Researching a Novel–Honestly!

May 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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envelope IMG_6338In less than a month I’ll be heading off on what, to an outsider, probably looks like a lark.

Researching a work of fiction might sound like an oxymoron, but as a reporter with more than twenty-five years of experience in the world of “fact checking,” I’ve discovered after seven novels that getting the details right about the real world aspects of a story is just as important in a piece of “make-believe”  as it is with “breaking news.”  If a novelist screws up the data, believe me, you hear from your readers.

And that’s just as it should be.IMG_4903

In That Summer in Cornwall, the first in the 4 Seasons Quartet series, I’d been to Cornwall several times previously as my English cousin, Gay North, has hosted me in the West Country several times over the years, and especially during the research for an earlier novel, A Cottage by the Sea.  

Image 7However, as I embarked on That Summer in Cornwall, I knew virtually nothing about the world of search and rescue, nor about the amazing canines trained to find visitors who fall off the cliffs skirting the English Channel or down abandoned shafts that dot the beautiful countryside. So my trip to Cornwall last October was fun and exciting, to be sure, but it was also spent interviewing the Dog Unit Manager of the Devon and Cornwall Police, to say nothing of tramping up moors, along fast-running rivers, and peering down dark, forbidding mine shafts clinging to remote parts of the local landscape.Ciji in Chinatown

Whatever the setting of a novel—even one that took place in my own backyard of San Francisco–as with A Race to Splendor about the rebuilding of the legendary Fairmont Hotel atop Nob hill after the 1906 earthquake and firestorm–the reportorial skills of “who, what, when, where, and why” are essential to getting the facts right so the world that a novelist creates for the reader rings true.

Jamie, Helen Mirren-Taylor-Tony-Ciji-Scotland wedding

 

 

 

 

That Autumn in Edinburgh will be the third book I’ve set in Scotland—Wicked Company being the second and Island of the Swans (the prequel to my next project there) the first. And each research trip to the land of my mother’s ancestors has been a joy–but also involved some rather arduous work as well.

Edinburgh_Castle_Scotland-Wallpaper

However, this time, the action is set not only in the spectacular city of Edinburgh, which I know well, but also in the Scottish Border country between the capital and the often-contested area of land where England officially begins.

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On my upcoming research adventures, I’ll be learning about present-day factories producing ancient tartans; about cashmere manufacture and the struggle to stay afloat in a global economy where operations in the Far East have been allowed to pay their workers $37 a month—and where conditions are so unsafe, entire buildings collapse, killing a thousand women in their wake.

Ciji Jamie McCullough Castle

Oh yes…given my experience on trips past, I expect to have a wonderful time visiting a part of Scotland I’ve never seen, but, to me, this story I have percolating in my brain night and day right now is also serious business—and I’ll do my best to get the facts straight.

 

Researching a Novel The Old Fashioned Way

March 10, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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 Ciji at ABC RadioI spent more than twenty years as a working reporter (mostly at the ABC television and radio affiliate in Los Angeles) and as a magazine journalist—and my first instinct when I get an idea for an historical or contemporary novel is to go where the book is set.Ciji in front of Caerhays Caslte nr. Mevagissey - Version 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

With That Summer in Cornwall—a stand-alone contemporary sequel to my “time-slip” novel A Cottage by the Seathe action takes place a good decade after the ending of the contemporary part of the novel.  In my mind, there was no choice:  I had to return to the area because the premise of the new book was: “What ever happened to that babe in arms in the first book…and what’s Cornwall, England like some ten years, plus, later?”

IMG_6786 - Version 2Once I determined I was, in fact, going to do a sequel to the original novel set in Cornwall, I immediately called up my good writing pal, romance novelist Cynthia Wright with whom I’d made my first trip to Britain’s West Country to research the original book (and she, a couple of her own) and said, “Wanna go back to Gorran Haven and Mevagissey with me and see what trouble we can get into again?”  Her answer? “Absolutely, if we can also go to that seaside village, Polperro and Lansallos, where all the eighteenth century pirates hung out. I’m thinking of doing a couple of books that deal with smuggling…”IMG_6743

So off we went in October of 2012, retracing some of the same areas we’d visited in the late 1990s and heading off into new territory as well.  We still managed the six-mile “Hall Walk” a second time, and paused at the bridge at Pont Pill where we’d rented a Lime Kiln Cottage from the National Trust on the first trip.  For the research jaunt last autumn, we decided to rent a suite at Caerhays Castle near Gorran Haven, the model for “Barton Hall,”  an important element in both books set in Cornwall.

