The story behind the story – Vanessa Couchman’s new Corsica-based novel

IMG_4401Today I’m thrilled to see Vanessa Couchman in the coffee shop. I love stories about houses which give up their longheld secrets so The House at Zaronza which is set in Corsica was right up my street and am eagerly awaiting her next book.

Hello Vanessa, what can I get you?

Thank you so much for inviting me today, Katy. Mine’s a cappuccino, please, and I’d love a slice of that chocolate cake. Anything with chocolate in…

Coming right up. How’s the writing going? I know you’re working on a new novel. Can you tell us anything about it?
I’m a history nut, so I love historical novels, especially when they are based on a true story. History provides so much inspiration and truth is often stranger than fiction! In fact, that’s the case with my latest novel, The Corsican Widow, to which I have just put the finishing touches.

My home has been in Southwest France for 20 years, but I’m a great fan of the stunning Mediterranean island of Corsica, where we have spent six holidays! As well as being a wonderful place to visit, Corsica has a fascinating history and a distinctive culture.

BMy first Corsica novel, The House at Zaronza, is based on a true story: the owners of the B&B where we stayed discovered some love letters walled up in the attic, giving a tantalising glimpse into an affair between two star-crossed lovers. A gift for a novelist.

I had fully intended to write a World War II sequel. That’s still the plan, but I became captivated by a fragment I read in a book. It recounted the tale of a lonely, wealthy widow in 18th-century Corsica, who was sentenced to death for having an affair with her shepherd and becoming pregnant. Since he was beneath her socially, she couldn’t marry him without dishonouring her family. The only alternative was for her to be executed.

To us in 21st-century Western society, this seems a terribly harsh verdict, although we know about honour killings carried out in other societies. However, in Corsica, honour has always been prized above all else and the Corsicans’ implacable pride was the origin of many vendettas. Women who overstepped the boundaries of public morality faced severe penalties, either from their families or from the authorities. These ranged from public humiliation to being banned from the family home or, in many cases, being murdered by family members.

Apart from the fragment I came across, no further details exist, and have no doubt been lost in the mists of time. I found this tale intriguing and just had to write it, so I used it as the basis of The Corsican Widow. To make the story more plausible to a modern audience, I’ve altered certain aspects and made it less stark. My story is set in Corsica and in Marseille in the mid to late 18th century. I’m not giving any more away!

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History is full of enthralling snippets like this one. I’ve no doubt my subsequent novels will take full advantage of it.

 

 

 

 

About the author

Vanessa Couchman is a novelist, short story author and freelance writer and has lived in southwest France since 1997. Her first novel, The House at Zaronza (Crooked Cat, 2014) is set in early 20th-century Corsica and at the Western Front during World War I. Vanessa has written many short stories set in France and Corsica, which have won and been placed in creative writing competitions. A number of them have also been published in themed anthologies.

Website

Twitter: @Vanessainfrance

Amazon author page

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The House at Zaronza is available in paperback and e-book format from:

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Amazon
Barnes and Noble
The House at Zaronza by Vanessa Couchman
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The silence -Mothers Day excerpt

As it’s Mothers’ Day weekend I thought I’d post an excerpt from my novel the silence which will be published in June. Because it’s on Mothers Day, which Abby is celebrating at her in-laws that the secret she has guarded for 25 years resurfaces, threatening to blow her life apart:
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A child’s cry brought her attention back to the garden.
‘One of mine. Better go and see what he wants,’ said Trix with a sigh. ‘No, don’t you get up. Sit and have a read of the paper.’
She plopped it into Abby’s lap and strode off shouting, ‘Now what have you done?’
The paper was full of stories about a terrorist attack, Brexit and a teenager victim of cyber bullying. So, unsurprisingly, a macabre discovery at a villa in Italy was given little coverage. If the rental guests hadn’t been British, it probably wouldn’t have got any at all.
And yet the picture jumped out at Abby. Her hand went to the side of her head. It couldn’t be. Her heart was hammering before she even read the text. Everything slowed as her eyes slid across the page. Her head pulsed. Fear coiled through her as she read it and then read it again. The news she had been dreading for so many years and she was reading it right here in a garden with James’s family all around her. And yet a little voice whispered: why not now? Why not here? It wasn’t as if there would ever be a good time or place.

