Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sally Wright on Writing International Backgrounds

My guest today is Sally Wright, author of the superb Ben Reese Mysteries. Sally has just brought out Breeding Ground, the first book in her all-new Jo Grant series which I'll be posting about later,

but first I've asked Sally to share with our international audience some of her experiences developing the international backgrounds in the Ben Reese series.

Sally, we share a love for Scotland, which features in several of your Ben Reese novels. Where did your fascination for that wild, beautiful land start?

Sally: I've always gravitated to books about England and Scotland, which may be related to my mother's father being an Elliott, born in Jedburgh in The Borders in 1880, who came to America when he was eight. He didn't sound Scottish, or talk much about Scotland, but knowing him probably made me pay more attention when I read about Britain.

It was going to Scotland for the first time (I think in 1980) that pushed me over the brink. For it was then I got to know David Munro, a Ph.D. Geographer (and former Director of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society) who later drove me all over Scotland and Northumberland (and gave me great destinations when I drove myself) as I did research for the Ben Reese mysteries that chronicle the experiences of an archivist-ex-WWII-Scout. David knows even the most remote parts of Scotland like the back of his hand, and he has an encyclopedic grasp of history, so his most casual conversations gave me information and insights I wouldn't have gotten otherwise. And standing in the ruins of Dunnottar? How could you not be changed?

There may be a blood-borne infection at work too. With very few exceptions, I've felt a strange affinity for the Scots I've met. And when my husband (a Robertson and a Stewart on his mother's side, who was never told about his Scottish roots) stood on the Battlefield of Culloden and stared at the stones marking the spots where untold numbers of his ancestors died, Joe knew in his bones that he was a Scot for the first time in his life - and I knew I was too.

We also share a fascination with the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne. You feature Holy Island in PRIDE AND PREDATOR, the second of your Ben Reese novels as I do in A VERY PRIVATE GRAVE, the first on my Monastery Murders. What drew you to Holy Island? Can you share something special about your time there?

Sally: My love for Holy Island started when I saw a photo article on Lutyens' renovation of Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island's eastern tip. Lutyens is an architect I've long admired, and what he did with the castle's interior made me want to live there.

Of infinitely more importance, of course, was the evangelizing mission of St. Aidan and the monastery he planted on Holy Island. Both profoundly influenced the Christian conversion of northern England, and the more I read about him and his followers, the more intrigued I became. And then - as I stood in the early morning mist with my back to the ruins of the Benedictine priory, the castle perched on what looked like a small volcano a mile off in front of me, sea birds patrolling the water's edge, sheep wandering the grassland -I suddenly imagined a man in three piece tweeds, walking away toward the castle. I immediately asked myself, "If someone were here all alone, how could I murder him?" The plot of Pride And Predator ended up being the answer.

You have set stories in England, Scotland, Italy and France. Do you have a favorite location either to write about or to visit?

Sally: Scotland is still my favorite place, with certain spots in England running a close second – Oxford (and the Cotswolds among them) where I researched parts of Pursuit And Persuasion while our daughter studied. I saw beautiful places in Tuscany, of course, when I was writing the Ben Reese novel, Watches Of The Night. I loved the art and architecture in Florence - but loved Siena more. I'm not a big city person. I like small villages and lovely towns, and countryside even better.

We stayed in an absolutely wonderful old farmstead turned now into a spectacular small hotel near Sinalunga called Laconda de L'Amorosa, where the ancient farm buildings captivated me (especially the chapel, and the old olive pressing barn where we stayed). The whole 60 hectares of grape vines and woods and wild boar and crumbling outbuildings amazed me, and gave me the final location and denouement of the plot.

I love Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia, and Beaufort and Charleston, South Carolina, where I placed Out Of The Ruins.

And exploring the Loire Valley in France was a very interesting experience too, when I was working on the French Resistance and the US OSS because of a character in Breeding Ground. Studying the Resistance all across France had been overwhelming, and I'd had to narrow my focus to the Loire Valley. But I still felt distanced from French culture during the war. It was in a tiny B&B in an idyllic old mill southwest of Tours that God gave me the gift I needed to write the WWII backstory that's a part of Breeding Ground's plot.

The mill owner (totally unbeknownst to me when I made the reservation) had spent his life studying France in WWII. We talked for hours, and yet it was his telling me of an event that had happened in the village a mile or so from the mill during the Nazi occupation - and how the villagers reacted still in 2010 - that I put directly in the novel, for it gave me the perspective I needed to encapsulate that time.

I really enjoyed what I saw of France. But as much as I love Scotland and England? No. I suspect I'm a Scots-Anglophile by interest and genetics.

You can see more about Breeding Ground here: http://j.mp/1i2E81m
 Visit Sally's website here: http://www.sallywright.net/

Posted by Donna Fletcher Crow the author of The Monastery Murders: A Very Private Grave, A Darkly Hidden Truth and An Unholy Communion as well as the Lord Danvers series of Victorian true-crime novels and the literary suspense series The Elizabeth & Richard Mysteries. To read more about all of Donna's books and see pictures from her garden and research trips go to: http://www.donnafletchercrow.com/ You can follow her on Facebook at: http://ning.it/OHi0MY


  1. I haven't been to Scotland but loved seeing the pics and reading this post. Thanks.

  2. Sally, thanks for visiting with us and sharing your love of Scotland. The pics are gorgeous. Half my ancestry is Scottish and I'd love to visit Scotland one day :)

  3. Such a joy to have you as my guest, Sally! Do come again soon!

  4. I'm glad Dale and Narelle enjoyed the pictures. I certainly loved taking them, and I hope I get to go back to Scotland one day.

    Sally Wright