Here’s a little quiz question for you:
Which bird features in my novel Burning Embers, set in Kenya, and my novel Indiscretion, set in Spain?
No doubt the photograph has given away the answer! Yes, it is the flamingo.
In Burning Embers, the heroine Coral takes a balloon ride over the Rift Valley, and as she passes over Lake Baringo she sees beautiful flamingos stalking for food and basking in the sunlight on the shores. Many miles away, in Andalucía, Spain, Alexandra of Indiscretion sees flocks of pink flamingos lying languidly in the sun beside the Guadalete River.
Even now, I can close my eyes and see those splashes of vivid colour in my memories. I grew up in Egypt, where flamingos migrate in the winter, and I now spend each summer in the south of France, not too far from the Camargue, where flamingos nest. But the Andalucían flamingos, which I saw on my travels, are particularly memorable. I visited the Laguna de Fuente de Piedra, a vast natural lake to which flamingos flock each spring to breed. The sight was absolutely beautiful – thousands of birds standing in the water, whose mirror-like surface glinted in the sun and reflected their vibrant colour to create a dazzling display of sunset pink.
My interest in the flamingo goes beyond its eye-catching colour, however. I love its elegance, its sleek lines, as beautifully captured here by Spanish artist Pablo Picasso:
I love the flamingo’s exoticism: it looks like a creature straight out of a fantasy novel. At the end of his poem ‘The Flamingos’, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke described flamingos ‘strid[ing] off one by one into the imaginary’. They are like something out of a dream – something, indeed, out of Alice’s dream of Wonderland; no wonder they spark my imagination.
I think what most fascinates me about the flamingo, though, and inspires me to weave them into my own fiction, is that they are a very romantic bird. When it comes time to breed, both the females and males dance together in unison. See the following BBC footage from Patagonia (from the 2-minute mark):
Once the birds are paired, they build a nest and nurture the egg and then young together; they are usually monogamous for the duration of the breeding season. Each pair has its own love story that summer – romantic, don’t you think?
You may well associate flamingos with passion then, but be warned: if you do not wish to upset a Spaniard, don’t confuse the dance of passion for the bird of passion! In Spanish, the word for flamingo is ‘flamenco’ – which is a word that also means an Andalucían art form. But you always sing and dance flamenco, never flamingo.
Also, despite the fact that way back in history the Romans thought flamingo to be a real delicacy, their meat should certainly be off the menu these days (there have been reports of people eating them recently). Far better, instead, to respect this protected animal and in their honour raise a glass… of Pink Flamingo cocktail, perhaps?
This week I’m celebrating four years since I became a published author (see my Monday post, ‘Win my novel Burning Embers’).
It is in fact four and a half years since I started blogging, and in that time I have written hundreds of posts on all kinds of subjects, from art to architecture, history to folklore, cuisine to fashion – and of course plenty of articles on my inspirations and writing process, and the background to my novels.
Today, I’m sharing with you ten of my favourite posts over the years. I hope you enjoy revisiting them.
An interviewer asked me: If Burning Embers was optioned for a TV drama/movie, who would you like to play Coral and Rafe? I had a lot of fun considering my answer, and especially in casting the male lead…
The Sun newspaper described The Echoes of Love as ‘an epic love story that is beautifully told’. In this article I consider how the term ‘epic’ has been redefined, and how this has influenced my writing.
Fortune-telling is a common theme in my novels. Here I explore how it helps me build on three key aspects of my stories – mystery, control and the taboo – and I share a poem by Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani that beautifully conveys the emotion of the fortune teller.
A look at the Andalucían legends that I touch on in my novel Indiscretion, from the tale of Lover’s Leap, to the story of Pedro the Cruel and María de Padilla at the Alcázar, to the promise that those who wear matching sultan and sultana costumes are destined to fall in love.
On my passion for dance, and how it breaks down barriers between my heroes and heroines, so that illusions fall away, leaving the beautiful, sensual truth.
How I endeavour to each hero so that he is not only so attractive that readers will wish him to life, but also realistic, believable, true to life. For how can the heroine, a flawed human as we all are, have a hope of building a future with a god?
In which I explain why in my novels I challenge my heroines, by taking them out of the comfortable, safe – a little staid – life they have always known, and plunging them into a brand-new culture, one that is colourful and vibrant and exhilaratingly exotic, but also, by its nature of being foreign, somewhat overwhelming.
Remember the comic strip series ‘Love is…’ by cartoonist Kim Casali? Love is so much, but if there is one single definitive ‘Love is’, I think it is this: ‘Love is… discovery’. Here I explain how, in my new book Legacy, this theme is at the core of Luna and Ruy’s love story.
This month marks four years since I realised a long-held dream and became a published author!
What a journey I have been on since then, with the publication of a subsequent four books (the Venice-set Echoes of Love and the Andalucían-set Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy), and there are still plenty of books to come.
