Mary Jo Putney’s Silver Lady

Anne here, interviewing Mary Jo Putney about her latest book, SILVER LADY. It’s the first book in a new ‘Dangerous Gifts’ series, but it’s also a return to her Regency world with a touch of the paranormal, where some people are ‘gifted’ with extra sensory abilities, and where many others are prejudiced against them. (The Marriage Spell)

Cover of Silver Lady, By Mary Jo Putney

SILVER LADY has already received some glowing reviews. It’s the Editor’s Pick on Amazon for best romance.  Publishers Weekly called it the start of “an exciting new historical romance series set in 19th-century Cornwall” and recommended it “for readers who like some fantasy in their historical romance and appreciate stories with chosen family and strong women.“

Booklist Reviewer John Charles said it deftly blended “a superbly atmospheric Cornish setting, spot-on historical details, and a danger-riddled plot enhanced with just the right touch of the paranormal.”

Anne: Mary Jo, can you tell us a little more about this world where some people are ‘gifted’ and others hate them for it?

MJP: I’ve always loved reading fantasy because I like the idea that there might be something wonderful just outside the corner of one’s eye.  I’ve done full fledged magical fantasy books (my Guardian series and my Dark Mirror young adult series), but I wanted something subtler, more like the psychic abilities in Jayne Ann Krentz’s books.  Since humankind has a long and terrible history of despising anyone who is different, it was easy to believe that being gifted could arouse hostility. I thought that would make a solid framework for a new series. And indeed it does. <G>

Anne: This new series features a “found family” of people who had been rejected at a young age by their parents because of their ‘gifts’ — ie paranormal abilities.

MJP: I only heard the phrase ‘found family’ relatively recently, but it’s something I’ve done from my earliest books because I was always interested in the friends of my protagonist.  This interest became much more focused with my first long historical series, the Fallen Angels.  I love the idea of people who have had difficulty in their early years finding friends who become closer than blood kin, bonded by absolute trust and mutual caring.  These kinds of found families are the DNA of all my series. In this series, the “Tribe of Tremayne” was created by the gifted Lord and Lady Tremayne.  They have three biological children but they’ve rescued many gifted children who had been discarded by their families. Some children they placed with other gifted families, some they kept, like Bran.

Anne: Bran, the hero of SILVER LADY, was dumped by his noble birth father in a baby farm, where he’d been expected to die, but he and another gifted little boy escaped and found their way to London where they were taken in and adopted by Lord and Lady Tremayne.

Now an adult working for the British government, the adventure starts when Bran’s intuition draws him to investigate something disturbing happening in Cornwall. Tell us about Bran.

MJP:  Bran is reserved, even-tempered, and extraordinarily competent.  His politeness to his rude, angry birth father makes the old bully even angrier. <G>  Bran is a very gifted analyst, good at putting fragments of information together to form a larger picture.  Bran is also very intuitive and sees important matters as shimmering silver.  That leads him down to Cornwall.  He doesn’t know why, only that it’s vital that he go there. (The photo above is by Mark Markstein on Unsplash.)

Anne: The Cornish setting is wonderfully evocative. (Photo on the left is by Thomas Vogel on Unsplash)
Your heroine, the ‘Silver Lady’ of the title is unusual in that for the first part of the book she has no name except ‘Girl’ and can barely communicate. Tell us about her. Was she difficult to write?

MJP:  Not at all.  I’ve always been interested in stories of identity, and an amnesiac situation really emphasizes that.  Bran’s Silver Lady is gifted, and people who want to exploit her talents force a hypnotic amnesia on her.  I thought it was interesting to show her gradually regaining a sense of herself until she has the courage to make a break for freedom.  Once she comes under Bran’s protection, her recovery becomes much faster–and surprises everyone around her!

Anne: Apart from the London opening, the story is mostly set in Cornwall.  Bran is killing two birds with one stone; reconnecting with his estranged noble family, and as a government agent, investigating the disturbing feelings he’s getting from that part of the world – personal and political. It’s the latter that provides the adventure part that’s so often a feature of your books. What sort of research did you do for this?

