It's the first book that involves Georgie in real espionage. And it takes place in Stresa, Italy, whence I have just returned from rigorous research. Yes, we writers suffer for our craft! So much of the plot takes place in the grounds of a villa, so it was imperative that I saw the layout of various villas around the lake, took the ferries up and down the lake, and of course had coffee in the little central square.
I picked Stresa because an important conference was held there in 1935. Statesmen from UK, Italy and France met to discuss how to combat the growing Nazi threat. That was too good not to put into a book. I can't tell you much about the book without giving away the plot, but here is the scene when she arrives at the Villa Fiori for a house party that turns out to be anything but innocent:
It was time to become the queen’s spy. I caught the ferry back to Stresa, much to Belinda’s disappointment, packed what I hoped was suitable clothing into my suitcase (or at least the best I had) and set off for the Villa Fiori. I had waited until after luncheon because I was sure it was not good form to arrive too early. It was a warm day and I felt hot and sweaty by the time I had carried that suitcase down the hill and along the lake shore. Outside the gates I paused, trying to smooth down my hair that had been wind-swept, catching my breath and taking in the scene before me. Beyond the gates the land rose steadily. The driveway was lined with palm trees and ended in a forecourt in which a fountain was playing. The villa itself was what one expects an Italian palace to look like—pale lemon yellow with white shutters on either side of arched windows. There were statues decorating the roof and at the front was a flight of steps leading up to a marble balustrade. All very grand! I swallowed hard and took a deep breath before I dared to push open those gates.
Gardeners were still working as I walked up the drive, trying to look as if my suitcase was lighter than it really felt. One of the gardeners had removed his shirt and was bending to plant a border around a fountain. When he stood up again I couldn’t help noticing that his physique was… well, admirable. I couldn’t see his face because he was wearing a broad brimmed hat, but I sensed him watching me as I continued up the drive. Again I allowed myself a smirk. So Italian men found me attractive. Then I reprimanded myself. I was about to become a married woman. Surely I shouldn’t be noticing the chest muscles of gardeners?
As I approached the villa I spotted a group of people, sitting on a terrace beneath an arbor of wisteria. I felt suddenly shy and awkward. I must look pathetic, staggering up the drive carrying my own suitcase and dressed in my unfashionable tweed suit. And what if the letter still hadn’t arrived and here I was with my suitcase? Had the queen actually suggested that I join the house party, or merely that I should be welcomed for a drink if I showed up? Why on earth hadn’t I left the suitcase at Belinda’s house and pretended I had just dropped by to pay my respects? Then, when they suggested I should stay I could have acted surprised and they would have sent someone to pick up my belongings. But now I was committed. I couldn’t retreat without being noticed. It was only a matter of time before one of them looked up and…
I was startled by a great scream. “Georgie!”
I was even more startled to see that the scream came from my mother. She had risen to her feet and was running toward me, her arms open. “Georgie, my darling!” she exclaimed in that voice that had filled London theaters. “What a lovely, lovely surprise. I had no idea you were coming to join us. Why didn’t somebody tell me?”
She flung her arms around me , something she was not in the habit of doing. Then she turned back to the others. “Which of you arranged to bring my daughter to me? Was it you, Max, who suggested it? You knew I was pining for her, didn’t you?”
I had prudently put down the suitcase before she attacked me. Now she took my hand and dragged me forward. “Everybody, this is my darling child, Georgie, whom I haven’t seen for ages and ages. And I had no idea she was coming to join us. ” She gazed at me adoringly. “And now you’re here. It seems like a miracle.”
I noticed she had failed to mention that she had bumped into a few days ago and at that time there had been no talk of inviting me to join her. Nor had she seemed overjoyed to see me. As I smiled back at her I wondered what she was up to.
And you'll never guess who the other guests at the house party are...So a question to you other writers out there. Do you have a place in mind when a story comes to you, or do you have the plot idea and then look for a place that is perfect? In this case the place was important because Lake Maggiore is half in Switzerland and half in Italy and that is crucial to the story. And the lake is ringed with lovely villas just like Villa Fiori.
And to the readers: do you prefer reading about exotic settings or are you more comfortable with something closer to home?.