Today, though, I want to turn back the clock and revisit the book that began it all: my debut novel, Burning Embers.
Coral Sinclair is a beautiful but naïve twenty-five-year-old photographer who has just lost her father. She’s leaving the life she’s known and traveling to Kenya to take ownership of her inheritance–the plantation that was her childhood home – Mpingo.
On the voyage from England, Coral meets an enigmatic stranger to whom she has a mystifying attraction. She sees him again days later on the beach near Mpingo, but Coral’s childhood nanny tells her the man is not to be trusted. It is rumored that Rafe de Monfort, owner of a neighboring plantation and a nightclub, is a notorious womanizer having an affair with her stepmother, which may have contributed to her father’s death.
Circumstance confirms Coral’s worst suspicions, but when Rafe’s life is in danger she is driven to make peace. A tentative romance blossoms amidst a meddling ex-fiancé, a jealous stepmother, a car accident, and the dangerous wilderness of Africa.
Is Rafe just toying with a young woman’s affections? Is the notorious womanizer only after Coral’s inheritance? Or does Rafe’s troubled past color his every move, making him more vulnerable than Coral could ever imagine?
Set in 1970, this contemporary historical romance sends the seemingly doomed lovers down a destructive path wrought with greed, betrayal, revenge, passion, and love.
Here are excerpts from some of my favourite reviews:
Now, how about a glimpse of Mpingo, the heroine’s childhood home to which she is returning, as mistress, now her father has passed away?
Mpingo…Even the name warmed Coral’s heart like the morning African sun. In Swahili, it meant The Tree of Music, named after the much sought-after dark heartwood used to make wind instruments…
It looked romantically unreal, inviolate, as though set outside time and space… Mpingo! Was it a residence or an edifice, a challenge, an act of folly, or a dream?
Built on a grand scale, the façade of the new building was of stone — a warm, rich color that evoked the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean, visible from each of the hand-blown, panoramic French windows on the north elevation of the house that gave the rooms a tinted, luminous air. All the windows had brown shutters that could be tightly closed during the monsoon months. The magnificent curved double staircase, the wall paneling, the large ceiling beams, and the floors had all been intricately crafted on site in imported cedar. Outside the rooms on the upper landing, a galleried veranda encircled the house, from where the extensive out-buildings could be seen. Coral remembered peeping through its lacy balustrade as a child of three to watch the gardeners at work, and later, spending lazy afternoons sipping cold lemonade there with her mother while listening to the birdsong and its accompaniment of rustling palms and whispering sea.
And of course, I must revisit my very first romantic hero, Rafe de Montfort, whom Coral first meets as a stranger aboard the ship bound for Mombasa:
She gazed at the man standing before her in the shadows. She tried to make out his features, and then recognized him as the new passenger who had joined the ship that morning when it had docked at the port of Mogadishu.
He was tall, dark, and lean. In the moonlight, the eyes that viewed her with slow appraisal seemed black, but she guessed that in daylight they would have reflected other tones. His was not an outstandingly handsome face; it held something stronger, more powerful than conventional good looks: a blatant sensuality, a charismatic magnetism that drew her attention despite her desire to ignore him.
Would you like the opportunity to escape to beautiful Kenya? To take a balloon ride, even, with my characters over the Maasai Mara:
Gradually the mist had lifted, and the sun burst forth, a ball of fire radiating the sky with unnaturally incandescent hues… The scene was now set for the show to begin: the drama in which the broad, breath-taking landscapes of Africa were the stage and the animals the actors.
To celebrate my four-year publication anniversary this month I’m giving away a paperback copy of Burning Embers. Entry is open to all (I will post internationally) is via Rafflecopter. Good luck!
Since I began my publishing adventure in April 2012, I have published five novels. What a journey that has been, for me and for my characters. Together, we have been to so many fascinating places – in England, in Italy, in Spain and in Kenya.
Today, I’m offering you a glimpse of just a few of the places I have featured in my books. I hope it will give you a sense of what my writing is all about: transporting readers to beautiful, inspiring locations around the world.
The Masai Mara, Kenya: Burning Embers
The Masai Mara National Reserve is a vast game reserve in Narok County, Kenya, where visitors can see so many wild animals in their natural habitat: lions and leopards and cheetahs and zebras and wildebeest and the Thomson’s gazelle. In Burning Embers, Coral and Rafe have a spectacular opportunity to view the Masai Mara from on high, with a hot-air balloon ride:
Gradually the mist had lifted, and the sun burst forth, a ball of fire radiating the sky with unnaturally incandescent hues. Coral was reminded of the strident brushwork and wild colors of the Fauvist paintings that filled her mother’s gallery, which Coral had always loved. The scene was now set for the show to begin: the drama in which the broad, breath-taking landscapes of Africa were the stage and the animals the actors.
