Last week in the UK, in the county of Devon on the south-west coast, a single name echoed on the breeze: ‘Flaviu’. The county’s attention – and, indeed, that of the wider country – was captured by the news that Flaviu the Carpathian lynx was loose somewhere among the population.
Dartmoor Zoological Park is no stranger to media attention: it is the zoo on which the popular movie We Bought a Zoo, starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, is based. Last week, the media were drawn like moths to a flame to the announcement that Flaviu the lynx had escaped his enclosure by chewing through a board, and was now at large in the area.
Despite the fact that the zoo staff were confident the animal was on nearby farmland, all kinds of sightings farther afield were reported. For example, the Plymouth Herald reported that a distraught driver had called staff at the zoo claiming to have run over the missing lynx with her car. The zoo owner said:
‘We tried to reassure her that it was very unlikely. We were still collecting sightings at this point and we were a bit alarmed that apparently someone had seen a lynx as far away as Saltash.
‘We were thinking these ‘sightings’ could get really out of hand so we started to discount the more far-fetched ones, including this one from the driver…’
Quite simply, the idea of a wild, dangerous animal loose in the county stirred imaginations. How wonderful, I thought, reading the stories. No doubt it was distressing for the motorist who thought she had killed the lynx (but presumably killed some other animal), but as a general phenomenon, this stirring of imagination is surely a positive demonstration of the magic of the mind.
Albert Einstein said, ‘Imagination… is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’ The field of psychology has long accepted that imagination – ‘the ability to form new images and sensations in the mind that are not perceived through senses’ – is an essential and healthy aspect of the human condition. Imagination fosters creativity, problem solving, cognitive processing and, essentially, empathy with others.
How, as humans, do we develop the ability to imagine? Through listening to stories at a young age and then, when we are able, reading them. The more you imagine, the better you think, feel, behave, achieve: what better reason to read and read and read!
Allow me to revisit for a moment the definition of imagination: ‘the ability to form new images and sensations in the mind that are not perceived through senses’. Thus, when we read fiction we are seeking actively to form new images and sensations in the mind that are not perceived through senses. As a writer, I always have this in mind when I am storytelling: I endeavour to really transport my readers into the story by providing all manner of sensory-rich detail that they can use to imagine vividly.
Take, for example, this description of the gypsy camp in Masquerade:
As he made his way through the gypsy camp, he watched the dark clouds drift towards the large shining moon as if intent on devouring it whole. So vibrant by day, the camp was now bleached of colour in the pale light. The fires were almost out, copper pots lay discarded and some caravans and makeshift improvised tents glowed from the lamps inside. The place smelt of burnt wood and petrol. A few figures were huddled round the dying embers, murmuring to one another, and some were passed out next to the dogs on the ground. The sound of a donkey braying somewhere was replaced with the harsh miaow of squabbling cats.
Can you picture the scene, in the pale moonlight? Can you smell the wood and petrol, hear the men murmuring and the cats miaowing?
If you can, then you are imagining; and what is most powerful about imagination is this, as evoked by the great Pablo Picasso: ‘Everything you can imagine is real’. The lynx was real to all who ‘saw’ it in Devon. My characters can be real to those who read my novels.
If you open your mind when you read a story, it is no longer a story but a real world into which you can step. Such adventures at your fingertips when you read books!
Most people are aware that reading is a Good Thing: for knowledge-building, for intelligence, for empathy, for wellbeing even (see my post ‘Want to feel better about yourself? Read more books…’). But have you ever considered what you read in terms of how it benefits you? Have you ever thought about how much ‘light reading’ you do as opposed to ‘deep reading’, and the consequences?
Recently, the International Journal of Business Administration published a study entitled ‘Syntactic Complexity of Reading Content Directly Impacts Complexity of Mature Students’ Writing’. The researchers behind the study found that what college students read affected their level of writing: those who engaged with ‘deeper reading’ (literary fiction, non-fiction and academic journals) wrote with more sophisticated than their classmates whose reading material was ‘lighter’ (commercial fiction or web-based content like Tumblr).
While light reading is a simple matter or decoding words for their meaning, deep reading is defined as ‘slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity’; ‘the language is rich in detail, allusion, and metaphor, and taps into the same brain regions that would activate if the reader were experiencing the event’ (source: Psychology Today).
In a nutshell, deep reading is better for you: it makes you think, makes you feel and teaches you a lot, both about the world and how to write. It can inspire you, move you, change you – and it stays with you for far longer than light reading.
Education systems are geared towards students reading at a deep level: no doubt you remember reading classic works of literature in your teens. But in adulthood, when we are free to choose our own reading matter, the easier option of light reading can be attractive. Perhaps you pick a novel you can tear through in a couple of hours, with short, simple sentences, little detail and no sophistication in the style. But afterwards, how satisfied do you feel?
Of course, I read light books too, because sometimes I just don’t want to think too hard. But I do plenty of deep reading as well. I am lost without classic literature: Stendhal and Hugo and Flaubert and Brontë are never far from reach. They inspire my own writing, in which I always endeavor to write well – which, for me, means creating books that offer readers the chance to read deeply and be moved emotionally.
