Tag Archives: Ami entends-tu

The Hard Truth

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 6 of 7)

We like rest days – by which I mean our trailer rests, not us. I think it has put down roots, actually, so it might prove difficult to move. And today is our last day of discovery. It’ll be easier to find the source of the River Charente if we don’t have to drag a reluctant trailer behind us. It’s bad enough with reluctant kids – though our kids are perfect, of course. I don’t know many children who’d turn down an exciting holiday and offer to house-sit instead.

We must be home by tomorrow evening. But I’m sure we can do the return journey of 85km in one day: because today, Day 4, our saddlesores will have disappeared, and by tomorrow we’ll be super-fit. On our first day we did 30km, the second day 55 and the third day 60. If we get up early, 85km is perfectly reasonable. We’re only slow because we keep stopping to check the map. This won’t be necessary on our return journey.

Breakfast time is map-consultation moment, so we eat strawberries and pastries while we unfold it.

The source of the River Charente is east of Montignac. I trace the distance and, because I’m wiser now about my capacity to ride long distances, I realise we’ll never make it to the source in Chéronnac.

We’re not going to discover the birthplace of our river. We won’t see the newly born water surge out of the ground in virgin purity, ready for its journey along the Charente riverbed to the Atlantic Ocean.

In any case, the source is probably just a hole with water dribbling out. River sources are never as exciting as they sound. And finding the source was just an idea, not a ‘do or die’ objective.

We decide to head eastwards anyway, because my partner says East Charente is beautiful, and he wants to see the Braconne forest. I agree. It’s going to be 34°C today, so a forest sounds cool and peaceful.

On the map, Braconne forest has ‘FIRING RANGE’ marked in red across it. But it’s August. The French are all on holiday. We won’t get shot or anything dramatic like that.

“Don’t be late for the campsite aperitif tonight,” says the jolly camper as we mount our bikes.

My partner replies with a joke about the extra incentive to get back early. At least, I think he’s joking. I hope cycling isn’t turning him into an alcoholic. I’d rather he was a bee-o-holic than a beeroholic.

As soon as my bum touches my saddle, I realise the ‘Day 3 is the worst’ business is complete rubbish. I’m still saddlesore. My partner is also standing on his pedals as we cross the campsite. Unfortunately he loses his balance and sprawls onto the gritty entrance. He picks himself up and we adjust the panniers so they don’t get caught in his wheel spokes again. I think I can hear the trailer tittering in its corner.

We suspect that it’s my en-route map reading that slows us down: so today is going to be an experiment in following the sun. With no particular objective – other than the Braconne forest and a village called Mornac, which my partner says is pretty – it doesn’t matter where we go.

He’s no longer talking about electric bikes, though he has taken an interest in proper cycling shorts. We discuss these and, obviously, we’re soon lost.

“It doesn’t matter. Just head east,” he says, checking the sun. “we can’t miss Braconne forest.”

Nitrat, Anais, La Motte …  We see start to see signs to Grande Fosse (Big Hole) and wonder what it could mean. A particularly nasty track terminates on a lane called ‘Rue de la Grande Fosse’, and our excitement mounts as we enter Braconne forest.

Whatever this hole is, it’s important enough to have a road named after it. I settle for a hole made by a bomb, since it’s near a firing range. My partner mutters “‘Padirac” and “gouffre” (abyss), and I worry that he’s got sunstroke.

The track through the forest, with its gentle ups and downs, is straight. I’m not nearly as charmed as with Boixe forest. We stop for lunch and a hammock-siesta, and then spot a clearing ahead.

We go to investigate and find a well-trodden path. At the end is a wooden fence, and beyond it, a hole. A big hole. Opposite us, about 200 metres across the hole, is a cliff face. This is the Grande Fosse: an abyss of 55 metres deep and 800 metres in circumference.

A notice board tells us the story of how the local villagers were sick of their animals falling into the abyss, and signed a contract with the devil to fill it with stones overnight in exchange for their souls.

Luckily, the abyss was too deep (or the devil too slow or stupid?) and he only had the time to leave one rock there before the cock crowed, “Morning, mate!” and the devil lost his deal.

While I delight in this folk tale, my partner reads all about geology, underwater rivers and the earth caving in. Apparently, there are two more gouffres in the vicinity. We cycle on, planning to return on a day trip (in the car) and walk around them all.

A little further on, we see notices warning us we’re inside the firing range. And it’s active during the week. Which means today. Now.

