I am a writer with a passion for travel, and the places I have visited and lived in are rich sources of inspiration for me when I put pen to paper. Often, my stories begin as vivid landscapes in my mind: Burning Embers, for example, grew out of the beautiful wildness I encountered in Kenya, and the spark for The Echoes of Love was ignited in the Piazza St Marco, Venice, where I first encountered the two sides of the city: that which the tourists flock to admire, and the other, darker side.
These are places in which I situate my stories, but there are so many other places from my travels that you won’t find on the pages of my novels so far, but nonetheless are very important to me: they make me the writer I am. Today, I am taking you to Aswan, Egypt, to share with you one of my favourite spots in the world which never fails to make me dream.
The Old Cataract Hotel stands grandly on a granite promontory in the Nubian Desert on the banks of the river Nile. Its construction – in the Belle Époque style – dates all the way back to 1899, and since that time it has welcomed all manner of travellers, including Tsar Nicholas II, Winston Churchill, Howard Carter, Margaret Thatcher, and Princess Diana. The writer Agatha Christie was so inspired when she stayed there that she wrote Death on the Nile, setting parts of the novel at the hotel.
The hotel is so beautiful, it is little wonder it attracts visitors from all over the world. They come to step back in time, to old world glamour and splendour.
For me, the highlight of a stay is to sit on the marble terrace overlooking the Nile and, beyond, the lush gardens of the historic Elephantine Island, home of the temple for one of the earliest Egyptian deities, the ram-headed Khnum, god of creation and the waters. There, on the terrace, I have a front-row seat to watch the drama of nature unfold at different times of the day.
In the early misty morning, the dominant impression is one of deep-abiding peace. Your view is that of feluccas, the romantic wooden gull-winged lateen sail boats used since antiquity, moored on the shores of the Nile; of endless fields stretching afar, peppered with tiny villages with their mud walls and winding ways fringed with palms.
At noon, under the high, scorching sun, the scenery is painted in vivid colours. You might see a barefoot woman in her flowing gown filling water jars at the edge of the river, a smiling man dangling his legs and oscillating on the back of a small donkey, a string of stately camels ambulating on a straight road bordered by cool and shady date groves. Each is a picture postcard depicting peace-abiding people living today as they had lived a thousand years ago.
And then, at the end of the day, the sunset: the hour when the countryside is wrapped in a glory of colour! One moment the scenery is a dazzling silvery blue, ochre, brilliant green and dappled shadows; the next, without warning, it is flushed to a wild crimson. In Egypt night comes quickly; the sun sets dramatically – bang – just like that below the rim of the desert. Feluccas draw in against the bank with a rattle of chains and the creaking of windlasses and the whine of great sails. The fields are empty and the smoke of little fires rises in the still air from the mud-houses.
Now, darkness has fallen and the air is hushed and breathless. The sky is a purple canopy, low hung, and the blazing stars are so close that you can almost pluck them from the sky. The shadowed paths, the flowers in the hotel’s garden and the slender masts of sailing ships loom motionless, ghostly white in the silver moonlight: the desert night delivers infinity, eternity, beauty – all those grand emotions that inspire romance.
One of my favourite television programmes at the moment is First Dates, a programme in which French maître d’ Fred Sirieix oversees couples dining together on blind dates in a London restaurant (and, more recently, at a French hotel). The focus of the show, of course, is an exploration of how attraction forms (or does not), but what interests me most is the setting: excellent haute cuisine food, enjoyed à deux, is what creates the mood for romance to blossom. Often the menu interests me as much as the couples!
I love to cook, especially for family gatherings and parties; it gives me an excuse to try out the recipes I collect on my travels. But before cooking comes shopping, and this, I find, can be even more pleasurable. I am not referring to supermarket shopping; there is little soulful about that. I am referring, instead, to shopping in the old-fashioned way, at a market.
In France, where I live in the summer, I love going to the market in my local village for fresh fruits and vegetables, breads and olive oil. It’s a social occasion, a chance to meet friends and neighbours, to talk to stallholders and try their new wares, and invariably I come home laden down with bags.
When I travel, often I am staying at a hotel and thus am unable to cook, but I still like to visit the market and browse, taking in the sights and scents and flavours, the bustling atmosphere. That is how I came to visit the covered market in Cadiz, while researching my Andalucían Nights trilogy. Such a vibrant place! It’s housed in a large, Neoclassical, rectangular building that teems with life – so many people, from housewives buying ingredients for meals at home to chefs stocking their restaurants, all talking at once, questioning, haggling. The moment I took in the scene, I knew I must bring one of my heroines here – for before me was everything I love about Cadiz in one place: light, energy, passion.