Image 2This contemporary novel centers on the story of Meredith Champlin—a cousin of Lady Blythe Barton-Teague who is the mistress of Barton Hall and the heroine in CottageMeredith wakes up one morning in her home state of Wyoming to discover she is the official guardian of an unruly “Beverly Hills brat” whom she’s never met and hasn’t a clue how to serve as the unhappy child’s surrogate mother. Her elegant cousin Blythe, now the mother of two thanks to her second marriage to the wonderful Sir Lucas Teague, urges Meredith to come to their shabby-chic castle on a remote cliff in Cornwall for the summer to see if they can’t transform this angry, difficult child (whose mother is Blythe’s estranged sister and has died in a private plane crash) into “a decent human being.”  For me, returning to actually reside within the castle walls allowed me to capture the unique atmosphere of the place local novelist Daphne du Maurier called “Enchanted.”Image 8

Not only did I call on my reportorial skills to capture the local color and feel of this special part of the world, but I also conducted a number of interviews about the amazing volunteer search-and-rescue work in Cornwall performed by highly trained dogs and their handlers who find “holiday makers” known for falling off cliffs, down abandoned tin and copper mine shafts, along with “despondents” who have wandered up on the moors to commit suicide.  The enigmatic hero, Sebastian Pryce, a British Army veteran of the Afghan War who served as a K9 specialist in a dog bomb-sniffing squad, persuades Meredith to co-found a dog obedience academy, with many unexpected consequences flowing from their decision to work together—including, of course, their falling in love.

Image 11I even managed to wangle an interview with the chief Dog Unit Manager for the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary (ie the police), Anthony Jordan, who walked me through police operations that coordinate the volunteer corps, Coast Guard, Royal Air Force, and other organizations that make up the network of the search and rescue community.

Their work was amazing and thrilling in so many ways, and I hope that my use of reportorial skills to capture the authenticity of their various activities shines through That Summer in Cornwall–while also telling a ripping good story!  Image-20-199x300

And if any readers are of a mind, a nice review posted on your favorite e-retailer site would be most appreciated.  You cannot image how hugely helpful reader reviews are to get out the word when a book is launched.  The print version will be available sometime later in March.

How to Build a Cottage in Your Mind

March 2, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Grandpa Ware stone cottage Carmel circa 1950s

I admit it:  over the years, I’ve become a rather obsessed “cottage collector.” Perhaps it’s because, at around ten years old, I began visiting my Grandfather Ware at the tiny stone cottage perched on a sand dune on Carmel Beach that he rented the same year we moved as a family from Los Angeles to the amazing village of Carmel-by-the-Sea.DSCN0267  My father, writer Harlan Ware, would escort me along the streets-with-no-sidewalks to the Forest, Studio, and Golden Bough theatres thriving in our town where I would perform in semi-professional plays when I was growing up.  We’d pass by cottage after cottage that could have served as illustrations in the Book of Mother Goose.  Cottage life, to me, seemed an idyllic way to live, even during the years when I dwelled in the cities of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

c10So, when I first walked through this gate fifteen years ago on the central coast of Cornwall, England on a research trip for A Cottage by the Sea, I knew this was the perfect spot to set this story and had in my mind  exactly how the fictional “Painter’s Cottage” should look.  It would be a stone structure with a slate roof and floor-to-ceiling artists’ windows facing the English Channel. However, on that day, all I could see across a broad field was a tiny structure clinging to the cliff on a curving bay between Nare Head on the West and Dodman Point to the East.

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As I picked my way across the loamy turf, I began to make out what was actually an abandoned “lookout” stone structure, a small, squat building–and in 1997, minus a roof.   Never mind, I thought, enraptured by the sweeping view and the sheep and Scottish Highland cattle dotting the slope, this was the place I would build my perfect cottage in my imagination.  On another research trip years later to prepare for the sequel, That Summer in Cornwall, the field’s owner—the Caerhays Castle estate–had recently restored the roof, perhaps in the hope they could add it to a list of estate outbuildings they offer to paying guests.  Luckily for me, I had that privilege last October at Bottom Lodge…once the gatekeeper’s cottage.

IMG_6352Talk about a novelist surrounding herself with the atmosphere of the place she would write about!  This is “Bottom Lodge” where visitors to Caerhays Castle (aka “Barton Hall” in my two novels set in Cornwall) can book into the left turret. I was “in residence” in October of 2012 and it was totally an experience of a lifetime!  I spent my days tramping all over the estate, reveling in what it must have actually been like to live here a hundred and fifty years ago, and also got a solid grasp of what a struggle it is in the modern world to keep these big houses solvent.IMG_6375 - Version 2

 