And such actors! They see everything from elephants to impalas to antelopes to hippos to flamingos to buffalos to giraffes. And what of the lion, the monarch of the wild? That beast proves elusive, and so they take to the ground in search of the perfect shot. Little do they know the close encounter they will then have with a very dangerous big cat…
Piazza San Marco, Venice: The Echoes of Love
Napoleon called St Mark’s Square in Venice ‘the drawing room of Europe’. Certainly, it is always busy, because it is so popular with tourists (and with pigeons, I may add!). They come for good reason: to see the stunning Byzantine architecture of St Mark’s Basilica, its imposing Campanile bell tower with gold archangel Gabriel weathervane, and the early-Renaissance clock tower. They also flock to the oldest coffee house in the world, Caffè Florian, whose clientele has included Balzac, Goethe, Casanova, Lord Byron, Proust, Stravinsky, Rousseau and Dickens. Here’s a glimpse of the square as featured in my novel:
The two bronze giants on the top of the San Marco clock tower beat out one o’clock on a sounding bell. Venetia hurried towards her destination, in the midst of the great streams of people who came flooding from all directions in the sunlight, bringing with them the myriad buzzing and humming of the international world. For once, as she walked along, she was not admiring the Doge’s Palace which shut out the sky with its great façade supported on a double tier of arches, or the renaissance front of the Library of Saint Mark where she spent many winter afternoons reading and researching. She crossed the great square with its Campanile towering above, the graceful shaft flecked with the shadows of passing clouds; the severity of the sober red brick of the bell tower made the main edifice of the Church of San Marco look almost fairy-like with its wealth of white marble lace-work and golden mosaic. Hundreds of pigeons crooned and strutted round her, glorious in their opal plumage, as she crossed the broad square.
The Alcázar, Seville, Spain: Indiscretion
The Moors from North Africa ruled parts of Andalucía for 800 years (between the 8th and 15th centuries), and they left their mark, most especially in architecture. My favourite example is the Alcázar, which Alexandra and Salvador visit in Indiscretion:
Alexandra was dazzled by this palace straight out of One Thousand and One Nights, with its vast rooms covered in glazed tiles. Never before had she seen so many marble columns, arabesques, arcades, galleries and cool, echoing corridors. They walked through the silent gardens covered in clouds of roses, laden with the pungent scents of myrtle hedges and the sweet balmy breath of orange blossom.
It was the history of the palace that most interested me when I explored it for Indiscretion. Its first occupant was King Pedro of Castille who, legend tells, fell in love with a woman called Maria. Her response: she burned herown face, thus putting an end to the accursed love that her beauty had inspired.
Alexandra does not find this story, related by Salvador, remotely romantic. But in this atmospheric setting, will she be seduced by the legacy of her Spanish background and the man who is revealing it to her? Certainly, the Alcázar is a stirring, atmospheric place that demands drama. And indiscretion?
Running of the Bulls, Pamplona, Spain: Masquerade
Pamplona, the capital of Navarre, is a beautiful city that is known internationally (thanks largely to the writing of Ernest Hemingway) for a single event: the Running of the Bulls. In Masquerade, when my heroine Luz receives an invitation to the town’s Festival of San Fermin, of which the Running of the Bulls forms a part, she at once accepts:
In all Luz’s visits back to her country she had never been to the Pamplona bull-running festival and although bullfighting was not to her taste, the renowned Encierro was the centre of an exciting celebration where the whole town took to the streets in a colourful riot of music, dancing, eating and drinking that enveloped the place in a joyous party atmosphere. It would do her soul good to be among such high spirits, she decided.
The Running of the Bulls is a very old tradition, in which six bulls are let loose in the old quarter of the town’s streets and people attempt to outrun them before they reach the bullring, a distance of 825 metres. In Masquerade, the gypsy Leandro is one of the runners.
The Encierro lasts only two and a half minutes or so, but so much occurs in that time. It is what Hemingway called a ‘wonderful nightmare’. Especially if, like Luz, you are foolish enough to slip through the safety barrier and get caught up in the action…
Las Ramblas, Barcelona: Legacy
In my latest book Legacy, the protagonists, Ruy and Luna, meet as strangers in the big, bustling, vibrant city of Barcelona. Luna happens upon Ruy playing flamenco music in a back-street bar while wandering down the street at the heart of the city, Las Ramblas. Why deviate onto that back street? A combination of being infused by the upbeat spirit of Las Ramblas and wishing to escape the clamour!
She stood, taking in the scene. The brightly lit promenade, adorned with plane trees, was seething with a river of people.
