I just got back from an adventure in the UK, my second this year, all in aid of narrative accuracy.
For the past year or so, I’ve been writing the third installment in the Aventurine Morrow series, Aventurine on the Border. The first part of this book takes place in The Kingdom of Hay, which is a town straddling the border between Wales and England: the River Wye cuts right through the middle of it. Hay is the Used Book Capital of the UK, with bookshops lining the streets, inhabiting the Back Fold near the castle, and with the Honesty Bookshop (where one pays £1 per book into a self-service receptacle) tucked up against the bailey walls; it was declared its own kingdom by the original Hay bookseller, Richard Booth, who became its self-styled king. I’ve visited a number of times, but most recently spent time there in February, which, in the UK, is when the world is waking up from winter: warm breezes, daffodils, and mud–lots of mud. Because my characters need to navigate this town realistically, I did things they would need to do. I bought books. I squelched the public footpaths along the river and through the hills. I found the most wonderful coffee shop, next to the Buttermarket, and bought coffee in one to drink in the other. I wrote in pubs, drinking pints by the half, because I’m a lightweight. I was there on Pancake Day (the day before Lent begins), so the proprietor of the hotel in which I stayed–shoutout to The Swan!–made me pancakes with sugar and lemon. Aventurine made adventures; Anne made memories.
Hay-on-Wye appears in many many books. Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine is one of the first I read, ages ago, and possibly one of the most famous. It’s the story of a journalist doing hypnotic regression, and finds she may or may not be the reincarnation of Matilda, the Lady of Hay in question; the present, in this novel, is interwoven with the past in a way that’s curious and fascinating. Another book, in the Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman–one of my favorite authors–is The Magus of Hay, which has his main character, the deliverance consultant for the Diocese of Hereford (read exorcist) investigating weirdness in Hay. It was Phil who made me want to visit originally, but I will freely admit: the Honesty Bookshop became the main draw for me. When I was there in February, I spent ages trolling the shelves–all in the open air, under a slanting roof to keep off the rain–and bought a number of paperbacks that grabbed my fancy; the £1 charge per book goes to help maintain the castle. In Aventurine on the Border, Avi picks up some books there, as does her twin sister Micheline; those books lead them on a series of adventures which may or may not have something to do with the disappearance, in an earlier book, of Mick’s husband.
The glory of visiting a location like Hay-on-Wye is that it’s a great place to give inspiration to a story. Actually, that’s the glory of visiting nearly every place I’ve ever gone in the UK. I have lots of stories of my adventures there–including blowing out my knee in Whitby this past summer (that’s another story, never mind–to paraphrase the Witch in Into the Woods)–and many of them make their way into my books. Perhaps I’ll tell you another one another time.