“I’ve been walking for like an hour and I’m exhausted. I’m going to sit on this bench over here for about two days,” I told my ephemeral guide.
“Perfect. Right over there. Nope, one more bench over. There, you got it.”
There, at a tiny grove of trees just above the marked remains of where the Château Royal d’Amboise used to extend into a far greater complex than what remains today, I could see what she offered up.
A new whispering in my ears began to shift from mere chatter to a conversation overheard and a vision of an old man alongside two others stationed at wooden easels. Amongst the shady plane trees and Gary oak, he guided their hands to sketch and capture the scene in front of them.
I stepped forward to take a closer look, and a young woman stretched her neck around the closest easel to make sure I saw her.
A quiet wave.
A knowing, modest smile.
The old man waived a gentle finger at her and everyone returned to their work. Something pricking me on the shoulder forced me out of the vision and around staring back at the river.
An arched bridge.
A wild river.
Rugged hills and shifting light.
I caught a glimpse of the landscape they had been painting in the background.
By the time I turned back around, the group of painters had vanished from view, but not from my own knowing of who I’d had the chance to watch at work that day—Melzi, Salaí, and their Master. Who was their muse? What else had they learned to paint on that hill in the magical light of Amboise?
Just beyond it on the trail, it would seem others may have a bit of a sense as I dd that something truly remarkable took place there.
My guide pointed out that it is marked in plain sight, for those of us who know to use as a guide.
I nodded and acknowledged her gift, then suddenly stood.
My attention redirected itself by force, and I moved toward what appeared to be the remains of a moat or battlement at the top of the castle where I was offered another vision.
This time men and women fled a burning castle, but it was too late. The bodies piled up, filling the space, the screams and panic swarming my senses until my mind snapped back and I stood in the sunshine shaking.
It would take a week for me to understand the final message of that time at the top of the world with da Vinci.
My guide spoke in a solemn tone, offering up an explanation of what I’d seen.
So, there we were—the long-dead woman whose pronouncement shook me to the core and my trembling core.
Now that she’d offered to introduce me to the crew, I had to forgive her for so unabashedly revealing her death to me without my consent.
Apparently, when you are a novelist who’s come to tell their stories, those who’ve waited all of those centuries for you to get it together already know your storyline.
I knew what I wanted: to plot out what Elijah would find in the modern timeline of the novel when she made her way to Amboise. Streetscapes and entry points to the castle made it into the massive journal I’d imagined long before the journey would be an epic record of what showed up. I walked and walked the empty roadways, alleys, dark corners, and abandoned ancient doorways of town as if all other human activity was pushed in some alternative direction while my new friend showed me this path.
In my everyday life, my willingness to push through a half-open metal gate or get down on my hands and knees to see inside a partially sealed-off doorway almost guaranteed unpleasant, if not downright dangerous consequences.
In Amboise, it meant finding myself delivered into new realms of imagination and opportunities for crafting the stories I came to tell. This place, it seemed, welcomed those who sought its secrets. Those who might have otherwise dissented knew better than to silence the spirits that day.
Château Royal d’Amboise today is a mere ruin of the extravagant palace that towered above the banks of the Loire at the beginning of the 16th century. As I traced the base of the ramparts back father and father from the tower where I began, I stumbled across Le Choiseul, and extraordinary site, now a hotel meant to draw in the wealthy traveler. It instead drew me to its courtyard goddess, who sent me up into the hills behind the property to discover the first of several novel locations in the ruins of what I later discovered must have been the enormous halls of the main castle.
Deep inside the base of the tufa structures carved right out of the hillside, the stories called. What would this complex in stone reveal?
No signage or historical markers hampered my imagination as I stepped inside the gates of the lowest corridors. Nerves firing, I explored and they vibrated with the hum of wanting to be discovered.
Cells? Storage? Ancient homes? Something more? I followed the trail as it moved upward. Within minutes, I stood at the entrance to vast subterranean vaults known as Les Greniers de César. The sunbaked printout clumsily tacked to one of the old wooden doors told a version of what these carved-out silos might have been.
