Thursday, 28 February 2008

English Lord, Ordinary Lady - the music

I don't normally create a specific soundtrack to listen to while I write a book, but I often find myself prefering to listen to a particular CD. For English Lord, Ordinary Lady, this was Eyes Open by Snow Patrol.

Their beautiful song "Chasing Cars" was the inspiration for the scene where Josie and Will are alone in the moonlit garden after her brother's wedding. I loved the idea of just lying down next to someone, looking in their eyes and realising they are everything. Sigh. Have a watch of the video on YouTube:

Friday, 22 February 2008

English Lord, Ordninary Lady - settings, part two

While Penshurst Place was the inspiration fro Elmhurst Hall, the idea for the attics full of undiscovered treasure came from another wonderful house. In English Lord, Ordinary Lady, Josie’s godfather has spent his life travelling and collecting strange and unusual things. I got the idea for this wonderful array of artefacts after a visit to Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire.

The owner of the old manor house was Charles Paget Wade, an architect, artist and poet, born in 1883. He bought Snowshill Manor when it was derelict and restored it to house a collection of assorted objects from all over the globe while he lived in a tiny cottage next door. He inherited a fortune from his family’s sugar company which meant he no longer needed to work, and was truly one of the great British eccentrics.

Unfortunately, I only have a few pictures of Charles Wade's living quarters because visitors are not allowed to take pictures inside the house, but they give you a feel for what the interior of the manor house is like. Photographs I have found of Snowshill on the internet are owned by the National Trust and can be found in their libray here.

It was craftsmanship, not value, that was Wade’s passion for collecting things, and the manor house at Snowshill contains model boats, musical instruments, Chinese and Japanese furniture, armour, toys, dolls’ houses, bicycles, prams, and a hundred things more, all displayed throughout a rambling old house.

What I do have is some pictures of the outside of the manor and some of the strange things Wade hid in his garden…

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

English Lord, Ordninary Lady - the setting (part one)

Elmhurst Hall in English Lord, Ordinary Lady is based on the stunning Penshurst Place in Kent. I hasten to add that Penshurst is in no way falling apart at the seams, as Elmhurst is at the beginning of my book, in fact it seems to be a thriving enterprise, and I don’t think there has been anything like the family troubles that I gave the Radcliffes. I made all of that up.

The whole idea of the exhibition of the late lord’s treasures came from a completely different location, which will be the subject of the next blog.

What I thought I might do is just post the pictures with a little snippet of the book underneath. Unfortunately, my photos were taken on an overcast October day rather than in spring and summer, when the book was set.

Will’s first view of Elmhurst Hall.

“The turrets and chimneys on Elmhurst Hall rose above the surrounding trees, its sandstone walls warmed to a golden yellow by the slanting afternoon sun. Long-paned windows filled the stonework and high arches curved over the heavy wooden doors.”

As Will tries to find his way from the car park to the hall, he catches glimpses of it above the yew hedges:

“Two tugs at a rickety-looking gate covered in peeling green paint gave him entrance to the garden. There wasn't a big open space as he'd expected; it was divided into much smaller sections by thick yew hedges.”

On the North American release, there is a little landscape picture on the back cover. Considering the artist saw none of these photos, I’m staggered by how similar the illustration is to the ‘real’ Elmhurst. High-five to the artist!

Will sees the back of Elmhurst from the rose garden:

“He knew enough about architecture to recognise that the building was a patchwork of different periods and styles, some sections dating back to the sixteenth century.

The wing facing the front gates had obviously been added later, the grand façade, but round the back of the building, one could see the history. Different sections had been added by previous owners all wanting to improve Elmhurst Hall and leave their fingerprint on it. Now it was his turn to do the same.”

Josie lives in a cottage on the estate:

“Josie walked down the path that led to her stone cottage. It was an odd little building, tucked into the corner of one of the garden walls, as if someone had just built it there as an afterthought.”

This is the walkway that leads to the orchard where Will and Josie share their first kiss:

“Even without the moonlight she knew she was in the right place. The scent of apple blossom hung in the air like a cloud. Come autumn it would be heavy with the cidery fug of rotting fruit, but now the fragrance in the orchard was cleansing and pure.”

The beautiful surrounding Kent countryside:

Will and Josie carry Hattie back to the cottage after the wedding:

“Hattie’s body seemed to get denser as he walked and, without craning his neck to check, he knew she was in the dozy half-state between wakefulness and sleep. When they finally reached the cottage he handed her over to Josie, who was steadily avoiding eye contact, and watched as she carried her up the stairs to bed.”

