Kathleen McGurl - On settings

This week’s guest in the writers abroad series, Kathleen McGurl, actually lives in Christchurch, England but when pandemics allow she spends a lot of time travelling in Europe with her husband in their motorhome, especially France and Spain. She has written ten dual timeline novels, set in England, France and Ireland, and is constantly inspired by the history of any place she finds herself in.

Over to Kathleen!

I write dual timeline novels, where a historical mystery is uncovered and resolved in the present day. I write the two storylines as alternating chapters. It’s a tricky genre to write, as each novel needs two sets of characters and two plot-lines, yet must hang together as a single story.

One way to tie the two timelines together is by using a strong and distinctive setting, that is ‘seen’ by the reader in both time periods. Often the location has changed dramatically over the decades or centuries between the two storylines. I’ve used a west of Ireland village abandoned during the 1840s famine (The Girl from Ballymor); a Lake District valley evacuated and flooded to make way for a reservoir which then dried out during a drought (The Drowned Village); and a large country house that’s now a hotel (The Daughters of Red Hill Hall).

In The Secret of the Château, it’s probably no surprise that the setting is a French château. The historical story is set during the French revolution, when it is lived in for the last time by members of the doomed aristocracy. And in the contemporary story, I had a group of newly retired friends decide to pool their resources and buy it – something I’ve dreamed of doing with my mates!

I’d seen a small château in the Loire valley that had inspired my book, and took some photos of it to use when writing it. But my favourite part of France is the Alpes-Maritimes. I’m a mountain lover, and being near the Alps while also within easy reach of the Mediterranean coastline is my idea of heaven. So I decided to uproot my château and put it in one of the high valleys where I’d spent a couple of months touring, in 2019.

There aren’t so many châteaux in that area, but there are enough that my story was plausible, and I very much enjoyed having my contemporary character go for walks in the local hills as well as visit the nearby village, shopping in the market, watching the locals play pétanque etc. It was a fun book to write, and my research was helped immensely by having spent those weeks touring the area in our motorhome.

Covid-19 and lockdowns have meant our travelling has been severely restricted recently. Thankfully I came up with an idea for a novel set right where I live – Christchurch, England, and that’s my current work-in-progress. I hadn’t realised until I moved here in December 2020 that it was a hotbed of smuggling in the 18th century. With the help of the local library I’ve researched its history thoroughly and have come up with a dual timeline novel that encompasses many real-life local smuggling stories. I am having a wonderful time writing it!

My newest completed book is The Lost Sister (publication date 12th May 2021). It tells the story of three sisters who work on three sister ships – Olympic, Titanic and Britannic. Much of the setting of the historical story is on board the ships, so of course this research had to be done via books. That worked, during the pandemic.

Soon we’ll be able to travel again, I hope. I have a novel in mind set in Dublin during the 1916 uprising, and another set in Chamonix, France. Before I embark on either book I’d like to go back to these areas and really immerse myself in the locations.


Connect with Kathleen
Website: https://kathleenmcgurl.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/KathMcGurl @KathMcGurl
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/KathleenMcGurl


Discover more about The Secret of the Château…
(Which I enjoyed immensely and recommend!)

1789. Pierre and Catherine Aubert, the Comte and Comtesse de Verais, have fled the palace of Versailles for their château, deep in the French Alps. But as revolution spreads through the country, even hidden away the Auberts will not be safe forever. Soon they must make a terrible decision in order to protect themselves, and their children, from harm.

Present day. When Lu’s mother dies leaving her heartbroken, the chance to move to a château in the south of France with her husband and best friends seems an opportunity for a new beginning. But Lu can’t resist digging into their new home’s history, and when she stumbles across the unexplained disappearance of Catherine Aubert, the château begins to reveal its secrets – and a mystery unsolved for centuries is uncovered…
Buy from Amazon UK


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste world the latest contemporary thriller Double Identity… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Vanessa Couchman – The other South of France

Continuing the writers abroad series, this week it features Vanessa Couchman whom I met at a literary festival here in France. Vanessa  writes historical novels and short stories set in France or on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Quirky true stories often find their way into her fiction, and she likes nothing more than pottering around ruined châteaux or exploring the lesser-known byways of France.