If you’d like to try some deep reading, but find it difficult to fit that into your busy life, poetry is a fantastic option. A poem a day keeps the head-doctor away! Here’s a link to a collection of beautiful French love poems that will give you all the benefits of deep reading, and a wonderful rush of feeling: http://lithub.com/the-seven-stages-of-love-according-to-french-poetry/.
In this season’s edition of The Author magazine I was fascinated by an article by Alexandra Harris, author of Weatherlands, a book that explores the relationship between the writer and the weather in English literature (well worth reading; you can find it on Amazon here).
The article, entitled ‘Fine weather for writing’, considers how the seasons – their weather, their light, their spirit – affect a writer. Ms Harris explains how winter is her season for writing, and suggests ‘no-one should expect to write very much in August’, the ‘peak time for immersive work, yet also for being with family and friends, for adventure and experiment, and for relaxation to last us all year round’.
I know well the English weather; I have lived in England since my twenties, through all seasons. So I understand well how the height of summer can when little is accomplished beyond daydreaming over a lemonade on the patio or walking through a field of wildflowers. But in recent years, I have taken to summering at my home in France, on the south coast a little way from St Tropez, and I have noticed that doing so has greatly boosted my writing.
In her article, Ms Harris explains: ‘On glorious days the weather requires attention, and it feels ungrateful, irresponsible, to stare down at the laptop you shield with a precisely angled sunhat rather than looking out at the endless glittering detail of the sunlit world.’
I quite agree; this is how I feel… in England. Because in England the weather is so variable, and truly glorious days are so rare that they must be highly prized and admired.
But in France, I find there are so many more glorious days. Even overcast days can be quite stunning, with variant colours in the rolling clouds and sometimes a theatrical thunderstorm. The weather does not pull me from my writing; instead, it inspires me to write. I write on the terrace overlooking the sea; I write in the gazebo shaded by tall trees and serenaded by cicadas.
I find that in my summer writing, I am moved to write of summer: to situate my romances in hot, sultry places. Take my latest novel Masquerade. It is set in Cadiz, Spain, where the heroine lives in her parents’ summer house:
The bright and airy summer house was so different from the imposing hacienda of El Pavón and for those who knew her well, it was little wonder that Luz found as many excuses as possible to escape here, where she could be near the wild and windswept cliffs, allowing the invigorating smell of the sea to fill her lungs.
The views from her vantage point on the terrace at the back of the villa were wondrous; there was so much incident to the ever-changing skyscape and to the land itself. It was as if nature was behaving like a magician with a wand, revealing or concealing vistas of the most beguiling beauty. Under a huge arc of sky, where racing cotton-wool clouds folded and unfolded, appeared and disappeared, an enamelled sea the colour of pure cobalt spread itself in front of her. Dancing waves unwound over stretches of glistening white sand, extending infinitely in a straight line. On the opposite shore Puerto de Santa María, the shimmering salt plains and marshy wetlands of Las Salinas behind it, was edged by a far-off screen of pine trees and the masts of ships. In front of the town boats and yachts painted in bright Van Gogh colours bobbed up and down in the port.
I love my heroines to have such vistas, the kind that one travels to see. My aim with my writing is always to transport my readers to someplace beautiful; I suppose you could say that my Andalucian Nights trilogy is a passport to sunny, sultry Spain.
Of course, I write all year round; I am quite lost without a novel in the making. Sometimes, then, I write stories in which the sun is less constant; The Echoes of Love, for example, is set in Venice in the winter. But usually I am drawn to the warmth and the light; it must be my upbringing in Alexandria, I suppose.
I think my summers in France fuel my writing for the rest of the year. When I am writing a scene back in England on a rain-swept, blustery day, I can close my eyes and remember the feel of the sun on my skin and the scent of bougainvillea on the gentle breeze.
How do the seasons affect your productivity and creativity and mood? Is the summertime your time for whatever most inspires you? Do you love to read romances set in the summer? I would love to hear your thoughts.
A girl never forgets the first time she sees Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I was in my late teens and absolutely enchanted by the story, the characters… but most of all, the style.
Audrey Hepburn’s black dress, which she wears at the opening of the film, is probably the most famous of all time, and I have no doubt it sparked the ‘little black dress’ (LBD) trend that endures to this day.
Did you know the original dress was designed by Hubert de Givenchy? He and Audrey were close friends, and he loved to design for her. But when Audrey took two copies of the dress to the film studio Paramount, they were rejected for showing too much leg (there was a slit reaching to the thigh), and the skirt of the dress was subsequently redesigned.
In 2006, actress Natalie Portman modelled Givenchy’s dress for Harper’s Bazaar, and that dress then sold at auction for nearly half a million pounds.
