Dark stories from Dorset’s past

Minette Walters at Salisbury Festival and Chalke Valley History Festival

“HAVE you ever used a pipe bender?” I think the question was asked with more than a little twinkle – the answer of course was “No” – although, since we were talking about installing a central heating system, I did at least guess that it was a plumbing tool.

Minette Walters, a guest speaker at this year’s Salisbury International Arts Festival, on Sunday 26th May, and at Chalke Valley History Festival, on Saturday 29th June, is a best-selling novelist who lives near Dorchester.

She is internationally famed for her nail-biting psychological thrillers – including The Sculptress, The Scold’s Bridle and  The Devil’s Feather – as well as a horror story and, most recently, The Last Hours and its sequel, The Turn of Midnight, two compelling historical novels. She is also, in case you haven’t guessed, a DIY enthusiast.

Which brings us back to the pipe bender. Minette is not just keen on DIY – she is very good at it. When she and her husband Alec were living in Richmond they installed central heating in their three-storey house – a zoned central heating system, not just any old boiler and radiators – and in the process saved  several thousand pounds. The gas engineer who came to connect the system congratulated them on the sophistication of their work.

Perhaps it is that combination of practical skills, inquiring mind and attention to detail that makes her such a brilliant writer. Certainly attention to detail – furnishings, food and farming, language, clothes and more – is just one of the many aspects of The Last Hours that made her first foray into historical fiction such a success, and makes its sequel, The Turn of Midnight, so eagerly anticipated. The reader is drawn into the lives of the characters, so remote from us in time, so that we feel we know them and can share the fear, the confusion and the occasional elation that they experience.

The books tell the story of one small Dorset community after the Black Death entered England in June 1348, through an infected seaman on a ship that came into Melcombe, the port of Weymouth. Within months the plague had roared through the West Country, within two years it had spread across the whole of Britain. In its wake, millions of people, of all ages, from the greatest landowners to the poorest serfs, had died – it is estimated that the total was between 40 and 60 per cent of the population. Communities were devastated. Bodies were piled in vast plague pits. The  long painful dismantling of the old feudal system had begun.

The Last Hours is set in the area between Bulbarrow, the Piddle valley and Dorchester. It tells the story of Develish, and how the highly educated and wise, but neglected and despised Lady Anne, wife of Sir Richard of Develish, gathers the peasants and the household staff into the moated manor, hoping that isolation will protect them against the unfolding catastrophe.

The central characters are Lady Anne, her daughter Eleanor, and the man who becomes her steward, Thaddeus, the educated bastard son of one of Sir Richard’s female serfs. The Last Hours follows Lady Anne’s efforts to save the little community at the manor, while Thaddeus and some young villagers set out to discover what is happening outside the demesne. The book ends on a cliff-hanger – a brave decision which Minette’s publishers accepted.

The move from psychological thriller to historical fiction was a bold one, but she was supported by her Australian publisher, who owns Allen & Unwin, and by her editor.

Minette says it is exciting to write in a different genre – she began with romantic fiction before becoming what she calls “a writer of suspense” and dipped her toe in horror with The Cellar, before launching into her Black Death books.

She begins with “a simple idea” – in this case, the Black Death, which came into England through a ship that docked just a few miles from her home. The next stage was deciding how to frame it, as “a story of unremitting misery or one where some people survive.”

Her decision, to explore how some people could survive the disease that spread “at unbelievable speed,” has paid off, with two books that grab the reader and hold them tight until they reach the last page. She has, she says, been “thrilled by the response to the second book.”

Another decision was only to use words that were current at the time. Helped by an online dictionary of etymology, she draws the reader into this world that is so frightening and distant, but is also so familiar to those who know Dorset.

“I thought if I could get my head into that period by only using words from the period, it would help me – and it would help the readers..”

It is, she says, “all about telling a story.”

For details of Minette’s talk at Salisbury Festival, visit www.wiltshirecreative.co.uk and for Chalke Valley History Festival, visit www.cvhf.org.uk