Friday, 22 June 2012

A Slice of Paradise

For half of every year I live on a small island in the Caribbean, the setting for my Paranormal Romance, Delighting In Your Company.  

My little white house is surrounded by lush gardens and has a view of the distant islands of St. Maarten and St. Barth’s. It sits nestled into the lower slopes of Mount Mazinga, known locally, for some reason long forgotten, as “the Quill”.

The Quill, however, is not a “mount”. It’s a volcano. Like all islands in the Caribbean, my island was thrust up out of the sea by volcanic action many millennia ago.  This volcano is, I am told, extinct. I hope so.  I’ve heard there is no such thing as an “extinct” volcano. That, at best, they only sleep.

The crater of the Quill was formed in some ancient eruption and is clearly visible from the sea. If you climb the steep trail up the side of the volcano and then make your way down into the crater, you find jungle plants and hanging vines and huge old mahogany trees. Birds not seen elsewhere on the island chatter in the trees and elusive monkeys use vines as their transportation system from tree to tree.

This is where I placed a pivotal scene in Delighting In Your Company. The slave population of the island, in those pre-emancipation days, knew and respected the powers of the volcano gods.

Just a bit south of my island lies the island of Montserrat. On the twenty-fifth of June, 1997, the volcano there blew its top. Nineteen people were killed. This volcano has continued to erupt periodically with varying force ever since. 

There are days when I sweep the ash from that fifty mile distant volcano off my veranda, and clean soot off the windshield of my car before I can see to drive. I look suspiciously and a bit fearfully up at the Quill. It just sits there, benignly grinning at me with its crater mouth.

In 1902, on Martinique, a Caribbean island just a bit south of Montserrat, the Soufriere erupted, sending avalanches of molten rock and flaming ash and gasses down on the town of St. Pierre, killing some twenty-five thousand people.  If it did this again, my little island could be in the path of the resulting tsunami.

If one looks farther afield, at the most powerful of all volcanic eruptions in modern times, Krakatoa in the South Pacific, east of Java, blew in 1883. The tsunami set off by that eruption went around the world, demolishing coastal cities in its wake, while the aftermath of the volcanic eruption with its clouds of intense heat and gasses killed off the people the waves missed.
 Of course, historically, nothing beats the eruption on Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D, that killed every inhabitant there and left the ancient city of Pompeii buried under ash, not to be rediscovered until an eighteenth century archaeologist first stumbled across it.

So why do I live in the shadow of a volcano? 

Why does anyone live in San Francisco on the San Andreas Fault line, with the knowledge that the next quake could be the big one? Why does anyone live in Tornado Alley? Or build in areas known for frequent forest fires? Or retire to Miami, in the path of hurricanes? How could people move back to New Orleans after Katrina?

I suppose the answer lies at least to some extent in the human need to surround ourselves with what is familiar, and second, what we consider to be beauty. For some of us that’s forests, for others, wheat fields. Still others need the throbbing life of a city.

For me, it’s the sea. I am happiest with the sea all around me. From it I draw peace and content.

 In Delighting In Your Company, my hero, the ghost of Jonathan Evans, describes his Caribbean.

“There’s a special fragrance to these islands —can’t you smell it?  A mixture of spice and tropical plants. The lushness of the foliage, the shades of green of the land and the turquoise and blue of the sea. And the constant freshness of the trade winds. It’s always seemed to me a small slice of paradise.”

That’s what my island is to me. A small slice of paradise.

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Sunday, 17 June 2012

Amalie's Back Story - Before Page 1 Delighting In Your Company

As writers we have to know far more about our characters than ever appears in the book. There has to be a “backstory” in our minds as we write about them if they are to breathe life. No character springs to life full blown on page one. What happened before the story began? What experiences in his/her past have caused this character to act in this particular way in this particular situation?

Amalie in Delighting In Your Company is a character who intrigued me. I started out thinking she would be a proper young eighteenth century lady, very different from her twenty-first century descendant, also named Amalie, who travels back in time to meet her.

