The inspiration behind a story can lie dormant for years, as I discovered when I started to scan out A Gown of Thorns. Its location is the glorious Dordogne, a region of France that encapsulates several landscapes in one – river valley, sandstone outcrops, dense oak forest where wild boar roam, patchwork vineyards and honey-gold medieval towns. The part of France most ‘invaded’ by us Brits, it produces excellent wines that are perhaps a little bit under-marketed over here. Perhaps the wine drinkers among you will be inspired to search out the Bergerac appellation controlée after reading A Gown of Thorns.
Whenever I begin a story, I have to know where it is set, but not just as an ‘X’ marked on a map. I need to get under the skin of the place. What does it feel like, smell like? What is its soil type, its climate? In wine-making terms, what is its terroir, the geographical and geological elements that make each vineyard’s output unique? I conceived the village of Chemignac, with its ancient Château and its sensitive, over-worked owner Laurent, by sitting quietly and allowing memories to bubble up. I found myself reliving a moment that in a strange way, changed my perception of time and place.
It was autumn 1990 and my son and I, then just two, took a holiday with friends in an old stone farmhouse near in the Dordogne. My friends drove through France while I and little Sam travelled by train. Getting across Paris with two suitcases and a toddler who fell fast asleep just as we arrived, followed by a five hour train journey to Brive-la-Gaillarde was pretty exhausting.
My friends cooked me dinner. Local wine flowed. The following dawn, birdsong woke me. One of my friends was already downstairs so, putting Sam into her care, I went out for a stroll. Our farmhouse stood deep in chestnut woods and the autumn colours zinged. With red squirrels scampering above my head, I walked through the rising mist, hypnotised by spears of light through the trees. Before I expected it, I was out of the trees, stepping into a light-filled meadow. The field was a mosaic of wild flowers, a lost domain. Hardly a sound and no sign at all of humanity. I lay down, aware of being utterly alone, and drifted off to sleep, waking to a perfect morning sky. For a moment, I had the odd idea that I’d fallen from the sky. With it came the certainty that I knew this place. I had been here before.
I shook off the grass-seed and returned to my little boy, to normality. But that moment caught between ‘different selves’ stayed with me, waiting for a story, a heroine and a hero. A Gown of Thorns is set in the near-present, interwoven with an unresolved tragedy from France’s wartime past. Loving vintage fashion as I do, it also features a magnificent Fortuny gown whose previous owners reaped misfortune. Can an inanimate object hold on to tragedy and trouble the present? The inhabitants of the Château de Chemignac think so. No-nonsense scientist, Shauna Vincent who arrives to spend a summer there, thinks it’s a lot of cobblers – until she herself falls under the spell of the Gown of Thorns, and of Chemignac, a domain of secrets where the past invades the present.
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