Meet the heroines of my novels:
Burning Embers: Coral, 25. At the age of nine her parents, expatriate settlers in Kenya, divorced, and Coral’s mother took her back to England, forcing her to separate from her father. She spent her whole childhood missing him, and their home in Mombasa, from the lonely rooms of her boarding school. Even at home, she was lonely, as her mother remarried and started a new family with her husband. All Coral wants is to return ‘home’. But her father dies shortly before she does so, and the story opens with Coral returning to Mpingo, the plantation she has now inherited, alone.
The Echoes of Love: Venetia, 28. She grew up in England, the daughter of an overbearing, old-fashioned father, Sir William, and a lovely but passive mother. A romance in her late teens had seen her fall out with her parents; her father was vehemently against the match, because the man, Judd, was ‘not of their class’. While Venetia had, eventually, reconciled with her parents, she had then lost her mother, and she decided to remove herself from her father’s dominance by moving to Venice, Italy, to work for her godmother’s architect firm.
Indiscretion: Alexandra, 25. She was born in Andalucía, Spain, to a Spaniard and an Englishwoman, but at the age of three they split up and her mother brought her back to England. Two years later, her mother left Alexandra with her Aunt Geraldine to pursue a new love affair – and was killed in a car accident. Alonso, Alexandra’s father, did not send for her; subsequently, she grew up in England with her well-meaning but dour and dry maiden aunt. The story begins with Alonso finally asking Alexandra to travel to Andalucía and meet her Spanish family there.
Legacy: Luna, 25. Daughter of Montgomery Ward, a well-known American business tycoon, and Adalia Herrera, a beautiful Spanish socialite. Her parents split up when she was seven. Adalia took the daughter from her first marriage, Luna’s half-sister Juliet, with her to Spain, while Montgomery kept Luna in California – and immediately packed her off to boarding school. Luna never saw her mother or sister again: when she was twelve, news came that Juliet had died in a car accident, and her mother, already an alcoholic by then, drank herself to death shortly afterwards.
Each of my heroines, then, is admirably strong-willed and determined to choose their own path in life, whether that leads away from family or toward it.
Each is also alone. Of course, were you to ask Coral and Venetia and Alexandra and Luna, they would no doubt strongly deny being lonely. These are, after all, women who pride themselves on being independent. But deep down, they are achingly alone, and have been for many years.
Why write lonely heroines? Because it brings so much more emotional need to the story. Take Coral, for example, who is alone on her plantation, the mistress of all. Were she part of a big, happy family, an extensive support network, the whole mood of the story would shift; it would be less poignant, I feel, when she and Rafe come together.
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed a book missing from the list above. Masquerade, the second book in my Andalucían Nights trilogy, is a little different, because the heroine, Luz, is not alone. She is the daughter of Alexandra and Salvador (from Indiscretion). It was essential for the series that the heroine be their daughter, and because they are wonderful, attentive, loving parents, it follows that Luz is a different kind of heroine: bolder, more secure. The loneliness wrought by a difficult childhood is still a theme in the book, however. In Masquerade, I turn the tables: I would love to explain how, but that would spoil the twist…
For me, in any story I write, the antidote to a character’s loneliness is family. So my ultimate aim in writing a love story is not merely to tell a story of romance, of the early days of flirting and dates and stolen kisses, but to tell a story of a family being created – a family that will not break apart, but will endure. That is true love.
‘Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will.’ So wrote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, prolific writer of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
I agree wholeheartedly with this statement. After all, isn’t the point of writing to express oneself? Whatever you write, it is infused with your essence, your particular take on life, your experiences and wisdom and longings and desires.
Certainly, my own fiction takes readers on journeys to places I have myself visited; read The Echoes of Love and you get a sense of how I see Venice, Italy; read my Andalucían Nights trilogy and you see why I love this region of Spain and its fiery, vibrant spirit.
