Wednesday, July 20, 2016

What we're writing: Rhys reveals.

!RHYS BOWEN: Since the other Reds have opted out of confessing what they are actually writing this week, I'll remedy that. I've been writing hard to get a first draft done of next year's Royal Spyness book. Working title (which I think they like so it will stick) is ON HER MAJESTY'S FRIGHTFULLY SECRET SERVICE.

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?.


  1. Thanks for sharing this piece of the story . . . can't wait to read the rest!
    I love reading about exotic settings and places that I've never visited . . . .

  2. I love reading exotic's armchair travelling with mysteries combined! And I also like to read about places I am going to visit to get a "feel" for the regional setting. I will be reading a bunch of mysteries set in New Orleans shortly before heading to Bouchercon.

  3. Thanks Rhys, needed something to smile about and to anticipate this morning since I woke up humming "Springtime for Hitler."

    As for preferred settings, I like mysteries set in England or France, particularly in a place I have either been or plan to visit. Is this exotic? Probably not. Unless you count Three Pines, the Canadian Brigadoon.

    Many years ago when we were planning a trip to England, Julie asked me where I would like to go besides London. My answers were Salisbury (thank you Edward Rutherford, for introducing me to SARUM,) and St. Mary Mead. The Miss Marple series was set in Nether Wallop, and I saw her at every turn, although there weren't all that many turns in the tiny village.

    Lucky you Grace, to be going to Boucheron. Next year in Toronto for me. I recommend James Lee Burke for getting the feel of New Orleans.

  4. Thanks, Ann. I love James Lee Burke and Julie Smith's mysteries, so I will be looking for other NOLA based mysteries. And yes please come to Bouchercon in Toronto...that's my hometown!!

  5. Enjoyed the snippet, Rhys! As for settings--love it when a writer takes me someplace new! But especially love it when the setting is integral to the story--the story is embedded in a particular place--and nothing is worse than the opposite--a story is 'set' someplace but could just as easily be set anywhere else, just change the name of the location, for all that you get an actual 'feel' for the setting.

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  7. OOH, this sounds like good one, Rhys. Dying to read on.

    On whether there's always a place, often the story STARTS with a place. My new book takes place in a fictional version of Beaufort, SC. When I write the characters, they are THERE. And in the same month that I went there to do my research (January) because season matters, too.

  8. Yes, the time of year is so important, isn't it, Hallie. One thing I'm conscious of when I describe meals is that vegetables were seasonal in those days. You wouldn't be eating peas in early spring. When we were in Italy, late May and June it was the six weeks of asparagus season. All the restaurants featured asparagus dishes (that lovely white asparagus). Here it's no big thing because it's year-round

  9. Rhys you are so terrific! I love how your writing is so authentic… You really know how to set a scene. Georgie is just completely adorable. And I love it how we are installing aware that something is not right. And I love "in a voice that had filled London theaters." So full of information!

  10. AND THE WINNER! Of LInda Fairstein's KILLER LOOK is

    Mia P. Manansala


    Email me via my website wit hLinda Winner in the subject line! ANd send me your address.

    xoo and now back to Rhy's villa...

  11. Rhys,

    Lady Georgie is one of my favorite characters. Personally, I prefer reading about places that are abroad. I also enjoy reading stories set in my favorite locations.

    Wonder if anyone thought Lady Georgie was a servant because she was carrying her own suitcase. And what kind of shoes would Lady Georgianna wear in the 1930s that were for walking? I do not know if sneakers or running shoes existed in the 1930s.

    I love the title.


  12. No sneakers in 1930s at least not for walking . She wore sensible brogue lace up shoes.

  13. Sometimes I have a place. But just as frequently, I have an idea and think, "Oh, that would be the perfect place to set this."

    As for what I prefer to read - all of it. I love seeing how different writers treat places I know (Although please get basic details right - I put down a book that had girls at Central Catholic High School here in Pittsburgh. Only problem - that's an all-boys school.). Then again, I love visiting places through really good writing, where the author makes the setting come alive (because there is no way I'll visit all the places I'd like to go in my lifetime).

  14. Mary, I completely agree. Get one small fact wrong and I put down the book because I no longer believe my narrator to be reliable. I just discarded a book set in Victorian England because the writer described a Lady so and so and then commented on her entry in Landed Gentry. Sorry, but she'd be in Burke's Peerage. Landed gentry don't have titles.

  15. Rhys, love the title, love the excerpt. Love Georgie! She's so funny and real and awkward, and there's always a great sense of tension in the books. Can't wait for this one. But in the meantime, I have Crowned and Dangerous to look forward to.

  16. I love exotic settings, and they don't have to be Italian villas -- getting deep into any geography and culture is part of the joy of reading for me. Small towns, backstage at the opera house, or a tree house in Kenya -- take me there!! And I love insights into businesses and activities I wouldn't otherwise have a chance to experience. Thank you all for what you have given me --

  17. The characters and the setting came to me all at once. They are interdependent, and the setting is such a strong element in my book it's practically another character.

    Creating a fictional town allows me to have more fun with this.

    Carla DeLauder

  18. Oh, Rhys! I love when Georgie has to deal with her scheming mother. I enjoy that Georgie being present rather puts her mother in the light of an older woman and not the young belle of the ball, which, of course, mommie dearest doesn't care for at all. The excerpt was so delightful. The setting sounds amazing, but I'm so sorry that you had spend so much time there getting it just right. Poor Rhys. The history of the place is fascinating, too. And, the title, well, it just makes me smile.

    I do love the familiarity of settings on the home turf of characters in a series. It's one of the aspects of the series that draws me back. However, I never object to a book away from the familiar, as it's rather like a vacation for me, too.

    Knowing that I have a new Georgie to enjoy very soon helps me to be patient for Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service. I will say that I am in awe of your productivity.

  19. I love traveling in books, and the glimpses of Georgie's life feel so real. Thanks for the great background and careful writing to make it so. Currently enjoying the very twisty ROYAL FLUSH -- resisting urge to look ahead. ;-)

  20. I just started reading the series a few weeks ago and I only have 2 books left in the series. I absolutely love them, especially through audible as the narrator is brilliant