As she joined the cosmopolitan throng, it felt like all of the action – Barcelona’s entire nightlife – was centred on this wide, tree-lined street, from cosy traditional Spanish bars and restaurants to clubs lit up with neon. The hubbub was indescribable. Although seventies disco had become largely a thing of the past back home, it seemed to thrive in Barcelona and the pulsating music reverberated in the warm night air. Decaying movie houses, abandoned garages and long-closed vaudeville theatres had all been turned into colourful nightlife venues.
Luna could barely take in the staggering parade of diversions. There were booksellers, souvenir stands, flamenco dancers, clowns and acrobats. A dozen street performers, painted bronze or white like statues, wowed the crowds in a fantastic array of costumes, some standing or sitting, others moving in jerky mime. Luna found them somewhat eerie and, unlike other tourists, didn’t stop to take their photograph.
My next destination…?
Greece is next on the list for a literary visit, and I am also writing books set in Egypt and Ireland. Are there any other locations you’d love to see in my fiction? Where in the world inspires you?
In 1987 a new American film studio released a movie shot on a low budget and with no major stars. Expectations were not high. And yet that movie would prove to be a sensational box office hit, and would become one of the most enduring and iconic romance movies of all time.
Why the staggering success? Simply put: the sensuality of dance.
The movie, of course, is Dirty Dancing. No movie better exemplifies how powerful dance can be in stirring and cementing attraction.
I have always adored dance. I remember my parents taking me to the theatre to see world-class ballet companies like the Bolshoi and Leningrad perform, and I was completely enchanted. I took ballet classes for many years and was quite serious in my ambition to be a ballerina. Then once I reached my teens I discovered, through romance novels and movies, dance as the language of love. The passion, the intimacy… I knew that the romance books I dreamed of writing someday must include dance. And so they do!
Often, that means writing scenes in which my protagonists dance together, creating a moment in which time stops, in which barriers melt, and the two connect in a deeper, more meaningful, more primal way, as in this scene from my most recent novel Masquerade:
They moved into the seething mass on the dancefloor and he took her in his arms, holding her tight, so she was aware of the thundering beat of his heart against her breast. His thigh brushed against hers. The surge of arousal that ran through them both as their bodies met was like an electric shock. Her nipples stiffened; a rush of blood went to her head. She didn’t want to feel this way but her will had been sapped. The music was plaintive, tearing at her, and she closed her eyes, shutting out all sight and sound from her world. … She relaxed, melting, as undeniable warmth flooded her loins. Sensitive to her need, Andrés drew her ever closer into his embrace, clasping her to him, feverish and possessive. A yearning sensation filled her but she was not sure where it came from now; she only knew that she was surrendering to it, and to the man holding her in his arms. He had the most sensual touch and she savoured it with wanton abandonment. His jaw was brushing against her temple and she could just make out the spicy aroma of his aftershave mingling with the familiar scent of him. It felt good; it felt right. Time stood still. Above them the stars twinkled like diamonds and the moon was warm and glowing. She wanted this moment never to end.
But dance can be just as important in the story when experienced as the spectator. In Burning Embers, Indiscretion and Masquerade, the heroines are placed in the position of seeing beautiful women dance boldly and sexily for the heroes. Take this scene in Burning Embers:
Morgana had also noticed Rafe. She slowly danced her way toward him, but her professionalism ensured that her movements betrayed no emotion. Her face alone burned with passion, and her eyes, steadily fixed upon the man she apparently loved, were afire.
Morgana began quite obviously to dance for him alone. Coral remembered Dale telling her about this kind of thing happening in nightclubs in North Africa, where belly dancers chose a particular man for the evening and showered him with attention. She had wondered at the time if Dale himself had ever experienced one of these private dances. Coral watched as Morgana leaned over Rafe, brushing him with her black mane, jingling the silver bracelets on her wrists with her feline gestures. The Frenchman watched her, a slight smile on his face…
How can any man resist such sensuality? Coral must wonder. How can she hope to compete with this older, worldlier, more experienced and more provocative woman? Here, dance is means by which Morgana stakes a claim on her lover, Rafe, leaving Coral on the sidelines.
My heroines are in new, strange worlds – they do not know the dances. What they need is to be led to the dancefloor and guided, and that is where the heroes step in. In Indiscretion, Alexandra is enjoying watching Andalusians dance when Salvador insists that she dance the flamenco with him. She protests that she cannot, she does not know how to, but he draws her into his arms and tells her all she must do is follow him and trust her instincts. And then:
She could see the surprise and pleasure reflected on Salvador’s face when she began to move in perfect accord with him. With proud stamping steps they surrendered themselves to the mounting urgency of the rhythm and the precise evolution of the dance that were like a thin veil suspended above smouldering fires, threatening to erupt into flames at any moment.
To dance together, in step and in time: it forms a powerful and lasting connection. As dancer Martha Graham said, ‘Dance is the hidden language of the soul.’ Dance and all illusions fall away, leaving the beautiful, sensual truth.