Mary Ann Shaffer Makes Potato Peel Pie delicious!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Slipping gently into the enchanting story world of “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”, I’m falling under the spell of authors Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. The story is told through a series of letters written and received by post-war British author Juliet Ashton, who is searching for a new book idea. After receiving a letter from a Guernsey resident who found her name written in a book, Juliet falls into correspondence with a growing number of Guernsey residents. As the authors reveal their story world and characters layer by layer, I am falling under their spell. How delightful to fall in story-love layer by gentle layer, a subtle treasure in a world of fast-immersion fiction.

Paperback available at Amazon Books The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Random House Reader’s Circle)

Kindle Edition The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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Heroism, romance, and good writing – Nevil Shute

A Town Like AliceA Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nevil Shute is one of my favorite authors, and A Town Like Alice is my favorite of his novels. A twentieth-century British author, Shute is probably best known for On the Beach, which became a major motion picture staring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in 1959 . I read Shute as a teen, then again as a young woman, and … again and again. Although Shute himself was quite modest as an author, his books have lived on and have been republished many times after his death in 1960. Most of his books are available in new editions, and also as eBooks.

A Town Like Alice, also published as The Legacy is one of the few Shute books based on a true story. The heroine is taken prisoner by the Japanese in World War II, and because there is no available prison camp for women in the area, she is marched with a group of women and children from town to town in Malaya. This story is filled with adventure, romance, and typical of Nevil Shute, the heroism of ordinary people. The story timeline is focused on the post-war years in England and Australia, with well integrated and suspenseful flashbacks to the war experiences of hero and heroine.

A masterful book by a master, and one I’ve read at least ten times over the years. If you haven’t read Nevil Shute, give him a try!

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Christmas wishes

Wherever you are...

My 2010 has flown by at the speed of light, with changes, excitement, confusion,  and a dizzying amount of multitasking. Through it all I’ve been working on the first book of a continuing character mystery series, which I’d planned to write under a pseudonym I used some years ago to write the adventure novel A Man’s Reach. My last big decision of 2010 is to shut down Val Cameron and bring the lonely girl home as Vanessa Grant. Early in 2011, you’ll see an announcement about the adventure novel A Man’s Reach, which is being reissued under the Vanessa Grant name.

The bonus about retiring Val Cameron is, I don’t need to decide if the Down a Dark Road story I’m writing for PenWarriors.com is a Vanessa Grant or a Val Cameron work – the fact that the boundaries between Val and Vanessa were blurring is one of the main reasons for retiring Val.

But now it’s time to focus on home, family (including a grandchild who will celebrate his first Christmas!), and celebrating those I love. I wish you all a warm Christmas with loved ones, and a New Year in which you stride forward on  the path to your most treasured dreams.  Can you believe 2011 is almost here? With Arthur C Clark’s 2001 and 2010 space odyssey years gone, I’m not sure I can count this high.

Wherever you are, it’s likely that the food banks are struggling this year, as they are here where I live. Many grocery store checkouts take donations for local food banks and a little help means a lot when people are wondering where the next meal comes from. It’s only one way to give. There are many. If we can all lend a helping hand, we can make a difference.

Vanessa Grant

Hooked on J. R. Ward’s Brotherhood series

Dark Lover (Black Dagger Brotherhood, #1)TDark Lover by J.R. Ward

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’d been resisting Dark Lover for months before I read it in 2006. I had read several of Anne Rice’s vampire novels a few years earlier and decided it wasn’t a genre I had any further interest in. So when one of my writer friends announced that she’d just read a great vampire book by J R Ward, I didn’t follow up. Then it became two writers, then three, and suddenly lunches with my three closest writer friends were filled with excited references to JR Ward’s “Brotherhood” of vampire warriors. Three very different writers, two of whom I wouldn’t have thought would be interested in vampires unless they moved into the house next door. These women had very different reading tastes, yet all three were all in awe of what JR Ward had done in this book.

So I borrowed Dark Lover and became fascinated by the power of its author. Dark Lover hooked me on page one, drawing me into a dark romantic fantasy with powerful characters. As an author I’m fascinated by the way Ward can take dark characters I would run from in real life and grab me by the gut. Many of the mysteries and thrillers I like have a dark twist, but Ward mixes the darkness with romance in a heroic way that instantly put her at the top of my to-be-read list.

