Setting

I have been asked a lot about the setting of Beyond the Sea, and why I chose the Hebrides as the landscape in which the action of the novel plays out.

 

Interestingly, while the book emerged from a single image of a woman, her hair turned white in grief, standing alone by the sea, a lighthouse in the near distance behind her, I think I probably knew even then, way back in the beginning when I didn’t know much else, that the woman was standing on a beach in the Hebrides. It’s a part of the world that I love. I’m drawn to its wildness, the stark rawness of its beauty, the fact that the weather can change in an instant, sunshine becoming rain becoming sleet.

 

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It is brutal, elemental, timeless – craggy mountain ranges, desolate moorlands, restless ever shifting seas. And yet, I feel there is also something redemptive, magical almost about this landscape. The sea takes away, and yet it also gives back. It is an endless, eternal pattern. The sea is often death, but it is also life. So the remote fringes of the British Isles, the untamed edges of civilisation, seemed a very natural and fitting backdrop for a woman touched by devastating loss, her emotions as turbulent and fast changing as the winds or the tides, but perhaps moving slowly towards redemption.

 

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The lighthouse was also crucial in establishing the mood of the novel. To me, lighthouses evoke images of keepers tending a light at night, keeping vigil during both calm and storm. They are symbols of sanctuary, of hope, of light in the darkness. Yet they are simultaneously the quintessential symbol of loneliness and isolation – solitary towers aloft in the middle of the ocean, battered by the elements. Therefore it too seemed to be a wholly appropriate place for the woman to live – a very visual image of her emotional state.

 

photo (28)

 

As I started to plot the novel in more detail, the woman became Freya, whose husband and son vanish at sea the year before the novel begins. She returns to the lighthouse they once called home, seeking solace, trying to move beyond her grief. Beyond the Sea is the story of her journey. But it also tells the story of the Hebrides, the lighthouse and the sea – all characters in their own right.

 

Research

Research is one of my favourite parts of the writing process and I do lots and lots of it before I even think about putting pen to paper. I think my obsession with it, apart from a passion for the detail, is fuelled by a desire to create, with as much precision as possible, the world in which the book is set – when something happens in a novel which is inaccurate or flawed, it jars with the reader and undermines its credibility.

 

For Beyond the Sea my research took many forms. It involved a trip to the isle of Mull to soak up the general ambiance of the Hebrides, but more specifically so that I could take the journeys by road and sea that the protagonist, Freya takes in the book. I made a later trip to the isle of Skye so that I could visit Neist Point lighthouse, the one on which I modelled the lighthouse in Beyond in Sea, and experience its remoteness and seclusion.

 

neist-from-cliffs

 

As well as making actual journeys there, I read a lot of books on the Scottish islands which informed my story. The history of the Hebrides is rich, magical and dangerous, inextricably bound to its proximity to the sea. I read accounts by lighthouse keepers of the harsh realities of tending the light, of isolation, fear, depression and madness.

 

lighthouse 3

 

I unearthed stories of whisky high jackings and buried treasure, letters, sealed in wooden boxes, which had been floated on the tides from St Kilda to the Outer Hebrides. It was fact that read like fiction.

 

Early float mail from St Kilda

 

There were accounts of soldiers and sailors and shipwrecks.

 

the swan cartoon

 

One in particular caught my eye. The Swan, a small warship, was despatched by Cromwell to the Hebrides in 1653, to suppress the royalist uprisings there. The Swan didn’t travel alone – there were 5 other vessels in the flotilla, including the Speedwell and the Martha and Margaret. During a violent storm on 13 September 1653, the Swan was ripped from its anchor in Duart bay and smashed against rocks, sinking into The Sound of Mull just below Duart Castle.

Swan position outline Swan site plan

 

It was rediscovered in the 1990’s – along with a number of well-preserved artefacts: cannons, a wooden carved cherub, clay pipes, coins, Bellarmine jars.

 

Cannon from the SwanSwan cherub

 

 

 

 

 

bellarmine jars

 

clay pipes swan

 

 

But while the Speedwell and the Martha and Margaret also sank during the storm, no records remain (if indeed there ever were any) as to the location of their final resting places. It was from these accounts that the historical thread of Beyond the Sea was born: a soldier bound for the Scottish islands, haunted by memories in a hostile seascape, an apocalyptic storm on the horizon.

 

Eventually, I stop researching and I try, to a great extent, to forget everything I have learnt. Huge amounts of research don’t make it into the book. But I hope that its flavour infuses the whole world of the novel and makes it a more authentic place for my characters to inhabit.

 

The Eyes of Guy Bourdin

 

eyes

 

Somerset House recently housed the UK’s largest ever exhibition of the work of enigmatic and surrealist fashion photographer Guy Bourdin (1928-1991), containing over 100 colour exhibition prints of his most significant works. They said of Bourdin:

 

‘[His] editorial and advertising imagery represent a highpoint in late twentieth century fashion photography. His work took the basic function of the fashion photograph – to sell clothing, beauty and accessories – …but… established the idea that the product is secondary to the image. [He] made [fashion photography] into something rich and strange.’

