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BOOK REVIEW: The Midsummer Garden by Kirsty Manning

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Blurb (From Goodreads):

Travelling between lush gardens in France, windswept coastlines of Tasmania, to Tuscan hillsides and beyond, The Midsummer Garden lures the reader on an unforgettable culinary and botanical journey.

1487 Artemisia is young to be in charge of the kitchens at Chateau de Boschaud but, having been taught the herbalists' lore, her knowledge of how food can delight the senses is unsurpassed. All of her concentration and flair is needed as she oversees the final preparations for the sumptuous wedding feast of Lord Boschaud and his bride while concealing her own secret dream. For after the celebrations are over, she dares to believe that her future lies outside the chateau. But who will she trust?

2014 Pip Arnet is an expert in predicting threats to healthy ecosystems. Trouble is, she doesn't seem to recognise these signs in her own life. What Pip holds dearest right now is her potential to make a real difference in the marine biology of her beloved Tasmanian coastline. She'd thought that her fiance Jack understood this, believed that he knew she couldn't make any plans until her studies were complete. But lately, since she's finally moved in with him, Jack appears to have forgotten everything they'd discussed.

When a gift of several dusty, beautiful old copper pots arrives in Pip's kitchen, the two stories come together in a rich and sensuous celebration of family and love, passion and sacrifice.

My Thoughts:

Kirsty Manning is an Australian journalist and author who has previously co-authored a book on gardens and cooking called We Love Food. These two passions are apparent on every page of her debut novel, The Midsummer Garden.

The novel travels back and forth in time between the stories of Pip, an Australian doctoral student in 2014, and Artemisia, a cook at the Chateau de Boschaud in 1487. The two are linked by the discovery of a small book of hand-written recipes hidden within a set of antique French copper pots given to Pip as a wedding gift. Artemisia is planning to marry also, although she must keep her romance a secret from the cruel Abbot Roald who would never give his permission. Pip’s marriage plans are also in danger of falling apart, as her studies into Tasmanian marine life do not seem as important to her fiancé Jack as they are to her.

As both women’s hopes and dreams unravel, the story travels to Spain and then to Italy as Pip searches for her true calling. This is a rich, sensual, and evocative novel, fragrant with the smell of crushed herbs and flowers, and haunted by the high cost that women must sometimes pay to find both love and their vocation. 

For another book about food and France, see my review of Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard. 

Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment! 

INTERVIEW: Anne Girard, author of Madame Picasso

Thursday, July 30, 2015

On the blog today, I am very pleased to welcome Anne Girard, the author of Madame Picasso, a historical novel inspired by the little–known life of Eva Gouel, one of Pablo Picasso’s most enigmatic models and muses. I loved the book (you can read my review here) and I hope you will too!

Are you a day dreamer too? 

I certainly spend a lot of time dreaming up fanciful things to write about! It doesn’t take much for inspiration to strike and when it does I find myself imagining scenes, dialogue, characters. I guess that does make me a bit of a day dreamer.


Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I wrote my first novel (which was awful!) when I was in high school, 178 hand-written pages. Back then, it was a hobby for me, the way kids today play video games. That being said, I didn’t believe that I could make writing a career so after earning my bachelor’s degree in English literature, I went to graduate school and now hold a master’s degree in clinical psychology intent on going into private practice. But no education is a waste. I like to believe my background in psychology helps me with my character development at least.


Tell me a little about yourself—where were you born, where do you live, and what do you like to do?

I was born in Santa Barbara, a coastal town in California, which I left to attend UCLA. I’ve been married for 30 years, we have two amazing children and we still live in Southern California. When I’m not writing, we love to travel which I do extensively for research. Both of our kids were raised in a suitcase, so to speak, and have been with us to France, England, Italy, Ireland and Spain, as I researched my stories.


How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

I’m fascinated by artists and writers, and what makes them tick. I love art museums and in New York I saw Picasso’s painting Ma Jolie, which was inspired by an early lover. It was so entirely different in my mind to his previous work I knew I had to learn a little bit about it, and about her. From there, I was hooked! The story of their love affair became Madame Picasso.


How extensively do you plan your novels?

