One of the questions people often ask me is where do you get your ideas from. Maybe I can put it another way. The world is full of ideas, but how is it possible to home in on any particular one that will excite you enough to carry you through 300 pages? Why Hildegard, in short, why the late fourteenth century, and why a nun for heaven’s sake?
It has surprised me as much as anyone to find myself writing not only crime but historical crime. As a playwright it was always contemporary relationships that sparked my enthusiasm and later, writing romance, I could not imagine wanting to do anything else. But times change and we with it. After the sort of life experience many of us sadly have to face, I found myself in a very dark place indeed. I felt as if I would never smile again. But then one night something extraordinary happened. I had a dream that so engaged me that the sound of my own chuckles woke me up.
What on earth was that all about I wondered as I scribbled down some dialogue before going back to sleep. When I woke next morning I thought I had the beginnings of another play. But the characters were right outside my knowledge. For one thing there was a well set-up, lordly fellow in red velvet called Roger de Hutton who was clearly in charge – wearing a jewelled sword. A sword! Subservient to him but offering him plenty of Yorkshire lip was a rangy, long-haired, affable Saxon fellow with a falcon on his wrist whom I knew instinctively was Roger’s steward and very handy in a fight, and with them was a calm presence, a woman, somewhat shadowy but warm and sensible, with no fear of anyone or anything and she was definitely wearing the white robes of a nun. She certainly gave the men as good as she got and I wondered what on earth it was all about.
As the days unfolded these characters would not leave me alone so I wrote what was intended to be a short story, just to get rid of them. But that was not the end of it. They were still hanging round in their picturesque medieval garments as if begging for something more. I was annoyed, I can tell you, but I thought, all right then, you want a longer story so I’ll write one. Let there be a nasty murder for you to solve. See how you like that. Afterwards you can go back to wherever you came from.
It was then of course that I had to discover more about the place and time they lived in, what they ate, what they wore, how they travelled, how they coped with the thousand and one details of domestic life without electricity and all the things we take for granted. I also discovered that the white robes meant the nun was a Cistercian, that they were the Order who built all those magnificent abbeys like Fountains and Rievaulx, and, as one friend remarked who knew about such things, they ran the blue chip companies of their day, becoming massively wealthy on profits from the wool trade. She was clearly a woman to be reckoned with.
By now I was hooked – one book became two and, about to start researching alchemy for book 8 I’ve discovered the joyful fact that you can never know enough about the past – and what you discover becomes infinitely fascinating. My only previous brush with the medieval world was to enjoy the Monty Python films which, when you really look at them are informed by good research and a deep knowledge on Terry Jones’s part of that period of history. The more I discovered about it the deeper I was drawn in.
A fashion-designer friend once said she used to see medieval times as very dark with everyone wearing mud-coloured clothes and grovelling around in shadows. Well, yes, it’s gothic enough, that’s how we get the word, but among all the gloomy castles and sinister abbeys, the people themselves, from peasant to noble, wore garments dyed in the most brilliant colours. Records confirm that the fabrics for the rich could be exquisite too – silks so fine they were almost transparent, weighty brocades, figured velvets, organza and many others. As she later said you only have to look at a few illustrated manuscripts to appreciate the glamour and sheer gorgeousness of their apparel or glance at the vivid stained glass in our buildings to appreciate how much they loved to be surrounded by beauty and colour. The court of the young, handsome and doomed King Richard II at this time was the most fashionable in all Europe.
Meanwhile, in a moment of serendipity I discovered a tome in a dark Victorian library close to where I lived. It was like a miracle to find it because it turned out to be a copy of the actual Chronicle of the Abbey of Meaux, which was not only the very location where my characters were solving murders but was also written around the years when my story was set. A true gift from the gods.
In its pages I discovered no nervous abbots trying to solve the latest murder in their cloisters but instead a mass of anecdotes about the daily life of the monks and in one dramatic episode it told how they were dragged through the courts as far as the papal court in Rome by a redoubtable prioress from nearby Swyne whose authority they had dared to challenge. The monks were soundly defeated. Hildegard has a lot to live up to.
You can probably imagine how extraordinary the journey has been to rediscover Meaux Abbey. Even better has been the places the intrepid Hildegard has taken me to – York for the first Mystery Plays in The Law of Angels, Florence and a hair-raising journey across the Alps in winter in The Velvet Turnshoe, London during several violent parliamentary sessions when heads literally rolled, down to Avignon to deal with the sinister anti-pope and, lately, back across the Narrow Seas to England to climb the terrifyingly high steeple of Salisbury Cathedral where Hildegard may meet her destiny in the sexy but obsessed Sir John Fitzjohn.
Since that first short dream the past has come enthrallingly alive in the company of Hildegard and her friends. For me it answers the question about how to make choices. Imagine it like following smoke – you see a wisp, in a dream or a casual remark someone makes, and then you follow to see where it leads until before you know it, you’re enticed into a strange and unexpected world that welcomes you to all its mystery and power.
More about Cassandra Clark on her website www.cassandraclark.co.uk