MJP:  I chose an interesting period in 1803 when the Peace of Amiens is about to be broken, which will send Britain and France into war again.  Since I wanted Cornwall to be the setting, I did some general reading and discovered the Royal Naval Dockyard on the border between Cornwall and Devon. It was vitally important in the ongoing wars with France, and more reading brought me to a disaster several years earlier.  The explosion of the frigate Amphion was an inspiration for what might happen in my story. (That’s a frigate above.)  I’ve found that poking around with research invariably produces possibilities.  In fact, that just happened yesterday with the book I’m working on now.

Anne: Will you give us a short snippet of SILVER LADY please?

MJP: This is from the opening. Rhys and Gwyn Tremayne have been at the theater, but as they’re about to get into their carriage, Gwyn senses something down a dark alley.

“Something, or someone.”  Gwyn drew her cloak more closely around her as she purposefully started threading her way through the mass of waiting carriages and playgoers who were happily discussing the show they’d just seen.

Two turns took them from Covent Garden into a narrow lane.  Halfway down, Gwyn paused, then turned left into a dark alley barely lit by capricious moonlight.  It dead ended at a wall where a pile of rubble had accumulated against the dingy brick. Heedless of her expensive cloak, she knelt on the frozen ground by the rubble and said softly, “You can come out now, my lad.  You’re safe.”

There was a rustling sound but no one appeared. “How does warm food and a fire and a bath sound?” she said in her most persuasive voice.

A child’s voice snarled, “Don’t want no bath!”

“Then we’ll start with the food and the fire,” she said peaceably.  “Will you show yourself?  We won’t hurt you.”

Rhys stood silently behind her, knowing a frightened child would fear a rather large grown man more than a soft-voiced woman.  The rubble shifted and a small, filthy face became visible. A boy child perhaps five or six years old.

Gwyn brushed back a lock of fair hair, then peeled the kidskin glove from her right hand and offered it to the little boy.  He hesitantly took it.  As she clasped his freezing fingers with her warm hand, his eyes widened and he sighed with relief.

“You can tell I’m safe, can’t you?” Gwyn said.

The boy frowned up at Rhys. “You may be, but not sure about him!”

“I’m safe, too,” Rhys said in his most reassuring voice.  “I’m very good at protecting others.”

Unconvinced, the boy narrowed his eyes warily.  As Rhys stood very still, Gwyn said soothingly, “I’m Gwyn Tremayne.  What’s your name?”

The boy hesitated, as if his name was too precious to share.  After a long moment, he said, “Caden.”

“Caden.  That’s a good Cornish or Welsh name.  My husband and I come from Cornish families.”  Knowing there was more to find, her gaze moved back to the rubble pile.  “Your friend can come out, too.”

Caden gasped and jerked away from her.  For a moment she feared he’d try to bolt, but a thin, childish voice emerged from the rubble.  “It’s all right, Cade.  These are the people we came to find.”

An even smaller boy emerged from the rubble, his ragged garments almost indistinguishable from the trash around him.  His gaze on Gwyn, he said, “I’m Bran.”

“For Branok?” Again Gwyn offered her hand and Bran took it without hesitation.  His small fingers felt as if they were carved from ice.  In the darkness it was hard to see the boys clearly.  Though both were dark haired, there was little other resemblance.  Bran’s eyes were light, Caden’s were dark, but the color wasn’t visible in shadows. “Are you brothers?”

The boys exchanged a glance.  “We are now!” Caden said fiercely, challenging anyone who might deny that.

Anne: I love the way those lost little boys claimed each other so fiercely — the essence of “found family.”  (Photo of on the left is by Jonny Gios, on Unsplash.)
What’s next for MJP and the ‘Dangerous Gifts’ series?