Fairly extensively. While I like to leave room each time for the characters themselves to have a ‘say’ in plot and dialogue, I outline the novel fully before I begin. Then I travel to whatever location in which the book will be set so that I am able to see what my characters saw. That was advice I received many years ago from the legendary novelist, Irving Stone when we met. It was advice I very much took to heart. I can’t expect my readers to be transported to places I have never actually seen. After that, I binge on biographies, maps, history books about the times, food, and clothing. Most of that needs to be in place before I begin writing.


Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

Frequently, yes. I keep a paper and pen at my bedside just in case!


Did you make an astonishing, serendipitous discoveries while writing this book? 

By having the privilege of interviewing one of Picasso’s last living friends, I did discover that, contrary to public perception, Picasso could be incredibly gentle, loving, and very generous. For whatever reason, he chose never to defend himself publicly against the accusations several of his former lovers made, or at least explain his side of things. In Madame Picasso, I therefore tried to offer up another side of the artist. I hope I succeeded.


A painting of Eva Gouel by Pablo Picasso

Where do you write, and when?

I write five days a week, and in the morning when I’m fresh creatively. I have an office in my home where I write either at my desk or in a big comfy chair I have there.


What is your favorite part of writing? 

I love when my characters do something unexpected, or take me in a direction which I had no planned for them to go.  That’s when I know I am really connecting with them and with my story.


What do you do when you get blocked?

If I’m blocked, I know it’s time for me to walk away for a few hours, or a day or so. It means I’m trying too hard or forcing the story. For me, that’s usually all it takes and I can get back to it.


How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

I’m always seeking, researching, reading which helps me come upon new subjects, or new potential storylines, and that is inspiring to me. I love the idea of a new book yet to be written, a new angle on an old story. All of that is inspiring to me.


Do you have any rituals that help you write?

I like to be centered mentally and focused before I begin, so my habit it is to go into my office, go through my social media obligations and email, and get those all off my plate. I don’t want to be pulled away by any of that once I start writing. Then I turn off the laptop I use for that and focus exclusively on my fiction computer. I guess that is a ritual.


Who are ten of your favorite writers?

Edith Wharton, Karleen Koen, Irving Stone, Oscar Wilde, Alison Weir, Ian McEwan, Philippa Gregory,  Rosalind Miles, Lynn Cullen, Margaret George


What do you consider to be good writing?

For me, good writing makes me feel something, and it must carry me away. Different styles of writing and types of books can do that but both of those things must happen for me to think it’s really good.


What is your advice to someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Stop dreaming and write your story! I have long loved the saying, “The purpose of the first draft is not to get it right but to get it written.”  Get your story onto the page and then go to work making it into the story of your heart.


What are you working on now?

That’s still “top secret” for a bit, but I can tell you that it’s a story that will be leading me back to France later this summer, which I’m thrilled about.

Check out Anne's gorgeous website 

BOOK REVIEW: Madame Picasso by Anne Girard

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Madame Picasso 

Anne Girard 

Publisher: Harlequin Mira 

Age Group & Genre: Histroical Fiction for Adults 

Reviewer: Kate Forsyth 

Source of Book: I bought it on my e-reader

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

The mesmerizing and untold story of Eva Gouel, the unforgettable woman who stole the heart of the greatest artist of our time. 

When Eva Gouel moves to Paris from the countryside, she is full of ambition and dreams of stardom. Though young and inexperienced, she manages to find work as a costumer at the famous Moulin Rouge, and it is here that she first catches the attention of Pablo Picasso, a rising star in the art world.

A brilliant but eccentric artist, Picasso sets his sights on Eva, and Eva can't help but be drawn into his web. But what starts as a torrid affair soon evolves into what will become the first great love of Picasso's life. 

With sparkling insight and passion, Madame Picasso introduces us to a dazzling heroine, taking us from the salon of Gertrude Stein to the glamorous Moulin Rouge and inside the studio and heart of one of the most enigmatic and iconic artists of the twentieth century.

What I Thought: 

I have always been fascinated by the lives and loves of famous painters, and Pablo Picasso is no exception. Well-known for his many destructive relationships with women, whom he loved and painted and left, Picasso’s romantic entanglements make for fascinating reading. Up until now, I’ve only read biographies and memoirs. Madame Picasso by Anne Girard is the first novel I have read that has sought to bring the mesmerising power of the great Spanish artists to life. 