 

Rich and strange. That for me sums up the work of Bourdin. His narratives are dark, complex, sensual, sometimes sinister, always provocative. Some have an illicit, voyeuristic feeling to them, as if you are witnessing a moment that perhaps you shouldn’t. And it is not always clear what exactly it is you have seen.

 

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For example, in this photograph two women lie beneath newspapers on a pile of sand while a third is seen in a phone booth, clearly alarmed. Are the two women dead? And is the third another victim, a witness or perhaps the assailant? Who knows.

 

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This image shows a pale naked woman, supine across an unkempt bed, a telephone cord twisted around her neck. Her hair drapes luxuriously across the floor – in one hand she holds a necklace, in the other the hand of the black man lying beside her. Is it a tryst gone wrong? Ecstasy followed by strangulation? Possibly. There are signs of struggle in the flowers which have fallen to the floor beside her. Or is it in fact self-inflicted death, the man having arrived too late to save her? It’s unclear, but the effect is disturbing. ‘They’re perverse,’ says Ophelia, a photographer in my novel, The Medici Mirror, when describing Bourdin’s influential images. ‘Glamour with a hint of danger.’ And I’d have to agree with her. They are seductive, challenging, but not always easy to view.

 

blood

 

Many contain an overt tone of violence towards women and Bourdin’s critics have accused him of objectification and misogyny. In many images the models are compliant, glassy eyed, vacant, so stylised they take on the look of mannequins rather than real women. Shots focus on legs, the rest of the body simply invisible.

 

guy_bourdin_charles

 

Guy Bourdain

 

And in a number of photographs, only disembodied legs appear, striding down streets or beside the sea. Women’s body parts are fetishized, becoming things separated from the real person they were once attached to.

 

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Perhaps Bourdin’s own troubled relationship with his mother lies behind this less than comfortable representation of women. Abandoned as a young boy, he only saw his mother once after this and admitted that he had never been able to forgive her. He recalled her as an elegant, red haired Parisenne with pale skin and relatively heavy make-up. It’s surely not coincidental that a recurrent model in his images perfectly matches this description. By all accounts, Bourdin grew into a needy, controlling man with a disturbing tendency to lock his girlfriends away in his apartment, keeping them closeted from the world. Two committed suicide – one from what was believed to be an overdose, another hanged herself.

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Whatever you think of Bourdin the man, for me his images while shocking, scandalising and unsettling will remain always enthralling. What do you make of them?

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.

Catherine de Medici: The History of the Heel

Ladies yellow silk shoe showing the Louis heel. 1760s.

Ladies yellow silk shoe showing the Louis heel. 1760s.

Hello and welcome to my blog. Thanks for taking the time to check it out – I really hope you’ll find things of interest here over the coming months.

I wanted to write my first post about shoes. It might sound a bit random, but as some of you know, my novel, The Medici Mirror, features an old, abandoned shoe factory which is being renovated by an architect, Johnny Carter. So, naturally, the book is peppered with references to shoes and shoemaking and I thought it would be fun to take a look at shoes through history – and specifically the development of the high heel. Besides Johnny, another key figure in my novel is Catherine de Medici, the Italian wife of French King, Henri II. She is well known as a plotter and poisoner and is famous for involvement with magic and the occult. However, her penchant for extravagant clothes and her love of fashion is less well known. Yet Catherine de Medici is often credited with the invention of the first high heeled shoe.

In 1533, aged 14, Catherine was married to Henri of Orleans. Short (at less than five feet) and hardly considered beautiful,  with her dominant Medici features, Catherine was nonetheless shrewdly aware of the powerful impression and spectacle that brilliant dress could generate. On her wedding day, she wore robes of golden brocade , a violet corsage of velvet encrusted with gems and edged

Catherine's opulent wedding day

Catherine’s opulent wedding day

with ermine, with multiple precious stones and a crown of gold on her head.  On her feet, it is said, she wore a pair of heels created by a Florentine artisan, that gave her more stature and a fascinating sway as she walked – no doubt to attempt to captivate her largely indifferent husband and compete with his beautiful mistress.

Even if it didn’t work for Catherine, the high heel was a hit, quickly becoming associated with power and privilege. Mary Tudor, another short monarch, wore high heels in an attempt to give herself height and gravitas and from this period onwards heels were frequently in fashion for both men and women.

Louis XIV, King of France from  1643-1715, would often wear intricate heels – known as “Louis heels” – decorated with miniature battle scenes and often over four inches tall. Louis decreed that no-one could wear heels higher than his own and that only the nobility could wear heels coloured red (a precursor to Louboutin?). As heels continued to be associated with class their popularity shifted. During the French revolution, Napoleon banished high heels in an attempt to demonstrate equality. Interestingly, however, when Marie Antoinette went to the gallows, she did so in two inch heels.

