Category Archives: research

Research Overload (or don’t let facts spoil a good story)

I am a storyteller. Does that have to mean research overload?

StorytellingStorytelling is an art as old as time. I make up stories, tell yarns.

I am not an academic, I didn’t go to university and I didn’t study the art of writing at any college.  I remember telling stories in primary school (possibly it began even earlier, I can’t remember) and I learned my art as I went along.  Still do, in fact.

So I am NOT telling you how to write (or how to read). I am talking about stuff that distracts me when I’m reading a novel. Things I try to avoid.

“Write what you know”

We have all heard that old maxim, but whatever genre you write in, you will come across something that needs you to do a little research. At least, that is my experience. Continue reading

Whisky, Chessmen and Bonnie Prince Charlie

In May this year we booked a holiday. To explore the scenery, landscape and, of course, the history of the Outer Hebrides. It was not intended as a Jacobite tour, but from the very start we kept bumping into Charlie! I knew some of his story, of course, because I researched much of it while writing my Highland Trilogy. Two of the books actually mention Bonnie Prince Charlie.

In the footsteps of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Almost)

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Sicily and the Normans

green Sicily en route Palermo © Joanna Maitland

© Joanna Maitland 2022

Sicily was a surprise to me when I visited last month. It’s amazingly green and lush. Not at all what I expected.

My mental image of Sicily was derived from watching the arid backdrop to the Montalbano TV series. Wrong 😉

I snapped this picture from our moving bus. It shows the road through the mountainous interior as we travelled from the airport at Catania in the east of the island to Palermo on the north coast.

Green Sicily with citrus trees

© Joanna Maitland 2022

And there was more. Lush citrus groves as shown left. Plus lots of olive trees and vineyards.

I arrived just at the beginning of the hot season. There wasn’t a spot of rain during the 10 days I was there and it was hot. So I can understand how the dry and dusty backdrop to Montalbano comes about.

History of Sicily?

Too complicated to describe in detail here. Except that, since Sicily was strategically important in the Mediterranean, all sorts of peoples strove to control it. It was colonised by, among others, the Phoenicians (also known as Carthaginians) and the Greeks. The two groups were rivals there from the 8th century BC.

Temple E (5th c. BC) at Selinunte

Temple E at Selinunte, built 460-450 BC, rebuilt 1950s © Joanna Maitland 2022

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The Garden in Fiction…

The secret garden…

“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”

I imagine, for most of us, our first encounter with a garden in fiction will be Frances Hodgson Burnett’s wonderful book, The Secret Garden. The garden, locked away by a grieving man, is where Mary Lennox, with the help of a friendly robin, and two new friends, discovers a hidden world full of magic and life that transforms all their lives.

“The Secret Garden was what Mary called it when she was thinking of it. She liked the name, and she liked still more the feeling that when its beautiful old walls shut her in no one knew where she was. It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place. The few books she had read and liked had been fairy-story books, and she had read of secret gardens in some of the stories. Sometimes people went to sleep in them for a hundred years, which she had thought must be rather stupid. She had no intention of going to sleep, and, in fact, she was becoming wider awake every day which passed at Misselthwaite.”

Much has been made during the last couple of years of the healing power of nature. That is what Mary’s secret garden does, for her, for her sickly cousin and for her grieving uncle.

The garden as paradise

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Cinderella and the Birth of a Book…

December sees the publication of my latest Regency romance for Harlequin Mills & Boon. It is also the time of festive fun and pantomimes, so the Cinderella title is very apt, I think.

Cinderella and the Scarred Viscount

CLICK COVER TO BUY

Once upon a time….

Philip James de Loutherbourg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The story is set in Regency England but its origins are much further afield. Spain in fact. The whole thing starts with the Spanish Armada!

Many Spanish ships from that ill-fated expedition came to grief around the British Isles, and the are many stories of survivors “leaving their mark” on the local population in the form of dark eyed, dark haired children. My heroine, Carenza, has this dark colouring, inherited from her mother.

Of course, she isn’t the first literary character to have such a heritage. The one that springs first to my mind is Jimmy Perez in Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series (not that the lovely Dougie Henshall, who plays Perez in the TV series is dark haired OR dark-eyed).

Then there are The Westray Dons

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Sarah Mallory on creating your fictional new world

A Whole New World?

Creating a whole new world is one of the things I love about starting a new book.

the mappa mundi, a whole new world

The Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral

I love that moment when a story is forming in my head. The whole world is my oyster.

And yes, I admit food and wine are often involved in the initial creation process….

The past few weeks while I have been working on my new book have been particularly fascinating. It always involves lots of daydreaming as I think of plots and characters, but one of the most enjoyable parts of starting a new story is the setting.

When and where will my characters live in this new world?

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The questions people ask writers… Research in Paris

So, do you do a lot of research?

Apart from, “Where do you get your ideas from?” that has to be the question writers are most asked.

And the answer is, for me, yes, actually.

Quite a lot.

Pinterest, Google, Youtube

Even before I put finger to keyboard I scour Pinterest, seeking ideas for locations, looking for photographs of places and characters as I build my storyboard. This is the one I’ve created for A Harrington Christmas (it’s a working title!)

Mostly, after that, it will be diving into Google as questions crop up? What is the temperature in Nantucket in March? What is the time difference between Paris and Singapore? Is there already a restaurant in London called any of the half a dozen names I’ve come up with — and yes to every one. Continue reading

Oh look! It’s Christmas… Time to panic?

No! Don’t panic!

Covers ears at the deafening groans.

There are a couple of months to go before we need to start to panic, but the groans are undoubtedly justified.

The children have only just gone back to school, the supermarket aisles are full of the momentary distraction of fake pumpkins and Halloween costumes, but they are already piling up the Christmas chocolate. (I took these two photographs just this morning.) And greetings cards are on sale for those organised enough to get them written before they get swept up in the season.

But forget the stress…

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Reader, I married them (while researching the rake)

statue of a rake?As anyone researching the Regency period knows, the rake — the real Regency rake — was dangerous, unscrupulous and sometimes even a vicious womaniser.

I am very sorry, dear reader, if I have shattered your illusions.

Many of us like the fantasy of “taming” a bad boy, but most of us know in our hearts that it is nigh on impossible. Not quite impossible, of course. There are exceptions to the rule, but these are probably as rare in real life as the number of real live dukes in existence (which may be material for another story, another time).

silhouette of man's head in question markquestion mark being broken by handThere is always something to research for a new book. Often it seems obvious — military history for instance, when one sets a book around the Battle of Waterloo; or costume details for the period.

We have to invent a history for each of our characters. It may not feature in the actual book, but it is very necessary. As my latest book has proved. Continue reading

A Sideways Look at Regency Life — All At Sea!

figure contemplating slightly stormy sea

When we read fiction set in the Regency period, we often come across references to sea journeys but, usually, they’re over pretty quickly. On one page, we’re at Dover or Harwich or Falmouth. A paragraph or two later, we’ve arrived at our destination and the story continues. (Not in all fiction, of course. Who could forget Mary Challoner’s horrendous cross-Channel trip in Heyer’s Devil’s Cub? Still, at least Vidal proffered a basin at the vital moment.)

Nowadays, our ships have GPS and radar and even engines! 😉 So this modern figure, staring out over a slightly stormy sea, has little to fear from going on board. But what was it really like, making a sea voyage on one of the Regency’s relatively tiny and fragile sailing craft?

Let’s take an imaginary sea journey…

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