. Riane Eisler kindly critiqued the opening and when I addressed her concerns she called the result powerful, responding “Brava!” The novel eventually became a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest. The next year I found a way to tie the people of Crete to their counterparts in the distant isle of Ireland, another place that had touched me deeply and where I have personal roots.
My search for life’s answers led me to mythologist Joseph Campbell and especially his four-volume work, The Masks of God. My focus riveted on his discussion of Ireland and how he could see behind the Irish myths to a culture of Mother Right, essentially a matriarchy that would have preceded the later patriarchy. As Eisler points out in Chalice and the Blade, this isn’t the flip side of patriarchy where women rule over men but more of an egalitarian society accepting the full worth of both genders. Neither writer suggests any kind of utopia but at least a much more equal situation than we came to know.
I first visited Ireland in 1993 because of my Irish roots and had set one of those mystery novels there. But I wanted to tap into the ancient times that paralleled my Cretan story and find the lost culture of Mother Right, which Campbell talked about.
The Cretans of the first book in my ancient saga decide to send out a fleet in search of a place the warriors haven’t come. These early Cretans were known as great mariners, their frescoes and other art showing them sailing around the Mediterranean. I figured if they could sail around the eastern Mediterranean they could surely venture to the west and even out through the gate to the Atlantic, as long as they kept the shores in sight. But for a little excitement they get caught in a horrific storm and one ship crashes on the rugged rocks on Ireland’s south coast. Voila! A sequel–albeit loosely tied.
I completed the sequel in 2004 and went back to Ireland in the spring of that year, focused now on stone circles and this rugged south coast near Rosscarbery in County Cork.
I again entered the PNWA literary contest, and this Irish one was a finalist too, just one year after the Cretan book. I thought I was surely on the road to publication then, but could not find an agent for these stories of strong women facing formidable challenges of their time. I began to get discouraged.
My father died in 2007 and I decided to keep the farm founded by my great-great-grandmother Martha in 1868. I left the ancient stories on the shelf and pursued a story about Martha, discovering I had a strong woman in my family who’d faced challenges of her own time. Finally I found an agent, Rita Rosenkranz, who helped me meet my goal of publication with Martha’s story.
But I hadn’t forgotten the ancients. I had a flash of inspiration about the Cretan story and decided to make substantial changes. When I finished those I realized I definitely needed another sequel that would be closely tied. I wanted to launch into it but I had another story set in the same pioneer period as Martha’s story. My agent and I agreed I should take advantage of the publisher’s interest and bring that pioneer story out first.
By the spring of 2014, with the two pioneer stories in the pipeline, I finally had time to draft the closely tied sequel to the Cretan book. By Christmas I was ready to write one more book to continue the ancient line, but it just wasn’t happening until my muse started whispering to me. I told about that experience on a blog post here so won’t repeat it. This fourth book was drafted by the spring of 2015. I had planned to write a fifth that would bring Crete and Ireland back together but realized I had a 16-year gap in the Irish years. Why not fill the gap with another story?
Because of all the questions I had left at the end of the first Irish book, I wanted to portray the events of those 16 years. I would take readers to the homeland of the Iberians who’d been capturing slaves off the coast of Ireland. I would show my bad guy in his personal haunts.
But the Iberians couldn’t all be brutes, could they? I learned about their amazing citadel of Zambujal north of today’s Lisbon. They must have enjoyed a sophisticated culture I needed to know more about.
And I would take readers to the Great Isle of Britain where my protagonist runs into some intriguing outlaws in the Lake District of northern England.
I finished the rough draft of the gap story in 2016. Then in 2017 I drafted the sixth book, which took me back to Iberia.
I had never been to the Iberian peninsula, where there’s a stone circle (or oval) more ancient than the circles of Ireland. I needed to see that, as well as Zambujal. And I had never been to the Lake District in England.
Also, the new books ventured into places in Greece and Ireland I hadn’t visited before. Thus the need for another trip. Once you’ve crossed the pond, that’s the biggest single expense. I decided I might as well put it all together.
So, that’s how the project started and why the extended trip. Next up, I invite you to come with me on my solo journey in Greece and Portugal and my continued trek with writer friend Lynn Ash through the British Isles. I’ll start the next post with Day One in Heraklion, Crete, and the nearby site of Knossos I have come to love.