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.’
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.’
Are you thinking about Christmas yet? Are you getting in the mood for feasting and merriment?
No doubt if you’ve been to a supermarket recently you’ve noticed a proliferation of Christmas fare on offer, from mince pies to gingerbread houses, stollen to macaroons. But have you spotted the traditional confectionary from Cádiz, Andalucía, setting for my new novel Legacy? If you don’t live in Spain, you most likely haven’t come across this delicious treat in your local shops – which is why today I’m sharing a recipe so that you can try it for yourself at home.
[Picture credit: Tamorlan]
First, a little background on Pan de Cádiz. The name translates to ‘bread of Cádiz’, but in fact it is not a bread, it simply looks a little like a loaf. It is also known as Turrón de Cádiz (Cadiz nougat) or Mazapán de Cádiz (Cádiz marzipan), which more aptly convey the content of the sweet.
Various varieties exist, but the core recipe for Pan de Cádiz always includes marzipan made with ground almonds, sugar, egg yolk and candied fruit, and it often includes sweet potatoes (and sometimes crystallised pumpkin). The Moors, who once lived in Cádiz, had much to do with the uptake of turrón, a nougat made from almonds, honey, egg yolks and sugar, and back in the nineteenth century the people of Cádiz would eat marzipan rolls with fruit. But it was a pastry chef named Antonio Valls Garrido put the two together and pioneered the Pan de Cádiz in his pastry shop, the Pastelería Viena, on the corner of San Miguel and Novena streets in the city.
If you’ve never tasted Pan de Cádiz, you’ve missed a treat: it’s sweet and flavourful, with a lovely moist and creamy texture, and the candied fruit within makes it fun and colourful. The people of Cadiz – and, indeed, in surrounding territories – eat Pan de Cádiz at Christmas, when it is handmade at home or bought from bakeries.
Traditionally, the process for Pan de Cádiz is as follows: Make a syrup with water and sugar – heat, and then cool. Add to well-beaten egg yolks and stir until thickened. Mix in ground almonds, sugar and cinnamon. Knead the ‘dough’ well, and form into the preferred shape (often a loaf), scattering into the layers the candied fruits. Brush with egg yolk and bake until golden. Then leave in a cool, dark place for several days to mature.
I follow a much simpler recipe when I make Pan de Cádiz, which incorporates sweet potato. You can use this recipe as a base and experiment with different additions, like your choice of candied fruit (I especially like to add the citrus fruits lemon, lime and orange).
500 grams almond flour
500 grams caster sugar
200 grams candied sweet potato (yams)
3 large eggs
- Preheat oven to 180 degrees C (350 degrees F).
- Mix the flour, sugar and two egg whites. Knead.
- Mix in the sweet potato and two egg yolks to one-third of the marzipan.
- Halve the remaining marzipan and roll out into two rectangles.
- Spread the sweet potato mixture onto one marzipan rectangle, and then place the other marzipan slice on top.
- Shape as desired (I favour the traditional loaf shape).
- Brush with the remaining egg yolk.
- Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until the loaf is a dark golden brown.
- Allow to cool, and then slice.
I serve Pan de Cádiz for guests over the seasonal period as part of a platter of sweet treats from around the world, with either tea or a sherry – which of course originates from Jerez de la Frontera in Andalucía, and so is the perfect accompaniment.
If, like me, you enjoy exploring different cuisines in your own kitchen, and the Mediterranean flavours of Spanish cuisine appeal, I can recommend this new cookbook by British food and travel writer Paul Richardson, which offers more than 100 easy-to-follow and delicious recipes that deliver authentic Spanish cuisine to home cooks everywhere:
First on my list to try? The authentic Spanish Hot Chocolate – perfect for the colder, darker nights.
I love the city of Cadiz, Andalucía, that ‘lively and luminous’ city known as ‘the Bride of the Sea’, so much so that I set not one but two of my romance novels there: Masquerade and Legacy.
Cadiz is the very oldest city in Spain, and one of the oldest in all of Western Europe; consequently, the city is steeped in history and legend, which of course is very appealing to a romance novelist!
Did you know that, according to mythology, Cadiz was founded by none other than Hercules himself, while on his journey to the end of the world to take on the monster Geryon (his tenth labour)? In addition, in ancient times a temple was erected there by the Phoenicians to honour Kronos, leader of the first generation of Titans, and father of Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Demeter and Hera, and it is said to have been the site of the pillars of Hercules.
The temple stood on a little islet that juts out from the emblematic La Caleta beach in the city. The temple is long gone, but what has been constructed there since has an interesting history.
Cadiz is the city of watchtowers, and one such tower has stood on the little island for centuries, to be used for defence (over the years the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans penetrated Spain at this point), and also for protection, wherein the light cast by the tower acted as a lighthouse to warn sailors of the islet’s presence.
In 1457, when the plague infected a boat from Venice, the crew were forced to quarantine themselves until they recovered, and while doing so the city of Cadiz permitted them to use the islet. There, the sailors built a chapel dedicated to Saint Sebastian, patron saint of the plague stricken.
In 1706, it was decided that a watchtower was insufficient defence for the city, and the San Sebastián Castle was built. The castle, which was further developed in 1860, is notable for its irregular shape, the outer walls following the lines of the island.
Nestled within the safety of the walls is the lighthouse, this iteration built on the site of the old Moorish watchtower back in 1908, when it was fabulously modern, being only the second lighthouse in the country to be run on electricity. It towers over the castle, some 41 metres above the sea.
Originally, the island was cut off from the mainland, but in the late nineteenth century a causeway was built. Today, visitors to Cadiz walk along the causeway, the Paseo Fernando Quiñones, out to the island and through the magnificent old archways into the fortress.
I did this walk while researching my Andalucían nights series, and was so inspired by the perspective I got of the city; the views really are worth the long and windy walk along the causeway. Because the fortress is not wholly restored and polished into a tourist attraction, I got such a strong sense of history and legend out on that little islet.
But it’s not just my imagination that’s been captured by this fortress on an island. If you’re wondering, having looked at the picture above, why San Sebastián Castle looks familiar, it may well be because you saw it in the James Bond film Die Another Day. Although the action is meant to be set in Havana, Cuba, that country has been off limits to film-makers since its revolution, and so Cadiz was chosen as a substitute. The iconic scene where Halle Berry walks out of the sea? That was filmed at La Caleta beach. The island with the clinic? That is the San Sebastián Castle.
Have you ever visited San Sebastián Castle? Would you like to? Do you enjoy exploring old castles – ruined or renovated? Do you find an air of romance within the old stone walls?