Kim Wright author of the The Unexpected Waltz and the upcoming novel The Canterbury Tales, discusses how traveling the Canterbury Trail on a research whim actually led to long lasting memories, spontaneous adventures and a few unexpected characters.
A couple of years ago, during one of my rare visits to New York, I found myself spontaneously pitching a new book concept to my editor: a modern day Canterbury Tales, about a group of women hiking the trail from London to Canterbury Cathedral, swapping stories about love as they walked. It wasn’t something I’d thought about very much before the moment when I heard the words leaving my mouth, but she liked the idea and, the more we discussed it, the more I liked the idea. At some point I heard myself saying “Of course I’ll have to walk the trail myself to make sure the details are authentic.”
That’s how I ended up in a stall in the ladies room of a posh New York restaurant frantically Googling the phrase “Can you walk the Canterbury Trail?” I’d promised to do it without bothering to check if it was even possible.
Luckily for me and my book, The Canterbury Sisters, it is. The old route is broken by highways and power plants but about forty miles of it is still accessible to modern day pilgrims. Google assured me that I’d need a guide since the trail markers were “few, small, and hard to find.” So I poked around some more on the Internet and ended up hiring a private guide, a woman named Jane who’s about my own age, and who leads custom-designed tours all over England.
I learned a lot about the history of pilgrimages and the countryside of England during our four days together, but I also learned how easy it is for friendships to form when women are walking and talking. We discussed our mothers. Our daughters. Our unfortunate first marriages. Since she was British and thus a season ahead, I got her to cough up Downtown Abbey spoilers. Her sister is headmistress for a boarding school that was rumored to be the prototype for J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts, so we hopped in her car one morning and did an unscheduled side tour. We scheduled a pilgrim’s blessing, complete with a boot washing, when we finally got to Canterbury and despite our modern cynicism, both of us left the experience in tears. Jane helped me find the trail markers, which were indeed few, far and hard to find. Without her, I’d still be wandering around some hops field out near Dover. And she booked me into a series of small inns along the way, invariably no more than a room to rent located over the local pubs, and full of “local color.”
At my last dinner, worn down from too much cod, beer, and potatoes, I nearly caused a riot by asking the barmaid if there were any specials. After a long consultation with everyone sitting at the bar—which I think was pretty much everyone in the town—they brought out the chef. He was a spotty teenager in a bloodstained apron who announced he had a single pork chop and even a bottle of wine somewhere in the back, but that both were “rather dear.”
“How dear?” I asked and then the owner had to be called in and after lots of debate I was told I could have the pork chop and a bottle of French burgundy for seventeen pounds, which is a little less than twenty dollars. “Let’s go for it,” I said, and the whole pub cheered for the high-rolling American stranger. We started talking and the townspeople were utterly shocked I’d gone to such trouble to describe the small villages which dot the Canterbury trail. I ended up sharing the wine and getting pulled into a game of darts.
I’m a novelist now, but I was a journalist first, and the lingering reporter in me won’t rest until I explore what I write about. Explore it in the step-by-step sense of walking a meandering, confusing, forty-mile trail or befriending the locals in a far-flung British pub. It’s the small details that make a book take flight, and halfway through the darts game (God, was I bad), one of my teammates leaned toward me and whispered in my ear, “Come with me to the smoking garden.” The smoking garden is an outdoor area behind the pubs, where people smoke…and do other things too, I guess, based on the fact that all of his blokes were watching and snickering. I told him “no, thank you,” but softened the blow by saying I’d make him a character in my book. I don’t think he believed me, but that night was the impetus for my favorite chapter.