Monthly Archives: July 2014

Meet My Main Character: Blog Tour

This Blog Tour has been kindly passed on to me by Fleur Smithwick, a fellow Random House author, whose debut novel, How to Make a Friend, will be published by Transworld in January 2015. You can read about Fleur and her book here.

My novel is The Medici Mirror and my answers to the Blog Tour questions are below.

What is the name of your main character?

Johnny Carter.

When and where is the story set?

Johnny’s story is set in twenty first century London. He is an architect involved in the renovation of a derelict Victorian shoe factory. But the novel also moves between the present day and sixteenth century France, where Catherine de Medici, plotter, poisoner and practitioner of the occult is dabbling in dark magic.

What should we know about Johnny?

Johnny is vulnerable and fragile, plagued by his past and the breakdown of his marriage. He hopes for better things with new love Ophelia Gray. But while exploring the shoe factory he discovers a long abandoned underground room, and within it, an old, darkened Venetian mirror which appears to have once belonged to Catherine. From then on things really start to unravel.

What is the main conflict?

The mirror exerts a powerful, dark influence over both Johnny and Ophelia and they are drawn back to the underground room time and again. As Johnny’s mind begins to deteriorate, his dreams are haunted by a beautiful young woman , a woman who tells him that she’s dead and  appears to want to tell him something else. As Johnny finds out more about the history of the mirror and the factory, he begins to wonder exactly what games the Victorian factory owner played in the cellar and whether they could have tipped over into murder. And every path he follows seems to lead back to Catherine.

What is Johnny’s personal goal?

To save himself and Ophelia before it’s too late.

I’m passing the blog on to Graeme Shimmin, author of recently published, A Kill in the Morning, an alternate history and spy thriller. Look out for his post next week.


Writing Process Blog Tour

The wonderful  Rebekah Lattin-Rawstrone invited me to join the Writing Process Blog Tour, answering the questions below before nominating another writer to continue.         Rebekah’s dark and provocative novel, Home was published by Red Button Publishing earlier this year. You can find her blog post on the writing process here.

Below are my answers:

What am I working on?

For the last year I’ve been working on my second book, provisionally entitled Dark Tides, and due to be published in March next year (Arrow, Random House).

It’s a novel about love and loss, grief and redemption, and centres on Freya, a woman whose husband and son disappeared in an accident at sea. Plagued by the past, she returns alone to the lighthouse in the Hebrides that she and her family called home. But once there, isolated and her mind beginning to unravel, she finds that the haunting is only just beginning.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I don’t think either of my novels can be easily categorised or fit squarely within the confines of a specific genre. Rather I combine elements of different genres and hopefully create something new in the process.

My first book, The Medici Mirror, is a ghost story, focusing on an architect and a discovery he makes while renovating an abandoned shoe factory. Yet it is also part historical fiction, slipping from the present day to sixteenth century France and the occultist dabblings of Catherine de Medici, scorned wife of the King. There’s also a Victorian murder mystery subplot thrown in for good measure.

Dark Tides is also a ghost story yet again it’s partly historical – Freya’s narrative being punctuated by that of Edward, a soldier, dispatched to the Highlands by Cromwell in 1653, alienated and harbouring demons of his own.

 Why do I write what I do?

I’ve always been drawn to the dark, the magical and mysterious, and I’ve loved ghost stories from being a child – experiencing the thrill of fear at what flickers at the periphery of our vision, what lies just beneath the surface.

I’m also fascinated by history, the past’s impact on the present and the imprint that events and people leave behind them – whether that be the impression made upon the bricks and mortar of a lighthouse by those who once inhabited it or the vibrations still felt in the present day by a murder in an old shoe factory centuries earlier.

So for me writing is really bringing together these two passions.

How does my writing process work?

On days which I can dedicate purely to writing I try to write 1000 words. This is a target I’ve built up to over the years. This might take a couple of hours on a good day or a whole day (that feels as long as a year) on a bad one.

I don’t plan a novel in a huge amount of detail but I work from a general outline of the story that’s specific enough to keep me on track, in theory at least, but loose enough to allow the story to develop in its own way.

I tell myself at the outset that the novel will flow seamlessly from beginning to end. In practice, of course, it never does. There is prevaricating and meandering. I go off track and down blind alleys. Characters have conversations I never envisaged and pop up in places where they really shouldn’t be. Sometimes this works, at others it doesn’t. A lot of cake is eaten whatever the situation. There are times of despair when I think the words will never come together and joyous days when they feel light and flow easily. And eventually, even though at times I thought I’d never get there, I reach the end.

Next week you’ll be able to read about the writing process of the inspiring David Charles Manners. David’s first book, In the Shadow of Crows, was first published in 2009 by Reportage Press. His second book, Limitless Sky, was released by Rider Books/Random House in June 2014 and has been earning some fantastic reviews. Check it out!

Catherine de Medici – scourge and sorceress or slighted woman?