The open-air theatre, where Will and Josie share an intimate moment:

“Josie sat beside Will on the grassy lawn of one of the smaller ‘rooms’ hidden away in the maze-like gardens. Each area had its own particular atmosphere and function.

This garden had been designed as an open-air theatre, with a grassy raised stage on one side and a gentle crescent-shaped slope for the select audience to sit on.”

The herb garden, where Will finds the journalist:

“A path ran from the rose garden into the herb garden. Will started to follow it but stopped almost instantly. He could hear a low voice muttering in a one-sided conversation.”

Josie meets Will’s grandmother near the fountain in the large rose garden at the back of the hall:

“In the rose garden, staring into the fountain, there was a figure. For a split-second, her heart lurched, but then she realised it was a woman, slim but obviously in her golden years. Her hair was a pale platinum blonde and she wore a smart brown suit finished off with leopard-print shoes.”

And another shot to finish off with, just because I think it’s pretty:

Saturday, 16 February 2008

English Lord, Ordninary Lady - Hero & Heroine

I had a very clear picture in my head of what Josie, my pink-haired heroine in English Lord, Ordinary Lady would look like. I’m not someone who has to find a photo of my hero and heroine before I can write. I normally have a vague idea of what they look like – although this often comes in to sharper focus, or even changes, as I write the book.

Josie is 24 and petite – 5ft 2 – and when Will first meets her, he notices her large eyes and her stubborn little chin. She’s not conventionally pretty, but gorgeous in a quirky, Audrey Hepburn kind of way. Certainly, Will can’t seem to take his eyes off of her once he’s got past the bright fuchsia hair. Especially her ankles. And her feet. Isn’t it a relief when men get fascinated by the less obvious parts of a girls’ anatomy?

I was watching Without A Trace one day and suddenly saw an actress that bore a striking resemblance to Josie. Although Christina Hendricks is taller and doesn’t have the pink hair, she had the quirkiness, the twinkle in her eye that made her a dead ringer.

And then there was Will, 35 and old beyond his years. If I had a heroine who wanted to rebel and escape the upper-crust life she’d been born into, then who is the worst possible person she could fall in love with? Yup, that’s right. A man with a title. And just to top it off, I made sure he was traditional and concerned about his heritage, and I gave him a sure-fire reason to want to be the best Lord Radcliffe there had ever been. The last thing he needed was a “pink-haired pixie”, as he calls her, fouling up his plans to restore the family honour.

Will started off looking a bit like the picture of Richard Armitage above. But the gorgeous Mr Armitage was just a bit too wild-looking (and don’t we love him like that, ladies?) to make a good Will. And for that I will be eternally disappointed. As much as I wanted him to look like the original picture, he just didn't. And I couldn't seem to talk my subconscious out of it.

Once again, I was flicking through the TV channels and I spotted someone who looked a little bit more like the Will I had in my head. This is Joe Flannigan, from Stargate Atlantis. If you imagined him British and less spiky-headed and smiley (as he can be in the show), he could be Will’s twin brother. The frown is certainly Will’s!

Will was born to be solid, respectable and in charge. Too bad then that his grandfather ran off with a stripper and was disinherited. But then he learns that the previous Lord had died childless, and Elmhurst Hall belongs to him. Life is finally going his way. Well, at least it is until he turns up at his new home and finds fairies at the bottom of the garden…

Come back soon to see pictures of the real-life setting for English Lord, Ordinary Lady!

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Story ideas - English Lord, Ordinary Lady

After all the glitz and glamour of last week, life has returned to normal. In other words, I am devoid of make-up, in my jogging bottoms and drinking too much coffee. And it’s high time that normal service resumed here too. So, I’m going to blog about the ideas and inspiration behind English Lord, Ordinary Lady, as promised.

I always love it when other authors do this kind of thing – but normally after I read the book. I like to see if the way the author sees the hero and heroine match up to the pictures I had in my head. I like to see pictures of the real-life locations that sometimes become so real to me. And I love finding out where the spark of inspiration, where that first idea, came from.

So, just in case you didn’t pop on by to Liz Fielding’s blog the other week, I’m going to repeat what I said there about the ideas that came together to produce English Lord, Ordinary Lady. I find it’s often not just one idea, but two or three that manage to slot together that show me the story has legs, so to speak. This time round it was: pink hair, a tearoom in a stately home and Penshurst Place.