But try as I might, my eighteenth century Amalie would simply not behave herself. I suppose it had something to do with growing up in a motherless home. Her Mother was off In London where her brother was in school. Her father loved her, but he was too busy running a large plantation on the Caribbean Island of St. Clements to notice how his daughter was growing up.

It must be admitted here that Amalie used no small amount of guile to keep her father in ignorance. She appeared at dinner every evening properly dressed and coiffed. Smiling her dimpled smile at him, she always had a ready and thoroughly proper answer to his “How was your day?”

 “I started a new book.” Or “I finished another row in my embroidery.” These were not lies; they were simply a very small part of the truth.

And so Amalie grew up unfettered by the conventions and restrictions of her age. She wandered about the plantation freely. She particularly liked the stables. Not for her were the delicate side-saddled trotting horses. Donning her absent brother’s clothing she rode astride and raced like the wind along the beach on her large mare, Molly.

She regularly swam in the sea, in the nude, leaving the loose pants and shirt she habitually wore for her explorations hanging on a bush.

She knew more about mating and the reproductive process than any young girl of her age in the eighteen hundreds ever did.  She had grown up observing the mating of the many animals on the plantation, and even of her mare, Molly. And knew the consequence of mating, having assisted at the birth of Molly’s foal.

As it happened, she was wearing a dress, albeit without petticoats, the day she first saw Jonathan.  Her skirts were hiked up above her knees as she raced Molly along the sandy beach in the edge of the sea.

She hadn’t expected to see anyone there. There was never anyone there. But this morning there was.

She pulled her mare to an abrupt halt and looked down at the man who was striding along the beach toward her.

He stopped and stared up at her. Their eyes locked.

His eyes passed over her, taking in her unruly wind-blown curls and rosy cheeks, her gently rounded breasts, her bottom firmly planted in the saddle, her exposed legs and bare feet.

And then he laughed, a deep booming laugh. “Good morning, Mistress Ansett.”
Amalie blushed, furious at being caught-out.

“Never fear. Your secret is safe with me.” He laughed again and taking off his planter’s hat, he bowed low to her.

Amalie turned Molly abruptly and raced back in the direction from which she’d come. At the plantation house she turned Molly over to the grooms and rushed inside and up to her room.

Jemma, the slave who had looked after Amalie since she was an infant, was there cleaning her room and making her bed. Amalie threw her arms around the elderly black woman and danced her in a circle.

“What’s come over you, chile? And where you been here before breakfast? You looks disgraceful. Your hair not even combed. Best not let your Pappy see you like dis.”
“Oh, Jemma! I’ve met him! I’ve met the man I’m going to marry!”

When this scene, not in the book, happens, Amalie is just fourteen. Jonathan decides she is the one he wants for his wife, based on this one encounter:

He smiled, remembering. “You were still a child.”
“I was fourteen. Some women are married at fourteen.”
“You were delicious. I’ll never forget my first sight of you. You were racing your mare along the beach. Your skirts were flying and your legs were exposed to above your knees. And your hair was all loose and uncombed and windblown. And my heart stopped. I believe I have loved you from that moment. I told myself it was absurd. There was a six year difference in our ages. You were still a child. But it did no good. I wanted you.”
“You never said anything. We met at dinners and at parties, and on the beach, and you never said anything.”
“I was waiting for you to grow up. It was my firm plan to ask your father for your hand on the day you were eighteen.”
“I moved that along, didn’t I? Two years later, the day after my sixteenth birthday.” Amalie gave a low seductive laugh. “I waited quite deliberately for you that day down on the beach.”
“How could I forget? You were standing there, so close I could smell the scent of your hair, feel the warmth of your skin. It was driving me to distraction. Not touching you was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Then you said, ‘race you’ and started pulling off your clothes. I just stood there, in shock, immobile.”
“Not for long. I seem to recall you divested yourself of clothing pretty rapidly.”
“We enjoyed our first kiss, out there in the sea. And I fully meant it to stop there.”
Amalie laughed. “I didn’t. I came to the beach that day determined to seduce you, to break though that steely reserve once and for all. I wanted you, Jonathan. I wanted you when I first saw you. I still want you.”