The overarching storyline of my novel, The Medici Mirror, centres on Catherine de Medici, the Italian wife of the French King Henri II of France, and her connection to an old, blackened, seemingly magical mirror. This mirror is passed down through the centuries and is uncovered again in the present day alongside, fragment by fragment, the story of its vengeful heritage. Did it belong to Catherine and does it embody the darkness which became so synonymous with her character?

The Black Queen, Madame la Serpente. They are names which at various times throughout history have been applied to Catherine de Medici. Some have painted her as the embodiment of evil, a demonic political schemer, a murderer. But are these overblown descriptions accurate or actually rather simplistic? Was she a more complex creature, a product of her violent, complicated times?

Born in Florence in April 1519, Catherine de Medici’s personal life was fraught with difficulty from the start. She was orphaned soon after her birth and then passed between various members of her family until she was imprisoned in a convent following a civilian uprising against the Medicis in 1530. She was held hostage there for over three years never quite knowing if she was safe. At the age of 14, she was married off by her uncle, Pope Clement VII, to Henri of Orleans, later King Henri II of France. Catherine adored him, but in return was essentially ignored in favour of the older, more beautiful, Diane de Poitiers, who was Henri’s mistress for practically the whole of his adult life. While Catherine clearly hated Diane and her hold over the King’s affections, Catherine wasn’t powerful enough to challenge Henri’s mistress and so had to tolerate the older woman and constantly hide and disguise her true feelings. If that wasn’t enough, Catherine’s position was further undermined by her inability to conceive a child for the first ten years of her marriage. During this time she lived under the almost constant threat of repudiation. After all, a barren Queen was anything but indispensable to the monarchy. And yet, through a combination of politics, pragmatism and resourcefulness, Catherine maintained her position.

Given this set of personal circumstances, perhaps it is not a surprise that Catherine was a woman of many sides, of seeming contradictions. She was educated and enlightened, a Renaissance champion, a patron of the arts and architecture. She was also religious, a Catholic. And yet simultaneously she was deeply superstitious. She believed in the power of the stars and sought consolation from astrologers, soothsayers and mystics. In her early life she became interested in ancient magic – many have thought that this developed out of her supposed ‘infertility’ and that in her desperation she resorted to pagan remedies to try to cure it. She is said to have drunk gallons of mules’ urine, supposed to ward against sterility, as well as mare’s milk, rabbit’s blood and sheep’s urine. She had hideous poultices put upon her body, numerous concoctions made by alchemists.

After ten years, and still with no sign of a child, it has been said that Catherine actually started to believe that she was sexually inadequate – that she wasn’t making love to her husband in the right way. And so the stout hearted woman had holes drilled in the floor of her bedchamber so that she could stare down through them and, in the hope of learning something herself, watch her husband and his mistress making love in the room below. My novel opens with this scene, which is thought to have taken place at the chateau of Fontainebleau. Eventually Catherine did conceive but whether conception was aided by either the voyeurism or the pagan remedies is anyone’s guess!

Later in life, it is clear that Catherine’s fairly innocent magical dabblings developed into something somewhat darker. Part of her entourage were the Ruggieri brothers, Cosimo and Tommaso, renowned astrologers but who also practised the black arts and meddled in the occult. At Catherine’s chateau at Chaumont, various sources recount that a black magic ceremony was performed with a mirror in a darkened room to see how long Catherine’s sons would remain on the throne. It is also said that other evidence of occult practices was found after Catherine vacated the premises after Henri’s death – pentacles drawn on the floor, altars decorated with skulls, the remains of animal sacrifices.

Dark arts aside, Catherine was also a consummate politician and tried to steer a steady course between the opposing parties of her day. She seems to have preferred the paths of reason and conciliation, but if diplomacy failed, she did not shy away from ruthlessly dealing with her enemies, especially in defence of her family. It has been said that later in her life she had her infamous Italian perfumier, Maitre Rene, create poisoned gloves to despatch those who stood against her. Some have maintained that she had an apothecary of deadly poisons – 237 secret compartments hidden behind the wooden panelled walls of the room adjacent to her bedroom and private chapel in the chateau of Blois. Others have argued, less sensationally, that it is far more likely that books and objets d’art were kept there. What is clear, even though the stories of Catherine’s murdering exploits have no doubt been exaggerated, is that she did not hesitate at times to get rid of her enemies.

To my mind, the common thread connecting all these diverse and seemingly contradictory elements of Catherine’s life and character was her unswerving desire to survive, in the face of singular hardships and trauma, and to ensure the survival of her dynasty. Pagan magic, darker spells, poison, plotting and intrigue, were all utilised and adopted to maintain her life and her line. She was strong, powerful, magical, ruthless, yet she was also a woman subject to her emotions – jealousy, fear, longing and resentment. And so there was a rich seam of irresistible references which drew me to her as a character. Perhaps she was a scourge, a sorceress and a slighted woman, but beyond all of those things she was a survivor, a true product of her life and times. And she became one of the strongest, most powerful and fascinating women of the sixteenth century.