The initial inspiration for English Lord, Ordinary Lady came from a secondary character in my first book, Blind-Date Marriage. The heroine’s best friend was a rule-breaking, pink-haired dynamo called Cassie, and I so badly wanted to give her a story of her own, even if it meant killing off her vicar husband and leaving her pregnant and homeless (aren’t I wicked!). I even had a hero all set up and a great idea for an ending, but…I just couldn’t get the timelines to fit with the past I had given Cassie in Blind-Date Marriage.

So, in the end, I decided to take the ‘spirit of Cassie’ and create a new heroine – one whose history I could manufacture to fit my story – and, hey presto, Josie popped into being. Her hair was just as pink as Cassie’s, her take on life just as unconventional, but she turned out to be younger, feistier and naughtier than I could ever imagine! I also kept the same ending I’d dreamed up for Cassie. In fact, the whole of English Lord, Ordinary Lady was written, and Will’s character created, just to let that ending make sense. I’m not going to give anything away, but let’s just say that it’s the bit where Will decides to keep everything under his hat (wink, wink).

It just so happens that I have relatives that run a tea room at a stately home. What a great way to bring an ordinary girl into the path of a stuffy, needing-to-be-shaken-up English lord, I thought. But then the ‘what if’ fairies went to work on my idea. What if, instead of being a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks, struggling to make good, Josie was actually from a family just as privileged as Will’s? What if she’d turned her back on that life? Suddenly, Josie became an upper class party-girl seeking to straighten herself out – and I knew I had a story that I was itching to write. But it turned out that I could take the it-girl out of the party circuit, but I couldn’t take that special something – the ‘it’ – out of the girl. And, despite himself, Will noticed it too. And that’s when all his troubles began, poor man…

Come back soon to find out more about my hero and heroine!

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Five let loose in London

After a slow start and a large breakfast, Trish Wylie, Natasha Oakley and I were ready to venture out into London. There was a whole kafuffle with lost cameras, lost keys and the like, but I’ll let Natasha tell you about all of that. We met Abby Green and India Grey in the restaurant at the National Gallery for lunch. Natasha and I had kofta meatballs with flatbread and the other three had macaroni cheese, but the tastiest thing consumed was definitely Trish’s Watermelon, Ginger and Cranberry juice smoothie.

Trish, India, Abby & Natasha

Much merriment was had by all as we discussed ideas for our latest books, writing and novelty sex scenes! Thankfully, writing for the Romance line, I don’t have to worry about what is anatomically possible or how uncomfortable some of the ideas bandied around would be in real life – and now I have thought about it harder, I am eternally grateful for that. After Trish and India had demolished a sundae, we ventured out into the glorious February sunshine and took a walk round Trafalgar Sqaure. Abby found a sign that she just had to stand next to:

Unfortunately, it was soon time to part ways. Trish, who was desperate to do some sightseeing had suggested an open-top bus tour. Since I live in London, I'd never actually been on one myself, thinking it was something for tourists. And you know what? I had a blast, and got lots of lovely pictures that I can use when I blog about Saying Yes To The Millionaire, which is set in central London.

After a hard afternoon’s sitting down and being driven about in a bus, there was only one thing to do – hit a book shop, browse for books and drink coffee. And look at the stencil on Trish’s cappuccino – the perfect decoration for romance writers!

Saturday, 9 February 2008

M&B 100th Birthday Party

On Thursday 7th January, Mills & Boon, now the British face of Harlequin Books, was 100 years old. Although Gerald Mills and Charles Boon started publishing a wide range of fiction and non-fiction books in 1908, it didn’t take long before they realised that romantic fiction was where they’re future lay. 100 years later the little company they founded sells one book every three seconds all over the world. Not doing too badly are they? Anyway, what’s the best way to celebrate a birthday? You got it! A party! And I was very excited when a lovely gold and pink invitation arrived in the post for a cocktail party at The Wallace Collection – a museum in a large London town house, filled to the brim with wonderful art and furniture.

Even though I live in the outskirts of London, I decided to stay in a hotel with my fellow M&B Romance authors Trish Wylie and Natasha Oakley. I didn’t want to be travelling home late at night on my own, and we don’t get the chance to meet together very often, so we were going to make the most of it. Unfortunately, we spent a little too much time talking, drinking tea and reading one of Trish’s many interviews in the Northern Irish press (she’s a media darling over there at the moment, dahling!), and realised we needed to get our skates on if we were going to make it to the party on time. The idea of a leisurely dinner in the hotel’s restaurant went out the window (it wasn’t open at 5.20pm) and Natasha and I ended up running across the road to a local supermarket and buying sandwiches to stuff into our faces while we put our make-up on and got dressed. Sigh, the life of an author is just so glamorous sometimes.

