Every other Sunday is our day for Guest Author Postings by mystery writers who base their stories in non-US settings. We think it a great way of introducing our readership to new experiences and places. We’re pleased to have with us today Lise McClendon, the author of eleven mystery and suspense novels, including two featuring the Bennett Sisters, set in France: Blackbird Fly (2009) and The Girl in the Empty Dress (2014). Her many trips to France include chateau-peeping on the Loire River, checking out Van Gogh’s Café de Nuit in Arles, and glamming it up at the Cannes Film Festival. She has served on the boards of Mystery Writers of America and International Association of Crime Writers/North America, and once had the privilege of attending an IACW meeting in Zaragoza, Spain, where she learned to eat dinner very late and say tchin tchin. For more see her website http://lisemcclendon.com
Of all the places in the all the world many travelers choose France. The French Republic has the most international tourists annually of any country, some 83 million. If you love France, like I do, this won’t come as a shock. Maybe you’ve stood in line for hours at the Eiffel Tower listening to an Italian family bickering in front of you. Or you’ve pushed through crowds to see Notre-Dame or find your seat on a train. Luckily there are parts of France that are unspoiled if not undiscovered. Getting off the beaten path and away from the thundering hordes is how I discovered southwest France and ended up using it as a setting in two mysteries.
Thanks to author Peter Mayle (A Year in Provence et al) tourists of all stripes are well-acquainted with the joys of the countryside in southern France. But inland and to the west, all the way to Bordeaux and the beaches, is a rich, green, rocky, less-populated region. The Aquitaine and the Midi-Pyrénées departments include the smaller provinces like the Dordogne and the Lot, isolated by rocky hills, deep canyons, and few cities. This is the land of black truffles, foie gras, and dark, oaky wine, small villages surrounded by towering golden stone walls as well as tiny, decaying hamlets. The region has seen much turmoil over the centuries, from the Hundred Years War between the English and French and the rebellion of the Cathars, right up to World War II when the farms and vineyards were all but abandoned. It’s rich in history, one of my favorite things about travel and writing. In America we have history but in the “old country” the stories are deep and varied, rarely without something fascinating to sink your teeth into -- or use as a jumping-off point for a story of your own.
Before I started writing my first book set in France I hadn’t yet been to the Dordogne -- where I planned to set it. My research began with finding an ex-pat bulletin board online. There I connected with an American couple living in Bergerac. They took pictures, answered questions, pointed me to the classic bastide (medieval fortified) village of Monpazier, and became friends in real life. (Monpazier is the model for the fictional village of Malcouziac in Blackbird Fly.)
Despite its high golden walls, crumbling in spots but largely intact since the English built it in 1284, Monpazier was far from a picture postcard village when I visited. There were signs of restoration and gentrification, vacation homes perhaps (hard to tell by peeking over a six-foot stone wall; the French are very private). Hotels and restaurants offered scrumptious local fare. Wandering down alleys though I also found abandoned maisons de ville, town houses with trees growing in living rooms and roofs open to the sky. The tourist business had found the town but it was seasonal and grudgingly welcome.
The village’s charm however was unmistakable. Roses and wisteria climbed downspouts from the cobblestones. The market square retained its medieval arches. Shutters were painted sky blue or rich burgundy. The steep hills nearby grew grapes in the shadow of half-ruined castles. The close, nested feeling of a round bastide village made one feel safe, or, should things not go so well with the locals, trapped. The imagination was kindled.
One novel in France, plus several more in locales domestic and international, and five years passed before I returned to the village again this year with a new novel. This time I used experiences from a walking tour in France. Rambling, as the Brits call it, is a fabulous way to see the countryside up close. With villages every five or ten miles in much of the country, France makes an ideal destination for slow travel. The old trails of Chemin de Saint-Jacques and others crisscrossing the vineyards and forests, around chateaux and down dirt tracks, offer plenty of time to contemplate your delicious evening meal, the plot of your next book, or, maybe, places to bury a body.
Only in print of course.
Guest Blogger Lise McClendon—Sunday