Although I made the decision to set the next Fiona Mason mystery in Britain at the end of last year, as things turned out, it proved to be fortuitous. The spread of Corvid 19 and subsequent lockdown put an end to any ideas about travel, especially to more far-flung places. For once, the main thread for the plot itself had come before any decision about where to set the story. I knew my victim, but the more I let the plot germinate in the back of my mind, for some reason it became tangled up with Jane Austen. A tour in the footsteps of Jane Austen seemed a great idea thus the book had to be set here in England. It helped that I’d been to nearly all the places linked to Jane, though admittedly some visits were quite a few years ago.
Though I invested in several books, I also raided Swindon’s excellent library system at the end of last year and borrowed every reference book I could find on Jane Austen and her world. It made for some very enjoyable reading though some proved far more useful than others. Now that libraries have been closed since lockdown began, it would have been quite an expensive proposition and many books were out of print anyway.
Like so many authors, I have found it difficult to write in lockdown and the last couple of months have been particularly difficult. As I have said many times, though my characters are one hundred percent my creation, settings never are. Unless I can picture the details of every room my characters can see, I can’t tell their story. Thank goodness for the internet. It’s no substitute to look at photos and watch videos, they can’t provide the atmosphere, but they can help to remind me of past visits.
Although we have been to Bath many times and visited the Jane Austen Centre relatively recently, it is a good few years since I visited the small cottage in the village of Chawton not far from Winchester where Jane lived with her mother and sister for the last few years of her life. It’s the place where she edited her first three books and wrote her last three published novels. I remember that visit well. I was lucky enough to go with a small group of fellow Austen enthusiasts one Sunday afternoon at the end of a Winchester Writers Conference. We were privileged to have a special organised visit and I vividly recall sitting in the garden around the table listening to the curator. If I hadn’t been interested in Jane Austen before, I was a devotee after it! Re-reading old favourites like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility was quickly followed by all the novels I’d never got round to reading before.
Back then, Chawton House Library was not open to the general public. Chawton House was once owned by Jane’s brother Edward who had been adopted by the Knight family as a small boy. It was Edward who offered the cottage to the Austen woman as their home. In 2015, the house was opened to visitors. No tour advertised by Super Sun as providing a Jane Austen experience could possibly be complete without a visit to the house where Jane went regularly for meals and spend time with her family. Chawton House has an excellent website and throughout lockdown it posted a great many helpful videos.
My biggest problem was that as the first draft of my novel progressed, the most logical place for the murder was in Chawton House in a specific room. Back in June, lockdown was still in operation, so the house was closed. I decided to write to the Communications and Public Engagement Manager explaining my problem and asking where I could hide a dead body in the Tapestry Room. The wonderful Clio O’Sullivan wrote back straight away with suggestions and even offered to take some pictures for me the following week when she went into her office. She could not have been more helpful and promised to show me round the house as soon as the house opened for visitors.
We had to wait until August but both the Jane Austen House Museum and Chawton House were opened. It wasn’t easy booking timed tickets to visit both places on the same day but two weeks ago we were successful. It was our first trip out since March! That Thursday was also the one day that week when the sun shone and the dreadful rain that blighted most of August here in Britain held off. It was a wonderful day out. Just like Fiona’s passengers, we spent the morning in the museum and when we came out, we crossed the road to the village pub where we had lunch. (Our first meal out since before Christmas!) Our afternoon visit included not only Chawton House, but the gardens and St Nicholas Church. Jane and her family would make the half mile walk to church every Sunday and it’s here in the churchyard that Jane’s sister Cassandra and her mother are buried.
Our arrangement to meet up with Clio at the start of our tour of the house didn’t quite work out as planned, but we did catch up with one another in the library at the very end of the tour.
I still have to visit Bath, but I’m looking forward to seeing the Jane Austen Centre once again and to walking the route of the guided tour around the city taken by Fiona and her passengers.
The first draft is nearing its end. There’ll be more rewrites than usual I’m sure, but one thing still eludes me. Book titles are usually one of the first decisions I make when writing a new novel. Though the phrase ‘In the Footsteps of Jane Austen’ keeps rattling through my brain, all the previous Fiona Mason novels begin with the word Blood. Any suggestions?