My liminal guide decided to download a whole different version for me.
Perched upon a bench near a cut in the stone for the better half of two hours, I waited for the visions to drop in, and they did so with expressive clarity.
My guide introduced me to those with whom I’d long sought to make the acquaintance. Up from the docks where the gabare boats of traders and cabanée boats of fisherman delivered goods, the king’s sister Marguerite made her way to what I deemed The Treasury with little notice from the menagerie dealing in salt, spices, wheat, and coin.
Here, in this place, she bargained for the security of a kingdom we now know nothing of, a kingdom she pledged to serve in the halls of Fontevraud long before she bore the name Queen, as her mother did, and a dozen generations of women before them—the Mother Blood of the Anjou.
Deep within the caverns of The Treasury, men such as da Vinci and Francesco Melzi greeted her upon arrival, and those who traveled at the queen’s side proved the most notable guests ever to have to be ushered onto the grounds of the royal residence in secret through the caves at the base of it.
The Treasury showed itself as a rich, effusive secondary story location where women such as Marguerite and Aesmeh bargained to usher in the return of a civilization thought wiped off the Earth nearly two-thousand years earlier. It showed itself as a place where men and women gathered to commit a worthy sort of treason.
Its existence and mysterious origins left me room for my own bargain, allowing me to imagine within the complex the potential for a passage leading to and from the castle existed. I needed it to serve as the means through which Elijah might discover that world for herself. The clarity with which this site settled in my mind as a novel location drove all sorts of other questions. Was the Loire navigable from places such as Saumur? What would boat transportation have looked like? So much more. I wanted confirmation that I should move ahead with including it, although I already knew I would.
As I made my way back down onto the grounds of Le Choiseul, the grove just beyond yet another Greek statue glistened in the afternoon light. Behind it, the remains of an old silo shown, and within it stood a cistern marked with a single patch of cyclamen.
For those familiar with plant lore, the cyclamen as a truly powerful protective flower which blooms in the cooler months and is affiliated with the Dark Mother Hecate. I found it everywhere in Amboise, particularly in location where evidence of the Sibylline rose up.
Confirmation. The Treasury was in.
My new friends weren’t even close to being done with me that day. We had one more stop at the very top of a hill overlooking the royal residence. it was there I discovered how the relationship between Melzi and Aesmeh blossomed, and what would lead us all to the true identity of the Mona Lisa.
I found myself staring into the remains of a place I didn’t know existed.
A grotesque, morbid sensation settled across my shoulders, then a pressure leaned in against my right arm and I stiffened.
“I died here,” a voice whispered.
Throughout that morning, while I bought roses and baguettes at Le Marché and began my winding procession through the cobblestone streets, the same voice drew me closer.
Having arrived in Amboise less than twenty-four hours earlier, my first walk through town led me to the base of the castle ramparts at Château Royale d’Amboise.
The moment I found myself at the locked gate leading across the small moat, I heard her again: “I died here.”
My mind fickered and scenes of a woman tossed from the tower above, crashing against the pavement, played out over and over. The water stains of rust or wear streaming down from the window tuned to blood and the air bristled with the scent of lilies and life violently exiting.
The woman who spoke pulled me back into her time and showed me, then nodded, took my hand, and asked me to remember.
“Do not leave me here again,” she said.
At that moment, I’d convinced myself I’d gone crazy, watched too much Outlander, had slipped into some delusional state brought on by jet lag and the ongoing series of serendipitous events leaving me without time to recover from the last.
Whatever it was, Amboise and its royal heritage had long called to me without me listening. In the works for years, The Woman On The Wall only ever had one major setting. This tiny town on the banks of the Loire River drove me right to its edge and there I stood, clear in every way that I returned to a place I’d known in not just one lifetime, but many.
“I died here.”
Did this woman speak of my death or her own? I will never truly know. However, she stayed with me for a long while, weaving me in and out of abandoned space, requesting that I listen and remember them, remember how I used to know them.
