Last night a conversation with friends about traveling reminded me of a time in 1974 when I decided to write a YA novel with a setting in England just prior to the Norman conquest at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. I wrote the story, which involved two boys, one a son of royalty, the other a son of a charcoal maker, who become friends. It was a pretty good idea as far as it went but I was sorely lacking in the sort of details that make a story real. I could find some information about that time and place through our local library resources but not enough to help me flesh out the novel.
In the end I booked a trip to England and spent two weeks (or was it three, can’t remember now) driving around the country in search of facts I could see with my own eyes and information on English history. It was a glorious trip even though my dear M.O.W. decided not to go with me. I stayed at B&Bs, visited outdoor museums — one that featured a variety of houses and other structures from the period of my interest, another that brought together a number of ancient breeds of animals — drove all over the country visiting relics of the oldest castles I could locate, spent hours making notes everywhere I went including twelve hours one day at the British Museum, and even recorded the song of a cuckoo bird in a quiet forest where I stopped for a walk. At Oxford I asked for and received permission to spend a few hours in the Bodleian Library where I was privileged to read from ancient volumes found nowhere else in the world. I filled three notebooks with wonderful information.
One day I stopped at a crossroad to have a pint and something to eat. I learned of a small museum not far from there that sounded interesting so I went there next and met the most amazing man. He had recently retired after more than thirty years of service in the British Museum, and his specialty was the particular time in British history that I came to learn about. He knew everything I needed to know and answered my questions with precise information. I couldn’t believe my good fortune!
When I returned home, I sat down with my novel, realized how pitifully lacking it was in portraying the reality of the time, and felt the air seeping out of my resolve. It was a pathetically ignorant telling, the sort of pap one might get if someone from another country were to write a novel about American cowboys without understanding the people, issues, and times. Two weeks of driving around the country had not made me an Englishman. I would never be able to do justice to the story. THE MYSTERY OF STONECROFT CASTLE, as I had been calling the manuscript, went into a drawer, and some years later it went into the trash where it belonged. Do I look back with regret about that episode in my writing life? Not really. It was one of those lessons we have to experience personally as we learn about ourselves, what we can do, and what we cannot.