Friday, 6 September 2013

A writer's holiday... by Annie Burrows

Novelista Annie Burrows writes historical romance for Harlequin Mills & Boon.  This month she shares how research doesn't stop, even when she's on holiday...

One of the great things about being a writer of historical romance is that it gives me the perfect excuse to visit the many historical sites of England - under the guise of research.
But even when I go abroad on holiday, I can't resist poking around in museums to find out about the history of wherever I am.
This year I went to Madeira, and took a look behind the scenes at Blandy's wine merchants.  Not being in England, there were no scones, but I managed to tempt my husband onto the tour by pointing out we got a tasting session of the various wines at the end.

Our tour guide told us that John Blandy (whose life could serve as an example of how Regency men made their fortunes) was first posted to the island in 1807, as part of the British garrison which was guarding the island from Napoleon.  But there is also a letter to some wine merchants of the day, giving another explanation: 

‘Sirs! At the desire of our particular friend, Richard Fuller Esq., Banker in this City, we beg leave to introduce Mr John Blandy who visits your Island on account of ill health, and wishes to obtain employment in a Counting House. We shall be obliged if you can promote his views, and accordingly recommend him to your attention.’
The letter is dated 23 December 1807

Well, however the company started, Blandy's is now world famous as a producer of Madeira - which is a type of fortified wine.
The island of Madeira started supplying wine to the New World (or the United States as we like to call it nowadays) almost as soon as it was discovered.  But the voyage across the tropics sometimes caused the wine to "cook" in the barrels.  Although early customers complained this had spoiled the wine, and returned it, the suppliers realized that in fact it preserved it.  In its "cooked" state it would keep almost indefinitely.  Our tour guide told us that an opened bottle would last eighteen months.  (Not in our house it didn't!)  It soon became very popular in America, particularly in the hotter states where it was difficult to store wines in the cool conditions most of them require.  Madeira wine was the drink used to toast the Declaration of Independence.  George Washington apparently drank a pint of Madeira at dinner daily.  (Which made me feel less bad about getting through our souvenir bottle in less than a fortnight).
Nowadays the wine is not sent on a long voyage across the tropics to "cook" it.  Instead the process is done in the winery itself.  In fact the day we went round, they were pumping wine from the massive holding casks into the smaller oak barrels where it is naturally heated by the power of the sun.  The air smelled so rich and fruity it was like inhaling Christmas cake.
They've also made some changes to the process of making the wine.  The early growers of grapes used to be scattered all over the island.  They would each have their own press, and would send the juice down the mountainside in goatskins, carried on the backs of farm labourers.
When they set out, each goatskin would hold about 40 litres of juice...but there was often hardly anything like that on arrival as the thirsty labourers would drink it on the way down.
Hence the expression "having a skinful"
Nowadays, growers send grapes down the mountainside to be pressed at a central location.

(Annie's next book to be released in the UK is a short, spicy story in an anthology called "A Scandalous Regency Christmas"  For more details, visit Annie's website )

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Why Pixel is a Four-Letter Word by Louise Marley

When I first decided to self-publish it didn’t actually occur to me I’d have to do everything myself. I soon found out that while I owned the rights to my traditionally published books, I didn’t own the original cover art. I would have to produce my own. I might have a GCSE in art, but there is a reason my entire house is painted in magnolia and that I only ever wear black. But, you know, whatever! How hard can it be to design a book cover?

I soon found out.

The part that took the longest was sourcing the illustrations. The girl on the cover had to look something like my heroine, but not be too cute and certainly not too slutty! She had to appear friendly, but also as though she’s up to no good.

This was my first attempt for Why Do Fools Fall in Love. The original illustration cost me £30. It was on a white background, which was fine, but Amazon stated that any white cover had to have a black border around it, and at that stage I hadn’t a clue how to fix that. I decided to change the background to pale blue which, with hindsight, looks terribly wishy-washy.

A year later and I wanted my covers to appear more similar, like a ‘brand’. I therefore redesigned Why Do Fools Fall in Love and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes to match A Girl’s Best Friend.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was simple. I took three illustrations - a man, a woman and some smoke (see what I did there?) and set them against a black background.

Why Do Fools Fall in Love proved more difficult. I bought a new background illustration because I liked the trees with the fairy lights, but when I added the hero and heroine it looked too ‘busy’. It also had the Eiffel tower in it and my book is set in Bath! So I stripped everything away until I was left with the trees - and then I put back the fence because it looked too bare. And the fence did have little hearts on it, which went with the title. Coloured jeans were in fashion, so I changed my heroine’s to yellow, which I also hoped would make the cover look less Christmassy. One of the tricks I’d picked up since my first effort was to use as few colours as possible, so my hero got a makeover too and ended up in urban black and grey.

I experimented with different background colours and decided on a rather classy dark blue to resemble the evening sky. Unfortunately, once the cover had gone through two software programs the dark-blue turned purple! My computer then crashed three times over the course of a weekend, losing all my work. It was coming up to Christmas and I had a mass of deadlines, so in the end I just muttered something that didn’t sound remotely like ‘whatever’ and hit ‘publish’.

I’ve now designed the covers for most of my books. I could admit it’s because I’m a complete control freak, but do you know what? Despite all the cursing and complaining I actually enjoy doing it!

Book Jacket Photos: Louise Marley
Illustrations: iStockphoto