As a celebration of the pagan spring festival of Beltane, which takes place on 1st or 13th May, depending what calendar you are using, I decided to re-read Mary Stewart's classic romantic suspense, Wildfire at Midnight.
Mary Stewart is cited by many romance authors as one of their early influence and she was certainly one of mine. I can trace a lot of my traits as a writer back to her books - my enjoyment of glamourous settings, an independent heroine, a mystery running alongside the romance. Whenever I read a Mary Stewart I'm struck by how exotic they must have seemed in a grey post war world. Her heroines smoke, drink, drive fast cars and have careers, although there is always a man in the offing and marriage is the ultimate destination. Her locations - the Greek Islands, Vienna, France, the Pyrenees, Damascus must have been total escapism at a time when foreign travel was limited. Several of her books have a supernatural element to them, which adds to the mystery.
Wildfire at Midnight is not quite so exotic, as it is set on the Isle of Skye in the run up to the Coronation in 1953. It has a serial killer and some of the deaths are rather gruesome ritual murders. The thing that struck me most when re-reading it was the detailed description of scenery and wildlife, particularly birds, which are a Stewart characteristic. It's one of the things that a current author would be advised to cut out - we don't have time or attention for lyrical description these days - but in this book the landscape and the weather are an integral part of the plot and it works beautifully. I'm going to stow that thought away for future examination when my love affair with the Riviera wanes and I return to setting books in my native Wales.
Two other characteristics of Mary Stewart are the wonderful titles of her books and her habit of having a hero and anti hero, with the heroine and the reader having difficulty deciding which is which. The titles - often from Shakespeare or other Jacobean drama - are an element I love. Would you get away with those choices these days? Not so sure on that one. Often the publisher decrees the title and fancy dramatic ones are not in vogue. We're more pragmatic these days.
I don't think I would ever use the hero/anti hero device myself, as one of the things I enjoy writing is the developing relationship between hero and heroine, and you don't get that if the heroine doesn't know who he is - does wonders for the suspense element though. Never say never though. If I can find a way to make it work for me, it would be fun to try.
One thing I can say was that re-reading this classic was a very enjoyable experience. It's always good to be in the company of an expert - it reminds you of what excellence is, and what you need to aim for.