I couldn’t put Dark Lover down until I found out what happened to Wrath, the blind king of the vampires and head of a brotherhood of warriors; to Beth, the dissatisfied reporter who has no idea she’s the daughter of the vampire Darius and about to turn into a vampire herself; and Butch, the violent cop I didn’t want to like.

J R Ward is an author who breaks all the rules – or what seem to be the rules – and does it so well, with characters so alive and vital that they sweep me into her world and make me love it. Generally I’m not a big fan of vampire books, but JR Ward’s Brotherhood is something else. Hats off to a powerful writer who created an irresistible book that propelled me out looking for book 2, which luckily had already been published!

If you haven’t read any of J. R. Ward’s books, give Dark Lover a try.  If you become a Brotherhood fan like I did, there are seven more Brotherhood books waiting for you, and the ninth, Lover Unleashed, comes out in March 2011.

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Finding treasure in Jack Reacher

Recently EC Sheedy suggested I try Lee Child’s Jack Reacher mystery series. Any recommendation from EC is gold, so I went looking for Jack Reacher and I found fictional gold.

Years ago I began writing my own stories because I love great characters and I’d exhausted the local library’s ability to satisfy my hunger for a good story. But like every writer I know, I treasure the experience of falling in love with a new-to-me author as I’m drawn into the life of an amazing character.

Lee Child’s Killing Floor (Jack Reacher, No. 1) opens with the mysterious Reacher handling his own bewildering arrest with the calmness of a master-strategist. The story quickly mushrooms onto a big-canvas with fast-moving events that don’t let up, yet the pace is breathlessly relaxed because both Reacher and his creator know exactly what they’re doing.

Lee Child has created a brilliant character in Jack Reacher. He gave his protagonist a respectable high-profile military background that taught him all the skills a tough hero needs, gave him the motivation to be a rambling loner, then set him up in Book One of the series as a detective character I can’t wait to read again. The plot is brilliant, the characters well-motivated and fascinating. Reacher’s personal motivation drives the story and kept me hooked throughout. I guessed a couple of the key pieces of the bad guys scenario along the way, which stroked my ego nicely, but I had lots of surprises as Reacher followed the twists of a master villain’s plot, rescuing the innocent and devastating the guilty.

My hat is off to Lee Child for creating one of the best “first episodes” of a continuing character mystery I’ve read in a long time! The author’s skill and the connection I felt to Reacher reminds me of Lawrence Block’s masterful Matt Scudder mysteries.

I just had a birthday the other day and I feel like I’ve been given a rare birthday present. I’ve fallen in love with an author’s detective character, and there are still fourteen published Reacher novels I haven’t read yet!

From one writer to another – Thank you, Lee Child.

This posting is also available on the Pen Warriors Blog

Multi-Level Excellence – Revising with James Scott Bell

I attended James Scott Bell’s “Multi Level Excellence” workshop at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference on October 24, 2010.

James (JSB) is an excellent presenter, and offered  writing advice I found practical and sometimes exciting. At a workshop the previous day, JSB had mentioned Jack Bickham and Dwight Swain, two of my favorite authors writing about writing. I found JSB’s ideas consistent with Bickham’s and Swain’s, with some interesting new tactics. His system for revising to achieve multi-level excellence is very thorough, and I’m planning to use it once I finish my current draft.

The following are my notes about the lecture. Any inaccuracies are mine. Parentheses are my own comments/thoughts.

JSB’s rules for writing and revising:

When Writing

  • Write hot
  • Push limits
  • Don’t revise

When Revising

  • Revise cool

Q: How much should you revise as you write?

JSB: Revise only previous day’s writing

When writing, JSB also uses a “20,000 word step-back.” He pauses, fixes major things, maybe raises stakes for protagonist, then goes ahead

He suggests a rolling outline for people who don’t write a complete outline before the first draft. He describes these writers as usually knowing the ultimate destination but being able only to see the details as far as the headlights (of a car on a journey. This is definitely the kind of writer I am. I need my characters to show me the details of the story, so don’t outline. James’ rolling outline is very close to what I tend to do while writing my first draft, a system of driving up to where the headlights showed the road, then being able to see more. James suggests outlining what you can see – maybe 3 chapters ahead – then writing the next stage of the outline.