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Friday, 15 June 2012

Win My Book! - Delighting In Your Company

Just answer the question below:

What dinner did both Ian and Maria order when they met at the restaurant? 

The Memory of Roses is now out in both e-book format and in paperback. It’s been a long journey and I’ve had a lot of help along the way.

In my previous life, I had a successful career as a university professor. I wrote six professional books and countless articles in my field and had no difficulty finding a publisher for any of these. Somehow I thought when I retired and turned to something I had always wanted to do—writing romantic fiction—it would be the same. I would write my book, send it off to one of the big five publishers in New York and they would send me a letter full of praise and a contract by return mail.

A friend of mine, a long time writer of fiction, said, “I hope you’re into rejection.”

My first book was rejected, as it should have been. I knew nothing about the craft of writing fiction. Of staying within my character’s point of view, writing believable dialogue, pacing and plotting so that crisis points happened neither too soon nor too late, developing characters that lived and breathed; my ignorance of all these things was abysmal. I somehow thought that all my years as a voracious reader of fiction would enable me to write it.

That’s rather like thinking that years of attending symphony concerts would enable one to play the French Horn.

I knew I had to go back and acquire the skills necessary to writing fiction. I took courses, read books on craft, and joined the Romance Writers of America, devouring every issue of their journal, Romance Writer’s Report, from cover to cover. I entered contests and used the judges’ comments in revising my work. I put my works-in-progress in the hands of critique groups. And I kept writing and rewriting.

Finally all the blood, sweat and tears paid off. Elizabeth Carr of Rebel Ink Press liked The Memory of Roses. I remember when she emailed me that she had read half of the book and wanted to publish it, my first reaction was to wish she would read the rest just to be sure. I had become so accustomed to rejection that I hardly knew how to handle acceptance.

In The Memory of Roses, I trace the physical and emotional voyage of a young woman, Brit McQuaid, trying to come to grips with her father’s past. Brit’s journey takes her to the Greek island of Corfu, where she meets a sizzling young Greek archaeologist, Andreas Leandros. 

Below is a scene between Brit and Andreas from The Memory of Roses:

She looked at the lines of strain etched on his face.  “You know you don’t really have to help tomorrow. Daphne and I can manage the last of the painting. You’re under no obligation to keep coming all this way just to help me.”
“I thought we’d resolved that. I don’t ever do anything out of some mistaken sense of obligation. What I do, I do because I want to.” 
He paused, placing his hands on her arms in a grip that brooked no interference. “And right at this moment what I want to do is kiss you.”
Before Brit could react to his words Andreas brought his mouth down to hers. His lips touched hers softly at first, then his arms went around her and he buried himself in her mouth, his tongue caressing hers, hunger driven. He groaned, wordlessly declaring his need.
Brit had never in her life experienced such a torrent of desire as swept through her at this moment for this man. She tried to gather her scattered thoughts. Shaken, using every ounce of strength she could muster, she pushed him away.
“Stop! We mustn’t do this,”
Andreas looked at her, dazed.
“You’re too young for me,” Brit blurted out before she could stop herself.  “Just how old are you?
“Twenty-six. And you’re thirty-two. Daphne told me. A difference of six years. Would it matter to you if I were six years older than you?”
“Of course not.”
“Well then?”
“You’re just twisting things around. You know it’s not the same.”
“I believe that it is exactly the same, and I assure you that I’m not in the least too young for what I have in mind.”
Andreas brought his mouth down again to hers and Brit’s last conscious thought was what the hell! Why not? Why shouldn’t I have this brief interlude? Andreas will return to Santorini in January, and I’m only here for a year. I’ll be sensible later.

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The Memory of RosesDelighting In Your Company
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Saturday, 9 June 2012

Rebel Reasoning New Release Blog Hop - Delighting In Your Company

Delighting In Your Company by Blair McDowellIn Delighting In Your Company,  my new paranormal romance with time travel,  Amalie Ansett endangers her own life to help a handsome and tortured ghost solve the mystery of his murder in the turbulent Caribbean of the 1800’s and, while doing so, she falls in love with him.

