THANK HEAVENS for literature. For poems that nail a moment or feeling, books that educate, transport us to places we didn’t know about and help us escape.
Writers are inspired in different ways: through memories, chance meetings with unusual people, newspaper articles, dreams, narcotics…the list is endless. Looking at my bookshelves, I notice how many of my favourite reads are strong on location. My favourite childhood read, “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” with the ominous and brooding shadows of the Yorkshire moors, “Cider with Rosie”, where Laurie Lee takes us to life in a remote Cotswold village and a wonderful recent favourite, “A Year of Marvellous Ways” by Sarah Winman, set in a remote inlet of the Cornish coast. In all these stories, locations are not just backdrops to the plot and characters, they are vital. These books would be diminished and fall apart without them.
I wrote both my novels in the Tuscan Apennines where I live for the summer months and where I defy anybody not to be impressed by the stunning scenery. We own an old watermill and stables along the river Marecchia – where it is easy to wax lyrical and be seduced by tranquillity and charm, especially in summer when the orchids thrust through the flower-filled meadows and the nightingales sing. But for local people who live from the land, it is a taxing location. Difficult terrain to plough, hard to protect cattle and sheep from wolves, even harder in winter when the temperatures plummet several degrees below zero. Unemployment amongst the young is high and very few jobs are available in the village, so they have to move away from their family. And Italians are big on family.
I speak fluent Italian and have many local friends and through their accounts and my research, I have deepened my knowledge of this beguiling location. In “Tuscan Roots”, I combined the true story of local partisan activity in the Second World War with a modern story based on my Italian mother-in-law’s memories. She was a young war bride who met and married an English captain of the Eighth Army. The hills around our watermill still bear the scars of war, with trenches and gun emplacements still visible. I walked along these and it was easy to cast myself back in time and visualise my characters there.
For the sequel, “Now and Then in Tuscany”, which is to be launched at the end of April, the location and wild terrain of the Apennines is absolutely central to the story. My village friends enjoy an annual outing to remember the transumanza made down to the Tuscan coast, and they invited me along. I had never come across the word in English – transhumance – and was intrigued. To paraphrase, it would be the journey of the drovers. I knew about harsh mountain winters and the poverty of peasants. Montanari, mountain folk, are stolid, hardworking, resourceful people and do not waste anything. Nowadays there are freezers, snow ploughs, government handouts but in the past poverty and hardship was severe. Needs must and the peasants had to drive their livestock on a ten-day trek down to the Maremma region, in search of work and better pastures. Most families were separated for five months and this practice continued well into the 1950’s.
I hope I have done justice in my books to my friends’ accounts. I strongly believe we need to record these past events of ordinary lives before they are forgotten. In understanding the past, we can strengthen our future.
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