An unnatural urge to rip open the gates of passageways and throw myself into the spaces leading up into the castle took hold and I fought her stories, her words, the places she revealed to me.
I knew who spoke. I knew the voice of Aesmeh. I knew she needed me to know where her life played out. It was as if she’d waited five-hundred years for someone to finally hear her and not run.
Oh, how I wanted to run.
My own urge to get the hell out of there took over, and I released myself into the street where I wandered, grateful for the lack of interest that anyone else in Amboise seemed to have for those quiet, abandoned places which carried with them the deep resonance of stories much more difficult to hear than one of royal pageantry, art, and afternoons in the garden.
As my head cleared and the voice faded, I relished the accomplishment of breaking free when there she was.
I told myself it was just a window, one which I’m sure the owner had specially made with the gentle face of a striking ancient woman visible when the sun caught it just right. Maybe she appeared because someone thought it appropriate for this historic royal hamlet. Maybe, she wasn’t done with me.
Her eyes followed me as I moved up and down the row of houses until finally, I collapsed across the street from her and just listened.
“So,” she said. “Let me introduce you to everyone else.”
There she stood—a queen, a goddess, emerging from her royal pavilion to return the magnificent jewels once bestowed upon her to a faithful servant for safekeeping. Fantastical bestiary of the forest ensure her passage to and from this place. The lion and the unicorn, watching over the doorway; the dog and the monkey, companions underfoot.
Before me hung the sixth, most enigmatic, panel of the famed La Dame à la licorne tapestries at theMuseé de Clunyin Paris, and I found myself deeply overwhelmed for the second time that day.
Exhaustion and jet lag, I told myself as dabbed at my wet cheeks.
Then, my eyes rose up to land upon the words woven in the pavilion rising up in the background of the tapestry. I leaned into my constant state of verklempt and understood that France with all of the moments I chose to open fully to would transpire according to my will only.
“A mon seul desir,” I whispered, and it was if my lady and her unicorn whispered hello in return.
I’d waited years to take in the absolute wonder of this allegorical series of tapestries that have been the source of heated debate and endless interpretation since their rediscovery at Château du Boussac in 1841.
Still in the throes of my first twenty-four hours in France, I would only come to understand the significance of the tapestries within the context of my novel research almost two weeks later. The thrill of knowing now that this proved the first piece in a provocative puzzle of revolution, duality, and mysteries of the French Renaissance shoots me right back to that moment.
As I write this, I wish only that I’d spent more time at the Cluny with these magnificent works, listening to them speak as so much else would speak to me through the places and artifacts I discovered in my research.
While no one entirely agrees on what these mysterious panels mean, who created them, or why they were crafted, the general consensus is that the six panels are an allegory of the senses (Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch, and the final sense of Heart or Soul).
Oh, how I want to get into all of the academic knowledge surrounding them. To me, the debate and the analysis make me ravenous for more. However, I’d much rather tell you about my own fictional interpretation that leads to these being included in the novel.
I’ve long pursued a more fanciful interpretation (and totally fictional, as I have nothing more than my imagination and anecdotal research to thread together the concepts I’ve chosen to pair up). One in which these panels represent the story of a lost time and the lost society of the Sibylline.
The mythology of the Sibyls is more than 11,000 years old and weaves its way through at least a dozen civilizations of North Africa, Mesopotamia, and Europe. Five appear on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Vestal Virgins are thought tied to them. The Sibylline Books, great records of the oracular visions of the ancient world, are thought lost to the politics and religious fervor of the 5th Century, re-written later to suit the re-telling of history through the lens of Abrahamic religions. For generation after generation, kings and pharaohs sought them out and relied upon their oracular powers to guide everything from warfare to marriage, and then they were wiped from history.
Or were they?
From King Arthur to the Dames Blanches, the Medieval era is steeped in mysticism. The line between this world and the next revealed itself as little more than a light veil, through which all manner of creature and being often passed. I like to entertain the idea that these tapestries reveal the existence of the Sibylline to us.