My partner points out that the track barriers were open and that we can’t hear shots. Even so, I speed up: maybe they’re at lunch, or are about to launch an offensive.

We arrive at a junction of roads and tracks, and see a sign to a monument for the French Resistance members shot here during WWII. I remember the research I did for my short story ‘Ami Entends-tu’, and we take a detour towards the memorial. The firing range warning signs come thick and fast, but my fear of being shot seems ridiculous now.

In the clearing, I learn the names of the partisans who lost their lives. Hairs rise all over my body at one spot, and I send silent thanks to the courageous fighters for their sacrifices.


We continue southwards. After the abyss and the ghostly war memorial, it’s hardly a surprise when we discover that the sun has led us into what seems to be a French version of Area 51. It’s a huge, deserted industrial estate in the middle of the wood, ideal for hiding aliens away from the public’s eye. We cycle up and down roads, searching for an exit, before escaping through a security gate. Obviously I don’t take any photos. I don’t think we saw any aliens either, though perhaps the Men In Black zapped our memories away.

At Mornac, which is also a disappointment after the picturesque villages of stony ruins further north, it feels like time to follow the sun westwards, back to the aperitif the campsite. But my partner has a surprise for me.

“We’re near the source of the River Touvre. Let’s have a look,” he says.

The Touvre flows into the Charente. We may not have achieved what we set out to see during our bike trip, but a visit to this source could be a good replacement.

I look more closely at the map. The source is more-or-less on the way back to Montignac.

“OK,” I say. After all, one dribbling source is much like another. I can take a photo and no one will ever know it was the Touvre and not the Charente.

We get back on our bikes for the final sightseeing part of our trip.


(Do you know the River Charente? Have you got a favourite spot there? If so, leave a comment and tell me about it)

Can I waste your time?

I wouldn’t like to be a celebrity, but there are times when it would be useful to have a name like JK Rowling or Stephen King. Why? Because it’s one thing to do research for a story when you’re a household name: it’s quite another when you’re a new author.

“Hello. I’m Mary Higgins Clark. Could you spare me a couple of hours to explain how your village set up its wind farm, please? … Yes, I’d love to spend a whole day with you if you’re sure you have the time.”

This sounds far better than: “Hello. I’m an unknown writer. Can you waste your time by telling me about your wind farm for my story, please? There’s nothing in it for you, and my book will probably never be published. …What? You’re too busy?”

Obviously, I’d never say that. I’ve usually found people to be very generous with their time – particularly the lovely French mayor who explained her wind farm project to me for my ‘Red Cat Girl’s Gone’ novel. She took me to admire her turbines. And I didn’t even have to pretend I was JK Rowling.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Internet is a wonderful tool for research. But nothing beats talking to an expert. It’s the difference between having a guided tour of a chateau and wandering around the building on your own.

When I was writing commissioned feature articles, research was no problem. I could give people publicity in exchange for their time – and I was proud to represent a magazine with a good reputation.

For fiction research it’s different. The key is to convince yourself that your cause is important; that you are justified in requesting an interview. People like to talk about their activities. I love listening to people who have a passion for their subject – no matter what it is. And if the person I target for an interview doesn’t want to talk to me, I tell myself that it probably wouldn’t have been a worthwhile interview.

The way I do research depends on the story I want to write. When I already have a story to tell and I just need to research for context, it can be a burden. I find out enough to ensure that my story is realistic, and then check the detailed facts after the first draft.

Sometimes the research matter is integral to the story. Ideas rise out of the research notes. This is exciting. In my short story ‘Ami, entends-tu?’ I wanted to write something historical about a particular region of France. This was the spur to discovering the wartime Resistance activities in the area – something I’d never otherwise have learned about.

Often the story changes completely and you don’t exploit your hours of research. For a recent writers’ exercise we had to write about a tea caddy. I knew nothing about tea, so I spent some absorbing hours learning about Chinese provinces. It was fascinating. But when I sat down to type the story, I ended up writing about a man who is so attached to the sea that he can only travel in his imagination. I trust that my research will be useful at some point – even if it is only to order Tie Guan Yin in a salon de thé.

Some writing guides tell you to write about what you know. But if you restrict yourself to your own knowledge, you deprive yourself of one of the most fulfilling aspects of writing.

Go on: find the people who are willing to help you, even if you’re not JK Rowling. Get on the phone. Enjoy!