Most of the action takes place in Paris, on the streets, in the artists’ studios and backstage at the Moulin Rouge, all of them vividly brought to life. The character of Eva herself is bright and appealing, and her romance with Picasso is deftly and subtly wrought. I particularly loved the scenes in which Picasso talked about his aims and inspirations – it really brought him to life. 

I did not know Eva Gouel’s tragic story before I read Madame Picasso. (I must have read about her in the biographies of Picasso I have read, but that was so long ago, I had forgotten her story). So the story was new and surprising to me, and very moving. 

A really lovely, sensitive and rather sad story of a woman who helped inspire artistic genius.

Anne's website



INTERVIEW: Kate Lord Brown - author of The Perfume Garden

Friday, June 21, 2013

I first grew to know the British author Kate Lord Brown through her blog What Kate Did Next where she muses about reading, writing, motherhood ... all the things I like to muse about too. 

So when she published her book THE BEAUTY CHORUS about women flyers in the Second World war, I was quick to read it. You can read the interview I did with her in 2011 about THE BEAUTY CHORUS here.

I really enjoyed THE BEAUTY CHORUS and so I was quick to grab a copy of her new book THE PERFUME GARDEN as soon as it came out. It was wonderful! You can read my review here or just enjoy reading Kate's responses to my questions below:

Are you a daydreamer too?
Absolutely - at least as a writer, boondoggling can be described as 'creative thinking'. Some of the most vivid parts of a story come to you when your mind's in neutral and playing - dreams, half wakefulness, when you're in the shower or walking the dog. Daydreaming is vital.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes, always. Like a lot of writers I wrote diaries and stories and plays as a child. It's been a lifelong dream.

Tell me about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I grew up in a very wild and beautiful part of the south west of England, between Exmoor and Dartmoor. It's a beautiful part of the world, full of myth and magic - hidden valleys, stone circles, secret coves and beaches, austere moors, winters full of snow and summers that seem to last forever. We lived in an isolated village, and as children had the run of Stoodleigh Court's grounds. There was a lot of freedom and it was a great place to be a child - I'm sure it fostered my imagination. Where I live now couldn't be more different - in a gated secure compound in the only true desert country in the world, in the Middle East. It's not forever, but missing the countryside, and freedom, and culture is a constant ache. But you make the best of it - there are few distractions! Here, life revolves around writing and the family, but a dream day would involve one of the world's great cities - galleries, museums, browsing second hand bookstores, then back to the countryside or coast for a great meal with friends talking late into the night.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for THE PERFUME GARDEN?
I saw Robert Capa's photograph of the 'Falling Soldier' in a Magnum exhibition, and at that moment all the strands of the story pulled together for me. I'd been reading about Spanish history since moving to Valencia, and I knew I wanted to write about the Civil War - but didn't know how. I had all these nebulous ideas floating around - this beautiful abandoned house I loved, the aftermath of 9/11, perfume ... and in that moment it was like someone turned the focus on the lens. Photography was the key.

How extensively do you plan your novels?
The last four novels have been historical fiction, so there is a very strong scaffolding to the stories - it matters that the history is factually accurate, and that any fiction is within the realms of possibility. Beyond that, I know the key 'beats' of the story, so I have a sense of the rhythm, but I don't overplan. Being surprised by your characters is too much fun to plot rigidly.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Oh yes, all the time. I specialised in Surrealism for my BA and have been interested in active dreaming for years. I'm a big believer in rolling through the scenes of your story as you fall asleep - very often in the morning any 'snags' in the storyline will have unravelled. And it's a great moment when your novel spills into your subconscious and you are dreaming about the characters. (I so agree!)

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
I love serendipity - it always feels like a small sign that you're on the right track. There were a lot of discoveries with this book, from coming across the perfect abandoned house for Emma, to introductions to historians who helped with the research. Then there was a simple email exchange with a tourism officer in Valencia. A throw away remark he made gave me the missing, final plot twist - what happens to Delilah at the end of the story really happens on a regular basis. Sometimes as a writer it feels like you're following a trail of breadcrumbs more than making anything up!

