So you’re sitting on the patio with a Pimms, some pistachios and a laptop, surrounded by cascades of scented flowers with the gentle humming of bumble bees in the background, and the occasional burst of birdsong…A lean, tanned figure appears with a single red rose, and an exquisite selection of Belgian chocolates. As he leans over you, his blond hair brushing your cheek, your thoughts turn to the next scene, when the heroine finds herself pressed up against a Viking warrior as she endeavours to rescue the family heirloom from the clutches of the one-eyed blacksmith who killed her brother… All of a sudden, a bit of research seems in order, and you shut the laptop and head back into the house with your…
Of course, that’s the sort of stuff I wrote under a pseudonym, and I’m not revealing the pen-name here! So how was it for you, trying to get on with your novel in mid-July?
Streaming eyes from hayfever, a woolly jumper because July in England is anyone’s guess. A cup of slightly bitter tea (because you forgot to get any milk) and a couple of soggy biscuits, because you didn’t put the lid back on the tin. The machine-gun rattle of magpies, as they try to scrounge ever more food from their parents, and the shrieking of ring-necked parakeets as they demolish all the food on the bird-table. A few insect bites on your ankles. A light drizzle, which has encouraged every slug in the neighbourhood to have a garden party in your flowering tubs, and a partner who’s so wound up by work issues that thoughts of red roses and Belgian chocolates are the last things on his mind. It’s not quite the life of which I dreamed as a kid, scribbling furiously in nicked exercise books and envisaging travelling to remote destinations in the name of research.
To be fair, I have managed the travel part fairly well. Stomach upsets in Mexico, Kenya, Venezuela, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Cote D’Ivoire – the real highlight was salmonella in Madagascar. Mud slides in Costa Rica, flooding wadis in Morocco, sandstorms in Mongolia. And that’s what’s helped me to write about hot summer days. I tend to lump my experiences in one region together, invent somewhere new, and then extrapolate a bit. Beware of Men with Moustaches drew on my experiences in the Czech Republic, Poland and Ukraine. Jinx on the Divide, the third book in the Divide trilogy, used Iceland and Norway for that wintry feel. And for Back to the Divide, the second book, I plundered Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.
Felix and Betony, our young protagonists, are being carried on the backs of Ironclaw and Thornbeak, two brazzles (griffons).
…They took off again, but it wasn’t until the sun was nearing the horizon that they began to see vegetation once more. The plants they saw were like the cacti of Felix’s own world; the tall branching saguaro, familiar from Westerns, and the paddle-shaped prickly pear. They weren’t identical, though – the flesh of the saguaros was a dusky violet colour, and that of the prickly pears pale lemon. Some of them were in flower – huge, extravagant blooms of bright scarlet and peacock blue.The sand here was firmer, interspersed with gravelly bits and boulders. There was a range of mountains in the distance, but they weren’t anything like as high as the Andrian mountains. The brazzles looked for somewhere to camp that would be sheltered, for the wind was blowing more strongly and no one wanted to be sandpapered all night long. Eventually Ironclaw spotted a dried-up riverbed, and they landed.Felix wondered whether to say anything. He knew that a dried-up riverbed was called a wadi, and his geography teacher had told him that people who camped in wadis could get swept away in the middle of the night by a wall of water. The sky was clear, though, and it didn’t look as though it had rained in this area for years. They settled themselves down, and had supper. This time it was Ironclaw alone who did the hunting – Thornbeak wasn’t going to leave the youngsters on their own again, not after what had happened the last time. He returned with some gazelle-type creature, and he and Thornbeak retired to a polite distance to eat.Felix looked up at the sky. The stars were coming out, with that extraordinary brilliance peculiar to deserts. They munched on their bread and cheese, and squealed every time they spotted a shooting star. Felix suddenly remembered the things he’d brought in his rucksack, so he got out the newspaper, and gave it to Thornbeak, and then he passed the chocolate to Betony.“Weird,” she said, as she rolled it round her mouth. “We don’t have anything remotely like this. I suppose it’s quite nice.”It had never occurred to Felix that chocolate might be an acquired taste.“Hey, look,” said Betony, pointing.Felix glanced over towards the mountains. Lightning was forking down from the sky, silhouetting the peaks in front of it. The storm was so far away that they couldn’t hear any thunder at all. It was like a firework display just for them, and they watched it, enthralled.
And that’s exactly what happened in Morocco. I was eighteen, and it was my first trip with a travel company aimed at young people. Holidays like this were very new ventures in the nineteen sixties, and Health and Safety hadn’t been invented. None of us put two and two together, and realised that a thunderstorm meant rain, and although the rain was a couple of miles away it had to go somewhere… Someone said, “I think one of the water cans has sprung a leak.” But within thirty seconds we all realised that there was too much water for that, and the wadi was flooding. We had to take down the tents, fling them on top of the two Land Rovers, and get out. We all spent the rest of the night in our sleeping bags on the bank, beneath the stars. The next morning the wadi was twelve foot deep in water. It was all terribly exciting, and made an excellent story when we got back home. With hindsight, the outcome could have been very different.
I’m getting married this month, and next month we’ll be going on our honeymoon. Pimms, pistachios and scented flowers? No way. Indonesia, volcanoes and Komodo dragons!