You would not believe how star struck I feel in having Belinda Alexandra blog with us today!
I fell in love with her writing the minute I opened Wild Lavender. I went in search of all of her books and you can’t imagine how excited I was to open her new book Tuscan Rose earlier this year. It seemed it was forever ago that I had read ‘Silver Wattle’!
Belinda, as you can probably tell from her books, loves to travel, other cultures and languages. Her mother was Russian, her father Australian and has travelled from her early childhood.
She has written four novels, been published in six other countries (other than Australia and NZ) and her story lines are each wonderful sagas of history that you will love and that will live on in your mind for a longtime after you shut the cover of the book.
Belinda, welcome and thanks for writing a blog for me and my readers!
Inspiration and Ideas
One of the questions readers often ask me is where do I get my ideas? The truth is images seem to float up out of my subconscious – often from things that have been swimming around in there for years.
My latest novel, Tuscan Rose, is a good example. It is a mystery and a love story set in Italy during the Mussolini years. The protagonist, Rosa, is left at a convent as an infant by a stranger known only as ‘The Wolf’. A tiny silver key hidden in her wrappings is the one clue to her identity.
I fell in love with Italy from the first time I travelled there as a student. While visiting a friend in the north of Italy, I was taking a walk in the forest one day when I came across a stone chapel. It looked magical in that leafy setting. But what was really intriguing was that next to the chapel was a large animal pit with two black bears in it. Normally I hate to see big animals in captivity, but these bears were frolicking and playing and seemed content. A short while later, a priest appeared from the forest. He was followed by a bride and groom along with a bridesmaid and groomsman. The wedding party looked so happy and content – like little forest fairies – that I promised myself that if I ever got married, it would be in Italy.
That event occurred over a decade before I wrote Tuscan Rose (Incidentally, I did end up marrying my beautiful Italian husband, Mauro, in a castle on Lago di Garda), but the image of the stone chapel and the bears were the starting point for my imagination. No-one had ever been able to tell me why there were two bears near the chapel, so I decided to solve the mystery myself by including a bear in Tuscan Rose to explain it.
There were other snippets from things that worked their way into the novel. I’d studied modern history for my HSC but had been bored mindless by the endless essays on the political causes for war. I was interested in the impact these catastrophic world events had on individual people. I wanted to know why in these extreme situations did some people act like saints and others like devils. I was flipping through my history textbook one day when I came across and extraordinary image that stayed in my mind all these years – it was of three well-dressed women walking down a street with machine guns in their hands. The caption was ‘Italian women partisans in Florence’. In my history classes women were not seen as active participants in war. I wondered what had caused these women to take up arms – they looked like well-dressed office girls, not soldiers. That image became the inspiration for my character Rosa – a young wife and mother who becomes a partisan.
I find beginning a novel the hardest part of the whole process of writing. For me, it’s like peering into a fog and calling out for my characters to come forward and reveal themselves. It takes extreme mental concentration. With Tuscan Rose, Rosa, appeared out of the fog quickly, eager to tell me her story. The other characters came forward more slowly. The most reluctant and difficult character to coax out was Luciano. He took a long time to reveal himself and his motives. If you read the novel, you will see that his attitude to me as his creator is totally in keeping with his character in the story!
People talk about writing formulas, but for me the whole process of writing a novel is more magical and requires a kind of wizardry. If someone asked me to bake a cake, it would be no problem as long as I had the ingredients and equipment. But writing a novel for me is not at all like baking cake. Some writers might be able to go about it in some sort of scientific way but not me. The end of my novels always comes to me first – I see the end of the story and then I have to work out who these characters are and how they all got to the position they are in. Amazingly, it has worked out well for me as it tends to give my novels a strong narrative drive – a sense that the story is going somewhere. And that’s a good thing but that tends to the pull the reader along with you and stops the story from lagging. One of the compliments I love to receive from readers is that thanks to me they are sleep deprived, their spouse has been neglected, the kids were taken late to school and the lawn has grown up to their knees – because they could not put one of my novels down. Although I’m playing havoc in their lives, I’m greatly pleased. That’s exactly the sort of experience I want to have when I open a book. Coming back to my life should feel like re-entry shock because the story has totally taken me away to another time and place. I often liken it to returning from a holiday – the house is the same, but I am different because I’ve had new and interesting experiences.
Recently, while working on my new novel, which is set in Spain, I spent the day at my desk for hours trying to draw two characters from out of the mist. They refused to appear despite all my coaxing. Later in the evening, while my husband and I were getting ready to go to our ballroom dance lesson, I went to the wardrobe to fetch our dance shoes and suddenly the two characters appeared before me and started an emotional discussion with each other. I had to quickly run to my study and write what they had said down while my husband was waiting downstairs wondering what was taking me so long to get ready.
Sometimes I could struggle all day with a scene to no avail. Then some time later in the day I’ll be doing something mundane like reaching for a jar of olives in the cupboard and the whole scene will suddenly unfold before me with lights, sound and action.
As a consequence of my Spanish characters refusing to fit the 9-5 schedule I’m trying to impose on them, I am constantly late: Late for dinners; late for movies, late for meetings. I do try my best, but these things are hard to control. I try to blame it on the traffic, on receiving a last minute phone call and so on as those excuses sound more believable than the truth. How can I convince people that I was held up by a flamenco dancer stepping out of the fridge and telling me her life story. You can’t reason with Spanish characters, I’ve discovered. You have no choice but to stop what you are doing and listen.