While many today attribute illuminated manuscripts bursting with spells and rituals, bestiaries from which headless armies of Blemmyes walked and dragons of all manner took to the sky to nothing more than fantasy, I am not so easily convinced that we have not somehow severed ourselves from the passages that once were open between the world.
Evidence of the Sibylline mounting a resurgence of their culture and extrasensory abilities is ample within the Middle Ages. These tapestries to me reveal their revered place in Medieval society, particularly in France where Humanism and the exploration of the self attached to that sensibility found itself fostered by common man and royalty alike.
Within their world, a new Sibyl could rise and take her place as the oracle of humanity every thousand years. The last Sibyl had been brutally murdered at the beginning of the 5th Century.
So, the time of da Vinci and Michelangelo, of Francois I and Marguerite, was the time once again for a Sibyl to rise after this female-driven society remained cloistered in abbeys, underground, hidden away while rebuilding for a millennia.
Through each sense elaborated upon in the tapestries, the Sibylline reveal their ability to renew the world, to end humanity’s suffering, and to bring us all back to a greater understanding of the power that lives within ourselves.
Away from the Christian interpretation of these panels, there is plenty of pagan and ancient goddess iconography. The baby rabbits are associated with Artemis and cannot be killed in the hunt as they are under her protection. The chalice is an ancient goddess symbol of fertility and rising up from the Mother blood.
The crescent moon within the banners of the tapestries is the epitome of the divine feminine power on Earth.
That one might once again be able to develop spiritually enough to manifest and fortify personal power according to their own will was widespread in the 15th Century. This esoteric link between human and divine is not unlike the new age movements today that are opening people to new levels of mental and spiritual development.
We all can begin to understand why panels such as these and women such as the Sibylline vanished.
Returning back to the final panel and the phrase sewn into the pavilion.
Nearly everything in that time period, especially if it might have subverted the doctrine of those who murdered to keep their dogma in a primary place of power, was encoded to be deciphered by those who knew the way.
I played for a long time with the anagram of those words until the code I needed to emerge from it made itself evident:
A Mon Sevl Desir – According to my will only.
Voir des l’ansem: See the Ansem, the descendents of angels.
“Je suis désolé, je parle un peu le Francais,” I responded. I’d been on the ground in Paris just a few hours and had not engaged my language skills long enough to do anything other than apologize for my poor French.
“Oui. Merci, monsieur.”
“Do you know of her?” he asked in English, much to my relief, rolling a cigarette with one hand and adjusting his plaid, wool scarf with the other. “Most people don’t stray off the path here. Are you searching for something?”
We stood for a moment and admired the subject which sparked him to interrupt an odd Canadian woman’s wander through the lonely graves along the South wall of Cimetière du Père Lachaise.
“She’s extraordinary,” I whispered. I knew he’d caught me half in tears in the moments before our first words. I’d been searching for more than half an hour for Monument aux victimes des Révolutions and wanted her to be it.
“May I ask why you are looking for it?” he asked upon learning of my quest and odd interest in Communist Paris.
“Marie Guerrant,” I told him.
“Who is she?”
“Muriel Gale’s pseudonym.”
Puzzled, he introduced himself as Olivier, one of the historians of the cemetery.
I returned the courtesy, offering up myself as a novelist, which cleared up any confusion he had earlier about why I’d be tossing around names such as Marie and Muriel.
Paris plays a key role in the Woman On The Wall as the place where our main character, Elijah Gale, returns to eight years after her grandmother Muriel’s murder.
Muriel, a Holocaust survivor, is buried at Père Lachaise under the name Marie Guerrant (Mary at War) in the novel. She was also a Communist – a seemingly unfathomable pairing. However, the woman had always been an enigma whose politics favored the people rather than power.
Olivier’s eyes lit up.
While he had to take up a position at the front gate in under half an hour, the charming middle-aged Parisian who looked every bit the part offered an arm and his knowledge to guide me through my search for answers amongst the dead.
