Wednesday, 26 October 2011

And So to Bed...

Last night I fell out of bed. Being of mature years and  -- shall we say --generous proportions, nothing much was hurt except my pride, but the experience got me to thinking about Italian beds. They are 30 inches wide. An American single bed is 39 inches. An Italian single bed is 30. You can't turn over in an Italian single bed without falling out of it.
To make a double or what they call "matrimonial" bed, the Italians push two thirty inch beds together and stretch double sheets across them. It must work for them because I see lots of Italian babies around.  But my ever inquisitive author's mind can't help but wonder how they manage. If they use the two beds pushed together, someone is going to be uncomfortably over the crack in the bed. If they opt to use only one bed -- one 30 inch bed -- there are only three positions I can think of that would not involve one or the other of them falling out of bed. And those three are all rather dull positions. I can't imagine the passionate, immaginative Italians being satisfied with them.
Of course we all know a bed is not absolutely essential to love making. There are planes, trains and automobiles. There are coat closets and shower stalls, sofas, desk tops and even elevators if you know how to stop them between floors. And there are beaches. In The Memory of Roses I had Brit and Andreas make love for the first time on a beach on Corfu in the moonlight. Romantic? Yes and no. To be highly romantic it had to be spontaneous--but comfortable, I hope Andreas brought along a blanket. You do NOT want sand in some of those places.
But back to Italian beds. I can't say for sure how Italians manage, but in the interest of scientific and literary research I feel I should do some investigating. I'll let you know what I find out.
Written in Sirmione, LakeGarda, Italy
10 October 2011

The "O" Word and Character Portrayal

Two recent experiences have made me consider yet again the subject of character development and portrayal. I've been reading a series of books by the late Michael Dibdin in which the central character is a detective named Aureleo Zen. In the seven Zen books I have read thus far, Zen is pictured in one as the only honest detective in Rome, in the next as bumbling and rather dull, in a third as intelligent and insightful, always searching out the truth, and in another as on the take, willing to accept money from a murderer in return for looking the other way. Will the real Zen please stand up!

Dibdin clearly never decided who his character was. The central character in each book is named as Aureleo Zen, but there the similarity begins and ends from book to book. I like and admire some of Dibdin's Zens, and detest others.

Why do I keep reading these uneven novels? Because Dibdin is a past master at setting a scene. His descriptive passages are unparalleled. His prose is simply gorgeous. There is much to learn by reading Dibdin. But at creating and maintaining character, he is hopeless.

My second experience with poorly realized characters was an opera. Now don't stop reading just because I used the "O" word. The stories of operas are the epitome of romance and romantic illusion. Their plots could have come from a book by Nora Roberts.

The opera in question is The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. The libretto, the dialogue, was written by Lorenza Da Ponte back in the 1700's. Now Da Ponte was a man who knew how to draw characters. There are two interwoven stories in Figaro. The heroine, a Countess, is saddened by her husband's repeated infidelities. She suffers with great dignity and at the end of the opera, when the Count comes to her, repentant and contrite, she forgives him. The subplot involves the upcoming wedding of the Count's servant, Figaro, to Suzanna, the Countess' maid. There is brilliant interplay between the lightness of Figaro and Suzanna's love and the darkness and disillusionment of the marriage between the Count and Countess. Sound like a plot from a Women's Fiction novel? Da Ponte drew his characters with merciless precision and Mozart's music underlines these portrayals precisely and beautifully.

But the Director of the production I had the misfortune to see recently in Venice's La Fenice Opera House did not even comprehend, let alone reflect, the Da Ponte characterizations. The "updated" version I saw had all the sex and violence of a bad TV show, everyone attacking everyone else with guns and knives and poison when they weren't engaged in extraneous sex with varied partners. There was no differentiation at all among the characters. They were all dark and amoral. They were all violent and venal.

Only the valiant effort of a cast of first rate singers and Mozart's glorious music made the evening endurable. The audience at La Fenice had the good sense to "Boo" the director loudly when he came onstage at the end of the performance.

How can anyone so misread characters? There is no interest in any work where all the characters are cut from the same cloth, whether that cloth is light and bright or dark and dismal. Characters in a book, or in an opera, must be, as they are in life, diverse.

As writers, I believe we must know our characters well before we start weaving them into stories. Who are they? Where did they come from? What is their background, education, social position, religious persuasion? What are their emotional hang-ups and how do they cope with them?

In The Memory of Roses, my heroine, Brit McQuaid, is flawed. She distrusts men, and with good reason. Much of the book is about her recognizing and coming to terms with this. The Memory of Roses is on a certain level the story of a young woman's journey toward self-understanding.

Characters, to be real, must have flaws. On the other hand even the most villainous of characters must have some redeeming qualities if they are to appear to be more than comic book caricatures. If our characters aren't real to us as writers, they won't take on life for our readers.

To return to Michael Dibdin, his Aurelio Zen lacks the consistency of behavior we expect from well drawn characters. And as for last night's performance of The Marriage of Figaro, when the Countess threw herself out of a window in the last scene — something never envisioned by either Da Ponte or Mozart — I could only wish it had been the director making that long fall rather than the soprano.