MJP:  I’m close to finishing book 2, Golden Lord.  The hero is Caden, Bran’s foster brother who helped them escape from Cornwall to London when they were very small boys.  They’re very close.  Bran is more the strategist, Cade is in charge of cracking heads. <G>

Anne: I can’t wait.
Question for readers: Do you enjoy stories with a touch of paranormal in them? Do you like “found family” stories?
Mary Jo will be giving away a copy of SILVR LADY to someone who leaves a comment. (US only, alas.)

A Magical Place

Christina here. There are some places that definitely have a magical feel about them. Places that have inspired countless stories, and where you can easily imagine yourself transported through time. I can’t compete with Pat’s fabulous journey to the land of the Incas in the previous post, but I recently visited Tintagel – the village and its ancient ruins – on the north Cornish coast, and it made a huge impression on me. It’s not as exotic, but it is still awesome!

Tintagel is located in a truly spectacular position. I hadn’t been there for a very long time, and was struck by how beautiful the place was. If I’d been a king or a chieftain of old, I would have wanted to live there too, even if it’s probably extremely cold during the winter months.

Not only are the views breath-taking, but it’s great for defensive purposes too. Originally, Tintagel was important during the 5th to the 7th centuries AD, when it was a port and stronghold, probably occupied by Cornish kings. Later on, in the 13th century, the Earl of Cornwall built himself a small castle there. The ruins of Tintagel castle, and whatever Dark Age dwellings existed before that, are built on a on a headland that is more like an island connected to the mainland by a small sliver of land. There are tall cliffs on three sides, scarily steep.

 

 

Below, on either side, are little coves where you can land boats or go swimming, weather permitting. There is even a cave tunnel that goes right the way through from one cove to the other, and going inside it feels very mystical indeed.

 

 

Visitors can still see what’s left of a Medieval hall and other buildings from the Earl’s time, but I was more interested in the older structures. There are about a hundred small rectangular structures from the Dark Ages (so called because we know very little about the period as there are very few historical sources), so it must have been quite a substantial settlement. Just walking around there made my writer’s brain start spinning with ideas, and I’m not alone – Medieval authors used it as part of the stories about King Arthur, who was supposedly conceived at Tintagel. I really wanted to believe that as it’s so magical!

Most people will have heard of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. It’s a story that has fascinated people through the ages, and it’s easy to see why. A brave and noble king with a magical sword that only he can wield, a sorcerer to help him defeat his enemies, a queen who betrays him with one of his handsome knights, and a treacherous nephew, among other things. All wonderful ingredients for an exciting tale – what’s not to like? But the thing we probably all want to know is (or at least, I do) – was he real? Did he actually exist? Sadly, no one knows for sure, and most historians doubt that he was a historical figure, although it is possible.

Some people think he was a Roman leader who stayed behind when the legions left Britain in the 5th century. Others believe he might have been Welsh, and a leader of the Britons fighting against the Anglo-Saxon invaders who came swarming in shortly after the Romans’ departure. His name is intriguing – I’ve read that Arth/Arto meant ‘bear’ in Welsh/Brythonic respectively, and Ursus is also Latin for ‘bear’. So perhaps the two were somehow joined together to form one name by people who spoke both languages? It could also be derived from the Roman family name Artorius, or from the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Major – Arcturus (which means ‘Bear Guardian’).

Tristan and Isolde by John William Waterhouse – Wikimedia Commons

Someone called Arthur is mentioned in an early Welsh poem called Y Gododdin, and in a few other historical sources, most of them written down long after the time when he was supposed to have lived. Later writers used these tales as a basis for their own re-tellings – particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes. Their stories added a lot of imaginary details and new characters, and are the ones we would recognise as those of King Arthur. And the original tale spawned many others that we know and love today, like Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde as she’s also called).

Tristan and Isolde by Edmund Leighton – Wikimedia Commons

In this wild and windswept place, it’s easy to imagine yourself back in the 5th century, and to conjure up brave warriors and their families living there. It made me want to write something set during the Dark Ages, just so I could use this fabulous location as the background. I could quite see why poets like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and artists like the Pre-Raphaelites were obsessed with tales of chivalry set in locations such as this. As a huge fan of their work, I understood where their inspiration had come from.

