ne summer day in 1993 I was sitting in the British Library, researching a project I was working on as editor for a reference book publisher. I was soon to leave that job for a year-long MA in creative writing. So far I had only written short stories, but I was hoping to begin a novel on the course – if I could think up a big enough idea.

The work I was doing was dull, and my mind wandered to my sister, who was making plans to move to France, and also to an upcoming Chevalier family reunion in Switzerland. Though my father was American, he was born in Switzerland – he and his family emigrated to the United States in 1924. Before that the Chevaliers had lived for centuries in Moutier, a small town in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Family legend has it that we were French Huguenots originally from the Cévennes region in southern France. Apparently the Chevaliers had to flee to Switzerland following the Massacre of St. Bartholomew in 1572, when thousands of Protestants were slaughtered in Paris and a wave of religious persecution swept through the country.

It occurred to me as I sat in the library that with my sister’s move the Chevaliers would come full circle – France, Switzerland, United States, France. That circle made me feel connected to the past in a way I’d never before experienced. I wanted to explore that connection, as well as the idea that families might carry their stories – their hopes and tragedies and obsessions – with them down the centuries. Whatever the reasons that Chevaliers moved from place to place, they took baggage – emotional as well as physical – with them.

Eureka! There was my idea big enough to fill a novel. I began reading and thinking, and went to my family reunion. I did some exploratory writing during the MA year. But the real work began in the summer of 1994, at the same time that my sister made her move. I accompanied her and her children on the plane taking them to France. At the airport they drove off one way towards their new French home (if you're curious, here is where they live), and I drove towards the Cévennes to research the novel and my ancestors.

In the end I found out nothing about the Chevaliers in France. As the contemporary heroine Ella discovers in the novel, there are few surviving records from that time, and you have to have studied old French (and old handwriting!) for years to make sense of any of it. I have no idea if we really did come from the Cévennes, but in the end it didn’t matter – I’d found my location and theme, and everything else grew from that.