It is to be expected that characters undergo change in the course of their stories. They should grow as they resolve their external problems and their inner conflicts. But at some central core they must remain true to themselves. This, I believe, is at the heart of good writing.

Written in Venice
15 October 2011

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Memory of Roses - Book Trailer

Watch this video to learn more about Blair McDowell’s latest novel, The Memory of Roses, now available for sale on, and

Excerpt from The Memory of Roses:

From the distance there was an ominous rumbling. Andreas went to the door. Great thunder clouds were blotting out the horizon, moving rapidly toward them. The sky was almost black. A streak of lightening illu

minated the sky, followed closely by a loud clap of thunder. Then the rain came in great sheets.
 He turned back to Brit to discover that she had turned quite white.

 “I’ve never liked thunder storms,” she confessed. “When I was little, my father told me that Zeus was angry, and was throwing thunderbolts. He always assured me they were not being thrown at me, but, to this day,” she gave a small mirthless laugh, “to this day, I always want to run and hide when I hear thunder close by.”

Andreas pulled her close. “I’ve done nothing that could anger Zeus. Just stay here safe in my arms until the storm passes.” He kissed the top of her head. “Brit, I love you so. Why do you keep resisting me?”

 Brit nestled her head against Andreas’ chest. “After what happened last night between us, how can you possibly say I resist you. You are without a doubt the most irresistible man I’ve ever known.”

He shook his head in frustration. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it. I’m not looking for a short affair, however sexually satisfying. I want marriage. I want a home, a wife, children.”

Brit pushed him away with a short, sarcastic laugh. “That’s the woman’s line, Andreas. That’s what the woman always says, isn’t it? I want a home, a husband, children. But I’m not saying that to you. You have never heard me say those words to you.”

Her voice took on a harsh, angry edge. “You’re too young to even know what you want. You think you’re in love with me? What will you think when I’m forty and you’re only thirty-four? When I’m sixty and you’re still a man in his prime?”

Andreas looked at her, shock written on his face.

With a sob, Brit turned and ran outside into the storm. Swearing, Andreas ran after her. By the time he reached her they were both soaking wet. He scooped her up effortlessly into his arms and walked swiftly with her the rest of the way back to the villa. There he stripped off her wet clothes, dried her body and her hair roughly with towels as her teeth chattered, and dumped her unceremoniously onto their bed, covering her shivering body with a thick down duvet. Then he stripped off his own wet clothing and joined her. Wordlessly he made love to her, bringing her body quickly to the heat only passion can create.

When they lay, exhausted and still, he murmured, “I will want you when I am eighty-five and you are ninety-one. I will go to my grave wanting you.”

Bacon and Eggs and Venice

I have just served my last portion of bacon and eggs for the season; my partner has just baked her last scones. We run a B&B on the West Coast of Canada six months of the year, March through September. This year we’ve served more than 700 breakfasts. That’s a lot of eggs, as well as a lot of bed making and loads of laundry. But it was all worth it. Now we reap the benefits. We get to throw clothes into our carry-on suitcases and head for the airport.

This year we’re again starting in Venice, the scene of the denouement of The Memory of Roses. I will get to walk and traverse the canals in vaporetti and gondolas, the path my heroine, Brit, took after her shocking discoveries about her father’s past as she rushes back to the arms of her lover, Andreas.
It is no accident that I chose Venice for this important scene in my book. It is a city so breathtakingly beautiful, so dramatic in each and every vista that it calls out for mystery and romance. It is a setting just waiting for a story, as countless famous authors in the past have realized.
The Memory of Roses is set on the Greek island of Corfu, but in the following scene, Andreas and Brit have just arrived in Venice.

“I think you’ll like this place,” Andreas explained. “I always stay here when I come to Venice.”
They climbed a long flight of stairs to the pensione and were shown to a small, comfortably furnished room on the front.
Brit went to the tall windows, looked out and drew in her breath sharply.
Andreas came up behind her and encircled her with his arms. “I think this is the most beautiful view in Venice,” he said.
She leaned against him. Together they gazed across the Grand Canal, to the magnificent colonnaded marble church and monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore on its own small island in the Lagoon. Below them the waters teamed with vaporetti, private motor launches and boats filled with produce heading for the market, water taxis, and, slipping silently among them, beautiful black gondolas decorated in gold and red, some hundreds of years old, navigated by striped shirted gondoliers wearing the same traditional straw hats they had worn for generations.
Andreas said, “This is the reason I prefer this little guest house to any of the larger hotels in Venice. I know of none of them with such a view of Venice.  Just wait until you see it at sunset.”
“Can we go for a walk?” Brit asked. “I want to see the Piazza San Marco. I’ve wanted to see it all my life, but somehow, I never wanted to come here alone. If any city was meant for lovers, I think Venice is.”

When her father dies, Brit McQuaid inherits a villa on the beautiful island of Corfu, a villa she knew nothing about.  He also left a cryptic note asking that she deliver a package to a woman on Corfu with whom he was once in love, while married to Brit’s mother.

This launches a journey for Brit, taking her from San Francisco to Greece and Italy.  Along the way she meets a sizzling Greek archaeologist who not only helps her unravel a powerful secret from the past, but shows her the path to her own future.  After this adventure, Brit’s life will be changed forever.

Buy the Memory of Roses at, and