IMG_5654In the two, stand-alone novels (and certainly in my mind), I easily expanded the small structure I’d spotted perched on the cliff into a two-story cottage with a sleeping loft and a faintly baronial fireplace opposite windows facing the English Channel–and no cattle wandering in and out! (This cottage with the sailboat actually exists in Talloires, France–but I loved the fireplace and imagined it as part of Painter’s Cottage!)  On  my most recent trip to the environs of Gorran Haven in central Cornwall, I dared to get pretty close to those long-horned Scottish Highland cattle who’d made the old stone lookout hut their personal shelter…and what a view! Beyond those clouds, that’s Brittany across the English Channel…IMG_6534

The vistas through the abandon lookout’s glass-less windows were even more incredible. Imagine, I thought, if the Caerhays Estate eventually rehabs this stone lookout and allows their “paying guests” to stay here as they did with bottom Lodge?  But I loved the location so much, I decided as I was writing That Summer in Cornwall that the heroine would claim the “newly rehabbed” Painter’s Cottage for her own while she pitched in to help her Anglo-American cousins return the eight-hundred-acre estate to solvency.

Image-20-199x300I could easily imagine the overstuffed furniture in front of a cozy fireplace, surrounded by the magnificence of the Cornish coast.  To me, Painter’s Cottage truly exists as part of a shabby-chic castle clinging to a remote Cornish cliff–even if all you can see if you visit there this very day is a small, squat, abandoned stone hut that may one day see new life again.

In a novelist’s mind, anything is possible…

 

Booksellers, Historical Fiction, & “Hand-Selling”

October 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

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I remember walking into the (now) 83-year-old independent Tecolote Bookshop in Montecito, California–seen here hosting Thomas Steinbeck at a signing–to show them the galleys for the first edition of A Cottage by the Sea.  My favorite member of the small sales force peered at the title and then suddenly clutched the Advanced Reader’s Copy to her bosom and said with a sigh, “Oooooh, a cottage by the sea…every woman’s fantasy!”

I was extremely gratified to hear this as I was in a fierce battle with the book’s original publisher about the title.  “They” wanted to change it, and I loved it and wanted to keep it.

I immediately sent an emergency fax (that’s how long ago this was) to the editor, recounting exactly what I’ve told you.

I knew this anecdote would have some weight because the scuttlebutt was that Tecolote was one of the up-market independent booksellers out West that the New York Times Sunday Book Review called to measure sales for its bestsellers’ list.  I have no idea if that is true, but it was an accolade from an important store and, bless the hardworking staff there, it carried enough clout with the editors and marketers in New York to retain the book’s title!

Every since that time, I have done my best to support and get to know the booksellers at both independent bookshops, like my local Habitat Books seen here, as well as the chain bookstore staffs in my area.

Historical novels, whether made of paper or downloaded onto  an electronic reading device, are successful in great part due to this “hand-selling,” and I’ve been grateful for the fifteen years that A Cottage by the Sea has been in print in its various editions that booksellers have apparently given it a personal boost and created that “buzz” that can really make a difference in sales.

Just this morning I was walking with a friend down our main thoroughfare where the tourists stroll as soon as they step off the ferry from San Francisco, and lo and behold, there was the beautiful edition (and new cover) of Cottage–out since June of this year from Sourcebooks Landmark–up-front-and-center in the window of the store!  I’ve met the owner, but hadn’t had a chance to go in and try to twist her arm to stock the book, to say nothing of begging her to put it in the window.

I handed my dog-walking pal my iPhone and said, “Quick! Take a snap, will you?  I want to prove to the world how the independents are truly independent!”  The owner chose to feature the book with no prompting from the author or publisher.

Books are sold by hand by these wonderful people who own bookstores…one book at a time. And now that the new edition of  Wicked Company, about a group of women playwrights whose works were produced to great success at London’s Covent Garden and Drury Lane theaters, is about to debut this month, I guess I should get busy, go into Habitat Books to show them the new cover, and introduce myself again….

I’ve done that recently at a local gift shop, It’s Out of Hand, whose owner, Christine Butler, I know well. Since we live in a maritime village facing San Francisco Bay, she put Cottage near the cash register with a sign “Signed by Local Author” and sells several copies a month talking about the similarities between Cornwall, England, where Cottage is set, and the California coasts along Carmel-by-the-Sea and Big Sur.

Another lesson in “books are hand sold, one book at a time.”  Words to live by, I’d say.

A new release of Cottage by the Sea

June 21, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

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A Cottage by the SeaIf any of you historical readers love Cornwall, England, and are fascinated by the idea that events in the past are still impacting your life in ways you’d never imagine, you might enjoy A Cottage by the Sea that was published by Sourcebooks/Landmark in June of this year.

I’ve always been slightly obsessed by the linkages between areas in America that were settled fairly early and the regions in Europe from whence the settlers to our country came.  In this case, many the Cornish tin miners ended up in the mines of Wyoming and Pennsylvania. Read more