Bodies Found at Tuscan Holiday Home
An English family’s dream holiday turned into a nightmare when they discovered two skeletons in the grounds of the Tuscan villa where they were staying.
Miranda and Robert Hamilton, who run an IT business in Orpington, had booked a two-week holiday at Le Rondini, an idyllic-looking villa in a classic Tuscan hill village.
It was the couple’s six-year-old daughter who made the grisly discovery while playing in the garden. Builders had been clearing a fallen building but the site had not been fenced off.
‘We chose this property because it seemed so peaceful and had lots of space for our children to run around in,’ said Miranda Hamilton. ‘The last thing we were expecting to find there was a couple of bodies.
‘We’ve been offered alternative accommodation, but our children are traumatised and we’re having to think about arranging counselling for them.’
Police say they are waiting for forensic test results before they can speculate on how long the bodies have been there and the manner of death, but they are cautiously optimistic about being able to identify them and are following up on several leads…

Looking up, seeing her daughters peering into the fairy tree, their pretty dresses rippling in the breeze, Abby felt everything dissolving in front of her eyes. The ground didn’t seem solid any more, the trees looked artificial, none of the colours looked natural.
She had a sudden vision, so powerful, of the villa as she had known it – a mishmash of stone and render clad in creeper so thick it was impossible to fold back the flaking shutters, the roof tiles held down by stones, the broken stone steps and the fallen balcony.

IMG_4400For a moment, she was back there lying in the hammock under the fig trees, watching lizards dart along the dry stone wall. Had it really been that idyllic? No, of course it hadn’t.
How much could she really remember? Not much at all. Just scenes. Snapshots. She tried to sort them, but they kept slipping out of her control because of the one that overshadowed everything.

Perhaps she was getting this wrong. There must be thousands of villas that looked similar. And there were several differences, including the name. Le Rondini was a good choice. It reminded her of how the sky had filled with swallows on those warm summer evenings. She remembered watching them flit and dive in and out of the little conical nests they had built under the loggia.
They had found one once with an injured wing and tried to nurse it back to health, keeping it in a shoebox. She saw Philippa’s hands deftly cutting the worm into pieces to feed the bird. She had wanted to look away but was fascinated all the same to see if it really did turn into lots of little worms, as she had been told. It didn’t.
She saw herself sitting at the stone table under the pergola with Philippa and Mina, listening to them arguing about whether curses really existed and if the house could be cursed; keeping secrets for each of them. Heard her own childish voice, barely a whisper, ‘What will you do if I tell?’
IMG_4387.JPGBut now the villa was slipping away as she had seen it on that last night, peeping behind grubby, tear-soaked fingers. Retreating into the red earth and chestnut trees behind it like a wounded, blind beast as the car bounced away. Dark, closed-up, silent. And yet somehow, she had always known, hadn’t she, that she would see it again? It would find her.
No, she was being ridiculous. Surely she was only making connections with the villa because of the dream she had had? Heart hammering, she scanned the picture, exploring every millimetre. She tried to reassure herself, but it was no use. Perhaps having the dream had just made her more alert so that she noticed a picture she would otherwise have flicked past.
The villa stared back, smug in its new disguise. With its smooth, pink façade, decorative friezes, and window boxes of cascading geraniums, it certainly lived up to the newspaper’s description ‘idyllic holiday home’. But no amount of paint and repairs could fool her.
The creeper had been cleared away, the two enormous Cypress trees that had blocked the windows of the salotto, or living room, making it permanently dark, had been cut down, the iron balustrade had been repaired, and the shutters rehung. But the stained-glass window Alan had salvaged from the little church that had been damaged in an earthquake was still there, and an inset image showed a close-up of the demonic doorknockers.
IMG_4287How could looks be so deceiving? She wanted to rip the page into shreds and trample it into the ground. Instead, she slid it out, trying to stop her hands from trembling, folded it, and slipped it into her bag. She took a gulp of Pimms and then another.
Her head squeezed. Nausea swept through her. Battling to keep it under control, she stood up and stumbled towards the house. Dodging children, cats, offers of sherry, and invitations to solve disagreements, she climbed the stairs two at a time and shut herself in the bathroom where she sank to her knees and retched into the bowl.
This could not be happening.

How to get your novel published – Nancy Jardine’s top tip

How lovely to see Nancy Jardine in the coffee shop this morning. Since 2011 Nancy has had seven novels published. Six are now published by Crooked Cat: three are in the Celtic Fervour Series of historical romantic adventures and three stand-alone contemporary romantic mysteries. She has also published the first book of a historical time travel series for early teens.

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Hello, Katy. Thank you so much for inviting me and getting me out of the house for a while, even if only virtually!

You’re very welcome. What would you like to drink?

A caffe latte would be perfect.

Anything to eat?

Yes, please! I’m a sucker for shortbread with coffee

 

Can you remember how it felt when you had your first novel accepted?