You also come to know, through my writing, that I have a passion for music and drama and literature, for philosophy and mythology, for architecture and for beautiful scenery; and of course that I am a dreamer, a romantic, and eternally hopeful in the power of love to be restorative, binding and inspiring.
But what of my heroines? Are they in fact me? When I look in the mirror, do I see not only Hannah but also Coral of Burning Embers, Venetia of The Echoes of Love, and Alexandra, Luz and Luna of Andalucían Nights?
In the spring edition of The Author (the magazine for members of the British Society of Authors), writer Amanda Craig considers this question in an article entitled ‘Not I?’. She opens by considering the case last year of a journalist revealing the identity of the writer behind the pen name Elena Ferrante (see my article on the issue). The journalist in question felt there was a story to be told because the writer isn’t of the same background as her heroine. But why assume that would even be the case?
As Amanda Craig explains in the article, the assumption that a writer somehow is their hero/heroine is common. She relates stories of writers, herself included, facing personal judgment because of flaws and traits in characters, not themselves.
This is a very real issue for writers, and it’s one I face myself every time I write a new novel. I devise a heroine, making her real in my imagination, with a detailed backstory; but as I do so, I am always aware that she is tied to me, that my readers may assume she is me. That is not so difficult when you come to write of a character’s strengths – her intelligence, for example, or hardworking nature – but it can be more challenging when you are exploring her weaknesses, such as naivety or a tendency to react emotionally without thinking.
Are my heroines reflections of me? No. I don’t write autobiographies; I write novels. But as the Author article puts it: ‘… if the facts of our own lives are different, the feelings are less likely to be.’ Were I to meet each of my heroines in real life, we would connect to each other on an emotional level. I understand their feelings; I have experienced their feelings.
To return to Goethe’s quotation, we could say that every author in some way portrays his feelings in his works. To write a book with emotional resonance, you must be prepared to share something of your own experience of pain, of grief, of fear – and also of passion, of love, and of hope. In that sense, you have to be prepared to look in the mirror – which, as Sylvia Plath wrote, will ‘see [you] back, and reflect it faithfully’ – but look past the physical, right into the eyes: the windows of the soul.
What’s the single most important element of a romance novel? Love. Not only must the love story that unfolds between the hero and heroine be compelling and moving and epic, but it must also cause the reader to fall in love a little herself.
What is the reason for the phenomenal success of romances like Twilight and Fifty Shades and Outlander, and even, going back in time, Pride and Prejudice? Edward Cullen, Christian Gray, Jamie Fraser and Mr Darcy. These are heroes with whom women the world over have fallen in love; these are heroes women wish were real.
When I sit down to start writing a new romance novel, I have many considerations to take into account, but prominent among these is that I need to write a hero who makes the pulse race and the knees weak. My ethos as an author is to write from the heart, to write for myself, not in an attempt to chase a trend or please a market, and so I always create a hero that I find very attractive myself.
After a lifetime of romantic daydreaming, I have no problem at all dreaming up all the qualities of my hero that make him swoon-worthy. All of my heroes differ significantly in looks and personality. Invariably, though, a hero is handsome, usually with a rugged edge, and he takes care of his physique, which is strong (deep down, I think all women respond to strength). He is intelligent, hard-working and tenacious; he is confident; he has a good sense of himself. He is, of course, very sensual and virile and passionate.
Have I ticked the swoon-worthy box yet? I think so. But that is not the end: the hero is not fully formed and ready to stride into the action of the story.
The romance novelist’s job is not only to create a hero who’s so attractive readers will wish him to life; it’s to create a hero who is that attractive but also realistic, believable, true to life. It’s no good dreaming up a hero who is utter perfection, who can do no wrong. He would be completely unbelievable, impossible to fall for. How could the heroine, a flawed human as we all are, have a hope of building a future with a god?
Love is not about perfection, it’s about balance, and so a love story must be based on balance, between fantasy and reality, wish and truth.