Revising strategy after finishing the first draft:

  1. Cool off. Put first draft away for at least 2 weeks. Work on something else.
  2. JSB prints out hard copy after the rest, suggests e-fans  put it on Kindle, it’s up to you.
  3. JSB prepares a cover for his book for a real book experience. Give yourself a new blurb.  Sol Stein suggests putting the name of an author you love up there, to make it seem real and important.
  4. Read your draft like a reader.  Resist temptation to make copious notes or revise as you read (this has always been very difficult for me to do, I itch to fix what’s wrong right away)
  5. Mark up the manuscript. JSB uses check mark for sections where story drags. Parentheses around incomprehensible sentences, metaphors, or similes that don’t work well. Circle when material needs to be added or expanded. Some writers are putter-inners who write lean first drafts and add content in later drafts, some are taker-outers who write copious first drafts – they might want to use the circle for things to take out. Use ??? for sections that don’t make sense (For WTF)

Now come the questions that determine what needs to be done in the revision process (and JSB’s revision process is extensive and deep)

  1. Does the story make sense, do characters act like real people? Do actions make sense? Are they doing stupid things?
  2. At every significant juncture in the story, look at situation from every viewpoint character’s point of view (POV), and ask are they doing the thing they believe is best for their agenda at that point? (Every character has an personal agenda for each scene they are in)
  3. Are there any coincidences that help your lead character?  Coincidences that hurt the lead are OK, but the reader wants lead character to solve his or her own problems without benefit of coincidences.
  4. Are the stakes high enough? Is physical, professional or psychological death threatening at every stage? (JSB deals with this concept of the need for death of some sort to threaten the character in a powerful novel in his writing books, which are published by Writers Digest Press
  5. Is there a way societal stakes can be involved? In High Noon, gunplay could cause town to “die” and there is pressure on the lead character to avoid a howdown.  If there is something like that which can be put into the story under revision, great!
  6. Do the main characters “jump off” the page?  You have to do something to make your characters different. You can use old plots but a modern writer needs to dress old ideas up in the author’s own clothes. It must be the characters that make it fresh.(Listening to this, I thought of the way that the Sherlock Holmes story has been made fresh in two modern series that took their inspiration from the sherlock character: House MD took Sherlock’s personality and characteristics and applied them to a medical setting; in the New Sherlock Holmes series, Sherlock is placed in modern times and given a complex and intriguing Dr. Watson with a dark past.)No wimps, active characters only. Characters need to believe passionately about something. Think about your characters in off stage scenes. What are they doing, thinking? Use a free form journal getting your subconscious mind going on your characters.  Get these unique character elements into your opening pages. Go to the author’s dark place, inner conflict is one of the great keys. (I’ve often written my characters’ journals and pivotal scenes from their backgrounds. These don’t get into the book, but they help bring the character to life in my mind.)
  7. Where is there no conflict, no fear/worry/tension in lead characters? Take those scenes out, or fix them
  8. Is there enough of a worry factor? Where could an editor put the book aside and not care what happens? Cut out what’s weak, or “bring in a guy with a gun” – some immediate threat to raise those stakes of death.

Once you’ve analyzed the required revisions in the above steps, write a 2000-3000 word summary of your novel as you will reshape it. Keep working on this summary, writing it over and over again for a couple of weeks, until you are happy with it.

Then do next draft according to new summary.

When writing the second draft, watch out for:

  • Weak opposition. Does the lead character’s opposition have the power to (kill the lead, crush lead’s spirit, or crush lead’s professional life?) The opposition should be stronger than the lead to work well.
  • Slow openings
  • Happy people, happy opening. Book should begin with a ripple of disturbance.
  • Too much backstory. Readers will wait a long time to understand backstory if they see a disturbance happening, but have little patience with backstory before they’ve bonded to the character. JSB advocates marbling in backstory. Dean Koontz and Steven King do this very well in their early books.
  • Don’t open with the weather or dreams before you get to a character.  Editors don’t like it. Don’t open with the character acting alone, experiencing solitary feelings. (I thought of Bickham’s stimulus and response here – the reader needs to see the stimulus that causes character to feel emotions before the reader can understand – or care about – that response) JSB wants to see a character doing something. One test – is dialogue possible in this scene? Well done dialogue elevates first chapter.
  • Have you tried throwing out chapter 1 or even chapter 2? Try it and see if you get a better start, and action closer to the beginning.
  • If you write in first person you have to have a voice, have to have attitude.

