It is early April, 2008 and I am driving along a cliff on the tiniest road I have ever seen. My sister is navigating, although at this moment, both of us are scared witless and too afraid to speak. I am following the trail of my characters, Anna and Joseph, who time travel to Ireland 1844. As we creep along the road, which has just deteriorated into a lane with grass growing in the middle, I hear Anna’s voice, fresh from the pages of my book. “So you think this road is bad? Try traveling by horse cart with gale force winds slamming into you.” She is so histrionic.
Except for the crazy cliff road, driving is not as difficult as I feared. I do everything that Sean tells me to do at the car rental place. “Most tourists obsess about driving on the left and they put all their attention on the left which results in ruining the left tires with punctures and scraping off the side mirror. Don’t do that. Look at the center line of the highway, no matter if it’s broken or solid and keep it under your right shoulder. You’ll have no troubles. And give way to the drivers on the right in the roundabouts.” He was so right. But we weren’t exactly tourists; we were detectives, following clues to fictional characters and their journey in the past.
I have three goals for the research trip. First I need to follow a route that Anna takes along the southern coast of Ireland. Next, I need to discover where 16 year old Joseph landed on the coast. (Time travel has some unpredictable elements and these two have landed far apart.) Lastly, I want to find an old British manor not far from the coast where Joseph is given refuge. And I want to leave myself open to the serendipitous events that I can’t anticipate, the mini-miracles of literature that come in the form of inspired dialogue in a pub, the perfect stone wall, or the eerie call of a gull all of which might form the perfect chemistry in my book.
For example, my sister Martha and I finally arrive at our B&B in the town of Eyeries, near the southern edge of the Beara Peninsula, and we are greeted by our gracious host, Rosarie O’Neill. She prepares a late afternoon tea for us, complete with razor thin salmon on brown bread and then she dashes back outdoors, sprints across a low field, vaults a stone wall and tends to a newly born lamb who is having trouble walking. Her husband watches from the dining room window. He places a hand on his 50 something heart (I swear) and says, “Oh, do come and look at the brilliant way she swoops in on the lamb. You must pardon me. I have to go to her.” With apologies, he grabs a coat from a hook near the door and follows in the footsteps of his beloved.
This endearing couple became the core of a fictional Irish couple in the book, Glenis and Tom. They, like the B& B hosts, are the salt of the earth, hard working and completely enthralled with each other. Although I had written a great deal about Glenis and Tom, it was not until I saw the essence of the O’Neill’s relationship that I truly understood Glenis and Tom. They are the rare couple who spend their days amazed at the good fortune of finding each other and delighted with their differences.
Anna leads me on to the coastal towns of Bantry, Skibbereen, Clonakilty and finally Kinsale where she found a safe haven with our good Irish couple Glenis and Tom. She shows me the course of rivers, the way the light catches the rooftops in Kinsale, and the slippery feel of the cobblestones. I am blessedly relieved of many mistakes that my research had missed. For example, Kinsale is built on such a steep hillside that it is a wonder the houses don’t just roll down the hill. But nothing in my research had mentioned that very obvious fact.
We visit museums, graveyards, talk to historians to get the true feel of the time period, wear out my eyes on microfilm of newspapers from 1844, and soak up the ambience at the end of the day with good pub food and a pint of beer. Just when I thought I was done with Anna’s part of the journey, I felt the odd poke in the butt that I often get from characters. “There is something else,” she whispered in my ear. “Look in Cork.”
Anna is a 34 year old disgruntled lawyer and she is persuasive, but in all honesty we had already put Cork on the schedule, so I didn’t know what her deal was. In Cork we meet with charming historians who invite us to their home and give us too much wine and delicious lamb. We spend the next day, slightly hung over, walking through the university area of Cork and on a whim, tour the famous New Cork Prison. The prison was built in 1820 and closed in 1923 after Ireland gained their independence. The moment I stepped inside the damp stone structure, I knew that one of my characters would unfortunately experience this prison, even though I wasn’t sure which character.
We took a guided tour and stepped into the tiny cells where women and children were jailed along with men. Most people were imprisoned for petty theft, a frequent enough way to cope with the oppressive economic thumb of the British who managed to curtail all normal routes for the Irish to make a living. Our guide said, “The greatest crime was being poor.” The prisoners were all forced to be silent and even to wear felt slippers so that they made no noise what so ever. Anyone suspected of treason (which translated into those who sought Ireland’s independence) was either sent off to Australia or hung. The last stop on the tour pointed out a secret tunnel that ran beneath the prison and emerged two streets down the hill.
Nearly everything that I gleaned on that tour made it into the book, including the tunnel. But enough about Anna; I had to figure out where our teenaged Joseph landed and I desperately needed to find a British manor that fit my 1844 time period. We traveled east along the coast and arrived at a monastery that rents rooms and parked ourselves there for the last of our trip. These are inexpensive places to stay, offer a substantial breakfast, and if you are looking for something quiet, this is the ticket. Three brothers from the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart ran the place and primarily offered spiritual retreats for groups. The living rooms were spacious, the entry way welcoming and the staircases broad and elegant.
Within a day, I located the perfect place for Joseph to be found along the shore (I’m not telling; read the book) but I kept coming up with dead ends regarding a British manor of a particular vintage. We followed leads, drove up and down the coast, but found nothing that worked. It looked very much like our one failure. Oh well, back to the library or web. It was time to check out, and the youngest brother, Con, took time to answer some of my questions about the monastery.
In Ireland, people and things are rarely what they seem to be. Con was the most radical spiritual seeker, the kind with a steady gaze, kind words, and the politics of Gandhi. I was enthralled and would have liked another 48 hours with him just to hear him say things like, “The Catholic Church must reform and take power away from the priests and empower the people.” But that was not the biggest shocker. Con told me we were sitting in a British Manor built in the 1830s. What? I looked around with fresh eyes and suddenly saw my characters roaming through the great halls, the lower kitchens, looking out the leaded windows and gazing out to the portico. Take away the metal stacking chairs, file cabinets and the electric tea kettles and this was exactly what I was looking for, only I hadn’t been able to see it. And I found it just in time.
This was the first time that I let my characters set a travel itinerary for me but it won’t be the last. The exquisite unexpected jewels of following the map of my characters could not have been gleaned from sitting hunched over my computer at home. Just ask Anna and Joseph.