In a recent review on The Romance Reviews, the reviewer commented, “I was blown away by the plot of Delighting In Your Company. How did you come up with such a great idea?”  The reviewer gave this book 4 out of 5 stars!

In truth, the plot has been simmering in my mind for over forty years, ever since I first found the tiny island of St. Eustatius in the Caribbean….Ever since I first took possession of an acre of overgrown scrub-land on the side of a volcano I was told was extinct, or at least dormant….Ever since a local friend asked me if I wasn’t afraid, “livin’ out in de bush wif de Jumbies”.

“Jumbies?” I asked, all curiosity. She answered, “De walking dead, de Jumbies.”

This was my introduction to the rich lore of the Netherlands Antilles, the Dutch Caribbean.  In the many ensuing years I’ve heard numerous stories about the practice of Obeah (black magic), brought to the islands from Africa by the slaves, about the woman ‘round back of de Quill’ who can work spells, and about the ghost who walks White Wall at night. 

In the following scene from Delighting In Your Company  I draw on the legends and beliefs of the people of the Caribbean.  Amalie’s elderly cousin, Josephina, is showing her through the local Historical Society Museum.

Josephina hesitated. “There’s one further thing I want you to see. It’s why I brought you here this morning.”
Puzzled, Amalie followed her into a drawing room furnished in eighteenth century style with a camelback sofa and wing chairs. Portraits lined the walls.
“Our past Administrators and their wives,” Josephina commented as she walked across the room and looked up at one particular picture.
Amalie followed her gaze and gasped. She was looking at a portrait of herself.
“Amalie Ansett Benstone. Your distant ancestor.”
Amalie studied the image. It could have been her own. Of course the clothing was different, and that other Amalie’s ash blond hair was arranged formally in the long soft curls popular in that day, rather than in the simple casual style today’s Amalie preferred. 
The woman in the picture appeared to be younger by nine or ten years. She was perhaps eighteen. There was a softness about her face, it was gentle and sweet where Amalie’s own features were a bit sharper, more defined. That was probably due to the fact that today’s Amalie was older.  However, there was one marked difference. Amalie Ansett Benstone’s eyes were brown like her own, but they held no life. They were eyes that saw nothing.
“What happened to her? Why are her eyes so dead?”
I’ll tell you her story when we get back to the house. But first, perhaps you should look at the portrait of her husband, Charles Benstone. He was Island Administrator at the time.
Amalie looked at the picture beside her ancestor’s. An involuntary shudder passed through her. It wasn’t that he was unattractive. He was, in fact, extraordinarily handsome. High cheekbones accented an angular face. He was broad shouldered and powerful looking.  His long black curly hair was carefully coiffed. However his mouth was shaped into a sardonic smile and his expression was arrogant, almost cruel. Looking at him, Amalie shivered again. How could a mere oil painting, and not very good one at that, make her feel such revulsion?
She turned to Josephina, questions churning.
“When we get back to the house,” Josephina answered Amalie’s unasked questions.
They made the trip back to Ansett Beach House in silence. Josephina didn’t speak until they were seated on the verandah with steaming cups of herb tea in front of them.
“I don’t know the whole story.  No one does. It’s been handed down through the generations, and I’m sure it’s been embellished along the way. But the tale my great grandmother told is that Amalie was expected to marry Jonathan Evans. They’d been sweethearts since they were children and the match was approved of by both families. Among other things, their union would have joined the two greatest plantations on the island. Their properties combined cover the whole lower slope of Mt. Zingara on the leeward side of the island. You can drive out White Wall Road and see the ruins of the two adjoining plantations if you like.”
Amalie nodded. “I’d like to do that. I didn’t know there was any Ansett property other than this one on the island.”
Oh, my, yes.  I still hold title to the land.” 
Josephina put her cup down and frowned in memory. “It was the night of the slave uprising.”
“Slave uprising?”
“It was short lived. No one understood why the Evans Plantation was singled out. Jonathan Evans had the reputation of being a most benevolent owner. According to all written records, his slaves were well housed and well fed. They were looked after when they were sick. No one today can condone the practice of slavery, but there were owners who behaved kindly toward those on whom the whole economy of the island depended. And Jonathan Evans was one of them.”