About scenes and dialogue:

  • Elmore Leonard – cut out the parts that people skip.
  • Description – try to have a tonal feel to the description, or cut it out.
  • Start deeper. Can you start your scene further in? Every scene has a hot spot, the reason you are writing the scene. Can you begin your scene closer to that hot spot?
  • Action or reaction – the action scene shows viewpoint person trying to get something. Reaction is what follows – feel emotion, then analyze, make decision to take further action. (If you’re a Bickham fan as I am, think Scene and Sequel). The reaction can be marbled into the action scene.
  • Concentrate on understanding what your characters want in every scene. Is there a character in each scene that wants something and is being opposed? (I would add to this, do you understand what the agenda is for every character present in the scene? Years ago Elizabeth George’s statement that “every character present in a scene starts with his/her own agenda” was a big AHA! moment for me)
  • If characters aren’t worried, readers won’t be worried either (and readers want to worry about what will happen to characters)
  • Action-emotion mirror: a scene with a sense of great impending doom should have lots of emotion. Emotion should be consistent with the nature of the action.  Intensity of scene shows characters’ emotion and elevates the quality of the manuscript.
  • Dialog is an extension of action. Talk is an action because (when) the character wants or is resisting something.
  • There should be tension or conflict in dialogue even among allies, friends. Great dialog begins with orchestration. Are characters distinct enough to sound different and to gave tension between them?
  • In each act, JSB wants at least 1 memorable line of dialogue through “curving the language”. (I love his concept of curving the language, taking an ordinary line of dialogue and giving it a curve, a modern metaphor, an attitude. This was a great idea and I wish I could remember any of the examples he gave. If anyone reading this attended the workshop, maybe you can add examples. I couldn’t find it in the index of his book “Revision and Self-Editing” but I expect I’ll see examples in there when I read the book.)
  • Don’t forget to use silence as a response sometimes in dialogue.

Theme – (This is a big one and I believe its very important. As I listened to JSB talking about theme, I found it nicely complemented what Anne Perry had said in her workshop earlier in the day about the “the driving idea behind your story”. I’ll be putting up my Anne Perry notes in the next few days on this blog.)

Try to home in on your theme by the end of your revisions (Anne Perry recommends nailing down your theme or driving idea by the end of the first draft, and ideally earlier. In my experience, the earlier I can nail down my theme, the easier it is to write the book. The book I’m working on right now is about 50% done in rough draft. I thought I had a clear idea of theme, but I realize after listening to JSB and Anne Perry’s workshops that I want to go deeper. I’ll be doing this right away, before going on with the rough draft.)

JSB’s strategy: Imagine your lead character 20 years after the time of your story. Some asks the character why they had to go through “all that” – the challenges and events in your novel. What is the lesson your character would say she/he learned? Write what your character would answer, then go back and try to find a place where that character can make an argument against learning that lesson early in the story. (This was a great suggestion for me. I immediately realized that the very thing that my character wants to achieve is wonderfully tied to the lesson she’s going to need to learn. My character won’t thank me, but it’s made my story deeper, and therefore better.)

Once the second draft is complete, it’s time to polish the writing:

Polish, concentrate on

  • Scene openings and endings, maybe turn events around. Go through all chapter endings and try cutting last couple of paragraphs. Is it better now?
  • Compress dialogue. Look to cut whole lines, action beats, cut individual words in dialogue. Dial up or down 25%. Dial overwritten emotion down, dial intensity up.
  • As a writer, meet the needs of your manuscript. The more craft you know, the better. Rewriting, you become a better writer.

JSB played a final film clip of “The Hustler” with Paul Newman, the scene where the heroine and he picnic and Paul talks about being called a “loser”. It’s a great scene with wonderful character revelation and development. I’m going to rent the movie to watch it again!