Over to Vanessa!

People sometimes say to me, “How’s life in Provence?” When you mention the South of France, people naturally think of living the good life in some Lubéron village, like Peter Mayle.

Actually, I live in the other South of France, the Southwest: less well known, but no less interesting, and endowed with its fair share of picturesque places and glorious scenery.

We moved down here from London nearly twenty-five years ago, seeking a less frantic, more satisfying lifestyle. We are still here, so it was a good move, although a bit of a leap in the dark.

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie – one of the region’s many hilltop villages

Saint-Cirq-Lapopie – one of the region’s many hilltop villages

France has had a huge influence on me as a writer. First, if we hadn’t moved here, I would probably never have started writing fiction again after a gap of decades. My freelance lifestyle offered more opportunity to return to it.

Just as important, France has given me the inspiration behind my writing. Our region is pervaded by history. It was once a frontier zone with an independent spirit, which it retains today. Much of its past involved crusades against heretics or wars with foreign powers.

All this has made its mark on the now-tranquil countryside and villages and left plenty of material for a history nut like me.

Corsica – Saint-Florent with Cap Corse mountains behind

Corsica – Saint-Florent with Cap Corse mountains behind

In fact, my first forays into novel-writing were set not in mainland France, but on the French island of Corsica. From our first visit in 2003, I was smitten. The magnificent, mountainous landscape, distinctive culture and turbulent history are gifts for a novelist. My first two books are set there, and I plan to return to Corsica for future novels.

Coming back to “France continentale”, as the Corsicans call it, I am writing a trilogy set partly in Southwest France, spanning the period from the 1890s to 1945.

The series follows the fortunes of a young woman born to a modest farming family in Aveyron, one of France’s most rural départements (counties). She has ambitions well above her station, and the trilogy chronicles her progress as an opera singer through the momentous events of the 20th century.

The protagonist travels far from her native Aveyron to Paris, Vienna, Italy and New York, among other places, but she retains a deep attachment to her roots. French people are strongly connected to their rural past. This has spawned a genre of novels, Romans du Terroir. They are mostly rustic family sagas, which venerate a lifestyle that disappeared not so very long ago.

Alongside wars and political upheaval, profound social changes took place in French rural society over the 20thcentury. Farmers abandoned the land, attracted by the much shorter working hours and the more regular income the towns offered. The mechanisation of agriculture, although slower to take hold in France than in other countries, also cut a swathe through the rural workforce.

Oxen once used for ploughing

Oxen once used for ploughing

In researching past times, I am fortunate that acquaintances have lived through them. Our very elderly neighbour told us stories of his youth, when they harvested with scythes. Our friend Claude (now in his early seventies) said his parents still ploughed with oxen.

These first-hand accounts have enabled me to incorporate some authentic colour, and I have unashamedly adapted people’s anecdotes for my novels.

Finally, after so many years here, I now speak French well, although not perfectly. Despite years of French at school, I could barely string two words together when we arrived. Intensive language classes put me on the right road.

As well as facilitating conversations with local people, reading French is essential for my writing. This has enabled me to immerse myself in the Romans du Terroir I mentioned earlier and to gain a feel for the spirit of the age. I can also study French history books, consult primary sources and navigate online French archives, which are not always the most user-friendly. Thank goodness for the internet, though, especially in these restricted times!

If travel broadens the mind, living abroad expands one’s horizons.

All images ©Vanessa Couchman


Connect with Vanessa
Website: https://vanessacouchmanwriter.com.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vanessacouchman.author/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Vanessainfrance


Discover Overture, Book 1 of the Alouette Trilogy:

All Marie-Thérèse wants to do is sing, but everything conspires against her dreams.