When Luna, heroine of Legacy, arrives in Spain, she is plunged into a strange new world. Although she is half-Spanish by birth, she has grown up in America and has few memories of fleeting time spent in Andalucía as a child. She comes across the covered market soon after coming to the city, and enters wide-eyed at the colourful, clamorous sight.
Today, I’d like to take you on a little tour of the Cadiz market, as taken by Luna:
Stall after stall was heaped with fresh, colourful local produce from land and sea. Luna paused to admire the day’s catch of fish lying on slabs of ice, their silver scales glistening under the neon lights; some of which were specimens she had never heard of. She wondered how they were able to keep them looking still so appetizing in the heat.
‘We have the best red tuna in the world, fished locally in Tarifa,’ the fishmonger proudly told her. He grinned broadly. ‘Only for you, beautiful señorita, I will make it half price.’
Luna laughed. Even the fishmongers here turned on the charm. ‘I’ll come back in a few days, and you’ll have to tell me how to cook it.’
Then she sees eggs on display: rare large white organic eggs, and she decides to gather ingredients for an omelette. After purchasing milk and butter, she peruses the vegetables on offer:
These ranged from incredibly thin beans, tender spinach, young petits pois, baby carrots and globe artichokes, to large cabbages, enormous potatoes, oversized tomatoes that looked more like small pumpkins, and thick asparagus fingers, the like of which she had never seen before.
Luna settles for organic red vine tomatoes, crunchy yellow peppers, and wonderful spindly green chives.
As she moves on, Luna is captivated by the many foods on offer:
There were stores selling Serrano ham, chorizo sausage and the famous chicharrones – fried pork rind – from the coastal town of Chicalana. A woman nodded to Luna, gesturing at her to try a sample from a small bowl. Luna smiled and thanked her, popping a piece into her mouth. It was delicious, but rather heavy and rich. Maybe another day. Instead she chose a bunch of black grapes and a couple of juicy-looking peaches and nectarines, whose sweet fragrance filled the air…
She stopped at the dry foods stand that offered a vast assortment of nuts, glazed fruit and jars of cocoa and ground coffee, and bought a couple of jars and some pistachios. At the next-door counter, the region’s cheeses were on display, so she selected some queso de cabra. On the way out, she picked up a medley of olives, a bottle of olive oil, and a loaf of bread from the bakery.
Quite a shopping spree, I’m sure you will agree. It is inspired by my own visit to the Cadiz market, where I first tried chicharrones and I bought all kinds of foods for an impromptu picnic on the beach. I did not, however, sample the Albariño (a kind of wine) sold at the oyster stall, which my hero Ruy notes ‘can make you lose a whole afternoon’. Cadiz is too fabulous a city to waste a moment!
Do you visit a local market? Have you visited any abroad? I would love to hear about your experiences.
Of all the mythical creatures – and there are many – the nymph has always been one of my favourites. What image does the word nymph conjure up for you? Perhaps something like this vision, painted by John William Waterhouse:
A nymph is a female deity, but a minor one. She dwells in nature, is invariably beautiful and lives to sing and dance. No wonder, then, that she provided inspiration for the great and vivid carnival that is held annually in Cadiz, setting for my latest novel Legacy.
The nymph has particular significance for the city of Cadiz, because of its ancient connection to the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology). In an article I wrote last spring entitled ‘Hercules: An Andalusian hero’ I explain his connection to the city: he founded the city of Gadeira (Cadiz) en route to carrying out his tenth labour, to journey to the end of the world and take the cattle of the monster Geryon. The city had been named Gades, but by some it was called Erytheia, for one of the Hesperides – nymphs. The Hesperides were daughters of the night (from hesperos, meaning evening) who tended a garden near the mountain of Atlas where there grew an apple tree. This was no ordinary tree: it bore golden apples that bestowed immortality on any who took a bite. Stealing the apples was Hercules’ eleventh labour, which he completed successfully.
Nymphs, then, are beautiful, musical and interwoven with the legend of Cadiz’s foundation, and so they have naturally been part of the famous fiesta in the city that begins each year in February and runs for a fortnight. Until this year, that is, when nymphs are banned…
The drive for change began in earnest last year, when a core element of the carnival was altered. Traditionally, women of the city compete to become nymphs. Nine are chosen, based on their dedication to and knowledge of the carnvial, and their ability to dance the tanguillo:
Of these nine, one is crowned diosa, goddess, and she and her nymphs preside over the parade and the final of the singing competition at the Teatro Falla (for more information on the theatre, see my article ‘An inspirational composer: Manuel de Falla’).
