One of my favourite aspects of writing is the world-building component. I love to create a setting that feels completely real to me, one that I can inhabit, breathe, experience alongside my characters.
Even when the world I’m writing about is wholly invented, there are always parts of the landscape that have their origins in a place dear to me – a favourite beach transported from Cornwall or Argyll to the desert, for instance. I collect locations when I go walking or (back in the olden times!) when I go on holiday, filing away pictures of houses and gardens, of beaches and piers that have struck me as ideal for a romantic kiss, a showdown, the revelation of a dark secret, or simply a perfect place to have a picnic.
I have always had a soft spot for ferneries and orchid houses, a feeling I reckon has its origins in the Glasgow Botanical Gardens, which I adopted as my own garden when I was a student, spending way too many hours sunbathing in the summer, and daydreaming in the tropical heat of the glasshouses in the winter. In fact my very first attempt at a romance for Mills & Boon had an orchid grower called (inventively!) Flora for a heroine . Fortunately, she was not destined to flourish beyond the first three politely rejected chapters. But the orchid house did survive, and played a key role in A Governess for Christmas, my story in the Scandal at the Christmas Ball duet.
Last year, I discovered the amazing sunken fernery at Ascog on the Isle of Bute, and decided it would make a wonderful trysting place in a future story. More recently, I visited the entrancing restored fernery at Benmore Gardens. There’s something distinctively Victorian about a fernery, and something very secretive too, and finally, in my current work in progress, I think I have the perfect role for an amalgamation of both to play.
What I’m writing is in essence a lockdown romance set in 1862, the year after Queen Victoria went into her own form of lockdown following Prince Albert’s death. Prudence, my heroine, was terribly scarred in a childhood accident, and has locked herself away from society, thinking herself too disfigured to be seen, or be attractive to anyone. Dominic, my hero, has locked himself away from the world after a dreadful experience at the end of the Crimean War. They are both emotionally and physically well and truly locked down, and when circumstances throw them together, they form a little emotional bubble away from the world.
The core of the romance is about them emerging out of lockdown – eventually! But one of the sub-plots involves Dominic’s reclusive, now deceased, brother Jeremy – another character who spent his life in lockdown, for a very different, extremely personal reason. It is Jeremy who built the sunken fernery, and it is Jeremy’s secret which the fernery guards. Intrigued? I hope you are! At this point, to be honest, so am I, because I’m not remotely sure how it will all unfold.
This story is part of a duet. Prudence’s brother Clement is another character in lockdown, whose story plays out over both books. (Yes, I am trying to do the impossible in making a man called Clement romantic, though he’s not the hero of either of the books.) The second romance is actually about Mercy, Prudence’s sister, who is currently married to a certain Lord Armstrong. This is not Lord Henry, the vile patriarch who featured in my Armstrong Sisters series, and who I enjoyed vilifying so much he’s since appeared in Claiming his Desert Princess and more recently The Inconvenient Elmswood Marriage. By 1862, even Henry’s stubborn indefatigability has surrendered to mortality, but his son Harry has taken on the villainous mantle.
This is my first foray into the Victorian world for Mills & Boon Historical. It’s a world where women are caged in crinolines and confined to the so-called domestic sphere, locked in and locked down. Which makes a heroine who breaks out of that world a feisty female, and a treat to write. So it will certainly not be my last Victorian romance.
There, I hope I really do have your attention now!