In each of my novels, my heroes are swoon-worthy, then, but they are also realistically imperfect. A hero may be arrogant. He may be egotistical. He may be secretive. He may be tormented by feelings he is frightened to confront. In Burning Embers, for example, Rafe carries a darkness in his soul that torments him. In Masquerade, Andres has difficulty assimilating different aspects of himself. In Legacy, Ruy is so caught up in powerful attraction he struggles to see clearly.
Heroes like this are tangible. They make a love story believable. Perhaps, you think as reader, you could meet someone like Ruy in a flamenco bar in Barcelona. Perhaps a guy like Rafe would offer you the ‘kindness of strangers’ on a ship bound for Mombasa.
I think it’s that ability to believe in romance, that dreams really can come true, that makes reading romance novels such a pleasure – not merely an escape, but a restoration of hope.
I will leave you with an iconic romance scenes brought to life by Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, which perfectly encapsulates how a hero must be swoon-worthy and yet also flawed – in this case, delightfully awkward. Enjoy!
Those of you who have read two or more (or even all) of my novels may have noticed a common theme in relation to the heroines: each is immersed in a new culture.
In Burning Embers, Coral is returning to Kenya, where she lived in her early childhood, to take over her inheritance, a plantation. Since the age of nine she has lived exclusively in England – Kenya, then, is a strange and exotic new world.
In The Echoes of Love, Venetia has come to live in Italy to work for her godmother’s architect firm in Venice. She has grown up in England, but is looking for a new start removed from the heartbreak she’s known in London; mysterious Venice, city of mirrors, seems a good fit.
In Indiscretion, Alexandra has a mixed heritage: her mother was English, her father is Spanish. But she has been estranged from her Spanish roots ever since her mother left her father (and then, subsequently, died), and has built a life in England. When she is invited to Spain, to meet her Spanish family, curiosity drives her to accept. But the Andalucía of 1950 is so very different to all she has known before.
In Masquerade, Alexandra’s daughter, Luz, is centre stage. Her mother is half-Spanish, her father Spanish; she is rooted in Andalucía. But her travels – she was educated abroad, in England – have made her open to new cultures, and she finds that she is fascinated by the gypsies in the area, their history and culture.
Finally, we come to Legacy, the conclusion to the Andalucían Nights series. Again, the heroine is of mixed heritage; this time her mother was Spanish and her father is American. Luna has grown up in the US, but a job assignment sends her to Cadiz, where she is surprised to see just how much a pull her Spanish roots have.
Culture, then is a very important in my novels. I take a young woman and thrust her out of the comfortable, safe – a little staid – life she has always known, and plunge her into a brand-new culture, one that is colourful and vibrant and exhilaratingly exotic, but also, by its nature of being foreign, somewhat overwhelming. Emotions run high as this new environment challenges the heroine at her very core: Who is she? Where does she fit, in this world or the last? Where in the world will she choose to live – in what cultural landscape? Most importantly, what kind of man will she fall for, one from her past or one from this heady new place?
The journey that my heroines take is one with which I identify strongly. I grew up in Egypt, and because the government put my family under a sequestration order, we were not able to travel for many years. As a child that did not concern me too much; Egypt has much to offer to occupy the mind of a little girl with a big imagination. But by the time I was a young woman, with a degree in French Literature from the University of Alexandria, I had a deep-seated need to see the world.
I spent several years travelling in my twenties, predominantly in Europe, and I met my husband at a drinks party in London. Ever since we have lived something of a cosmopolitan life, between different cultures: this year, for example, we have divided our time between our homes in Ireland, England and France, and we have travelled to Egypt to see family and to the Greek islands, as part of research for a future novel.
For me, experiencing different cultures and their people is as essential a part of life as reading and writing (as Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta said, ‘Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller’). That is why all my novels are infused with a passion for travel. But not only travel, of journeying to an end point.
