It’s early morning and I’m driving through Co. Cork, Ireland, or rather being driven – my Dad tried to teach me when I was 16, but after the old banger (car not Dad) exploded halfway up a Devon hill I gave up. So, Lee is the designated chauffeur. He doesn’t mind. He has a new Mini. I’m here on the first research trip for the new book, second in the Insurrection Trilogy. I have a working title but Book 2 feels comfortably tentative for the moment. It’s set to be a whirlwind tour – 2000 miles in 8 days on roads with potholes the size of lunar craters.
The land rises steadily before us as we head towards Co. Kerry and the sun is shining. When I told my editor that the forecast looked good for Ireland this week he said, I’ve heard of optimism, but… (Note to self, must remember to gloat when I speak to him next). Usually, on research trips I bring a Dictaphone, but the bloody thing is still sitting in my desk drawer in Brighton so I’ve stolen one of Lee’s moleskin notepads and am trying valiantly to write as we rock and roll from crater to chasm.
A couple of hours later we arrive at the aptly named village of Waterville, set on a strip of land bordered on one side by the Atlantic and on the other by Lough Currane. It is the lough I am here for, or more specifically a flat green hump in the middle of it called Church Island, which is peppered with ruins. Our B&B is on the shore, chosen for the fact that the owner Ann McCarthy can organize a boat. She’s ready for us when we arrive and her father, Donal, takes us straight out on the water. His father used to run the same trip and grainy black and white photos in the house hint at the family in other days. A sense of timelessness pervades here. Ancient hills climb to shadowed peaks in the east and north, and slow moving clouds are reflected in the lough.
It takes about 5 minutes to cross to the island, which features in the first few chapters of Book 2. I can’t say too much without giving the plot away, but it holds the ruins of a 12th century church, which has been connected (although this is debated by archeologists) with St Malachy, the Archbishop of Armagh who cursed the Bruce family. This is where location research really comes into its own: when the landscape looks almost as it would have done centuries ago. Often, you’re not that lucky. I’ve stood on a hillside in the area where the Battle of Falkirk was fought, surrounded by fluorescent-jacketed workmen and diggers, a housing estate going up around me. Here, I only have to squint to remove the few bungalows dotted along the banks and fill in with forest where now hills studded with sheep open out. All at once I am there, on a frozen winter dawn, waves whispering across the pale rocks on the shore, men moving in the half-light, torches guttering.
During the past ten years of writing I have tried to visit as many of the places in my novels as possible, but it isn’t always feasible. Crusade was particularly tricky. Just as I was planning to go to the Middle East war broke out in the Lebanon and even if I had made it there would’ve been no chance of me getting into Mecca. At these times, history books and personal accounts are everything, along with a healthy imagination. It can be done and done well; Costa prizewinner Stef Penney famously did it in The Tenderness of Wolveshaving never visited the book’s setting in Canada. But over the past couple of years, having been fortunate enough to make it to most of the locations in Requiem and Insurrection,I’ve discovered that even the most graphic, well-written history text cannot give you the same 3D experience as the landscape can. The land has its own narrative, in the loops of rivers and the silhouettes of mountains, the smells of wild flowers and saltwater, the crumbled remains of settlements and burial grounds. It is a subtle story that becomes fainter the further back you go, but you can still hear it, if you listen hard enough.
While Donal leaves us to check on his sheep (in a fit of blonde I think they must have swum across, but of course they’re brought by boat to keep the grass down), we walk to the west end of the island passing a 6th century beehive cell connected with St Finan. The cell (beehive because of the domed shape) is remarkably intact, missing only the roof and that apparently caved in only recently. Here we find the bloody bones of lambs and birds and after worrying that Donal’s sheep are carnivorous, we make our way back along the foundations of 18th and 19th century houses to the church. I try to imagine living here in any century. The wild solitude of it all. We look at medieval grave slabs decorated with Celtic crosses and Lee trumps me by finding an old millstone. My notes written up and a location decided upon for the passage in Book 2 that brought me here, we head back to the boat.
Out on the water, I ask Donal about the weather here in winter. Would Robert see snow on the mountains in February? And how long would it take someone to row across (our boat has an outboard motor)? These are the details few books would tell me. I’m told it takes about twenty minutes to row to the north shore and that snow is rare, except for in the winter just gone; the worst he’d seen in almost half a century.
The next morning we make to leave for Galway. The sun is shining again and the lough is, well I can’t say glassy it’s cliché, but that’s exactly what it is – a perfect mirror of sky and mountain. As we pack up the Mini, Ann tells us that a few weeks back a sea eagle swooped past the house and snatched up a goose from the lough shore. Bones mystery solved.