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse – Wikimedia Commons

The 19th century revival of interest in the Arthurian legends gave rise to so many amazing paintings. These two works by John William Waterhouse and Edmund Blair Leighton show their take on the Tristan and Iseult story. I love old-fashioned poetry, and Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott is wonderful! If I’d been a painter, I would have wanted to capture this story on canvas as well.

The idea of chivalry and romance has always resonated with me – perhaps because I was hooked on fairy tales as a child. My only problem with them is that most of the Arthurian stories seem to have sad endings. They always seem unnecessary to me, and I itch to rewrite them. (Actually, I usually do that in my head). I guess I’ll just have to pen my own Dark Age story with a guaranteed happy-ever-after!

How about you – do you like the stories of King Arthur, and do you believe he could have been a real person?

Let There Be Light!

IMG_3920Nicola here. At this time of year when the evenings are long and dark and the days are short there is nothing that I enjoy more than seeing a light show. If there is snow (or at least a hard frost!) and stars sparkling overhead that’s an added bonus. Perhaps its’ a throwback to the distant ancestors who lit up this time of year with a number of fire festivals: Samhain, Halloween, All Souls and Guy Fawkes Night, all with bonfires and lanterns. The precursor of Christmas lights were the candles that German families would attach to the branches of trees with wax and pins as far back as the 17th century (fire hazard alert!) A hundred years later they had developed candle holders and glass balls for the candles and the tradition of the Christmas tree lights spread across Europe. The advent of electricity, of course, meant that we could all go wild with our lights if we wanted, both inside and outside!

It was a huge treat for me to go the Christmas Lights at Cotehele Manor gardens in Cornwall this year. Cotehele is a Tudor house with Cotehele Garland glorious gardens and a fascinating history. The Cotehele Christmas Garland is a tradition dating back to last century. Normally it adorns the Great Hall of the Manor House. The flowers for the garland are grown in the gardens from seeds sown in early spring. The plants include purple and blue statice and yellow helychrysum.

Garland close upThe flowers are picked in the summer, each individual stem is stripped of leaves and then they are hung up in the potting shed to dry. Construction of the garland begins in November using a sixty foot long rope which is first wrapped in evergreen foliage. Between 15 and 30 thousand flowers are then placed among the greenery and the huge garland is hung in swags across the Great Hall. It sounds an amazing creation and I wish I could have seen it but this year, of course, things are different. The house was closed and so the National Trust had had the brilliant idea to bring the decorations outside.

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Poldark Country

Take me to the beachNicola here, with a post that is part travelogue, part about settings and backgrounds in books. 

There’s something about Cornwall, isn’t there. It rivals Scotland in the imagination as a romantic setting for a novel. It's wild, rugged and magical. Perhaps it all started with Daphne Du Maurier and with Winston Graham’s Poldark books and the TV series. I know it did for me.  I grew up on the original BBC dramatization of Poldark, though my teenage heart was mostly given to Dr Enys rather than to Ross. When the more recent dramatization came out I felt it couldn’t possibly match the first one but it carved its own niche in our affections as well as raising interest in the ancient skill of scything. And as for Daphne Du Maurier’s books, well, Frenchman’s Creek is still up there on my all-time favourites list, and Jamaica Inn not so far behind. Both Du Maurier and Winston Graham created the atmosphere of historic Cornwall so evocatively that I was desperate to visit (which was neither quick nor easy 40 years ago from Yorkshire!)

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A Proper Cream Tea

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

Afternoon tea is a quintessential English custom, and one that has been discussed on the Word Wenches before when Anne Gracie wrote a delightful post on the subject.  (And if anything, Australians love their afternoon tea even more than Britons do.  And let us not forget the New Zealanders!)

This blog began at the Virginia Festival of the Book, where Joanna Bourne and I were part of a lovely event for romance readers and writers held at a local Barnes & Noble.  Two of the readers said they'd met Jo Beverley in England, and she'd showed them how to have a proper Devonshire cream tea with clotted cream.  They even showed me a nice picture of the three of them on an iPad.