France, 1897.

Born to a modest farming family, Marie-Thérèse has a remarkable singing voice and wants to become a professional singer. But too many obstacles, including her parents’ opposition, stand in her way. Through no fault of her own, she makes a dangerous enemy of the local landlord.

The family circumstances change suddenly. Marie-Thérèse and her mother must move to Paris to work in her aunt’s restaurant. Her ambitions rekindle, but the road to success is paved with setbacks, until a chance meeting gives her a precious opportunity.

She is close to achieving all her dreams, but the ghosts of the past come back to haunt her and threaten Marie-Thérèse’s life as well as her career.

Overture is the first in a trilogy set in France, starting in 1897 and finishing at the end of the Second World War.

Buy Overture here: http://mybook.to/OvertureBook1


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste the latest contemporary thriller… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Tracey Warr – Writing medieval fiction in southern France

Photo by Sara Perry

Continuing our series about English-speaking writers based in Europe and their ‘terroir’ – the place where they live. How does it affect their writing? This week, it’s Tracey Warr who lives near Albi in southern France.

She has published five novels set in early medieval Europe. Her first novel, Almodis, was shortlisted for the Impress Prize and the Rome Film Festival Book Initiative. Her second novel, The Viking Hostage, recounts the true story of a French noblewoman kidnapped by Vikings.

Tracey’s Conquest trilogy follows the tumultuous life of the medieval Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys in the aftermath of the Norman conquest. The trilogy was supported by a Literature Wales Writer’s Bursary.

Her next project, Three Female Lords, is a biography and has received an Author’s Foundation Award. She is Head of Research at Dartington Trust and teaches on MA Poetics of Imagination at Dartington Arts School.

Over to Tracey!

I was born in north London. Twenty years ago my only child—my daughter—grew up and left home and I resigned from my academic job. What next? A friend was in India for six months and offered me his house in the south of France, near Toulouse.

In October, the cat and I found ourselves in a tiny hamlet in the Tarn Valley. Wifi was good. Mobile coverage was poor. The only heating in the ancient, rickety house was a woodburning stove. I don’t drive and there was no public transport. The nearest shop (so small that a visiting friend thought it was a larder rather than a shop) was a 20-minute walk each way. I set up my desk, took a few last autumn swims in the river, and the cat and I hunkered down for the winter.

I expected to be in splendid isolation for months. I did a YouTube tutorial and got coaching over the phone from my Welsh friend on how to light the woodburning stove. The only local wood delivery man asked: ‘What do you think of Tony Blair?’ My answer passed the test and I woke one morning to the thuds of a few tons of logs being tipped onto the road outside. Moving them into the cave would be a mammoth task. I stepped from the front door, pulling on my gardening gloves, and was amazed to see two neighbours, who I had not said more than hello to, doing the same—automatically coming to help when they heard the sound.

Neighbours became friends, took me on trips to the supermarket, invited me over for Christmas, and my French improved. When I locked myself out one neighbour peered at the ancient lock and made a key. One morning I flung open the shutters and almost knocked another neighbour off a ladder where he was, unasked, pruning the rose and vine rambling round the house. As a city girl, this kindly camaraderie was unexpected.

Brousse-le -Château Photo by Père Igor (Creative Commons)

I went on a trip to Brousse-le-Château, an intact medieval village and, the next day, started researching and writing early medieval fiction based on the lives of real women I came across in an 11th century chronicle.

I fell in love with the pace of village life that gave me focus to write. I delighted in the markets, river landscapes and medieval castles. Swimming in the river and strolling on the bank gongoozling (watching the life of the river go by) complemented time writing and researching.

A year later, still obsessed with the French medieval women I’d discovered, I joined an MA in Creative Writing in Wales to reinforce my new life choice to be a historical fiction writer. Ten years later, I bought a tiny, dilapidated, medieval house on a river in another village near Albi, not far from the first place I had stayed.

