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.
If you were an outlaw on the run in ancient England, where would you hide?
A mountain stronghold? I considered the Highlands of Scotland, but that’s a long run from Stonehenge where my guy gets into trouble. Where would l find mountains in England?
I used the Google Maps terrain feature and found some heights to the north. Pulling up the pictorial view, I found myself on rugged, rocky slopes. Perfect! I told an English friend I had found a hideout for my character in England and she wanted to know where. “The Lake District,” I said.
Her eyes sparkled. “Oh, that’s where Merlin the Magician went.” Merlin’s haunts! Even more perfect! Merlin was from a later period than my character. Or not. Do we really know how old the magician was by the time Arthur came around?
Now I needed to visit the Lake District to see if my chosen site worked and to enhance my descriptions. In my story I call it the High Lakes. The raw mountains rise dramatically above the valley floors. And many lakes nestle among precipitous slopes, with treacherous rocky trails.
Wooded beaches add concealment.
My outlaw had a long horseback ride from Stonehenge to his High Lakes hideout, taking several days. My friend Lynn Ash and I had a long train ride, but we would do it in one day. Lynn was traveling with me now, having joined me just before visiting Stonehenge. From Amesbury near Stonehenge we took a bus to Andover and caught the train to Penrith. It’s a pleasant ride through the green fields of England with hedgerow borders giving it a patchwork quilt look.
British trains are noted for their punctuality, but when there’s an accident on the track ahead, what can they do? At our second change our train was late. When we arrived in Penrith we had only minutes to catch our bus to Keswick, the town nearest the village of Portinscale where we had booked our B&B, the Lake View.
Coming off the platform we found steps–no elevator, no escalator to make it easy to tug our large bags. I asked a young woman how far to the bus stop. She assured me it was close and started to give directions. Then she said she would show me and offered to carry my big bag. A young man took Lynn’s bag and together they led us. More angels. If they hadn’t rushed us out we’d have missed the bus and gotten into Keswick after 9 o’clock, a late arrival.
The Lake View was wonderful. Our host Stuart Muir met us at the door and showed us around. We would soon meet his wife, Catherine, who cooked our fantastic breakfasts for us. They had only three double rooms, so every morning the six guests sat around a long table for breakfast. We had delightful conversations while we feasted on full English breakfasts of eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, and more, along with a sumptuous buffet.
We had four nights there, three days to see my outlaw’s haunts. The first day I wanted to spend some leisurely hours on the shore of Buttermere, the lake where I planned to set the camp for him and his fellow fugitives. The next day I wanted to hike into the mountains, and the third day, walk to Castlerigg Stone Circle, the home circle of his cherished grandfather.
Once again, the best laid plans and all that.
After 25 days on the road I had to do laundry. So I thought I would get that done the first morning, stuffing the clothes into my tote and walking the pleasant path from Portinscale to the laundry in Keswick. Lynn, still feeling the effects of her long flight from the US, needed a nap. But she thought she might take a walk around Portinscale after her nap so she kept our only key and promised to tuck it into a secret place so I’d be able to get in when I returned.
On the way out I saw Stuart, who told me he and Catherine were going into Keswick for supplies soon. He wished me well and I went on my way, giving no thought to what his remark could mean to me. I enjoyed the Portinscale-Keswick path over the river, past lovely bluebells, and through the pasture. My father raised sheep on the farm where I grew up but I had never seen black lambs with white ears. They were frisky and adorable.
After leaving my clothes at the laundry I returned to the B&B. The door was locked as usual. I rang. No answer. I checked for the key. No key. I rang and rang. Of course our hosts were in Keswick and Lynn must still be asleep. I should have known better. I knew what jet lag could do.
Finally giving up, I went to the nearby cafe to grab something quick for lunch. I was eating my scone when a man sat across from me. I looked up, surprised to see Stuart. “You’re locked out,” he said.
“Yes, I am.”
It was a bit of a kerfuffle, but the upshot was that I missed the last morning bus to Buttermere. The next bus wouldn’t come for two hours. I would lose two precious hours in Buttermere. I wouldn’t arrive there until 2:24 and the last return bus to Portinscale left Buttermere at 5:18. I would barely get out to the intended site before I had to turn around and walk back. I was frustrated, angry, not at anybody, just at the situation–and at myself for not seeing the clues. Lynn felt terrible but it wasn’t her fault. She opted not to take the hurried trip to Buttermere. But I wasn’t willing to give up even that small amount of time. I would go alone.
I waited at the nearest bus stop. The bus rolled right past me. I ran to the next stop down the street and caught it before it left. The driver seemed grumpy when I asked for a return ticket to Buttermere.