Each of my books is really about the heroine finding a home, wherever that may be, a place in the world where she belongs. For Alexandra, that means settling in Andalucía, with her Spanish family. But the ending, I know from my own life, need not be so simple. Coral, for example, decides to move to France with French-born Rafe and live there in his manor, because the Africa she loves (of the 1970s) is changing; but she will return each year to visit her plantation in Kenya, which will always be a special place because there she and Rafe fell in love. The place matters, of course, but it is what it represents – memories, emotions, connections to people – that is really of importance.
As American writer Henry Miller said, ‘One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.’
In my latest novel Legacy, the male protagonist, Ruy, is a man faced with two legacies: that of his mother, Luz, who is descended from a respected and noble Andalucían family, and that of his father, Andrés, whose mother was an infamous and powerful gypsy queen.
It would be all too easy for, as one of the characters in the novel puts it, ‘The mixed gajo and Caló blood that runs in Ruy’s veins [to] pull him in different directions.’ But in fact, Ruy has reached a point in his life where he embraces both sides of his heritage:
* He is an eminent physician, with his own clinic treating cancer patients, and he assimilates easily into the mainstream Andalucían culture.
* He is an active member of the gypsy community – a flamenco guitarist, and a healer, having been taught herbal, alternative, medicine by the talented healer La Pharaona.
The balance Ruy has created in his life between the two different sides of his heritage has not come easily; his was a tortuous and painful journey. But it has opened new doors for him. Professionally, he is able to blend the two forms of medicine at his clinic, with impressive results. Personally, he has come to have a peaceful acceptance of his place in the universe and a faith in how that universe works: he has come to embrace some of the beliefs and traditions of his gypsy grandmother and bring these into his daily life.
Most notably, Ruy believes in more than cold, hard facts; he believes in fate, and he believes in the power of ancient traditions. This is most evident when he initiates a ritual at the gypsy camp when a new baby is born.
A cradle made of bamboo was brought out. The matron handed Ruy three sprigs of garlic and three pieces of bread, which he placed underneath the mattress. Then, dipping his finger in the hot cinders, he marked the child’s forehead with a semi-circular sign illustrating the moon…
‘The garlic and the bread are for the three goddesses of fate. El Mèdico has explained to us that this tradition we have comes from the ancient legends of Greece. The first goddess spins the thread of life for each person with her spindle, the second measures it with her rod, and the third determines when and how it should be cut. El Mèdico is very knowledgeable. El es un hombre sabio y un curandero, he is a wise man and a healer.’
Of course, being a man of learning, Ruy has an academic interest in the gypsy traditions, and he has researched them. In this case, the ritual goes all the way back to Ancient Greece, when people believed that three sister goddesses – Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, known as the Moirai or the Fates – controlled aspects of life. At birth, they ‘spun out’ a person’s destiny: spinning, measuring out and then cutting the thread of life. Honouring these goddesses then with an offering at a child’s birth is wise, therefore, so that they bestow a good fate on the child (and look more kindly on any deviation the child may make someday from his prescribed course).
The heroine of Legacy, Luz, struggles greatly with Ruy’s faith in fate, and indeed on all traditions connected to ‘the other’. The gypsy culture seems one of arcane symbolism and superstition – it is alien to her and, consequently, frightening. But as she watches Ruy perform rituals for the new baby, she feels ‘an odd stirring inside too, as though some inner part of her was reaching out to it all, like a hungry sapling seeking the sun’.
The odd stirring – could it be fate? The inkling of a destiny laid out for Luz at birth? I have written before on the legend behind the Andalucían Nights series, the one that Ruy believes will draw he and Luz together, and fate lies at its very heart (see http://hannahfielding.net/the-legend/). But will Luz come to see their love from his perspective? Ultimately, which viewpoint will win out?
‘Do not be afraid; our fate / Cannot be taken from us; it is a gift.’ ― Dante’s Inferno
‘I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul’ – William Ernest Henley’s Invictus