Being separated from my family in the UK in COVID times has been hard. Another challenge is that occasionally I must have the British Library. I can get far with online research and buying books, but more obscure sources require ‘proper’ research in a reference library. I make what I think of as a guerrilla raid on the library – a few weeks’ concentrated work that I bring back to my desk like booty.

Almodis de la Marche (left) (Public domain)

My first novel focused on Almodis de La Marche, the real 11th century countess of Toulouse and Barcelona. The monk William of Malmesbury accused Almodis of being afflicted with a Godless female itch, which seemed to me to be a good reason to write about her. Now I am writing her biography.

My writing is inspired by material culture—objects in museums, archaeology, illustrated manuscripts—and by sensory experiences of places.

Living in France, I have easy access to site research. I visited Lusignan near Poitiers in the Aquitaine, the site of Almodis’s first marriage and the Melusine fey story, which may be associated with her. I visited the tiny chapel of Sant Pere del Burgal over the border in the Pyrenees, which has a fresco of Almodis’s sister, Lucia. I undertook writing residencies in the Pyrenees and in the splendid medieval village of Saint-Cirque-Lapopie in the Lot valley.

I belong to a writers’ group where we give each other feedback on works in progress, and cake. I run workshops for other writers’ groups and participate in bilingual literary festivals, including the marvellous Festilitt in Parisot where I met the original Poldark, Robin Ellis, and watched him giving a cookery demonstration and sporting a Sex Pistols apron. I give talks in local libraries and was honoured that my village invited me to join its annual Christmas Salon du Livre.

Writing is a respected occupation in France!


Connect with Tracey
Website: https://traceywarrwriting.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/traceywarrhistoricalwriting
Twitter: https://twitter.com/traceywarr1   @traceywarr1
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16786.Tracey_Warr


In 1121 the Welsh princess, Nest, is unhappily married to the Norman constable of Cardigan Castle. She becomes increasingly embroiled in the Welsh resistance against the Norman occupation of her family lands.

She visits her former lover King Henry in England hoping to secure a life away from her unwanted husband. Grieved and stressed at the death of his son, the King is obsessed with relics and prophecies and under increasing pressure to name his successor.

In Normandy, Sheriff Haith distracts himself from the fact that Nest is married to another man by following clues surrounding the mystery of the drowning of the King’s heir in the wreck of The White Ship.

As Haith tries to piece together fragments of the tragic shipwreck in which three hundred young Norman nobles died in the English Channel, he discovers a chest full of secrets, but will the revelations bring a culprit to light and aid the King? Will the two lovers be united as Nest fights for independence and Haith struggles to protect King Henry?

Buy the paperback   Kindle ebook on Amazon UK

Merci bien, Tracey!


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste the latest contemporary thriller… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Jill Marsh: Swiss inspiration, but not as you know it...

This week, I’m starting a series of English-speaking writers based in Europe and their ‘terroir’ – the place they live in. I’m delighted to welcome back JJ Marsh who shows us how Switzerland runs through her creative mind.

In her own words: As a journalist, teacher, actor, director and cultural trainer, Jill has lived and worked all over Europe. Author of the Beatrice Stubbs Series and two psychological thrillers, she’s now a writer and that is all.

Over to Jill!

“I get all my ideas in Switzerland near the Furka Pass. There is a little town called Gletsch, and two thousand feet up above Gletsch there is a smaller hamlet called Über Gletsch.

I go there on the fourth of August every summer to get my cuckoo clock fixed. While the cuckoo is in the hospital, I wander around and talk to the people in the streets. They are very strange people, and I get my ideas from them.” – Dr Seuss

I’ve never been to Über Gletsch. Nor do I have a cuckoo clock. So how do I find inspiration in Switzerland?

Neil Gaiman talks about the compost of imagination. Writers throw in thoughts, half-baked concepts or raw lines into the fermenting pile. Sometimes, a seed sprouts. That approach appeals to me. It’s more relaxing and organic than my own: a voracious magpie stealing everything sparkly that catches my eye.