Amalie nodded, but a part of her wondered how anyone could make excuses for slavery, even in retrospect. She was not surprised that slaves rose up against their masters.
“It was the evening of December 10th, 1810.  Jonathan Evans was murdered and the plantation house was burned to the ground. Emile Ansett, Amalie’s father, happened to be visiting at the time and he, too, was killed. A month later, Samuel, Jonathan Evans’ man, was hanged for the atrocity, protesting his innocence.” 
The two women sat in silence for a few moments, sipping their tea.
“That’s not the whole story is it?” Amalie said. “There’s something more. Something that explains Amalie’s dead expression in her portrait.”
 “Amalie married Benstone.”
“That’s understandable. After all, she was a young woman and, however much she may have loved Jonathan Evans, it was to be expected that she would marry someone else sooner or later.”
“That’s what’s so very odd. It wasn’t ‘sooner or later’. According to island records, their wedding took place that same night. Amalie Ansett was in Government House, being married at the time of the murders.”
“With her father not there? With none of her family in attendance? That doesn’t make sense.”
“No, of course it doesn’t. I suppose that’s why the story has survived for all these years. It’s a puzzle, a mystery that’s never been solved.”
“Perhaps Benstone persuaded her to elope. Swept her off her feet. Handsome men have been known to do that.” Amalie thought of her own disastrous marriage. Brett had been devastating attractive.
Josephina looked into the distance. “Perhaps.”  She sighed, “Poor child. She didn’t live for long. According to myth, she never spoke again after that horrendous night. Amalie Ansett Benstone lived only seven months longer. During that time it’s said that she never indicated any awareness of her surroundings and that she never uttered a sound, not even in the throes of childbirth. She died giving birth to a still-born daughter.”
“I’m sure she must have been shocked at her father’s and her former fiancĂ©’s fate. But never to speak again? Was she catatonic?”
“I suppose that’s how it might be diagnosed today. In those days it was said that she died of a broken heart.”
“The portrait was painted after her marriage?”
“It was.”
“That would explain the way she looks. What a horrible story.”
The silence between the two women lengthened. Amalie thought, there’s more. What isn’t she telling me?
Then Josephina continued. “Of course, as with any good legend in the Caribbean, there’s a ghost.”
Amalie smiled. “You’re not going to tell me that my namesake walks at night, scaring little children.”
Josephina laughed aloud. “Of course not.”
Amalie sat back, somehow relieved.
 “It’s not Amalie who walks, it’s Jonathan. He’s been seen a number of times over the years, walking down White Wall Road, whistling.”
Amalie looked at Josephina to see if she was joking. Her face was devoid of expression as she picked up the tea cups and took them indoors.
Amalie continued to sit on the verandah for some time, staring at the sea, reliving the story she’d been told, thinking about the man she’d seen on the beach. Then she shook her head. What nonsense. Josephina had said he was probably a tourist.
What she needed was a swim. She stood to go indoors and get into her suit. At that moment she heard the distant echo of whistling. She whirled to look down the length of the beach, but no one was there.
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The Memory of RosesDelighting In Your Company

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Delighting In Your Company - Caribbean Background

Alas my love you do me wrong,
To leave me so discourteously,
While I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.  

These words from a fifteenth century song, Greensleeves, were a part of the inspiration for my paranormal novel with time travel, Delighting In Your Company.
My heroine, Amalie Ansett, finds herself in the unenviable position of falling in love with a ghost.   Jonathan Evans was a plantation owner on the small Caribbean island of St. Clement’s in the early 1800’s.   He died suddenly and violently and has walked the island ever since as a ghost, or, as the people there call the dead who walk, a 'jumbie'.  

Amalie can see and hear and touch him as no one else has in two hundred years.   It is up to her to help him find out what happened all those years ago.   Why he is alive but not alive, dead but not dead.  

The island in my book is based on a real one, St. Eustatius.   I’ve had a home there for many years.   Details in my book about jumbies and Obeah, the ancient religious practice brought by the slaves from Africa, are based on stories I’ve heard many times from local friends.   There is a White Wall Road.   And there is, according to local lore, a ghost who walks White Wall.   The “real” ghost, however, is a woman.   In my book I’ve chosen to change her into a man.  

