Those who know me or have visited this blog before, will know that I am writing a large WIP (Work In Progress) with the working title of Despenser. And in the middle of that I am also rewriting my MA novella to be published as an e-book (Devil To Pay) – something I stupidly thought was going to be a quick and easy affair. Just a few tweaks here and there and it would be done. Not so.
I even, in my blind optimism, thought that no more research would be necessary: I’d done the weaponry and the science behind solar flares when I wrote the original; I’d even been to Wayland’s Smithy to check out the location for one of the book’s pivotal scenes. Once again, wrong!
Another pivotal scene takes place in a castle on the Welsh Marches (you see, I always manage to get a castle in somewhere!). Just before rewriting this scene I looked at the position of the castle on a map and decided it was too far west for what I’d written. Arrggh!
Cue a couple of hours pouring over Google Maps (good old Google maps!), looking at satellite views, walking times and terrain. The scene was then relocated to a barn in a field by a river (there had to be a river!), but somehow that just didn’t work: barns don’t just appear in the middle of nowhere, and certainly not next to a river. I don’t mind a bit of artistic licence but that scenario just made me too uncomfortable with its unlikeliness.
So the setting was relocated again, and sort of downgraded as well, to a shed in a wood – on the edge of a field. It worked a bit better (although a convenient isolated shed was also rather unlikely) and I rewrote using that. However, upon reading it back, it just… lacked something. That something was atmosphere; it really needed a stonking setting to match the action and somehow a shed just didn’t have enough stonk.
So, back to the castle again. Even with it being further west than I’d have liked, I now knew I could write that into the story – and it would still sound better than explaining a convenient barn or shed. The castle had a river next to it too. Brilliant! From what I could see on Google, my main characters could venture to the river to fill their water bottles before coming back to gaze on the Black Mountains as per the original script. As an afterthought, I then looked at the site on an OS map. Hmmm. I looked at the gradient lines between the castle and river: instead of a gentle slope, it looked like a bloody great cliff! And there were houses really close by too. I made an executive decision to go out and look at the place myself, the very next day. A ‘research field trip’ (as I call them) was called for!
Grosmont Castle stands (well, what’s left of it, stands) fifteen and a half miles to the south-west of Hereford, just inside the border of Monmouthshire. It took just over an hour to get there, an hour of winding roads, lorries, hills, and, in places, single track roads (although that was thanks to the Satnav!).
I was glad I went though, because I discovered quite a few things essential to the writing of that scene:
(1) That you couldn’t see the Black Mountains from there at all! Too many other hills in the way.
(2) The drop down to the river from the castle was, indeed, very steep, but not a cliff – and it did look as though someone had made a footpath through the trees and shrubs. The river thing was at least still do-able.
(3) I had imagined that there would have been somewhere in the castle that still had some cover, where they could shelter. But an inspection revealed that everywhere was open to the sky.
(4) As I had seen on the map, there were indeed houses really close to the castle, but the castle itself provided pretty good cover and I could think of a good reason my characters would stay there.
I took lots of photos and made notes, and came away with a lot of details I wouldn’t have had if I’d relied on Google Maps, or other people’s photos alone. Actually being on the site also made me feel confident I could answer the questions that the site choice raised. In short, Grosmont Castle felt right. I’d been right about the location first draft, but I think I really needed to experience the place to have total confidence. I know it can be hard for authors always to visit the places they write about (especially if they are in another country), but if it is at all possible, I’d strongly advise you to do it. I think your connection to both the physical and the textual scene is stronger and it can also inspire fuller, sensory-driven description. At the very least, you will have got out of the house and hopefully had a great day out!