Last year, however, Spanish News Today reported that having a female deity only had been deemed sexually discriminative, and that a male god would be chosen as well. This year, The Irish Times explains that concerns about discrimination have driven a more radical change to the programme: no nymphs at all.
According to the Times, ‘Cadiz’s leftist administration has outlawed the participation of the nymphs on the grounds that they are a chauvinistic anachronism that promotes gender inequality… The campaign’s manifesto said the parading of the nymphs and the goddess during the carnival risked generating “stereotypes, inferiority complexes and frustrations among our girls and younger women”.’
The nymphs were too passive, said those calling for change: ‘mute, quiet, a spectator, merely a beautiful figure on a float, a hostess handing out prizes, playing very much a secondary role’. They argued that the tradition, which dates back to the days of Franco’s right-wing regime, was part of the suppression of women.
Many citizens of Cadiz signed the petition to remove nymphs from the carnival, but not everyone was happy to see the end of this tradition, and a counter petition was launched.
While I can see the argument put forward by those working to ensure gender equality, it seems a shame to break with tradition so abruptly. I wonder whether instead there may be a way to empower these nymphs; to create new characters for them that are simultaneously grounded in mythology and yet also relevant for current times.
What do you think? I would love to hear your ideas and know whether, were you to visit the carnival this month, you would miss the mythological aspect.
If you’ve read any one of my novels, you’ll know that I root my fiction in a strong sense of place. The settings for my stories are not merely scenic backdrops, like two-dimensional paintings on a theatre set. They are vibrant and vivid – as real as I can make them. I describe not only sights, but the sounds and scents and tastes and the feel of being in the setting, so that my reader is not merely sitting at home, reading a story, but is transported across space and time and plunged into the story world. Then the reader is not merely a distant spectator, but is immersed in the setting; is part of the story, in a sense.
I write books because I love writing, first and foremost. But I also love travelling and learning about peoples and places. So it is with great pleasure that I begin the research phase for a new novel.
Today, I am sharing with you my process for researching the settings for my fiction, drawing on how I wrote Burning Embers, set around Mombasa in Kenya; The Echoes of Love, set in Venice and Tuscany, Italy; and Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy, set in Andalucía, Spain. I have split the research into two phases: first comes travelling to the country; second comes extensive home-based research.
Phase 1: In-country
My absolutely favourite part! I book a hotel in a city, usually, which I explore on foot – and then hire a car for trips out into the surrounding countryside. If I need to visit another city or town, I like to do that by train; it’s a wonderful way to mix with local people and take in the scenery (you can see how this inspired me in the opening of Indiscretion, in which my heroine travels into Andalucía on a steam locomotive).
While I am on my research trip, I make sure to do the following:
* Visit key places of interest. For example, in Venice I took the boat to the beautiful island of Murano, famous for its glass-making, and in Granada I spent a whole day in the Alhambra, a Moorish palace straight out of the Arabian Nights.
* Find a vantage point from which to take in the views. There is nothing like a vista to give one perspective, and I love to take in as much of a setting as possible from on high. Cadiz is the city of watchtowers; at the top of Tavira Tower I was mesmerised by panoramic views in the cámaraoscura (a room in which the view is projected via a convex lens). In Kenya I was lucky enough to take a hot-air balloon ride over the wild savannah; I could not resist sending my characters in Burning Embers on the same ride, because the view of the wildlife from the sky is awe-inspiring.
* Take meals in eateries frequented by local people. I try to avoid restaurants and cafes packed full of tourists, and I explore side streets in search of more authentic eateries – the kinds of places my characters would frequent. In Barcelona, I found a fabulous tapas bar with live flamenco music (you’ll recognise this in Legacy). In The Echoes of Love I write of the ‘Trattoria Tonino’ in Venice, overlooking the Devil’s Bridge, that serves the best goh risotto in town; this is based on a restaurant I found in that area where I ate the most delicious seafood risotto I had ever tasted.
* See the place at all times of day. I want to know how a place looks and feels by at sunrise and sunset, in the midday heat and beneath a velvety sky sprinkled with stars. There is no such thing as an early night when I am on a research trip; but then in hot countries like Spain, a siesta can make up for a late night.
* Collect mementos for inspiration. I take an extra-large suitcase on my trip, which is far heavier on the return flight. I fill it with all sorts of items that I think could inspire my writing, from postcards and fliers I’ve collected to stones and shells from a beach, and knick-knacks I’ve picked up in bric-a-brac shops.
