A few years back, I went out for a walk. The walk lasted three and a half months and covered something like 1,400 miles. This was in England.
Now, two knee operations and some twenty pounds of belly fat later, I’ve started training for another long walk.
Naturally, I am sensible about training for such an enterprise: I threw various heavy bits of camping equipment into my backpack, along with a twenty-pound box of kitty litter. I also added a five-pound bottle of Ibuprofen, which I like to call “I-be-hurtin.” I think of the little brown pills as old man M&Ms. Munch a bunch and keep going.
Happily, backpack design has improved enormously since my Boy Scout days. Actually, back then I think we used mule teams. The key improvement is internal frame packs with well-padded hip harnesses that take the weight off your shoulders. This is a brilliant innovation, except for one thing: the hip harness buckle in front is not actually visible to me. I’m guessing backpack designers are young and flat-bellied.
Or very cruel.
So my short term training objective is hideously, embarrassingly simple: to be able one day to see my buckle. Since I know how to train safely, I set out the first day with modest plans: ten miles.
You might think this somewhat ambitious for a mostly sedentary older novelist with a heavy pack and bum knees. And you’d be right. It nearly killed me. When I limped up, half dead, to the coffee stand I frequent the next morning my friend Bad Michael suggested I go back and finish the job. What a pal. But because I was at risk of locking up in a full-body spasm from the previous day’s exertions, I went right back out again, and that’s what I have been doing, weather permitting, ever since.
If you move at hobbling speed like I do, you have lots of time to make all sorts of discoveries. For example, one of the first things I discovered is that the Pacific Northwest island on which I live is diabolically hilly; it is riddled with brutal, breath-snatching gullies and hills. How’d I miss that in the car?
Another thing I discovered is that, unlike England, there are very few quaint 17th century stone-built country pubs here. In fact, none. My current theory is that this is because there is no stone from which to build them, since the island is made entirely of clay and rubble left behind by the last glacier that left town. As a consequence of this dearth of pubs one must carry one’s own hydration system. And it’s water, not ale. This is deeply disappointing: Why would one keep going, if not in anticipation of a welcoming pub just over the next hill?
Anyway, when you walk along our island’s quiet roads, you meet people. Strangers are kind: their inevitable greeting, so typical of the Northwest, is: “What are you training for?” (I forgive them the dangling participle.) I like the fact that they assume I have something significant and muscular in the offing, something I am “training for.”
After pounding the pavement awhile, I discovered that our island is laced with peaceful and bosky off-road equestrian trails. “Equestrian,” as you know, is a fancy, four-syllable word for large, steam-snorting quadrupeds upon which humans sit pretending that they, not the horse, are getting the exercise. Unfortunately, the best and most scenic of these trails are on private land where only horses, and presumably their riders, are permitted. Not walkers.
Which brings me back to England. There are tens of thousands of miles of jealously protected public footpaths, bridal paths, and green lanes (formerly livestock drover’s routes) in Britain upon which all are welcome. They crisscross private land (because all land in England is essentially private) but, because the paths pre-date roads, or cars, or unfriendly landowners, they are maintained for respectful public use.
Our little island’s parks and land trust people have spent years acquiring and protecting small parcels of land here and there for public use. This is terrific. But stringing them together is impossible. I should like to suggest the English model. Identify and guarantee access to certain specified and mapped rights of way across private land, such that a walker, or even a rider, might move across this island’s open spaces unchallenged, so long as they do not stray from the route they’ve been permitted to follow. It’s so civilized.
Meanwhile, if you should happen to see a ridiculously tall fellow trudging along the highway with an enormous royal blue backpack on his shoulders, please remember I’m in training.
Don’t offer me a lift. A beer, maybe, but not a lift…
I confess that I have lately begun killing people. Not here in the United States, of course, but far away, in Cornwall, England. And in fiction.
Which is a round-about was of saying I am pleased to announce that the first book in my new British “Davies & West Mystery Series,” Harm None, is now available in both print and e-book versions online or by order from your favorite local independent bookseller.
But be forewarned: witchcraft is involved. No, I haven’t switched to writing paranormal fiction. But the plain fact is that, in Cornwall, the paranormal is normal. In fact, it is traditional. And that tradition thrives today.