Where do you write, and when?
It depends what stage the story is at. Now, an average day writing is up at 5am, quickly scrawl down any notes for the day. Take the kids to school, then 7.30am - 12pm writing at my desk, usually with Milo the Siamese X sitting on the table and Oscar the pug by my feet. The desk is in the corner of the living room, so later in the day there are normally troops of children running in and out. If it's a first draft, you have to pin down the story as it comes to you, so the early files are filled with till receipts and backs of envelopes with cryptic messages scrawled in eyeliner, jotted down when I'd stopped in traffic. When the children were small in England, I had a system where I'd toss these scraps down to the basement room where I worked because there was a very real possibility a child or dog would eat the valuable clue. It worked a bit like an Oracle - in the evening when everyone was asleep, I'd run down into the darkness and flick the light on to find the notes scattered like confetti. Each one was a 'seed' from which dialogue or a scene grew.

What is your favourite part of writing?
The first draft, definitely. I love the energy of a new idea blossoming, when you're falling love with the story and the characters. When it gathers momentum, that feeling of urgency can't be beaten.

What do you do when you get blocked?
I let that scene rest, get a change of scenery - walking is very good for 'unblocking'. If you skip ahead and write a scene you're dying to write, then go back to just before the block, it's often clear which pages need to be scrapped. I think we all write ourselves into dead-ends sometimes, and that's when it's time to get ruthless and cut back the dead wood to where the story is still fresh and alive, then 'graft' it to the scene you're excited about.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
It's not as easy as it was, living in Spain or the UK. The things that inspire - beautiful countryside, the coast, ancient architecture, creativity, freedom, authenticity, aren't to hand. So I travel a lot, stockpile books, magazines, movies like a squirrel for the lean months. I keep up to date on what's going on culturally in the places I love. I read, a lot.

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Music plays a big part - each novel has a soundtrack which is a shortcut back to the story each time I listen to it. Each first draft is handwritten, so buying new stationery at the start of a new story in September recreates that 'back to school' type focus.

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
James Salter, Anne Tyler, Carol Shields, Barbara Trapido, William Boyd, Mary Wesley, Edward St Aubyn, Sarah Hall, Angela Carter, Isabel Allende. These are all writers I read again and again.

Isabel Allende is one of my favourite writers too!

What do you consider to be good writing? 
Invisible writing - you are simply swept away in the moment, the feeling, the story, dialogue that feels effortless and true.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Begin today. You don't need fancy courses, or computers, or acres of time. Dust off an old notebook and a pen that feels good when you write with it, and carve out a few minutes a day. Write a little every day about something that matters to you, and read books that excite you and move you every day.

What are you working on now? 
I'm juggling a few books at different stages - THE PERFUME GARDEN for the US, two new novels are being edited, and I'm finishing up the research for the story I'll start in September. Editing is necessary - 'writing is rewriting', but the siren call of the new story is strong ...

BOOK LIST: Kate Lord Brown - Favourite books set in Spain

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Spain is one of my favourite countries in the world. I actually spent my honeymoon there, and so I think of it as a gorgeous, romantic and sensual country. I drew upon the historical setting of the Spanish Civil War for my own novel FULL FATHOM FIVE and have been interested in both the place and the time ever since. (and yes, yes, I know! It was published under my maiden name, Kate Humphrey) 

Kate Lord Brown, the author of the wonderful books THE PERFUME GARDEN and THE BEAUTY CHORUS has kindly compiled a list of her favourite books set in Spain. 

She says: 

"We arrived in Spain in the winter of 2001 at the end of several months travelling around the world, with just a battered silver trunk in the back of our small convertible. 

I had never visited the country that was to be our home for the next few years, and had no idea what to expect. In my imagination, it was a combination of austere, beautiful hilltop castles, dazzling bougainvillea, whitewashed mountain villages – and the blowsy high rise resorts on the coast so beloved by European tourists. In imagination it was sunny, hot. The drive through the drizzly Pyrenees, across the sweeping plains to Madrid and ochre hills to Valencia surprised me.

There have been some good ‘Year In Provence’ style books published since – notably Chris Stewart’s ‘Driving Over Lemons’, which is a good start if you are planning to visit or live in Spain. 