Whether in fiction or memoir, I envy writers living in France or Italy. In the reader’s mind, the settings are established, the skyline/food/accent is familiar and the landscape recognisable from a thousand books or films. A cultural shorthand means foreign but not. Ask someone from the US or Australia for some French/Italian references and they’ll gush about locations.

Not so with Switzerland. It’s usually the four Cs: clean, cuckoo clocks, chocolate and cheese. Occasionally they mention The Sound of Music (set in Austria). In a country of contradictions, it’s not surprising people struggle to summon up a typical image. That’s exactly why I wanted set my first book on home turf and chose it as my strapline: More than chocolate and charm.

Overview of Zürich, SwitzerlandTake Zürich. Walk from the banking district towards the lake and through the park. Insurance executives sit on the grass, chatting in various languages, while dog-walkers stroll past the nudist island. Kids splash in and out of the water, observed by their parents at the Badi.

Right opposite La Petite Fleur, the legal brothel, is the Rote Fabrik arts centre. Dope-smokers soak up the sunshine on wooden benches and a drum solo drifts from an upstairs window. Across the water is the Opera House, imperious and dazzling as a wedding cake.

It’s all compost, fertilising the ground where I planted my first idea – a serial killer preying on Fat Cats. My aim was to focus on the small stuff, the quirky details that add up to a big picture. And for a cultural magpie like me, shiny little things are everywhere: James Bond, horsemeat, anarchists, Vaduz and kisses.

Valle Verzasca Dam

Valle Verzasca Dam

One murder victim is thrown from the bungee-jump platform at Valle Verzasca, the same dam Pierce Brosnan descends in Goldeneye.

Except this man’s rope was around his neck.

Balance the dramatic versus the mundane …

A British detective is not only up against a serial killer, but battling her opposite number. He orders lunch and after she has finished, reveals she has eaten horse-steak.

The banking centre versus the subculture encompasses dialectical perspectives …

Even an anarchist needs a day job. Our Interpol sleuth has an assignation in a sex bar, but he’s only paying for information. A left-wing rebel surprises him with a lot more than slogans.

Liechtenstein bank building

A Liechtenstein bank

In his office in the tiny principality of Liechtenstein, an American banker declines an interview with a journalist, concerned she will stitch him up.

As he leaves for a polo match, they come face to face. Surely a pretty young blonde poses no threat?

Sometimes the obvious plays right into your hands …

The Swiss greeting for friends and family is three kisses. Right, left, right. In Germany, it is two.

This difference provided me with the last three lines of Behind Closed Doors.

Switzerland is a patchwork quilt of cultures, languages, scenery and peculiar places. How they fit together still puzzles me. I’ll never stop exploring those seams.

Oh, I bet that’s upset some people’s stereotyped opinions of Switzerland! Brava, Jill!


Connect with Jill
Website: www.beatrice-stubbs.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/JJMarsh1   @jjmarsh1
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jjmarshauthor


Set in Switzerland – the first Beatrice Stubbs novel

Did their conscience get to them? Or did someone else?
An unethical banker suffocates. A diamond dealer slits his wrists. A media magnate freezes in the snow. A disgraced CEO inhales exhaust fumes.

Four unpopular businessmen, four apparent suicides. Until Interpol find the same DNA at each death.

Beatrice Stubbs, on her first case since a personal tragedy, arrives in Switzerland to lead the investigation. But there’s more to Zurich than chocolate and charm.

Potential suspects are everywhere, her Swiss counterpart is hostile and the secretive world of international finance seems beyond the law. Battling impossible odds by day and her own demons at night, Beatrice has never felt so alone.

She isn’t. Someone’s watching.
Someone else who believes in justice.
The poetic kind.

Find out more: https://geni.us/BehindClosdDoors


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste the latest contemporary thriller… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.