From that point, he walked me along the boulevards lined with maples and acacia beginning their dramatic shift from summer’s hues to the vibrancy of Samhain. The stories of the interesting and uncommon flowed from him as if they were his own.
The graves of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, and Edith Piaf remained far in the distance. Instead, we chatted about the quiet, undecorated graves of people who lived out eternity inside one of the most noted cemeteries in the world. Graves like the one that carries the name Marie Guerrant in Woman On The Wall. Graves that serve as masks for lives we will never know or understand.
I found myself struck by a knowing as to one of the reasons Muriel never revealed her true identity. Père-Lachaise’s most wrenching memorials haunt the walkways, those to the dead of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and the other concentration camps.
Olivier spoke of how soil from those places was mixed with that at the graves. We walked past sculptures of emaciated souls and I understood as if Muriel shared it with me herself. She was a survivor of Dachau who worked to preserve lives, culture. Being buried amongst those who died in the camps would have defeated her in death. She preferred the power of anonymity in order to make sure that work continued on.
Despite the fact that Muriel is dead long before Woman On The Wall begins, I love her as a character. She drives Elijah in the best and worst ways, and I’m genuinely fascinated by her impact on the entire cast.
The last bit of the walk proved quiet and had me wondering if Olivier was either irritated or lost in thought. As we made our way to the cemetery entrance near Rue Robineau, he turned to me once again.
“You know they call it The Wall,” he said of the Monument aux victimes des Révolutions. “You’ll find it in the park up that hill. No one really ever goes there.”
As he spoke the words, my entire body seized up with a sense of awe at the serendipity of the one sculpture I’d come to see carrying the moniker of the novel I am writing. My eyes overflowed with tears.
“It was never allowed to be inside the cemetery for reasons no one really knows,” he continued. “You must see her, incredible, holding back the revolutionaries of not just the Commune, but all of the generations.”
“She was their protector, then?” I asked.
“Their Sibyl, you might say.” he replied.
As the first stop on my first day in France, this proved to be the beginning of a truly remarkable confluence of time and opportunity during which people such as Olivier dropped into my life to reveal extraordinary details I would never have otherwise known.
As I rode the Metro to the Museé de Cluny that afternoon, I marveled at how clear Muriel had become. The pace and path of Elijah’s return to her grandmother’s home in Paris and the role it played in the story firmed up in my mind.
Now, I needed to know, who were these victims of revolutions locked inside the stone of this Wall?
I’d tried desperately to curb my urges, yet preparation for France owned me.
My kids made it clear they wanted no more of this level of obsession.
“All you think about, all you talk about is France, mom,” my oldest daughter kept saying, deservedly irritated that she got little of my focus. “What are you going to do when you don’t have France anymore?”
“That’s not possible,” I would always reply.
Really, though, I worried.
For three months, I’d immersed myself in planning and research for the novel research to come. I spent three hours a day learning French, surfed French websites, made appointments with French historians, booked tours, packed twelve times, read every book I could. With two weeks to cram it all in, I had to make sure my focus proved laser-sharp, and I wouldn’t walk away from this experience wishing I’d gone and done something different.
I literally planned every moment of every day. Error, jet lag, language barrier, time—none could be a factor. I had sworn off the need to account for any of them.
Ken said I was the Fort Knox of travel planning. Everything right down to what would happen if I caught a cold had a solution in place or a detailed map and itinerary attached to it.
Then, the day before I left, in the middle of working on Woman On The Wall this popped up. Just a little note. Nothing profound. Nothing more than a reminder sliding in while I pounded away at the story of Elijah, the main character:
It hit me like a brick. What if no moment I’d so carefully mapped out worked out the way I planned? What if I went to France and found nothing? Or something totally different? Or hated it? Or everything went sideways on the first day and the rest of the trip was garbage? What if I couldn’t keep up with my schedule? What if I missed this or that? What would I possibly do?
This was the first solo research trip of my life, and I’d left no room in it to just experience anything, to see where a lead took me, or listen to the wind and follow it.