Pretty soon we were in our finery and dashing through the West End in a black cab. Natasha and I had made a tactical decision not to bring our invitations as they were big and square and didn't fit in our teensy tiny handbags. It was only as the cab was already on its way, that Trish pointed out that it clearly stated on the invite that we were supposed to bring them with us, otherwise we might not be let in. Should we go back? We looked at our watches. We were already 10 minutes late. Although I'm normally one to do everything by the book, I arrived at the party prepared to blag my way in if necessary.

Thankfully, it wasn't an issue and we were soon given our name badges and ushered through some of the Wallace Collection’s galleries filled with gold-framed paintings and glass display cabinets, before we emerged into a huge space, which must have once been a courtyard, but now had a huge glass roof to provide a stunning indoor space for a party. We were greeted with a waiter carrying a tray of champagne cocktails and I tried a mixture of champers and fresh raspberry juice, which was heavenly. There was a candy floss stand in one corner and two women on stilts, dressed up as pink swans, flanked the little bridge that took us across from house into the courtyard.

Now, there had been rumours that a company called Butlers in the Buff had been hired to hand drinks out at the party - which had caused a bit of a stir, as the staff are extremely attractive young men and are often found wearing nothing but a strategicly-placed apron. Much to my relief the only hint of being undressed was that their shirts were open a few buttons and their bow ties were undone. Every woman at the party was handed a single red rose tied with a pink ribbon by one of these gentlemen, a lovely touch, as a long-stemmed rose has long been one of the M&B trademarks. Maybe I'm getting old, but the butlers did not appeal. Yes, they were charming, yes, they were good-looking, but, oh, did they know it. Erm, somebody put that poor man down! Mind you, he doesn't seem to be looking too distressed, does he?

Soon it was time for speeches and the first to speak was gardener, TV presenter and romantic novelist Alan Titchmarsh, who just as charming as he is on the telly. Not only did he tell us M&B authors that we were brave, because we didn't shy away from telling some of the hardest stories to write, but he also gave us a few tips on how to keep our roses nice when we got them home, bless him! Guy Hallowes, Managing director of Harlequin Mills & Boon, who had the very first book the company published exactly one hundred years ago in his hands. He spoke a bit about the history of the company and then handed over to Donna Hayes, CEO of Harlequin Enterprises, all the way over from Toronto.

Once the speeches were done, all that was left was to mingle, chat to other authors and journalists and have fun. Along with the lovely canapés were ice cream cones for those with a sweet tooth and I even saw a few people delving into bags of candy floss. Trish was whisked away to talk to the BBC, don’t you know, and managed to evade being included in a photo of all the authors who had managed to attend. There were newbies, like me, all fresh-out-of-the-box, and some of the ‘big names’, but I’m sure I missed meeting quite a few, because it was so busy. Still, I reckon there were a good 30 or 40 of us authors who had made it to London for the event. Can’t wait to see the pictures! Here are a few of mine, including one of M&B editor Tessa Shapcott being seranaded by a rather dapper-looking crooner:

Before we knew it, 9.30pm was fast approaching and the venue was emptying fast and plenty of the ladies who’d attended were wearing looks of pained desperation and the general consensus was: “My feet are killing me!”

I went back to the hotel that Abby Green and India Grey were staying in, along with Trish, Natasha and Kate Walker and her lovely husband, affectionately known as the Babe Magnet! They were staying at a funky boutique hotel just a stone’s throw from the party venue, so we continued to chat, unwind, delve into our party bags to see what was in there and, yes, you guessed it – drink more champagne – as the light-up bar changed colour from green to red to purple to blue and back again. Here's a picture of the famous bar and another one of Abby Green drinking as only an Irish girl knows how to! Unfortunately, Natasha, Trish and I were on a stricter budget and we eventually caught a taxi back to our less funky hotel and collapsed into bed.

Come back tomorrow to see what five romance authors let loose in London got up to! And visit the Pink Heart Society to see what Trish’s take on events were.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

RNA Awards Lunch

Yesterday was the RNA’s Award Luncheon at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington. Me? Nervous? Pah! Okay, I woke up at 2am and couldn’t sleep properly after that! Are you satisfied?

I decided to drag my lovely husband along for support. I think he was secretly terrified by the thought of a couple of hundred romantic novelists in one room, but he managed not to freak out too badly. It was also very handy to have someone who I could order to a) hold my handbag/glass of champers/ cardigan for a minute b) take photographs when I was feeling too nervous to do so and c) give me a cuddle when I got too hyper.

I arrived at the hotel with plenty of time to find friends and chat, and the first people I bumped into were Ray-Anne (in the Ladies!), my editor and the lovely Kate Hardy, who has always accused me of being a bad influence on her. Kate claims I made her buy a PDA, but all I really did was blog about mine. It's not my fault she had to have one too. But has now has got her own back and introduced me to Radley handbags. I whined very hard when my last royalties cheque arrived until hubby let me order one I fell in love with.

After a glass or two of champagne, all the shortlisted authors for the Romance Prize were herded (yes, that was the actual term used) into a stairwell for a photo call with some of our editors. We all look pretty pleased with ourselves, don’t we? Top row: Fiona Harper, Lucy Gordon, Joanne Carr, Maddie Rowe. Middle row: Kim Young (my lovely editor), Liz Fielding, Bryony Green, Julie Cohen. Front row: Sheila Hodgson and Kate Hardy.

By the time we returned it was time to take our seats in the dining room. The tables were decorated with dark red and silver balloons, anchored down by a bundle of some of the shortlisted books for both the Romance Prize and the Romantic Novel of the Year. Somehow, I managed to come home with a copy of Freya North’s ‘Pillow Talk’. Can’t imagine how that worked its way into my (Radley) handbag!

This year the lunch had a new high tech element. Large video screens playing swish graphics were placed round the room, featuring animated RNA logos, quotes from various celebs about romantic fiction and covers of the shortlisted books. I was determined to take a short video on my digital camera of my book covers sweeping past. Unfortunately, I always seemed to be talking at the moment the Romance Prize covers whizzed by. Randall Toye, visiting from Harelquin's offices in Toronto said to me, “You’d be awful as a paparazzi photographer, wouldn’t you?”. I had to laugh. “Yes,” I said. “I might be better at talking than I am at taking photos, but I have one thing in my favour – I’m persistent!” My determination worked in the end and I got it eventually! I'd upload it, but Blogger is being uncooperative!

Lunch was yummy, and I even forgot to be nervous for a while as I ate my cumin-roasted tomato soup, guinea fowl with port wine jus, confit cabbage cake (tastes better than it sounds) and fondant potato. And when I say potato, I mean potato – there was just the one, sitting there looking all lonely on the plate. Dessert was mulled wine soufflé with plum ice cream. Stupidly, I hadn’t looked at the order of events in the programme and hadn’t realised they were doing the Romance Prize first. At the previous two lunches I'd been to, they’d presented the Betty Neels rose bowl after the Romantic Novel of the Year has been announced. Suddenly, Trisha Ashley (Romance Prize judge) was standing at the microphone summing up our books and my poor little heart started doing an Irish jig. I managed to capture a bit of the judges' comments on my camera – just as well, because there was no way I was going to remember it – but unfortunately didn’t have enough memory to get the whole speech. I was particularly pleased that they said of English Lord, Ordinary Lady that: "...the heroine's relationship with her small daughter is particularly beautifully portrayed, and this well-crafted novel is a lovely read, with both humour and sadness."

I was still grinning when they announced the winner, who was…KATE HARDY for her book Breakfast at Giovanni’s. Kate is so lovely and was so thrilled, I just couldn’t sum up the wherewithal to be disappointed. I'm not looking too dejected in the photo on the right, am I? And, got to tell you, I was kinda relieved I didn’t have to make a speech, because I was all over the place and bound not to make any sense at all. In fact, all the ladies on the shortlist are lovely and write great books, so I would have been happy for whoever won. I know it sounds very saintly to say that, but it’s true, so pass me my halo – NOW! Losing to Kate was much better than not getting a RITA last year – after that ceremony I was just jetlagged, homesick and completely out of adrenaline. I’m still chuffed for having two books on the shortlist for this prize.

Helen Lederer, comedienne and aspiring novelist as the speaker and had the whole room in stitches. The only bit I remember enough to tell you about was when she quipped about a yummy man phoning her up and asking her to have a dirty weekend in Paris. Everything went silent. “Have I shocked you?” he finally asked. “God, no!” she replied. “I was just packing…”

It was time for the winner of the Romantic Novel of the Year to be announced and it was… Freya North for Pillow Talk (on the left in the picture above, with Helen Lederer on the right). Will be reading my snaffled copy shortly (hee, hee). Once the festivities were over, it was time to catch up with old friends (that's me and Liz Fielding in the pic), meet new ones and enjoy the fact that all the nail-biting was over and I could just look forward to the M&B centenary party on Thursday.

Hubby and I wended our way home on the train, he with a big Mac (one potato, remember!) and me with a smile on my face. Some days I just love being a romance writer.