To this day, women embrace the sleek elegance of the little black dress (albeit, one hopes, with a far less hefty price tag than Audrey’s Givenchy!). In my novel Masquerade, an LBD with simple accessories gives Luz the confidence to sail into a meeting with the attractive and powerful Andrés de Calderón:
She had slipped on a black silk-chiffon dress with ruched shoulder straps and a figure-hugging bodice flaring into a delicately draped skirt, and wore towering heels. A twenty-two-carat gold ridged cuff adorned her wrist, while oversized but dainty gold hoops hung from her earlobes. She debated whether or not to put her hair up and finally opted for a straightforward ponytail. Her make-up was minimal: a hint of eye shadow, a stroke of mascara and a tinge of tinted gloss applied to her cheekbones and lips. The copper tan she had acquired on the beach deepened the blue of her eyes, making them look wider and more vivid. She satisfied herself that she had achieved a glamorous look, without being overdone…
Back in 2010, LOVEFILM conducted a survey of the ‘greatest female screen outfits’. Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s dress topped the poll. But interestingly, she appears again at number six on the list, with this outfit from My Fair Lady:
Such fabulous style for the races! It was designed by Cecil Beaton and sold at auction for an amazing $3.7 million.
Of course I couldn’t put my heroine in something so flamboyant, but I did dress her all in white for one party:
All eyes turned on Luz as they entered the room. She wore a white jersey figure-defining long dress with a plunging neckline and a large cutout at the back. The shimmering white material accentuated her copper tan and her irises appeared almost dark blue beneath her black lashes. The gown was accessorized with a bib necklace of hammered gold circles which lay over her décolletage; by intimating rather than exposing, the jewel enhanced the mystery, allowing a glimpse of the curvaceous hollow between her breasts. Her hair was piled high on the crown of her head, showing off her graceful, swanlike neck, the perfect oval of her face and her delicate features. As usual, without intending to, Luz stole the show.
For me, a little white dress can be just as powerful and glamorous a style statement as a little black dress.
What do you think of these dresses? Would you love to wear one of Audrey’s gowns? Do you have a trusty little black – or white – dress?
Having read the title of this blog post, you may be thinking: Modern and courtship? Now there are two words that don’t belong together. True, courtship conjures up a picture of times gone by, before the Jazz Age heralded a shift to ‘dating’, but it’s valid today to describe the period of time in a couple’s relationship that precedes their engagement, marriage or lasting partnership.
The word caught my eye this week in a fascinating Vulture interview with Outlander author Diana Gabaldon. She discusses the difficulties she’s faced in the genre categorisation of her Outlander series. The first issue is that the books don’t sit neatly in one genre: they are romances, but also historical and fantastical (time travel). The second issue is that the romance scope in Outlander doesn’t match up with the norm in the romance genre; Jamie and Claire’s story extends far beyond the courtship phase.
Diana says: ‘A romance is a courtship story. In the 19th century, the definition of the romance genre was an escape from daily life that included adventure and love and battle. But in the 20th century, that term changed, and now it’s deemed only a love story, specifically a courtship story.’
She further explains: ‘[I]n romance novels, those are courtship stories. Once the couple is married, that’s the end of the story… I’ve never seen anyone deal in a literary way with what it takes to stay married for more than 50 years, and that seemed like a worthy goal. On one level, this series is telling the story of how people stay married for a long time.’
Have you ever noticed this about romances – that they focus on first love, young love, the courtship phase only? I wonder what has created this modern preoccupation with the courtship phase. Is it that we long to remain forever young and in that first flush of love? That as we age we escape by going back in time, rather than sidestepping? That we need to escape our current time? That we only value new love, not love that endures? That the young displace the old, and as women age we disappear, as suggested in this recent article on Lit-Hub: ‘On the invisibility of middle-aged women’?
Writing my Andalucian Nights series really opened my eyes to love stories that continue beyond the courtship phase. Indiscretion, the first book of the series, focuses on Salvador and Alexandra in the early days of their love. In the second book, Masquerade, the next generation is the focus (their daughter, Luz), but Salvador and Alexandra are part of the story too. After many happy years of marriage, they are still beautifully in love. Here’s a peek at them in a scene where Luz receives a letter:
‘There’s nothing like a romantic note to entangle a sensitive woman’s heart,’ Alexandra declared as she gazed lovingly at her husband, clearly remembering the days of their courtship.
Salvador laughed. ‘We Spaniards are masters in the language of love, is that not so, mi amor?’ He picked up Alexandra’s hand and kissed it.
I thoroughly enjoyed writing the Salvador and Alexandra scenes in Masquerade; I could quite happily have written many more. I was very glad to be able to stretch the limits of the modern romance genre to include this ‘older’ love story as well. In many ways, I wish I could write the entire story of Salvador and Alexandra’s love, from start to finish – and the full love stories of Rafe and Coral in Burning Embers and Paolo and Venetia in The Echoes of Love. An author always finds it difficult to leave her characters behind.
What do you think of the current scope of romance stories? Would you like to see more variety in terms of when the story ends? Do you love epic stories like Outlander that span many years? I would love to hear your thoughts.