Sharyn McCrumb, author of “The Vale of the White Horse”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

The Vale of the White Horse is set on the chalk downs of Wiltshire, and features the Uffington White Horse, a giant prehistoric chalk carving cut into the bedrock of a hillside in southern England. The local wise woman finds a dying man in the eye of the horse, and the squire calls in Sherlock Holmes to solve the case. Watson, using his medical knowledge, and the wise woman, using folk wisdom, arrive at the solution at the same time.

What’s was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I am fascinated by British folklore and prehistoric landmarks, and when I visited Wiltshire and saw the Uffington chalk horse, I knew that I wanted to incorporate it into a story some day. The medical condition that is the solution to the puzzle came from my reading of medical books, another past-time of mine. Years after I wrote The Vale of the White Horse, the same medical condition was featured on an episode of House, and then Terry Pratchett, who lives in Wiltshire, used the chalk horse in his wonderful novel A Hat Full of Sky.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

It was not at all challenging. I knew the characters of Holmes and Watson– as does everyone else in the world. And Grisel Rountree is the English counterpart of a favorite character from my Ballad novels, the Appalachian wise woman Nora Bonesteel. Once I decided on the plot, the characters were ready in their parts.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

The only personal point of connection that occurs to me is my resentment of the urban know-it-alls who think that country people are less intelligent or sophisticated than city dwellers. I enjoyed making Grisel Rountree every bit as astute and eccentric as Holmes. At one point she makes a reference to Watson’s army serivce in Afghanistan, a trick that Holmes also employed at their first meeting.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I had to go back and review my photographs of Wiltshire, review the local folklore, and I had to look up the dimensions of the chalk horse. The speech patterns and late nineteenth British customs are second nature to me by now– that era is a favorite of mine.

What is the appeal of Sherlock Holmes fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself—write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

I wrote that story as a jeu d’esprit, just to try something different–like a weekend getaway from the time and place I usually write about. I think that the universal fascination with Holmes is that he is such a singular character that people reread the canon simply to visit with him.

What are some of your favorite examples of Sherlock Holmes fiction (either original Doyle works or contemporary works), and what makes them your favorites?

I liked the milieu and the characterization of the Holmes stories much better than the rather contrived little puzzles. Late Victorian/Edwardian England is a place I am happy to visit, in the company of Conan Doyle or Saki or H. Rider Haggard or G.K. Chesterton– whoever will take me there. In my novel Missing Susan, I revisited the Dartmoor setting of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and while I was there researching, I discovered that Doyle had bent the truth quite a bit about the bogs, but he still told an evocative tale, redolent of place and atmosphere.

Any new work of yours just out or forthcoming you’d like me to mention, or anything else you’d like to add?

I’m three-fourths of the way through a new novel for Thomas Dunne Books. The Devil Amongst the Lawyers is set at a murder trial in Wise County VA in 1935, (on the trail of the lonesome pine) and it features the young Nora Bonesteel. I’m interested in the way that the national journalists distorted the mountain culture in order to make a dramatic story out of this true incident. In the novel, I am using Matsuo Basho’s 17th century Japanese poem Oku NoHosomichi as the template for a journalist’s travels in southwest Virginia in 1935. My deadline is July, so look for the book to appear about 10 months thereafter.

A second work is already finished. In the fall of 2007 I started working on my first co-authored novel, with NASCAR driver Adam Edwards, who was the model for the character Tony Lafon in my 2007 novel Once Around the Track. When we started, I was thinking “We’ll never pull this off. I know race car drivers. They have the attention span of a ferret on crack. They can’t write books.” But Adam is not your average NASCAR guy. (He has an MBA from Virginia Tech.) We finished Faster Pastor in September, and it is now making the rounds via my literary agent in New York. Writing a book with a 28-yr. old race car driver was quite an adventure. It’s a sweet comic novel set in a small Tennessee town– a race car driver has a minor traffic mishap, and his "community service" sentence is to teach the town’s ministers how to race stock cars so that they can participate in a $2 million charity race.