This was a great workshop from James Scott Bell. I left the conference with 3 of his writing books from the Chapters bookstore: Plot and Structure, Revision & Self-Editing, and The Art of War for Writers. I’m going to enjoy poking through these books over the weeks to come, and I suspect they’ll earn a place in my library right beside Bickham’s .

Vanessa

Successful Social Media – without zombies

Here are my  (very) rough notes from today’s “Succeeding with Social Media” panel at the Surrey International Writers’Conference” (#siwc2010)

Panelists: Sean Cranberry (http://booksontheradio.ca), k c dyer on the computer (kcdyer.com), Arthur Slade (http://arthurslade.com), James McCann (http://jamesmccan.info)

Sean Cranberry – booksontheradio.ca. Blogs once or twice a week, with a picture. Tries to keep it consistent. Get items out there. Google loves fresh links.

Booksontheradio.ca domain forwards to booksontheradio.wordpress.com. Sean likes WordPress because it is very versatile and is continually being updated.

Arthur Slade arthurslade.com is a friend fiend on Facebook, where he maintains both his personal Facebook page, and a fan page that can be accessed by people who don’t have Facebook. Slade describes himself as a late adopter of Twitter, and says within 2-3 months of getting on Twitter he realized  its value in building community.

James McCan blogs at at jamesmccan.info. He was on Google blogger  but wanted more control so now has his own blog using WordPress. He also has a podcast series “authors like us” on his website. He says audio has become a new blogging form – people listen on subway, over lunch, etc. James uses Mac’s Garage Band to edit audio files. Other panel members use Audacity or garage band. James does 20- 30 minute podcasts. Listen to authorslikeus.

Podcast – audio broadcast on internet.

Arthur Slade podcasts, not consistently, but because the podcast stays on his website and visitors can listen any time, people are still listening. He has 16 podcasts and presently gets 2000 listeners a month.  Hasn’t added any recently but keeps getting listeners coming back. Good community-building.

Sean Cranberry finds people really love audio – 20 to 30 min -podcasts.  Discussion about ideal length of audio podcasts vs video. Video of more than 2-3 minutes less likely to get lots of listeners., but audio 20 min+ very popular.

Discussion of using RSS feeds to track podcasts. Can use feed aggregators like google reader to be sure you don’t miss podcasts from people you follow.

Podcasts are promotion, do for free. James gets 3000 listeners a month. That’s amazing.

One of the panelists mentioned that having the word Zombie in a blog title got him massive hits – probably not a marketing tip that will work for all writers, but I put the word in the title of this blog as a test.

Having blog on your site keeps site fresh on Google.

Arthur does school author visits and Skype author visits. Dabble board. Arthur charges appearance fees for schools. With Skype, he also bills the schools.

James does school appearances, usually about $300 an hour.
Podcasts are promotion, do for free.

Arthur – payoff of online community is readers.
Sean – building credibility, community, an audience.

Discussion of advantage of Mac vs windows – Sean switched to Mac because of it “not breaking down” like Windows. Interestingly all panelists were Mac users.  Great for memory intensive Programs, said Sean. (I found this particularly interesting because after 20 years using PCs, I’ve just bought a MacBook Pro so that I can use the program Scrivener for my writing)

Question – how do youget people to follow you. Arthur: Follow them, then ask people to be friend. Be in different groups, like scribechat. All get on and talk about a topic for an hour.

Sean – you need a blog. Put up your ideas, could be 100 words and image. Get on twitterworld and say “Hey, here’s my blog. Then same thing with facebook. Follow people you want to follow you. When you see them tweet interesting stuff, retweet it.

Hashtags # – the coat hanger of Internet in Twitter. For example #siwc2010.  Create a hash tag and start using it to allow others to quickly find and comment on a topical discussion.

What is a tweet up – group on Twitter  using the same hash tag (do tweetup people all tweet at once? I wasn’t clear. Maybe someone can reply to this and explain how a tweetup works.)

Tumbler, hot new blog site. Very short, propels many readers, sells books

How to reduce time doing this stuff! (that’s what I want to know. I enjoy blogging, tweeting, and just talking, but this stuff can use up a massive amount of time!)