The bus circled the district on narrow roads that wound through trees and lakes, up into spectacular mountains, and through the raw crags of Honister Pass. The picture above, taken through the bus window, may not be the best photo, but it shows the rugged slopes. Roads were barely wide enough for the bus to pass a car, so vehicles often came to a full stop before proceeding. Wide eyes peered from passing cars. Sometimes it was just a matter of avoiding a scrape. Other times, precipitous drops.
When we reached the village of Buttermere the driver kindly told me I could catch a later return bus, a 6:20 back to Keswick. I happily told him that would work. I had to go into Keswick for dinner anyway, Portinscale having few restaurants. That gave me an extra hour. I thanked him, much relieved. He seemed quite friendly now. I think he was annoyed with me before because I was standing on the wrong side of the street (the British all drive on the wrong side of the road) and when I spoke to buy my ticket he realized from my accent that I wasn’t from there and he gave me some slack.
I set out to explore the lake. I strolled past another sheep pasture at the west end of the lake, across a bridge, and out along the walkway bordering the southern shore.
At first the woods were too steep, but I eventually found a flatter site alongside a bubbling creek, which looked like a good option.
The trees in these woods are mostly conifers, which aren’t native to the area. So plans are to cut those out and replace them with native deciduous trees, mostly a small variety of oaks. When I envision my outlaws in the camp I have to screen out all the straight conifers and imagine gnarly oaks. If you look closely at the photo below you’ll see a vertical line through the wooded slope. On the left, above Buttermere, it’s mostly conifers. On the right the conifers have been replaced with round-topped deciduous trees.
Even with the extra time, I had to rush through the woods where I planned to place my hideout. I only walked about halfway down the lake, and instead of wandering and absorbing I hurried along the path taking quick pictures, doing my best to capture the essence of the place in the time I had.
The next day I wanted to get a much earlier bus for my hike into the mountains. I had already scaled back my plans. Google Maps showed a walk to what they call the Pillar that didn’t look bad. When I told Stuart I wanted to walk there he glanced at my low walking shoes and shook his head. I had left my serious hiking boots home, not wanting to carry them. He assured me it was a long day’s hike to the Pillar but I could do a shorter walk to the first ridge that would give me a nice overlook. Lynn wasn’t keen on the hike, so again I would go alone. She opted to take the circle bus ride I’d raved about.
We waited at the bus stop. And waited. The scheduled time slipped past. We eventually learned there was an accident on Honister Pass. The bus didn’t come until after lunch. The 1:36. It wouldn’t get me over there until almost 2:30. How would I ever do the hike in the time left?
My favorite driver was at the wheel. I told him I wanted to get off at Gatesgarth, the nearest stop to the trailhead, at the east end of Buttermere. Shortly after the passage through the raw slopes of Honister Pass he stopped the bus and called out something I didn’t understand. I looked at the mountains beside us and hoped he hadn’t said what I thought. He turned to face me and said quite clearly, “This is Gatesgarth.”
I faced the mountain again. Holy shmoly!
I have hiked in the Cascades and the Rockies. I walk up the mountain outside my door nearly every day. I was not prepared for this trail.
After crossing the flat field I began to climb. The first tenth of a mile or so was a steep incline of stones that formed a ragged staircase. I checked each step to be sure of safe footing. Realizing I had better eat my simple lunch, I stopped in the shade halfway up that first incline. I was going to need my strength. I’d brought a banana and three of Catherine’s nourishing cookies chock-full of seeds and nuts and enough sugar to give me a boost. And water.
Beyond a dogleg turn the trail had a few gravelly stretches between more staircases of uneven stones. No more shade. The sun beat down. My pack grew heavy. My shoes weren’t adequate for the conditions. Time kept creeping by. Was it even possible to make the ridge and get back to the bus stop for the last bus out? I sat on one of the stone steps to consider.
A couple came down the hill. I asked if the trail got any better farther up. They said no. We chatted awhile. They thought I probably shouldn’t be doing the trail alone, given the treacherous rock. Every step up, I would have to go down, even more hazardous. If I turned back now I could walk the length of Buttermere. Take more time. Absorb the site. And I had hiked far enough to get a feel for the mountain. Maybe halfway to the ridge. Maybe a third. I’m not a person who gives up easily, but I turned back.
The next day’s walk to Castlerigg Circle seemed like a breeze in comparison. One of the oldest circles in Europe–older than Stonehenge but younger than Portugal’s Almendres Cromlech–Castlerigg lies within a wider ring of mountains that enhance the wonder.
We enjoyed a last look at the beauties of the Lake District and saw the sun set on Crummock Water, the lake northwest of Buttermere. Lynn walked ahead toward the setting sun as I took a picture. I’d gained a vivid sense of the place even if things didn’t go as planned, and I would keep a warm spot in my heart for this beautiful stronghold and for our wonderful hosts.
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.