The Flavour of the Place

As I often say – it has to be done. Someone has to visit all these glorious and sometimes exotic locations in order to write about them, why not me? But it’s not all lolling about on the sand writing beach scenes into the latest novel, oh no. It can be walking the streets of Bristol in the rain in January (for Last Dance in Havana) or sleeping in a hotel foyer for a quick getaway during an earthquake in Mandalay (for Return to Mandalay). All hard work, but fortunately it has to be done. And this year it was the turn of…

Belle Ile en Mer. I wanted to write about France – I know parts of it very well and many a holiday has been spent touring the West Coast , the South West and the Dordogne in our camper van in years gone by. But I also wanted to write about an island. Small islands have a charm of their own. (I once spent several weeks on the magical island of Elba – not exiled like Napoleon, definitely there of my own accord.)

Islands fascinate me. Is there such a thing as an island mentality, an island person? People travel to islands in order to escape (sometimes). Other times they find islands so insular that they need to get away. Islands encourage strong communities; it’s not easy for an outsider to be accepted and this is one of the ideas I want to explore in my next novel. (Working title: Daughters of Belle-Ile). What happens when you live on an island and something bad happens there? Do you want to cover it up and get away? Will you ever be able to return? Or will your return end up being a journey you have to make in order to resolve other issues in your life?

I’m not going to blog about this new novel any more until I have written it! But I can tell you a bit about Belle Ile en Mer. It’s situated off the southern coast of Brittany and it’s stunning. When you arrive by ferry from Quiberon you come to Le Palais with its impressive old fort and picturesque harbour lined with ice cream parlours, bars and cafés. Hop on a bus to Sauzon; the pretty painted houses and Mediterranean vegetation will make you think you’re in Italy.

There are only four villages on the island, but they all have something interesting to boast of, whether it’s Sarah Bernhard’s famous retreat, an ancient church, the tallest of lighthouses or the prettiest bay on the island. But we only have ten days – and in that time I have some big decisions to make: where are my characters going to live, eat, work and play? Where is all the action going to happen? And I have to find a place where a tragedy might occur… (Fictional tragedy, that is).

There’s no substitute for staying in the place you’re going to write about and finding its flavour. In Sauzon we spotted a man in an orange sou’wester and a pink bowler hat sitting in the harbour eating oysters. (It could never go into the book if it hadn’t actually happened.) When you visit a place you can explore it; you will make startling discoveries, find material and layers for your story. In the place you are writing about you can breathe in the saltiness of the air and feel the breeze against your skin. You can smell the food cooking in people’s houses and you can touch the texture of the stone on the quayside. You can hear the dull clang of the church bell and the birdsong in the trees, see the harbour master, the fishermen and the oyster catchers, and sample the goods that you find in the local markets. I hope that the flavours of Belle Ile will eventually be part of the tapestry of the book and sewn within the characters who live there.

It’s early days. But I have a full notebook and 600 photographs. It’s time for the real work to begin…

© Rosanna Ley
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