When we moved there, I was relying on my copy of the Rough Guide to Spain, Spanish for Dummies, and a general admiration for Spanish literature. There’s nothing like youthful gung-ho enthusiasm. 

I had always loved the work of Spanish writers – the influence of authors like Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez was responsible for the not entirely successful magic realism of my early stories. If you like Allende’s novels, I recommend her cook book/memoir ‘Aphrodite’ which I packed in the trunk when we moved to Spain, and cooked my way through over the months. 

I love Spanish language poets too, Lorca and Neruda particularly. I began to immerse myself in Spanish culture and history as we travelled – everything from the basics of the Spanish Civil War, to Hemingway’s evocative, macho ‘Death In the Afternoon’. 

In Spain, I read Washington Irving’s ‘Tales of the Alhambra’ during a memorable trip south to Granada (So did I, Kate LB!). If you ever get the chance to visit the Alhambra – go. It’s a magical, fairytale place, just as beautiful in reality as in imagination. As the idea of writing a novel about Spain came together thirteen years ago, I started reading more deeply – the photo illustrating today’s post is just one shelf at home. 

There are boxes of Spanish history books and novels, stored with the early notes for ‘The Perfume Garden’ in England. These are just a few of the very best books I came across:

‘Homage to Catalonia’ by George Orwell, and ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ by Laurie Lee are two classics that transport you back in time and into the shoes of two writers who fought during the Spanish Civil War.

‘Battle for Spain’ by Beevor and ‘Doves of War’ by Preston were the two most useful histories of the Civil War.

‘South from Granada’ by Brennan (in fact anything by Brennan on Spain), is a wonderful account by one of the Bloomsbury set of his time in Spain. Worth reading for the account of Virginia Woolf on a mule alone.

BOOK REVIEW: The Perfume Garden by Kate Lord Brown

Monday, June 17, 2013

: The Perfume Garden
Author: Kate Lord Brown
Publisher: Atlantic
Age Group & Genre: Contemporary/Historical Novel for Adults

The Blurb
The Perfume Garden combines the gripping storytelling of Kate Morton with the evocative settings of Victoria Hislop to tell this sumptuous story of lost love and family secrets set between modern day Valencia and the Spanish Civil War. 

High in the hills of Valencia, a forgotten house guards its secrets. Untouched since Franco's forces tore through Spain in 1936, the whitewashed walls have crumbled, the garden, laden with orange blossom, grown wild. Emma Temple is the first to unlock its doors in seventy years. Guided by a series of letters and a key bequeathed in her mother's will, she has left her job as London's leading perfumier to restore this dilapidated villa to its former glory. It is the perfect retreat: a wilderness redolent with strange and exotic scents, heavy with the colours and sounds of a foreign time. 

But for her grandmother, Freya, a British nurse who stayed here during Spain's devastating civil war, Emma's new home evokes terrible memories. As the house begins to give up its secrets, Emma is drawn deeper into Freya's story: one of crushed idealism, lost love, and families ripped apart by war. She soon realises it is one thing letting go of the past, but another when it won't let go of you.

What I Thought: 
A young woman inherits an old house in Spain, discovers clues to buried family secrets, meets a gorgeous Spaniard, and finds her true path in life ... interposed with flashbacks to her grandmother's work during the bloody and turbulent Spanish Civil War as a nurse ... this book is exactly the sort of book I love to read the most. And I did love it!

THE PERFUME GARDEN switches between two timelines. The first is set in contemporary times – soon after 9/11 – and deals with Emma’s grief and attempt to rebuild her life after the loss of her lover. The second is set during the Spanish Civil War and tells the story of Emma’s grandmother Freya, her brother Charles and a beautiful Spaniard Rosa. 

Both storylines are strong, the setting is wonderfully romantic and evocative, and Emma’s job as a perfumier adds an extra frisson of sensuous interest.

The Spanish Civil War was a bloody disaster, in all sense of the word, and these sections were sometimes heart-wrenching. I have always been fascinated by this period of history, and THE PERFUME GARDEN does any extraordinary job of bringing it to life. 

As for the house in Valencia and its old perfumed garden … well, all I can say is: I WANT! 

Afternote: (I should add here that my novel FULL FATHOM FIVE (written in my 20s and published under my maiden name Kate Humphrey) also drew upon the history of the Spanish Civil War, and so its a period I have researched thoroughly.)

