How do you write thrillers set in 16th century English monasteries while living in 21st century New York City? By trooping to the northern tip of Manhattan to haunt the exquisite gardens, tombs and chapels of The Cloisters. This museum helped me to write both The Crown—a finalist for the Crime Writers Association’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award—and the sequel, The Chalice, from this side of the Atlantic.
The protagonist is a young Dominican novice pledged to a priory in Dartford. I couldn’t visit it: the priory was among the many beautiful buildings demolished in Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. But fortunately there is no better place in North America to get in the medieval mood than The Cloisters. The five places and pieces there that most inspired me are… (Click on the names to see the locations.)
1. The Chapter House, once a gathering place in the 12th century monastery Notre-Dame-de-Pontaut. Sometimes the Cloisters plays medieval music in here. I wrote a chapter of The Chalice on my laptop sitting on a stone bench in this room.
2. The Cuxa Cloister Garden, formerly the heart of a 12th century monastery in the Pyrenees. The beautiful array of plants here led me to research the growing of medicinal herbs in monastic gardens.
3. The Unicorn Tapestries are considered the jewel in the Cloisters crown, together revealing an allegorical tale about love. In my novel The Crown, the tapestries hold clues to the darkest secrets of Dartford Priory.
4. Tomb Effigy of Jean d’Alluye. He was a knight who visited the Holy Land to retrive a relic of the True Cross. The Gothic Chapel he now rests in helped me get in the mood to write a chapter in The Crown set in the tomb of King Athelstan of Malmesbury Abbey.
5. The Arm Reliquary in The Treasury. This container once held the bones from a saint’s arm, which could be seen through two small windows. The sculpted fingers not only point to heaven but to one of the most frightening passages in The Crown.