I’ll start with a small confession, always a good idea if you want to engage the reader, which obviously I do. When my Editor first suggested I write a new historical sheikh quartet, I wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm. My recent novels had been very much grounded in historically authentic settings and concerned with the impact of contemporary historical issues on my characters. My stories were heroine-centric, and my heroes, seemingly of their own accord, have been migrating down the aristocratic hierarchy at such a rate they have barely a teaspoon of blue blood between them. My writing was, within the context of the genre, becoming more gritty, more real.
The defining characteristic of the sheikh trope, on the other hand, is fantasy and exotic world-creation, and it is all about the hero. The thing is though, sheikh stories are very popular – the two Regency Sheik stories I’ve previously written (Innocent in the Sheikh’s Harem and The Governess and the Sheikh) are my best sellers, and as an author who relies on her writing to pay the bills, that’s not something I could afford (quite literally!) to ignore. And then there’s the fact that historical sheikh romances are rarer than hen’s teeth – so really, in the end, it was a no-brainer, and so the quartet Hot Arabian Nights was born.
But experience has taught me that writing to order is doomed to failure, and writing something that you can’t invest your heart and soul in isn’t just tedious, it’s futile. So I had to come a way of embracing and personalising this series. I had to mould the sheikh trope to fit my creative inclinations, and at the same time incorporate those aspects which I’d come to think of as my trademark – the strong women, the historical issues, the dark emotional conflict.
It wasn’t easy. For a start, I had to dissociate my historical world with the historical reality, the long-term effects of which were being played out in the newspapers every day. My Regency Arabia was going to have to be free of the controversies of religion, imperialism, and world politics which blighted the region then, and unfortunately continue to do so to this day. Which meant, basically, inventing and creating a completely imaginary Arabia. As a writer who invests a great deal of time and effort in setting her books in the ‘real’ world, and making them as authentic as possible, this was actually a pretty tough gig, but I very quickly realised that it was a decision that allowed my imagination to take full flight, and my enthusiasm to soar.
I discovered that I absolutely loved world-creating. My desert kingdoms are sumptuous, exotic, glamorous, richly-textured and sensual. Writing from my home in Argyll, Scotland where, as anyone following my Twitter feed will know, it rains most days, made the desert landscape even more appealing. As the view from my window assumed one of its many shades of grey, I escaped to the sultry heat of the desert, conjuring up a lush oasis or moving one of my favourite silver-sanded beaches from Scotland to the Arabian coast, where the water is balmy and the sun crystallises the sea-salt on your skin. The desert landscape is a character in its own right in each of the books in this series, and it casts its spell on each of my heroines, a completely and utterly alien world to the one they have left behind which beguiles them as much as the men who rule these desert kingdoms.
However, such fairy tale settings need to be counter-balanced by a healthy dose of reality. My desert princes (and one princess) and their heroines had to be confronted with believable and tangible issues. In a sense, the princes were easier to deal with. There are three things that define the essence of a sheikh in romance-land: they are hugely powerful; they have an all-consuming sense of honour; and they are utterly mysterious. Their inner self, the man beneath the abba cloak and keffiyeh headdress is concealed to all but the heroine. I’ve always loved writing dark heroes, but the wielding of power had never attracted me. So how would it be, I thought, if it didn’t appeal to my sheikhs either? As a result, the first two of my Hot Arabian Nightsheroes are very reluctant princes indeed. The third is a victim of his all-powerful position, and in the fourth book I reverse the trope, and my sheikh hero becomes a sheikha heroine.
My other three heroines though, posed me quite a problem. Who were these women, transported to a land where Lady Hester Stanhope was the only real-life historical traveller to visit the region at the time (1815)? Why were they there? Richard Holmes’ brilliant book, The Age of Wonder, inspired the answer to the latter question. Science! A man’s world, an embryonic discipline in the early Nineteenth Century, but one where women could gain a foothold – though very much against the odds. So Julia, the heroine of the first book in the series, The Widow and the Sheikh, is a botanist. Constance, in The Sheikh’s Mail Order Bride is an astronomer. Stephanie, the heroine in the book I’m currently working one, is a veterinarian. And Tahira, my Arabian princess, is a geologist. Women fighting to establish themselves in a male-only domain – exactly my kind of scenario.
Which is all very well, but was it credible to have three English women roaming the Arabian desert on their own? I’ve mentioned Lady Hester Stanhope, who I first encountered researching Innocent in the Sheikh’s Harem. A bit of digging, and I discovered other pioneers: the scandalous Jane Digby, whose fourth husband was a sheikh; Lady Anne Blunt, who came to Arabia in search of bloodstock for her stud farm; the much-travelled diplomat Gertrude Bell; and Isobel Burton, wife of the explorer Richard. Admittedly all were in Arabia later than my heroines, but sometimes you have to take the occasional historical liberty for the sake of a good tale.
Freedom in the form of independence is the goal which links my heroines, and it’s ironic that they have to travel half-way across the world to achieve it. Of course it’s stretching credibility on the one hand, but on the other, as my research proved, there were exceptional 19th century women, unconventional women who did stretch credibility, and I like to think my heroines are capable of similar feats.
But my heroines don’t just, quite literally find themselves in Arabia, they find love too. The desert sings a siren song that allows them to cast off their inhibitions and lose themselves in this sensual world, and in the embrace of the sensual men with irresistible appeal and dark secrets who rule there.
I am thoroughly enjoying writing this series and have picked up some seriously eclectic knowledge along the way, from how to birth a foal suffering from carpal flex (its poor wee hooves bent back) to the location of Perseus in the night sky, and the history of the Royal Horticultural Society. One of my rather bold claims in my promotional material is that I write ‘Regency with a twist.’ I hope I have delivered on this boast, and I hope this glimpse behind the gestation of the series piques your interest enough for you find out for yourself whether I have succeeded.
Hot Arabian Nights
It is the Age of Wonder. Science, in all its disciplines, is blossoming. Four women striving to be recognised in this exclusively male domain, fight to be free of the shackles of convention. But in order to obtain that freedom they have to travel to another, quite alien world. Awaiting them are four unique and fascinating individuals, three Desert Princes and one aristocratic adventurer with two things in common, an all-consuming sense of honour and an irresistible appeal.
The Widow and the Sheikh, Harlequin Historical, April 2016
Rich and successful trader Prince Azhar returns, intending to reject the call to rule his kingdom but finds the situation much more complicated than he imagined it would be. Not least because of beautiful and unconventional widow Julia Trevelyan, a botanist on a sacred quest.
The Sheikh’s Mail Order Bride, Harlequin Historical August 2016
Sheikh Kadar has just inherited his brother’s kingdom and fiancée, when he rescues shipwrecked mail-order bride Constance Montgomery. He offers the keen stargazer sanctuary while they both attempt to reconcile themselves to marriages they don’t want. Could their futures possibly converge in the face of myriad obstacles?
The Harlot and the Sheikh (Current Work In Progress)
Prince Rafiq’s goal of re-establishing his kingdom’s pre-eminence in the world of thoroughbred Arabian bloodstock in order to atone for his terrible crime is threatened by a deadly equine sickness. In desperation he turns to a renowned English horse doctor, whom he did not expect to be an irresistibly attractive woman with a dark secret of her own.
The Archaeologist and the Sheikha
Egyptologist and adventurer Christopher Fordyce has combed Arabia seeking to return an ancient artefact to its true owner. When his travels lead him to the kingdom of Nessarah, he makes his most exciting discovery yet – a jewel of a different kind, his desert princess!
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