It was exhilarating but also quite unreal when I read the email from a US ebook publisher for Monogamy Twist, a contemporary romantic mystery. I went back to my teaching job after lunch in a complete daze. I’m fairly sure the 11-12 year olds in my class thought the permanent smile on my face was due to some sort of weird gaseous indigestion! It was my first ever submission for Monogamy Twist and the acceptance email had popped into my in-box a couple of weeks after I’d emailed the manuscript, such an incredibly fast turnaround. This was at the end of March 2011 and Monogamy Twist was published in the summer of 2011. (A different version of it was republished by Crooked Cat Books in 2015)

Do you have any advice for someone who is writing their first novel?

Your previous question makes me remember all of the things I didn’t have back then in March 2011 and which I think are invaluable for an author who is currently writing their first novel.

Contacts: After I signed that first contract, my US editor requested my contact information. What was my Website URL? Oh, oh! I didn’t have a website. What was my Blog URL? I didn’t have one of those either. I admit to barely knowing back then what a blog was, never mind have one or how to use one. What was my Facebook contact info? You’ve guessed it, I wasn’t on Facebook and I wasn’t on Twitter. By June 2011, I’d worked out how to run a basic Blog. I’d created a basic Website. I’d learned how to make a Book Trailer Video and had added myself to loads of other Social Media places. It was a crazy, nerve wracking time!

I was catapulted into those ‘getting my name out there’ aspects so my advice to any author who is hoping to gain a first contract would be to get onto Social Media places long before you make a submission to a publisher. Younger authors are more likely to be on a number of Social Media sites already but they maybe use them for other purposes.

Author Branding: Learn how to use internet sites for author branding. There are some excellent Facebook groups that you can join where authors share their expertise and give support to both fledgling and oldie authors. There are other internet groups for specific genres on Yahoo which might be the ones to aim for, especially if your writing fits into a particular niche. There are also groups which support and advise in a more general way on Google Plus etc. I’ve often seen the phrases ‘Sharing is Caring’ and ‘Pay it Forward’ and they are spot on. It’s great to be able to get answers to what might seem like a dumb question. Asking questions and gaining help isn’t dumb at all if it will help you progress.

The internet changes so rapidly from year to year that there’s no one ‘quick fix’ place to be on: what works for one author may not for another. I’ve joined all sorts of sites to get my author branding out there but it’s like all walks of life—invest more time and you’ll probably gain more rewards. Being on Social Media isn’t, in my opinion, for gaining book sales (though excellent if that happens) but it’s more that you’re not writing in a bubble of virtual isolation.

Local Contacts: Before publication, I wasn’t in a local writing group. I now know many novelists who meet up regularly with other writers and this can be invaluable for gaining beta readers for your manuscripts. Try to fit in time to make local contacts if that’s possible. A couple of years ago I joined the RNA (Romantic Novelists Association) which also has a fledgling author scheme which not-yet-published authors can use to join. The RNA subscription fees are quite high, but if you live near London you can probably attend lots more events than I can since I live in Scotland, in rural Aberdeenshire. Attending these events will widen your contact base of authors. To counteract my ‘geographical’ location, I’m meeting up with some RNA Scottish authors in Edinburgh at the beginning of May 2017. I also joined the Scottish Association of Writers and will attend my first ever author conference this coming weekend (18th March) which is being held near Glasgow. Such exciting prospects, even though I’ve never actually met anyone, yet.

It’s taken me years to make these arrangements so I’d advise not-yet-published authors to branch out as early as you possibly can—virtually and locally!

Thank you Nancy – such good advice. If  we’d had this conversation a couple of years ago I’d have been much better prepared!

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About Nancy Jardine
Nancy Jardine’s Celtic Fervour Series of historical romantic adventures is set in first century northern Roman Britain whereas her contemporary romantic mysteries are set in fabulous world-wide cities, Topaz Eyes being a finalist in The People’s Book Prize 2014. The Taexali Game, her Teen time-travel adventure, is set in third century Roman Scotland. Her week passes in a blur of regular grandchild minding, gardening, leisure reading, researching, writing…and keeping up with politics. Not necessarily in that order!

She’s a member of the Romantic Novelists Association, the Scottish Association of Writers and the Federation of Writers, Scotland.

You can find her at these places:
Blog: http://nancyjardine.blogspot.co.uk Website: http://nancyjardineauthor.com/ Facebook: http://on.fb.me/XeQdkG & http://on.fb.me/1Kaeh5G
email: nan_jar@btinternet.com Twitter @nansjar
Amazon Author page http://viewauthor.at/mybooksandnewspagehere
(A Google search will find her other sites)
The Beltane Choice http://getbook.at/myamazonplace
After Whorl: Bran Reborn http://getbook.at/pageatamazon
After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks http://getbook.at/hereistheplace

Monogamy Twist http://getbook.at/findithere
Take Me Now http://mybook.to/funcorporatesabotagemystery
Topaz Eyes http://getbook.at/buymehere

IMG_4334The Taexali Game http://getbook.at/findmeonamazon