I could freak out, unable to control it all. Or, I told myself after recovering from the icky, cold sweat I broke into, I could go without any expectations and have faith that all of the work I put in to get there would lead me to experience France in a way in which stories simply blossomed, taking shape without being forced.
I promptly dumped my rigid itinerary in the trash, marked the few things that I could not miss, and hopped on the plane with the mindset that anything I faced in those next 14 days would be transformative.
I’ve tried to control nearly everything my whole life. It was time to just experience it all.
From that moment, I swear it was like the universe offered up its nod of approval, jacked me into the energy of place, and set me on a path to discovery that even I could never have imagined.
France took me in, opened its soul for me to be a part of, and left me a changed woman.
For the next several weeks, I’ll be posting the tales of magick, time travel, serendipity, and the great confluence of modern-day life alongside that of the Renaissance which defined my French sojourn, deeply reshaped the story being told in Woman On The Wall, and brought me to a place at the edge of the veil where I found far more than details for my novel.
I look forward to sharing this experience with all of you.
Just about every writer who submits their work to agents knows that there is one month every year when nothing happens.
Don’t prep a manuscript, write a query letter, reach out on Twitter, or check in with an agent who has your partial. It’s not gonna work out for you because everyone is at least pretending to lounge on a New England beach.
The rest of the year is stupid crazy busy. August means time for a bit of radio silence.
For me, it has traditionally proven the month to hunker down and log big hours in the writer’s studio, plotting and crafting.
This year, however, my brain took a break along with everyone else. You can read about my angst surrounding this unplanned standstill HERE.
Today, after a long chat with an editor who just returned from vacation herself, I found myself breathing a bit easier. The conversation revealed her own startling loss of an entire month and her shock at how often lately this similar chat has played out. Apparently, August was a wash for at least half the known universe, and we are all scrambling to realign priorities, carve out time, and make tangible progress on writing projects.
For me, this is all about removal of external distractions.
I’ve planned the hell out of my research trip to France and refuse to plan even a minute more.
Classes and curriculum, mapped out.
Coaching training, done.
Now, to snuggle in and get the love letters between Francesco and Aesmeh mapped out.
Then, to make sure my modern-era antagonist is fully formed and well-rounded. I actually quite love him, such a provocative character motivated by what he is convinced is the only possible road to truth.
Finally, before I get on the plane to start the research and writing marathon in France, I’m going to nail the sequence of the story down and finish the plotting. That way I can move through my time there with exceptionally focused purpose instead of scrambling to figure out story foundations.
I’m coming out of the Augustine black hole, people.
I’ve been circling around this concept of slow travel a lot lately.
It’s not shocking to anyone who has spent literally even one day with me that I am a bit of a doer. Chilling is not my thing.
I’ve got lists and then lists for the lists.
I survive on accomplishment alone.
It’s my insecurity, I get it.
To do is to have a purpose. To chill is to, well . . .
Yet, upon reflection, I’ve begun to understand how my urge to do, do, and then do some more is based almost entirely in the fear that I will somehow be thought of as less, miss out, that I only get one shot at things, and that everyone else is staring at me thinking I’m an idiot unless I am superwoman mounting the to-do list like the queen of everything.
I am taking myself to France in October to, well, chill.
See, it’s a problem.
I am taking myself to France in October to research The Woman On The Wall. For those of you who don’t know, I’m writing a novel about the true identity of the Mona Lisa that is half epistolary love story and half Indiana Jones-style thriller.
I know, in my head, I am going to Paris and Amboise to chill and get to know the places where the novel is set as well as possible in 14 days. I’m not going to play tourist.
Then, the other part of my head goes bananas. I have like a billion to-dos in Paris in my Google Maps. I can do 12 hours a day in the first two days I get off the plane, right?
This article killed all of my need to do Paris (in a good way), giving me permission to just wander through my quick 72 hours there.
Yes, me and La Gioconda are hooking up.
We’ve already texted.
She’s expecting me.
However, I have now basically just thrown my crazy to the wind and decided that everything else in Paris can just happen.