Cornwall is that far southwestern-pointing county at the bottom of England, a bit like the toe of Italy’s boot. It’s the farthest point of southern England you can reach without a boat. Its culture is ancient Celtic and many of its traditions have been preserved by the simple fact that it is on the way to nowhere, has been conquered by few, and has held its traditions steadfast. Even its language, Cornish, is being revived. And pagan traditions from its Celtic past have survived and evolved right up to the present day. Cornwall is the only place I know where there are registered, tax-paying, “village wise women,” a.k.a. witches. I know this because I’ve interviewed them.
Of course there are many pagan believers not just in Cornwall, but elsewhere in England and around the world: Druids, Wiccans, and the like. Each in their different ways, worship the natural order of things, the turn of the seasons, the arcs of the sun and moon, and our place within that natural order.
Village wise women in Cornwall practice the “Old Craft.” Think of them as some combination of local physician, psychologist, even veterinarian. They are healers. If you have a problem of the body, or the heart, or the career, or simply have a cow that’s doing poorly, you check in with your local wise woman. She may prepare a powder, or a potion, or an amulet, or even cast a spell to rid you of your misfortune.
In Harm None, a present day village wise woman, or witch, plays a central role, and I owe the pagans who shared their beliefs and practices with me a deep debt of gratitude. I also had, in my team of advisors, CID detectives from the Devon and Cornwall Police, the crime scene manager for the region’s Scene of Crimes Unit, the forensic pathologist serving those two counties, Cornwall County’s chief archaeologist, the head of the Royal Cornwall Museum, and others.
Here’s what Elizabeth George, the #1 bestselling British murder mystery writer today (the Inspector Lynley series on the BBC and PBS) says about Harm None:
"For lovers of English mysteries with authentic settings and spot-on police procedures, Will North's Harm None is just the ticket!”
I recently returned from a two-week research trip to Britain for my latest Davies & West Mystery. I like to think of it, however, as a driving holiday. Not a holiday from driving, mind you, but a holiday of driving. Very fast.
If you happen to live on my island in Washington State’s Puget Sound, “fast” is anything over 25 mph. You could die of old age just trying to get from one end of the island to the other. Not so on that other island, England. Not at all. You can drive from London in the east all the way to Bath in the west in just over an hour. This is because England, while a nation, is quite small. It is also because the English drive like maniacs—but very disciplined maniacs, I must admit (unlike, say, the Italians). The posted speed for motorways (“interstates”) in the UK is 70 mph. This appears to be only a suggestion, one about which the police (“Bobbies”) in their squad (“Panda”) cars are most casual.
These motorways have three lanes in each direction and, of course, you drive on the left. I have never had any trouble driving on the left. Perhaps my brain was installed backwards. That would explain other things as well…
Anyway, the far left, or “Loser Lane,” is populated by people driving between 70 and 80 mph. This includes trucks (“lorries”) and people who should not be permitted to drive at all. The middle, or “Loafer Lane,” includes cars traveling at between 80 and 90 mph. They would normally be in the “Loser Lane,” but in order to pass (“overtake”) the Losers, they must swing out into the middle. But everyone knows the rules and once you have overtaken you must pull back into the “Loser Lane,” unless of course there are even slower losers there already, in which you can stay in the middle lane, loafing along at 90.
The far right “Lunatic Lane” is for cars traveling at anywhere between 90 and 120 mph. There is a special etiquette here. If someone is loafing along in the “Lunatic Lane,” the oncoming lunatic flashes his or her headlights (“headlamps”) and the loafer immediately returns to the middle lane. The driver knows this is where he rightfully belongs and that he has committed a vehicular faux pas (though the British hate using French terms). As the lunatic overtakes him, the loafer will lower his eyes and tug at his forelock in the universal British gesture of obsequiousness. It’s a class thing.
In fact, however, the “Lunatic Lane” could just as easily be called the “Actung! Lane,” as all of the cars (“motors”) there are Teutonic: Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, Audis, and hopped-up Volkswagens like the one I drive. Though I was a visitor driving only a rented (“hired”) two-door Peugeot turbo-diesel, I screamed along in the right lane like the other lunatics. My heritage is largely Teutonic. It’s genetic.
