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.
Stonehenge impacts. It just does. Despite detractors who want to say this is better, that’s better, you can’t get inside, whatever, there is no other stone circle in the world quite like it. The dressed sarsens with their phenomenal bulk. The horizontal lintels that look as if giants had placed them. The bold position on Britain’s wide Salisbury plain. Power resonates.
I felt that power as we walked toward the great stones, just as my characters feel it in my stories. Stone circles play a significant role in my series when we visit Ireland, and my Éireann characters of the Irish clans have a fascination with this grand megalith so different from their own village circles. Some of the characters have the opportunity to visit. Others envision it.
The site was carved out about 5,000 years ago when people dug a circular ditch. About 500 years later others erected the first stones. Those were the smaller bluestones, a type of stone not found in this area, but which scholars believe were brought all the way from Wales, a herculean task. The quarry has been located and stone cuts matched, pretty strong evidence. But why? No one knows. The giant sarsens came later, and over time the arrangement of the stones saw several changes.
My writer friend Lynn Ash had joined me on my trip the day before our visit to Stonehenge, and we took the obligatory photos.
I first saw Stonehenge in 1993 when I was researching another long-abandoned book. That was before the new Visitor Center. You don’t have to pay to see Stonehenge. It’s right out there on the Salisbury plain, visible from the road and from trails that cross the fields. A fence holds you back a ways. But if you want to get as close as Lynn and I are in these photos and experience the Visitor Center (and it is an experience), you pay. Not a small fee. We each paid about $23 for a set time slot to enter, although you can take as long as you want, once inside the compound.
Compared with the wonderful Almendres Cromlech in Portugal (see “Going There #8”), a site that’s free and wide open to whatever the public and weather may do to it, Stonehenge has become a local industry. Yet somehow that doesn’t diminish the experience–when you give yourself to the wonder.
The Visitor Center is remarkably well done. Most intriguing is the 360-degree theater in the round where you stand in the center of the stones while seasons and centuries pass. That makes up a little for the fact that a rope around the real stones keeps you out of the center (except for special occasions, like the summer solstice, when people are allowed in, which you no doubt have to reserve far in advance).
The theater’s effect offers a dramatic experience. Many other fine exhibits explain the site and display archeological finds. Outdoors, typical houses of the early period have been erected, and you can step inside to see where people slept.
I’m not sure about that pillow. I’m of the flatter pillow school.
A sample stone below shows how the giant sarsens might have been moved to the site in those long-ago days. I had to tap the stone. It’s plastic but illustrates nonetheless.
Lynn and I opted to walk to and from the circle. The Visitor Center is a little over a mile away, leaving the circle to stand free and open in its grand position. The day was gorgeous, and the easy stroll allowed us a long view of the stones and the effect of the approach–as my characters would have experienced it. We took the road going to the circle and went back to the center on a trail through the field. A lovely walk.
We had contemplated going to Avebury afterward, another wonderful site where the village is set among giant stones and you can touch them. I had been there before and enjoyed not only the stones, but a lovely high tea in the tearoom of an elegant manor, and I had lured Lynn into this trip promising her “scones among the stones.”
Well, we didn’t have a car, and bus connections would have given us more bus time than tea time. Taxis were expensive there, and we were exhausted. Lynn had taken the grueling trip across the pond just the day before our Stonehenge excursion and hadn’t slept on the flight or very much the night before her departure. I had only flown from Lisbon, but our meeting at London’s Heathrow airport hadn’t exactly been a snap.
Lynn had seemed worried about navigating that huge airport, but I had reassured her that my flight would land about an hour before hers and I could be waiting for her when she came off the plane. We had our iPhones in case it took a moment for us to find each other. The best laid plans and all that. My flight was late, very late. Hers was early. When I rushed into the airport, trying to connect with her, I got no answer. I got delayed in a huge line at border control. While moving slowly through that line I tried email, texts, phone. No response.
Friendly airport personnel helped us–more angels. As soon I got free of border control and found my bag I headed for her terminal–just as she headed for mine. We were striding across moving walkways when we looked up and saw each other. What a relief! We had bus tickets to Amesbury, the small town near Stonehenge, and the bus station was right between the terminals. We made it in plenty of time. But the distress took a toll.
Now we’d spent so long at Stonehenge we gave up on Avebury, but as we sat resting in our room at the delightful Fairlawn Hotel in Amesbury we decided to take an evening stroll to Woodhenge, a satellite site within easy walking distance. We were surely up to a pleasant walk out through the edge of the lovely town. We didn’t account for traffic that buzzed along beside us like freeway traffic on a narrow road, so close to the sidewalk I felt as if a wobble would put me right in a car’s path. But we survived to see this unusual site. A quiet, peaceful place.
Lynn snapped my picture sitting on the concrete stumps where wooden poles once rose.
