Read this exclusive guest post from Susan Shea about where she drew inspiration from for Love & Death in Burgundy, and then make sure to sign in and comment below for a chance to win this wonderful French-themed mystery!
When I began writing what became Love & Death in Burgundy, the 1st of my French-themed mysteries, I wasn’t entirely sure what shape it would take. It was inspired by two friends who chucked their California lives and moved to France. She was an artist, spoke French, and had lived in Europe for a few months in an earlier life. He was an Idaho cowboy and musician who had not a word of French but would do anything to please his wife, even though they didn’t have much money. I was intrigued by the adventure they had chosen and wondered if they could pull it off.
They were close friends, and I visited them several times in the tiny crossroads town in Burgundy where they settled. As they explained the problems with the old stone house they could afford to buy—crumbling walls, balky heat, red clay roof tiles that crashed down whenever the wind blew—and their efforts to find workmen who could do the necessary repairs, their predicament reminded me of A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. It turned out the only guy in town who was willing to climb onto the roof was also the town thief. Neighbors whispered that if you had new tools you’d best lock them up or be prepared to re-purchase them from the man, who might just happen to have some like the ones you lost for sale in his courtyard.
On one visit, my friend told me the community they were hoping to become part of was being fractured by a marital breakup and people were choosing sides. Many of the villagers in the small cluster of houses that was hardly a pinpoint on a map were descendants of families that had worked the land for generations. The couple’s split was rocking the status quo and seemed to affect everyone.
I realized this situation could have come right out of a Jane Austen novel. I’m a huge fan of Austen’s brilliant social satires, and my story got a strong nudge forward as I channeled her perspectives on insular societies and the role gossip plays in keeping everyone on pins and needles!
But I am a mystery writer, so I needed something more dramatic than a pending divorce to serve as a catalyst. I needed an unexplained death, à la Agatha Christie. So, someone in my made-up town dies in mysterious circumstances—a good way to set my characters in motion.
The residents of Reigny-sur-Canne exchange malicious rumors and competing theories, and my protagonist—my version of Miss Marple—is drawn into solving the puzzle—with the help, or not, of an enthusiastic but clueless young woman—so that life in the village can regain its balance and she can finally be accepted in the town.
I channeled a little of my artist friend’s eccentricities into Katherine Goff, some of her laconic husband into Michael Goff—whose derailed rock and roll career is my fantasy—and only the sketchiest bits of their adopted village into Reigny-sur-Canne. And yet, in some ways—like Austen’s novels—there is a kind of truth in the story.
If you’ve lived in a closely knit neighborhood, be it in the middle of New York City or an old gold-mining town in California, you know that people form alliances, hold resentments, count on each other, or become famously aloof. They band together in adversity, or their friendships fracture under pressure. Love & Death in Burgundy is my way of telling the stories Christie, Mayle, and Austen all wrote so charmingly. I didn’t know that when I began, but “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”
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Susan C. Shea spent more than two decades as a non-profit executive before beginning her career as a mystery author. Susan is past-president of the northern California chapter of Sisters in Crime and secretary of the national SinC board, a member of MWA, and blogs on CriminalMinds. In addition to Love & Death in Burgundy, she is also the author of the Dani O’Rourke mystery series. Susan lives in Marin County, California and travels to France as often as she can.