There are other differences, as well.   My book is fiction after all.   While St. Eustatius is Dutch today, I’ve chosen to make my fictional island, St. Clement’s, English.   I did this because in 1807 the British Parliament enacted a law prohibiting the transportation of slaves into and out of all ports in England and all British possessions.   At that time St. Eustatius was a British Island.  This had a profound effect on the economies and social structures of the British Caribbean Islands, and it is a key factor in my plot.  

While I’ve been steeped in Caribbean culture for many years, I learned much in the course of researching the Caribbean of the eighteen hundreds.   I have a large collection of books on the history of the Caribbean, some of them very old, and these were invaluable.  
Museum on St. Eustatius
Delighting In Your Company is a fantasy.   A figment of my imagination.   But the scenes of a slave auction and of an Obeah Ceremony are taken from the works of nineteenth and early twentieth century writers, and the hand written records of slave sales that my heroine finds are, with minor changes, the ledgers I have seen in the Museum of the St. Eustatius Historical Society.  

This book almost wrote itself.   Once I became immersed in the tale, all that I love about the Caribbean Islands and their culture and peoples simply took over.  

I hope you will enjoy reading Delighting In Your Company as much as I enjoyed writing it. 

In the following scene, my heroine, Amalie, is transported in time and is observing a slave auction.   

In the basement room, Amalie contemplated the papers strewn around the wide pine table.   There was a large, leather-bound ledger sitting on top of them.   She hadn’t noticed that yesterday.   Where had it come from? She opened it and started to read the faded ink entries. 

To her shock she discovered it was a ledger of slave sales, with descriptions and prices. 
  • 1 male and 2 females, household slaves to Jeremiah Johnston ….   425 guineas.  
  • 2 field workers to Emerson Gainsborough….   250 guineas
  • 6 field workers to John Taylor….   1250 guineas
The room spun around her.   She grasped the edge of the table to keep from falling as consciousness faded.

She was in a harbor full of wooden ships.   A crowd of men, from the look of their clothing, planters, shopkeepers and businessmen, milled about the dock, shouting to one another, pushing and shoving, vying for position.   The cacophony was ear splitting.   A large vessel was pulled up to the pier.   Naked male slaves, their ankles chained together, were shuffling down the gangplank and being herded into a holding pen.   The smell of their fear and hopelessness hovered in the air.  

Amalie heard a voice raised above the clamor and turned to see an auction block.  

“And here we have a fine specimen from the Gold Coast.   You all know there ain’t no stronger or better field workers than these.   Turn around, boy.   Let’em see you.   So what am I bid? Come on gentleman.”

Bids started coming, fast and furious.   

Horrified, Amalie watched as the young man was led away by the successful bidder.   

When she turned back to the auction block she saw that it was occupied by an emaciated boy barely into his teens.   Even in the hot tropical sun he stood shivering as the crowd jeered and the auctioneer turned him around for prospective buyers to examine.
“I’ll admit he ain’t much, but he might be some use as kitchen help.   Don’t know how he got into this batch.   Was supposed to be all field workers.   What am I bid? Come on gentlemen, got to move along.   Don’t nobody want this scrawny piece o’ nigger flesh?”
There was a moment’s silence.   Then from the back of the crowd, near where Amalie stood invisibly, “I’ll take him.   Ten guineas.  ” The speaker was a boy no older than the one on the block.
“Ten guineas?” the auctioneer sneered.   “Might as well give ’im away.   What am I bid, gentlemen?”
The crowd was silent.   The boy reached into his pocket and counted out a handful of change.   “Ten guineas and twelve bob.”
Someone in the crowd called out.   “Jonathan Evans.   Your pappy know how you’re squanderin’ his money?”
The crowd broke into raucous laughter.
“Never you mind.” The auctioneer took control.   “The boy’s money’s as good as anybody else's.   You got yourself a slave, boy.   Come and git him.”

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The Memory of RosesDelighting In Your Company
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