INTERVIEW: Christopher Gortner, author of 'The Queen's Vow'

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

I first met Christopher Gortner at the Historical Novel Society conference in Chicago in 2010.  He was funny, clever, and passionate, and spoke so engagingly about his research for his novel, The Last Queen, that I bought it there and then. 
One of the questions he was asked was how he – a man – was able to get inside the heart and mind of his female protagonist, the Spanish Queen Juana, known as the Mad. 

He told a very funny story how he dressed up in a 16th century gown and went galloping about on a horse with pillows stuffed inside his corset, to research a scene when a pregnant Juana escapes captivity. After the laughter had died away, he went on to say that he felt so much sympathy with his heroine who was tormented by love, desire, fear and ambition, just like any of us, regardless of whether we are male or female. 

 We are all human, we all have the same longings and fears, and we are all constrained by society’s rules and expectations. What he tried to do was simply imagine himself in Juana’s situation and try and think what she must have felt.

I loved this comment. It is what we do as writers – we imagine ourselves into other people’s shoes (or corsets) for a while, and try to be as truthful to what they must think and feel as possible.

I also really loved The Last Queen. The story of Juana the Mad – daughter of Ferdinand of Aragorn and Isabella of Castile – has always interested me, although I knew very little about her. 

At the time, I wrote a review of the book which said: 
“The back of the book says ‘Married at sixteen. A queen at twenty-five. Declared insane and betrayed by the men she adored.’ Who wouldn’t want to read this novel? Luckily it was just as good as I hoped it would be. It really is a fascinating story about a passionate and cruelly wronged woman – God, it makes me glad I wasn’t a woman in the 16th century! I’d probably have been locked up too!”

Now Christopher has written a novel based on the life of Juana the Mad’s mother, the imperious and strong-willed Isabella of Castile. For those of you who don’t know your 15th century history, she and her husband Ferdinand united the many disparate kingdoms of Spain, conquered the Moors, instigated the Spanish Inquisition which saw the Jews banished, and funded Christopher Columbus’s expedition to discover a new way to the Indies, but finding America instead.  

To help put her reign into perspective, it helps to know she was also was the mother of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. 

The Queen’s Vow brings this powerful, passionate woman to life, illuminates the forces that drove her, and paints a vivid picture of late 15th century Spain, one of the most fascinating of countries.  I absolutely loved this book, and loved this place and time in history – I hope C.W. Gortner writes a lot more books, fast!

Are you a daydreamer too?
Absolutely. I imagine every writer must be. 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I must have, yes, only when I was younger, I didn't think that I could "be" a writer, though I'd been writing stories since childhood. I used to write them in spiral bound notebooks and create illustrations for the covers. My mom still has one of those notebooks; she says that once I was old enough to understand what books were, I was fascinated by them. I never stopped writing while growing up and experimented with lots of genres. But I didn't seriously consider publishing until I was in my early thirties, after my father read my first historical manuscript and suggested I try to publish it. I had no idea of how to go about doing that but took to the challenge; little did I know how long it would take! I persisted through tremendous obstacles because writing is something I've always done, simply because I must. I do think that retaining the joy of writing for writing's sake, rather than as a means to put food on the table, is something every published writer must strive to protect. 

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
Isabella of Castile was part of my formative years spent in Spain. A ruined castle just a short distance from where I lived had once belonged to her. Growing up, I learned about her exploits and was fascinated by this forbidding queen who ruled Castile and went to war, who united Spain and sent Columbus to America, yet also was held responsible for the establishment of the Inquisition. I visited her tomb and that of her daughter, Juana, the subject of my first novel, The Last Queen, in Granada during school trips. I also saw her crown and scepter in Granada. But I truly became entranced by Isabella while writing The Last Queen. In that book, Isabella is the triumphant, middle-aged monarch of legend; she has just conquered Granada and set the stage for Spain’s emergence as a modern Renaissance state. To depict her accurately, I researched her, but my focus was more on the woman she became after she’d won the throne and united her country. When my book was published, I got many e-mails from readers telling me they’d first learned about Isabella in school because of her connection to Columbus, just like me, and had fallen in love with her in my book. I realized that hundreds of years after her death, she still exerts a powerful influence. So, for The Queen's Vow I decided to explore the younger Isabella and how she transformed herself into the queen she became. 

