Friday 4 October 2019

An Author’s Inspiration: The Basques and the Sea by Amy Maroney #amwriting #HistoricalFiction @wilaroney

An Author’s Inspiration:
 The Basques and the Sea
By Amy Maroney

Not too long ago, I was lucky enough to spend most of a year traveling through Europe with my family. I had brought with me the beginnings of a novel which I affectionately titled The Sunscreen Caper, a pharmaceutical thriller about the evils lurking in the shadowy world of sunscreen manufacturers.

As I was besotted with Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell at the time, the first few chapters were littered with characters shivering in the snow and downing cups of bitter black coffee whilst eating open-faced sandwiches. The only real differences between my story and Henning Mankell’s novels were a) it took place in Boston rather than in some remote Swedish town; and b) it was a lot worse than anything Mankell had ever published.

But I digress. About halfway through that travel adventure I was struck with a bolt of creative lightning that I never saw coming. My experiences in Europe forced me to abandon ship and turn in a completely different direction. (For a full explanation of what happened, read my previous post on this blog.) Now I was obsessed with one thing and one thing only: writing the Miramonde Series, a trio of historical mysteries about a Renaissance-era woman artist and the modern-day scholar on her trail.

As I dove into research, I discovered elements of history that created rich subplots for the trilogy, gave depth to my characters, and helped drive the plot forward. In Book 1, The Girl from Oto, the lucrative trade in Spanish merino wool and the pilgrim’s route of Camino de Santiago created a foundation for the world my characters inhabited—and motivated many of their actions and desires. In Book 2, Mira’s Way, I plumbed more veins of history: first, I layered in a subplot about a mysterious and persecuted people, the Cagots; then, I added twists involving the Toulouse merchants made rich by blue dye extracted from the woad plant. Finally, with Book 3, A Place in the World, I mined the recesses of Basque history and came up with a dizzying array of materials about whaling, the cod fishery, and Basque cultural traditions.

Photograph by Alexander Andrews.

I learned that the Basques have a long history of maritime expertise and exploration. In fact, when other Europeans “discovered” the codfishing grounds off Newfoundland in North America in the early 16th century, the Basques had already been quietly fishing there for a long time. I was thrilled to read about Canadian researcher Selma Huxley Barkham, who discovered a trove of records in Spain documenting the lucrative 16th century Basque whaling industry and then went home to Canada and found the remains of the Basque whaling stations along the Newfoundland coast. Here’s a great interactive graphic by the National Geographic Society that illustrates the Basque whaling industry in the mid-1500s.

Photograph by Tom Sekula.

Along with other sources, such as Mark Kurlansky’s excellent books Cod and A Basque History of the World, I found an excellent history written by French scholars about the city of Bayonne (which features large in A Place in the World). I learned that whalers were required to tithe upon return from the sea by donating the best part of the whale—the tongue—to the Catholic church in Bayonne. And I learned that the Basques were expert whale hunters, with their harpooners launching weapons from sleek chalupas—small oak vessels that were dispatched from the larger whaling ships.

I also discovered fascinating lore about Basques and Basque homes in my research. For example, in Basque tradition, the eldest child inherits the homestead, whether female or male. All the other children must make their own way in the world, like my character Xabi, who becomes a nomadic shepherd. In the book Basque People by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (very hard to find, but a friend loaned me her first edition copy of it), I saw images of Basque family marks or designs that gave me the idea to have my modern-day heroine tracking down such a design during her travels around northwestern Spain.

All of these nuggets of history make their way into the story, with surprising results.

Photograph by Jon Tyson.

When I first started writing the Miramonde Series, I was obsessed with the desire to shine a light on women artists whose stories had never been told. I never dreamed that wool, pilgrim routes, the humble woad plant, the mysterious Cagots, the whaling and codfishing industries, and Basque culture would be the source of so much inspiration, too.

While it’s a shame to let a book titled The Sunscreen Caper go to waste, I can’t say I’m sad that our year of travels derailed my dream of writing a pharmaceutical thriller. In fact, I look forward eagerly to the next bolt of lightning—I’ll be starting research on a new book series soon, so energy is already brewing in the sky, getting ready to zap me with new inspiration.

A Place in the World
(The Miramonde Series, Book 3)
 By Amy Maroney

The secrets of the past are treacherous…and irresistible.

A Renaissance-era female artist and an American scholar. Linked by a centuries-old mystery…

1505: Pregnant and reunited with the love of her life, artist Mira survives a harrowing journey to the city of her dreams. But Bayonne is nothing like she imagined. Navigating a dangerous world ruled by merchants and bishops, she struggles to reignite her painting career. When an old enemy rises from the shadows, Mira’s life is thrown into chaos all over again—and she is faced with a shattering decision.

2016: Scholar Zari seizes the chance to return to Europe as a consultant for an art dealer. Overwhelmed by her job, she has little time to hunt for clues about Mira. But when art experts embrace a theory that Mira’s paintings are the work of a famous man, Zari must act. Racing against time, she travels to a windswept corner of Spain. What she discovers there solves the puzzle of Mira forever—and unlocks the secrets of Zari’s own past.

A thrilling tale of obsession, mystery, and intrigue, this mesmerizing saga will stay with you long after you read the last page.


Autumn, 1506
Lourdes, Béarn

Mira stood in the center of the entry hall, her head throbbing. The clatter of crockery rang out from the kitchens, but the innkeeper was nowhere in sight. Nor were any servants. In fact, the only sign of life was a tawny cat curled on its haunches by the doorway.

She and the cat stared at each other. Its eyes looked remarkably like her own. Gray-green, wide, slanted up at the corners. She took a deep breath, then regretted it. The stale air smelled of tallow and boiled cabbage.

Outside, a rooster crowed.

Mira went to the door and nudged it open, desperate for a distraction from the sour taste in her mouth. The cat slunk past her skirts and padded into the bright morning sunlight. It stopped for a moment, taking the measure of the courtyard, then sauntered toward three chickens pecking at grain near the stables. At its approach, they sidled nervously away.

Wise chickens, Mira thought. You never know what a cat will do.

Two merchants descended the stairs behind her, their boots heavy on the treads. Mira moved into the shadows as they strode through the entry hall and out the door. She had become adept at slipping through the world unnoticed since this journey began. The habit did not come naturally to her. But as a woman traveling alone, her life depended on it.

A Place in the World is available for purchase from Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, and Nook.

Amy Maroney

Amy Maroney lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family. She spent many years as a writer and editor of nonfiction before turning her hand to historical fiction. She’s currently obsessed with pursuing forgotten women artists through the shadows of history. When she’s not diving down research rabbit holes, she enjoys hiking, drawing, dancing, traveling, and reading. She’s the author of the Miramonde Series. To receive a free prequel novella to the series, join Amy’s readers’ group at You can find her on Twitter @wilaroney, on Instagram @amymaroneywrites

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See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx