Between The Rock and A Dangerous Place
I remember when The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney was published, there was some controversy regarding the fact that the author had never been to Canada, where the story was set. Yet I adored the book, and felt transported to the harsh life in the northernmost wilds of frontier Canada in 1897. Penney had not been able to travel to Canada for various personal reasons, but she spent hours and hours at the British Museum and on her deep, deep research into the era—it was impeccable. And would it have helped her if she had made the trip? I think not, because time, too, is another place, and a writer of historical fiction can take readers to that place with good research, which might comprise a raft of photographs and memoirs, an atlas, poring over academic texts, and—most important—travel to the outer limits of their imagination. For the most part I have visited the places I write about, as well as doing my background research with the all-important photographs, documents and books—because this is the 21st century, so time travel is required.
I began to create A Dangerous Place in my mind while in Gibraltar in 2009. I have a dear friend who lives there and whom I visited on my way to and from Andalusia, where I was going to ride horses for a week. I was fascinated by Gibraltar from the moment I arrived, because—I suppose—it has always been something of an enigma; a British Territory bordering Spain, overlooked by a stunning geological sentinel, the Rock of Gibraltar, one of the two "Pillars of Hercules" that flank the Straits of Gibraltar (the other is in North Africa). Historically, Gibraltar has been home to a broad spectrum of people from different cultures, identified by architecture, language, place names and last names. A Moorish home might neighbor a church that at first blush would seem more at home in a Scottish town, or a temple might be next to a colonial house. There are streets of Spanish-style whitewashed buildings, and there's a grand art deco hotel that was a gathering place for movie stars and the rich in the 1930s. As a British garrison town, military sites and memorials are abundant, and there are reminders that the British Navy is crucial, not only historically, but in terms of supporting the current strategic importance of "The Rock"—as Gibraltar is known. Thousands of vessels have made landfall in Gibraltar over the centuries, from passenger ships, to fishing boats, pleasure cruisers and yachts. And in 1937, Maisie Dobbs disembarks from one of those ships, en route from India to England, which she considers to be far more dangerous, even than a land overrun by refugees from conflict across the border.
With that history, the mix of peoples, and the part played by Gibraltar during the Spanish Civil War, as I walked along Gibraltar's pathways and thoroughfares, my ear tuned to the different dialects and my eye to the cultural mix around me, a story began to take shape in my mind. Even six years ago, I knew the twists and turns that would impact the life of Maisie Dobbs as her personal journey unfolded with each novel leading to A Dangerous Place—and, indeed, the series as it developed into new territory. Gibraltar became part of the weave, bringing Maisie into the shadow of a terrible civil war as she endeavors to find the truth behind the death of a local man.
Next up for me? Ah, well, I'm currently working on another novel in the Maisie Dobbs series—and in about a week I'll be taking time out from a visit to England to spend a day or so in Munich. I have the book and the photographs, the memoirs and news cuttings that give me a sense of place at a certain time—now I want to walk the streets, my 87-year-old Baedeker guide in hand. And brrrr—I'm taking my down coat, warm boots and a scarf or two!
Two weeks after my return, I will be embarking upon my book tour for A Dangerous Place.
Look forward to seeing you along the way!
Until next time,
A Dangerous Place, to be published March 17th
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