Creating Fact from Fiction – More Adventures in Field Research

Two years ago, in November 2013, I wrote an epilogue to my research trip in France and Belgium, entitled “The Challenges of Field Research” in which I lamented the things that can thwart the best-laid schemes of mice and moles digging for information. I am a great believer in field research, particularly when it comes to checking out the basic lay of the land where the novel is set, which, unlike most things, doesn’t change that much over the centuries. This kind of research can save an author from many embarrassing mistakes such as sending one’s hero on a trek that is supposed to last only three days, but in the 12th century would have taken at least three weeks (due to forests, rivers, mountains etc., not to mention the fact that the journey had to be made on foot!). Of course, a good topographical map can save the day, but not always. And there is no faster way to lose one’s credibility as an author than misrepresenting the land or seascape, or describing a topographical detail that doesn’t and probably never did exist – occasionally a “local” may actually read your book! And so, mindful of the value of such research, a few weeks ago I headed for Sardinia.

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La Cathedrale, Sardinia

I was originally scheduled to be in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and Antalya, Turkey, both of which play a far greater role than Sardinia in my second novel, Holy the Sword, set in the time of the Second, Third & Fourth Crusades, 1146-1204. However, as of the summer of 2016, discretion seemed to be the better part of valor as far as visiting Istanbul was concerned, and so I abandoned my plans for Turkey in favor of Sardinia. Apart from the fact that I had never visited that island before, there was a fairly good reason in terms of the novel.

My hero Rohan de Brancion, a young crusader on the way to the Holy Land in 1148, is caught up in a series of disastrous events, which culminate in his enslavement by Barbary pirates aboard a galley heading for Tunisia. The ship is hit by a storm off the southwest coast of Sardinia. Rohan manages to escape and hide out in a grotto with a secret exit, thus escaping his pursuers. I will say no more except that my mission was to “find” this grotto I had invented, a grotto which had so dazzled my hero by its magnificent rock formations and luminous waters that he called it “God’s Cathedral.”

I knew there were famous grottos in the northern and eastern parts of Sardinia but could find only vague references to any grottos on the southwest coast. However, my story demanded that the escape take place in the southwest, and so, undaunted, my traveling companion and I set up camp in Cagliari, the capital of the island on the eastern end of the south coast.

The news was at first discouraging. Two Uffizio di Turismo in Cagliari denied any knowledge of grottos on the southwest coast, while a third claimed that there might be grottos, but if so the area I was pointing to on the map was a military zone that no one was allowed to visit. Yet another official at the local museum declared that there were many magnificent grotti in southern Sardinia and sent me off to a bookstore where I would find books that would tell me everything I needed to know about Sardinian grottos – in Italian of course. I duly found a marvelous book entitled Sardengna il Mondo Sottoterraneo full of fabulous examples of grottos just as I had described in my novel, but for one key detail: all except those on the northwest and eastern part of the island were INLAND grottos! How was I to know that “grotto” in Italian means any kind of cave! Well, the title of the book ought to have been a clue, but the pictures were so seductive I convinced myself that I had solved my problem and bought the book!

Not so fast. It took several more days of phone calls and endless rounds of explanations to find someone who not only acknowledged the existence of sea grottos on the southwest of the island but was actually prepared to take us there. Ironically Captain Marco, owner of the Sea Dream was not Sardinian but a former military pilot from Rome – which no doubt accounted for his singular ability to avoid the military patrol boats that guard this southernmost tip of Sardinia. I should add that there is nothing illegal about taking a boat around Punta di Cala Piombo, the location of these sea grottos, just as long as you don’t stop or look as if you are nosing around. But this we were only to discover later.

The problem now was the weather. The only boats that can enter grottos are flat bottom vessels generally known as gommone, another misleading term since it can mean anything from a raft to a small powerboat, neither of which does well in choppy waters. For two days, Captain Marco wouldn’t budge in spite of repeated phone calls and entreaties. Then on the third day when we called to check in he said, “OK, today we go. Be here at 10 a.m.” – he is a man of few words. We were thrilled. The only problem was that it was already 8 a.m. and, best case, Cagliari is a two-hour drive from Porto Pino, Sea Dream’s point of departure.

I will not linger on the hair-raising taxi drive across the back roads of southern Sardinia (best experienced with eyes wide shut), or the fact that Carlo, our intrepid driver, loved to talk, an activity which, terrifyingly, involved both hands flying off the wheel at the same time as we careened around bends, up hill and down dale. Suffice it to say we arrived at Porto Pino on the dot at 10 a.m. miraculously in one piece, although Sea Dream did not in fact depart until 10:30 due to a family of malingering Italians who were actually staying in town! The hazards of research in foreign lands know no bounds!

But it was worth it. Captain Marco, although a man of uncertain temperament and a bit of a pirate himself, was a skilled navigator and took us to places of awesome natural beauty – cliffs striated with pink, green, red and white soared above an empty sea of blue green shimmering crystal. Piercing those cliffs at intervals all along the coast, dark recesses folded into the rock face. Grottos!

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Fresh water basin inside La Cathedrale

As Sea Dream nosed her way into the first of these recesses I held my breath. Would this grotto in any way match the description in my book? Would it be deep enough, high enough? Would it have one or two chambers? Would there be a secret escape route? Above all ,would there be any fresh water? Well, one can only dream! We cut through water still as glass, translucent green, beneath which flashed shoals of tiny black and silver fish. Above, rocky multicolored fingers clawed up into darkness. On one side, water leeched between the cracks dripping into a small basin-like aperture in the rocks below.

“Fresh water,” Marco commented.

“Fresh water? Is that common?” I gasped.

“No very rare here. Comes from inside the rocks.”

In two words I had solved the problem of how my hero managed to survive his ordeal without dying of thirst: Fresh water!

Ahead lay another miracle. An opening in the rocks!

“Second grotto,” Marco remarked. “Too narrow for a boat to pass.”

“But a man might squeeze through the passageway and perhaps there is a secret way to escape from there by climbing up . . .?”

“Who knows?” Marco shrugged, “It’s possible.”

Oh yes, I know it’s possible! “And does this grotto have a name?”

“Yes, It is called La Cathedrale.” Marco allowed himself a small smile of genuine pride.

Of course it is. I knew that.

Sea Dream, sail on!

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