On the way back we took a side path to walk a short way along the famous River Avon. That offered another respite of quiet and peace with a generous touch of beauty.
As I put this post together, selecting photos from the many I took, I noticed something in the photo at the top of the post that I hadn’t noticed before–the picture labeled “Stonehenge.” An odd shadow. I give a closer look here. Do you see it? Probably a strange slant of the light against the stones.
But it put me in mind of the shadows that linger across this old world. Sometimes the shadows seem to come alive where the past remains so visible, as in these ancient works in stone. Or the crumbling citadels of Greece and Portugal, where archeologists work to ferret out the hidden secrets.
Bringing the past to life is what I try to do in my stories–whether from our own country’s pioneer past in A Place of Her Own and The Shifting Winds, or in these ancient times of my new series. I would keep searching, keep reaching, trying to see into the shadows to bring out the light of a people who did walk in these places, portrayed as truly as I can through the fictional characters in their imagined lives.
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.
I’ve just returned from a trip to research sites for my upcoming series set in Greece and Ireland and points in between and will be sharing my adventures on this trek over the next few weeks. I started in the wonderful Greek Isle of Crete where I visited the center of the first stories, the ancient ruins of Knossos.
This fabulous site was uncovered about 100 years ago after being buried for some 3,000 years. The archeologist restored parts of the buildings, the unique red columns, steps, and rooms, a controversial practice not accepted by today’s archeologists. But the reconstructions do offer a sense of the place I found intriguing. It was a visit to Crete several years ago that started my whole series. When I saw Knossos I knew I wanted to write about these ancient people known today as the Minoans. So I began to write what would become my opening book in a series.
I visited Greece a couple of times before this year’s trip and Stonehenge in England, and visited Ireland a couple of times as well, but as I continue with the series, new books take my characters to different places in these lands, sites I had not seen before, and I wanted to see those places on this trip.
So, why do I go? I could try to create an entire world in my own imagination, with a little help from Google Maps. But if my setting takes the reader to a real place, I’d like to see and feel the place firsthand. Why isn’t my imagination enough? Well, for one thing the natives tend to get annoyed when you misrepresent their landscapes. But there’s more to seeing a place than getting the description right.
I believe every place has a personality that comes out of the nature of the land, the people who touch it and change it. For historicals, can I feel the echoes of people who lived there before? Echoes of events that affected their lives? Maybe. I’d like to believe so. It certainly seems to happen.
Maybe I’m only reflecting my own feelings off the land around me. But what if there’s a resonance reflecting back? I’ll reach for that. Open myself to it. Let it come in, perhaps in the moment I walk in that place, perhaps later as memory and inspiration slip into my mind.
While in Crete I also visited peaceful Fodhele Beach where a battle rages in one of my books. The water is so clear you can see the rocks in the bottom far out from the shore.
From Crete I went on to the Isle of Santorini, officially called Thera or Thira. Anglicized spellings vary in Greece due to the translations from a language with a different alphabet. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
Next stop was lovely Nafplio in the Peloponnese peninsula on the Greek mainland. From there I took day trips to the ancient Mycenaean sites of Tiryns and Mycenae itself, home of the warriors who sail to Crete in about 1470 B.C. and change the island forever.
From Greece I flew to Portugal to visit the ancient citadel of Zambujal north of Lisbon and had an amazing experience I’ll talk about in a later post. It had to do with modern-day archeologists working on this site, as shown above.
More wonderful encounters awaited me near Évora in Portugal’s interior.
From Portugal I flew to London’s Heathrow Airport where I met my writer friend, Lynn Ash, who would continue the trek with me.
After a little struggle finding each other (more on that later), we took a bus to the charming town of Amesbury, which is only a couple of miles from the famous stone circle, Stonehenge.
The next day we visited those massive stones, along with a gazillion or so ravens. Caught a couple in my photo. They seemed to add to the haunting aspect of the ancient circle.
From Amesbury we traveled north to the Lake District where we were surprised by the rugged mountains and thrilled to the beauty of the lakes. I got partway up a trail above Buttermere Water, where the outlaws in one of my books hang out. The trail never got much easier than what you see below.
From the lakes we wended our way into Scotland and across to Cairnryan on the coast where we caught the ferry to Ireland, center of my later books, which intertwine with the first three. We finally reached Rosscarbery and the bay I call Golden Eagle Bay for the Golden Eagle Clan of my story whose village lies a short way above this cove.
As daylight dimmed on the bay the search for story sites came to a close. I had a much stronger impression of the places I visit in story. It will take time to absorb all I’ve seen, but already these worlds have become clearer in my mind, and I want to pass that clarity on to my readers. From this overview I’ll share the highlights on my blog in more detail in the coming weeks and hope you’ll join me on this trek from Greece to Portugal to the UK to Ireland, 37 days of reaching into the hearts of lands where my characters roam.