How extensively do you plan your novels? 
For all my books, I research intensively. I usually read everything I can find about my characters, the era in which they lived, and the world they knew. I also take trips to see extant sites associated with them. However, I am mindful that research can, in and of itself, become an obsession, and at some point the actual writing has to start. Usually, I write once I feel I've a strong enough sense not only of the time and events surrounding my character, but more importantly, who she was. Developing an emotional blueprint for my characters is key for me; I don't necessarily need to agree with the people I write about but I must understand them. I have to know them intimately in order to inhabit them. I also develop a brief outline of major events I want to cover, though I tend to refer to it loosely. I like to have an idea of where I want to start and where I want to end up, yet let the writing itself guide me on the journey. I'm superstitious about too much planning; I fear it will drain the joy of discovering the story, of letting it unfold in its own way. 

 Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Yes and no. Dreams of course do inspire me, in that I find myself recreating imagery and scenery from my book and can sometimes overcome blocks I encounter while writing by, literally, "sleeping on it." But I don't keep a formal dream journal or anything like that. I think my dream life informs my waking state like a faint dye permeates cloth.

 Where do you write, and when?
I write in my study at home, usually from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. I used to be quite the night-owl, staying up till the wee hours to write, but I had a full-time day job and writing was a luxury that I was willing to forsake sleep for. I was also younger and could thrive on fewer hours of sleep. Now, I'm older and finally, after many years, writing full time, so I try to stick to a schedule. I do find that scheduling writing every day is important for me. Nowadays, writers face so many distractions, as well as obligations: engaging on social media and the Internet has become a must for marketing yet presents a challenge in terms of time management. I've discovered that I can easily spend an entire day online and not write a single word of my current work-in-progress. If I'm not disciplined, my writing suffers.

 What is your favourite part of writing?
When I reach that magical midway point in the work: my research is over for the most part; I've developed a keen understanding of who my characters are, and all of a sudden, everything aligns. It ceases to feel like writing. The story takes over. I love that apparent loss of overt control; the way time ceases to exist. It's truly a marvelous gift.

 What do you do when you get blocked? 
Get frustrated. Get anxious. Reach out to my other writer friends. Pace. Fret. No matter how often it happens, it always feels as though I may never overcome it. I also turn back to my research, re-read those books that inspired me and seek to recapture that sense of illusion and adventure I had before I hit the wall. When I get blocked, it's often a sign that I've veered away from my story, gone off on some tangent. I try use blocks creatively, but they're rarely fun. 

 How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read constantly. Reading always inspires me; I'm enchanted by the way other writers use words, the way they tell their particular stories. I read my own genre and outside of it, too, to mix things up. I also visit museums. I find that seeing actual paintings and objects from the eras I love always inspire me, as do film and music, to a lesser extent. I also have learned the hard way that my well must be replenished. I can't jump from one book to the next. It takes time for me to ease out of the world of the book I have just finished, to let the characters fade and re-discover that neutral space I require to start the process again.

 Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
Lots of hot, sweet tea. My corgi in the well under my desk, with her head on my foot. And the wireless switch on my computer turned to off.

 Who are ten of your favourite writers?
I have more than ten, but here goes: Daphne Du Maurier, Nikos Kazantakis, Isabel Allende, Pauline Gedge, Robin Maxwell, Colin Falconer, Patricia Finney, Francoise Sagan, Judith Merkle Riley, and Cecelia Holland.

Daphne du Maurier

What do you consider to be good writing? 
When you cease to "see" it. Good writing disappears, so that all the reader hears is the voice of the story.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Write every day. Be persistent. Never imitate. Accept criticism and let it teach you. Always remember that of all the art forms, writing is the most fluid. It can always be improved.

What are you working on now? 
A novel about Lucrezia Borgia, tracing her so-called Vatican years, from her youth as the illegitimate child of an ambitious Spanish churchman to her sudden thrust into notoriety as the pope’s daughter and her brutal, dangerous struggle to define herself as a woman even as she battles the lethal ambitions of her family. 

 ‘I have to know them intimately in order to inhabit them.’ Well said, I say!

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