Arthur – use tweetdeck or grizzly to post on all platforms at once.  To avoid having social media eat into writing time, Arthur uses his iPad for social media in front of TV, tries not to use writing time or same computer for social media

James – Facebook maniac. No privacy on Facebook. Facebook fan page gives writer more control. Also visitors can access facebook fan page without being part of facebook, owner can ban people, won’t get notifications of every visitor, but can get stats. You can also use targeted advertising on a Facebook fan page.

Arthur – Facebook is totally promotion.

Sean – where to begin social networking as a writer:  Blog. Use wordpress. Get a URL that embodies your content.

Q: Who do you put on your blogroll?
A: Places you think are really influential.
A: several authors in audience and some panelists said they don’t have a blogroll.

URL shortener – takes link thru bottleneck.

Sean uses creativecommons.com concepts for his website. Series of licenses you can agree to share alike, give attributions and link back.

Q: should a writer buy a URL for each book?
A: Arthur buys URL for a series, not for each book. Sean – no.
James doesn’t buy separate URL for book. Might do, it’s an idea for future.

Speakers final tips

Arthur – web is a community.  Remember you’re building a community, not a sell line. Read “Power friending” by Amber Mac who writes for the Globe and Mail.

James – don’t post anything you don’t want mom reading.

Sean – you have the imagination and will, you can figure out technology. Facebook and Twitter love cool photos of things Sean is doing. Craft your personality, invent a persona.

Q: how long do you spend on Internet daily?
A: Arthur – during intense work on book, no time; otherwise 1 to 1.5 hours a day
A: Sean, probably 8 hours a day, but not writing a book right now.

Sean final thought – social media best used when you can meet these people in person.

These are my rough, random notes taken during the session, but this session is being podcast, so check at Sean’s website booksontheair.com or follow #siwc2010 on Twitter for a link to the podcast.

Have a good day
Vanessa

About writing Stray Lady

Stray LadyI got the idea for Stray Lady while I was writing my fifth romance novel,  Jenny’s Turn. I needed someone to shake Jenny out of her hopeless love for Jake, and get her far enough away for Jake to realize how much she meant to him. I reached for inspiration and Jenny’s phone rang. When she picked it up, there was her cousin George. Like Jake – the hero of Jenny’s Turn – I didn’t realize at first that George was a woman.

George and her guitar caused me quite a bit of trouble while I was writing Stray Lady. Here’s a woman sailing around the world and afraid to stop because she’s running from her grief. George’s story unfolded for me as I wrote Jenny’s Turn and I had to take a firm hand with this restless woman to stop her from taking over her cousin’s romance.

“Just step back,” I told George firmly. “This is Jenny’s story, not yours. I’ll do you next, I promise.”

Once Jenny’s Turn was shipped off to my publisher, I was finally free to let George loose, but as soon as I put her on the page of her own romance, she started causing trouble for me again. How on earth could I get George to stay in one place long enough to fall in love?

I hope readers enjoy  Stray Lady as much as I enjoyed writing it.”

Vanessa Grant

Synopsis of Stray Lady

Shipwreck …

One minute George was sailing single-handed down Canada’s west coast, willing the salt breezes to show her how to go on living without her late husband.

… and rescue

The next she was being pulled from the waves by island lighthouse keeper Lyle Stevens and drawn into a magic existence with Lyle and his daughter. Lyle offered George love and the home she’d never known – but did she have the courage to gamble on love again?

This novel is available in a variety of eBook formats

 

About writing Dance of Seduction

Ricardo Swan had vowed never to fall victim to irrational passion, but when he saw La Gitana dancing in a Merida night club, the primitive needs he denied were stirred. But although La Gitana was Mexico’s most popular singer and folk dancer, known for the passion of her dance, inside she was frozen. Could Ricardo get past her guardian brothers and her own defenses to find the secret of her heart?

Authors note: “I wrote this book shortly after returning home from an extended 2-year visit to Mexico. The story grew out of my fascination with the strong family values of the Mexican people, and my interest in the romance of flamenco and the mysteries of archeology. I started playing with these and Maria and Ricardo came to life in my imagination. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it :)”

Originally published in hardcover by Mills and Boon Limited.

Now available as an ebook through a variety of online retailers.