Once exiting the motorway, however, you are immediately plunked down into the horse and buggy era. The English countryside is laced with single lane roads bounded by high hedgerows. This just adds to the sport. These roads, if we can grace them with that term, are punctuated every hundred yards or so with widened passing places (“lay-bys”). From the air, your average country lane in England looks like a python that’s hit the jackpot, swollen along its length here and there by a few swallowed hedgehogs.
The English treat driving these narrow lanes as if they were a government-sanctioned game of chicken. They tear along them at breakneck speed, the bordering hedgerows a blur, and play the game: “Who’s gonna pull into a layby first?” Unless you want to be a chump (“a wet”) you rocket along, peering through the windshield (“windscreen”), ready to stomp on the brakes at any given heart-stopping moment. This, I am convinced, is why disc brakes were invented in England long ago by a chap called Fred Lanchester who, no doubt, had way too many head-ons with farm tractors.
It used to be even more fun. Back in the 60s when I lived there, England’s main arteries (“A-roads”) had three lanes: two in each direction and a middle one for passing in either direction. Essentially, if you wanted to pass you’d pull into that middle lane, speed up, and wait for the car hurtling toward you in that same middle lane to flinch and pull over. Great sport!
I should like to propose this same solution for the occasional backups (“tailbacks”) on my island caused by rubbernecking tourists, buses (“charabanks”), ferry traffic, and truck (“lorry”) drivers who apparently are being paid by the hour. A center, two-way passing lane is an efficient and sporty way of moving traffic along smartly.
I can’t imagine why, sometime in the last forty years, Britain abandoned this system…
Killing people, even in fiction, is hard work. You have no idea.
You’d think it had mostly to do with mechanics: the motive, the opportunity, the weapon. Slap them together, you get a murder mystery. Right?
Actually, mostly it is about research. Which I love.
I turned to writing novels only a few years ago. Before that, I had been an award-winning nonfiction writer and also a ghostwriter for people like Al Gore and Bill Clinton, among others. With clients like that, you can bet I cared about factual accuracy. I still do, even in fiction. It’s a passion.
When I begin a novel, I typically have only three reference points: a couple of characters, a setting, and some overarching theme I want to explore. I don’t outline. Outlining feels like a straightjacket to me. The greatest joy of writing fiction, to me, is the surprise each day’s writing brings. Characters show up out of nowhere. Scenes develop from thin air. Often I feel as if I am just taking notes!
But all that comes after the research.
Consider Harm None, the first in my “Davies & West Mystery series,” set in Cornwall, England. Cornwall is at the far southwestern tip of Britain. It is an ancient Celtic civilization where many traditions and beliefs still survive. You can walk across the tip of Cornwall from the gentle English Channel side to the wind-whipped Atlantic coast in a day and, along the way, literally trip over one after another Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age site: stone circles, standing stones, towering burial quoits, underground chambers, sacred wells, and even almost intact Iron Age villages. These sites are everywhere and, amazingly, they are still there, after millennia!
I already knew Cornwell deeply; I’ve written a three volume travel series called, The Best of Britain’s Countryside. But when it came time to write the first of the “Davies & West Mystery Series,” I returned and moved in for several weeks. I rented a flat on the harbor in Penzance and tramped all over the moortops among those prehistoric ruins, knowing at some level they would figure in the story. I interviewed and became close friends with detective inspectors from the Devon and Cornwall Police and their senior Scene of Crimes manager, now a friend. I met with and talked about my story with the director of the Royal Cornwall Museum and Cornwall’s chief archaeologist and received their support. I sat for hours with the region’s top forensic pathologist to learn how postmortems are conducted. I became friends with the mortuary director at the hospital in Truro. And I interviewed witches, because they are essential to understanding Cornwall and because one such character features prominently in Harm None.
This is all part of the process of setting your factual foundation. Build a strong foundation and stay true to these facts and your fictional story can develop as you wish, which, in Harm None, it most certainly did.
So when the New York Times bestselling author, Elizabeth George (The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, broadcast on the BBC) says, “For lovers of English mysteries with authentic settings and spot-on police procedures, North’s Harm None is just the ticket,” I reckon that means the book is both memorable and…well researched.