Phase 2: Back home
My priority when getting home is to keep hold of the sense of the place, and so I bring aspects of the foreign culture into my daily life. For my Andalucían Nights trilogy, for example, I played flamenco music, I watched Spanish movies, and I cooked traditional dishes (paella soon became a favourite).
Now that I have a good sense of the country, I look to deepen my understanding of its culture and history. I read books on all kinds of subjects, from architecture and folklore to philosophy and politics, and I find answers to specific questions online.
When it comes to planning the book, and determining where exactly scenes will take place, I use Google Earth and Google Maps to visit and explore virtually. Doing so is nowhere near as impactful as being there in person, but I find these to be very useful tools for checking specific locations and connecting the dots between places.
Once I am happy that I really know the where of my story – and, of course, I have sketched out my characters and planned the plot carefully – I am ready to write.
As I write, I travel. I am no longer in my writing room at home; I am in Kenya or Italy or Spain or wherever I am situating the story. I can feel the sun on my face; I can hear local people greeting each other: habari… buongiorno… buenos días…
When it is time to stop writing, I often feel a little disorientated to find myself at home, and I soon come to miss that other place, which calls to me. In this way, the setting becomes a reason to always return to the writing; it is a home from home – of my own creation, but always rooted in fact, thanks to my research.
Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to travel to Spain several times, and each of these visits provided rich inspiration for my Andalucían Nights trilogy, spanning Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy.
Each of my stories is set during the hot, heady days of summer, but I didn’t limit my research to only this season; I was fascinated by Spanish culture year-round. What shapes these impassioned people? What values are of importance to them, and to which traditions do they hold fast?
When it comes to tradition, this is the time of year that is especially important to the Spanish, and interesting for a visitor.
Today, the 5th of January, Spanish people begin celebrations for the Fiesta de Los Reyes, the Three Kings Festival. This commemorates the Three Kings, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus.
This evening, in keeping with a tradition dating back centuries, families will go out to watch a colourful parade celebrating the arrival of the Three Kings at the Epiphany. Then they will return home. The children will lay out refreshments for the Three Kings and their camels, and then polish their shoes and leave them out ready to be filled with gifts when the Kings visit while they sleep.
Tomorrow morning, children will awaken to presents (or to coal if they have not behaved well; the ‘coal’ is in fact Carbón Dulce, a sweet confectionary which looks inedible but is delicious). The rest of the day is about coming together as a family, exchanging gifts and sharing meals. Top of the menu is Three Kings’ Cake, a sweet bread containing dried fruit (you can find a recipe on this blog post: http://hannahfielding.net/fiesta-de-los-tres-reyes-mages/). Traditionally, the Three Kings’ Cake also contains two secret prizes: a gold paper crown and a bean. Whoever gets the crown in his/her piece is king or queen for the day; whoever finds the bean is supposed to pay for next year’s cake (which can be a fair amount).
The Fiesta de Los Reyes is effectively the Spanish version of the Christmas Eve/Santa custom of countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. It’s an important day in the Spanish calendar, and one with a great deal of religious significance.
But as I explore in my Andalucían Nights series, Spain is a country where old and new sometimes clash. In the days of Indiscretion, the 1950s, Spain was quite insular, cut off from the world by General Franco’s regime, and out of step with plenty of modern thinking such as equality for women. Fast-forward to Legacy, set just a few years ago, and the backdrop to my story has changed immensely. Still, though, there is a struggle between old and new, heartfelt tradition and stark modernity.
Exemplifying this in the Fiesta de Los Reyes. It remains popular in Spain, and yet for many families it is no longer the only, or even dominant, celebration at Christmas. ‘Papa Noel’ competes with the Three Kings; the 25th December competes with the 6th January; the Christmas tree competes with the nativity scene.
For most families, the answer is to embrace both simultaneously. Thus children are visited by both Santa and the Three Kings; homes have both Christmas trees and nativity scenes; families come together on both 25th December and 6th January.
This, I think, is the spirit of Spain today: to refuse to be one thing or another, but instead to assimilate. I endeavour to imbue my novels with this same spirit. In Legacy, for example, Ruy is very much the modern man, but he is also part-gypsy, and proud of the fact. He is able assimilate both sides of himself and the associated traditions; for example, he is a clinical doctor who also practises herbal medicine based on gypsy teachings.
The title of my most recent book says it all: legacy. Tradition, in whatever form, from whatever source, matters. I will leave you with my favourite quotation from the Romantic composer Gustav Mahler:
‘Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.’