The Victorian age saw the re-emergence of the appeal of the aristocratic high heel. The fashion died away again during the two World Wars and the Great Depression to re-emerge in the 1950’s. This revival was no doubt born out of a desire for glamour after

Beautiful Roger Vivier shoes

Beautiful Roger Vivier shoes

years of deprivation and sacrifice and was due in large part to French shoe designer, Roger Vivier, who is credited with the design of the first stiletto, utilising a thin rod of steel for strength. Vivier collaborated with fashion designer Christian Dior to take the high heeled shoe to new, sexy heights and created luscious opulent footwear, using silk, pearls and jewels, for customers as diverse as Ava Gardner and Queen Elizabeth II. In the 1960’s and 70’s Charles Jourdan took up the mantle of innovation, designing avant garde stilettos that were bought in excess by Imelda Marcos. They were immortalised in the surrealist photography of Guy Bourdain, a controversial figure in whose images womenroger vivier 2 were often portrayed as supine, like mannequins, or merely sometimes as a pair of disembodied legs modelling shoes. His pictures were subversive, sinister, dangerous  – the word ‘stiletto’, interestingly, means a blade or sharp knife in Italian – and in many images it is difficult to tell if the glassy eyed women pictured are dead or alive.

With the birth of feminism, stilettos went out of favour. High heels were seen as man-made objects designed to stereotype and subjugate (who can run, or even properly walk, away from a male aggressor in such shoes?). Feminists compared stilettos to the ancient Chinese practise of foot binding where women’s bodies were moulded (and deformed) into an image of what men found feminine and attractive. Interestingly, the popularity of small feet often accompanied a resurgence of passion for heels and mutilation of one’s

Carrie Bradshaw: Doyenne of the high heel in her Blahniks

Carrie Bradshaw: Doyenne of the high heel in her Blahniks

feet is not seen as too high a price to pay for capturing your own particular Prince Charming – after all Cinderella’s sisters actually cut off their toes to fit their feet into her lost slipper.

More recently, the view that women can derive pleasure and indeed power (rather than oppression) from high heeled shoes has become more widely acceptable. Women have reclaimed the heel as a symbol of height and authority and designers like Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik have lucratively ridden this new tide of female obsession. But it certainly is an obsession for some – those who have very publicly gone under the knife to reduce the size of their feet to fit into the ‘perfect’ pair of shoes. Each to his own.  But the mutilation still clearly continues.

“Milo’s Rambles”: Review of The Medici Mirror

Milo’s great book blog kindly gave a positive review for The Medici Mirror.

‘I have heard, but not believed, the spirits of the dead may walk again.’

A hidden room

When architect Johnny Carter is asked to redesign a long-abandoned Victorian shoe factory, he discovers a hidden room deep in the basement. A dark, sinister room, which contains a sixteenth-century Venetian mirror.

A love in danger

The Medici Mirror by Melissa Bailey

The Medici Mirror by Melissa Bailey

Johnny has a new love, Ophelia, in his life. But as the pair’s relationship develops and they begin to explore the mystery surrounding the mirror, its malign influence threatens to envelop and destroy them.

A secret history

The mirror’s heritage dates back to the sixteenth century, and the figure of Catherine de Medici – betrayed wife, practitioner of the occult, and known as the Black Queen.

If you are looking for a dark story, a side helping of jealousy, the obligatory love story that stands the test of time and a good twist then The Medici Mirror is the book for you. As many of you know I’m not one for love stories in literature – give me an old fashioned rom com movie any day – but this story intrigued me and I wanted to give it a go after seeing the book jacket. It kept me interested throughout and when the reveal came at the end I was suitably impressed, I hadn’t seen it coming!

The one thing that stood out for me was the writing. Melissa Bailey is a wonderful talent, the words flow and the story is beautifully crafted, it’s hard to comprehend that this is the work of a debut author. The narrative allowed me to feel part of the story and to lose myself in the sinister and beguiling powers of the mirror and those it ultimately affects.

The author effortlessly takes us back to the reign of Henri II but it’s his wife Catherine de Medici that really stands out, for me she steals the show and is without question the main character in the book – I cared more for her than Johnny or Ophelia who represent the modern era. A woman fighting for her position and her life, her insecurities literally jump off the pages and her desire to bring down her husband’s mistress – one of many – palpable.

Having said that, I would have liked a tighter relationship between Catherine and the mirror. I wanted to know why and how the mirror had developed such a sinister and dangerous aura. We never find out and this was a disappointment for me.

The author cranks up the tension gradually and you never quite know what to expect from one chapter to the next. Johnny Carter’s personality evolves throughout as he succumbs to the hidden and seductive powers of the mirror. This is a dark and atmospheric book, the scenes in the abandoned shoe factory are evocative and completely draw you in to an era gone by. Talking of which, I really enjoyed the time spent trying to discover how the previous owner of the factory had died. Was it natural causes or cold blooded murder?

For a magnificent and atmospheric blend of old and new, past and present along with the odd death thrown in for good measure The Medici Mirror will not disappoint.”

 

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Arrow (24 Oct 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099580721
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099580720