I mentioned this to the Wenches, not all of whom knew the correct way to have clotted cream and scones because not everyone had experienced it.  And a delicious discussion was stimulated!  (Pun intended. <G>)  In fact, it became so complex that I decided I need to do TWO blogs: one on cream, clotted and otherwise, and one on scones.  (True or false: a scone is just a biscuit.  Stand by for fireworks!)  

ClottedCreamFirstly, what is clotted cream? Since fresh milk has a short shelf life, clotted cream is one of the ways developed to preserve cream longer–cheese and butter are other ways.  It's particularly associated with Southwest England, especially Cornwall and Devon.( Photo from Wikipedia.) 

It's made by being indirectly heated, like in a water bath, then slowly cooled.  The thick layer that forms on the top is the clotted cream.  It must have at least 55% butterfat, but averages around 64%.  In the US, that would be categorized as butter, but the flavor is different–rich and sweet with a consistency like soft cream cheese.

The whole purpose of clotted cream is to make cream teas possible.  It's simple, really.  Split a scone and top with fruit preserves (or lemon curd) and a thick layer of clotted cream.  Serve with hot tea.  Delicious!  But already the first controversy Cream_tea_Brightonappears: does one apply the cream first, or the preserves?  Opinions very and can become quite heated, but I believe that a proper Devonshire cream tea requires the clotted cream to go on first, as if it was butter, with the preserves on top.  Aussie Anne Gracie begs to differ.  <G>

Clotted cream still has a short shelf life so it's hard to find outside the UK, though the Devon Cream Company does produces a small bottle that can last for several months before it's opened.  It can be found in really good grocery stores, on Amazon, and sometimes in a little container served with a transatlantic meal on British Airways. <G>  It's not quite as good as fresh clotted cream consumed in Cornwall, but it's still a nice treat. 

Scone with cream and preservesHeaviest sales of clotted cream are during the Wimbledon tennis tournament since cream  teas with strawberry jam are very, very traditional.  It's enough to make one take up tennis watching!

But clotted cream is only the tip of the butterfat iceberg when it comes to the myriad kinds of British cream!  We Americans tend to regard fat with fear and loathing: hence the blue white abomination called skimmed milk.  About the richest cream we can buy is whipping cream, which at around 36% butterfat is about half the intensity of clotted cream, and isn't as easy to whip as a thicker cream would be.

Jersey cowsThe UK has many more kinds of cream.  Double cream has 48% butterfat content and it can be poured over a dessert like apple pie or a fruit crumble.  It also whips beautifully, and as Jo Beverley pointed out, it become the filling of an incredible range of cream cakes such as these made by this company, Darvell and Sons.  Breeds of cows like the Guernsey and Jersey from the Channel Isles have always been prized for the richness of their milk.  That's a Jersey cow to the left.

In the US, one is more likely to find artificial cream (Twinkies, anyone?) or custard, which are just not the same.  I suspect it's a matter of safety–the US is generally warmer than the UK, and we certainly heat our houses to higher temperatures, which risks cream turning bad.  In a cool English kitchen, this isn't as much of a problem because A) it's cool <g> and B) it isn't going to last long enough to spoil!  

There are a number of other grades of British cream, from extra thick double cream (lightly cooked and a bit like clotted cream but the same 48% butterfat content as regular double cream), single cream, and more.  We Americans must make do with half and half, light cream, and heavy whipping cream.  

When I was a kid, we had milk that was pasteurized but not homogenized and the cream would float to the top.  In theory, you'd shake the bottle to mix it before pouring, but if my father was having coffee, he'd pour some of the top milk into his cup since it was the equivalent of half and half.  Now we can buy boxes of half and half, including–light low-fat half and half.  Which really rather misses the point!

The Devon Cream company

Have you ever had a proper cream tea with clotted cream?  Does this blog make you want to try one, or does merely reading about it make your veins clog?  <G>  

Mary Jo, who thinks that every true Anglophile should try a cream tea at least once.