Many different things can give me the initial idea for a story – a conversation, a character’s personality, a particular place …
In the case of Holding Back, it was definitely the place. I visited northern Portugal a couple of times a few years ago, and my memories of those holidays stayed with me until I came up with the characters and plot to go with them.
When I eventually came to write the story, luckily I didn’t have to rely solely on memory, as I’d made notes soon after I came back from my visits. I did, however, take advantage of the internet just in case some of the places I mention in the book had altered dramatically. Talking of which … the photos here are from a while ago and the views may have changed a little since, so don’t all write in at once! 🙂
Laura, the heroine of Holding Back, helps out at her friends’ hotel in the Costa Verde region of northern Portugal every summer. Several miles from the town of Viana do Castelo, the hotel is fictitious – of course – but this is how you could imagine it (and yes, that is a younger me in the pic!)
As he stood looking out from the doorway of his room at the perfectly kept lawns stretching down to where the small pool and terrace lay still and quiet, the paths bordered by fruit trees with grapevines clambering overhead to provide a shady tunnel, the rustic stone buildings so pleasing to the eye, he couldn’t be sorry. This was a spectacular setting, and he was already hoping his stay here would ultimately bear fruit.
A trip north to Valença near the Spanish border starts off badly for our couple after an argument, but they’re soon charmed by the wonderful views:
Heading towards the walls of the old fortress town without waiting for him, she scrambled up a nearby slope to gaze out over the surrounding countryside—a calming view of green fields with the darker green of wooded hills in the distance. She watched as a train rumbled across the railway bridge spanning the Minho River. The backdrop of white buildings with red tile roofs was appealing in the bright sunshine. It was peaceful and quiet here, away from the bustle they would find in the town, and Laura flopped down on the grass to take it all in, grateful to be out of the oppressive confines of the car. Daniel kept his distance, wandering along the granite ramparts a little way to look at the view.
As they get to know each other better, Laura begins to realise how much travelling Daniel does for his work and how jaded he has become with it, so she decides to show him something different:
“What on earth are those?” he asked her, dumbfounded.
“They’re called espigueiros. Come on.” She led him nearer to the large outcrop of granite, upon which were built a sizeable huddle of . . . well, he didn’t know what. They looked like rectangular stone sarcophagi on stilts, with wooden doors, narrow slits in the sides, and some had crosses on top.
“Espi-what?” He got closer, trying to work out what they were.
Laura laughed. “They’re grain stores. Nowadays they tend to hold corn more than anything. They were …”
“Bom dia!” An old lady dressed in black hobbled towards them, a large and relatively toothless smile on her face.
“Bom dia!” Laura replied, pointing at the espigueiros and beginning a conversation Daniel couldn’t hope to understand. The old lady spoke at a hundred miles an hour, but Laura kept up, translating for him while the lady patiently waited her turn again. “She says they’re built on pillars to keep the rats out, and they’re made of stone because it doesn’t get damp.” The old woman pointed out the features as she talked on. “The slits in the sides are so narrow to allow air to circulate but not let rats, mice, or birds in. They’ve been here for generations.”
The old woman gestured for them to follow her, leading them between the stone structures to one in particular. She opened the wooden door to show them the heap of corncobs inside.
Who could resist a coffee in the square in the coastal town of Caminha? Certainly not Laura …
“How long have we got?” she asked.
“Longer than we would have if I hadn’t broken the speed limit,” he answered wryly. “Relax. We have half an hour. Enjoy.”
She seemed to take him quite literally. Her shoulders dropped, she half closed her eyes against the sun, and watched people bustling about the square as though it was the best movie in the world.
Daniel tried to follow suit. He could see why she liked it here. A square with cafés, trees, a large stone fountain, whitewashed buildings with stone trim and red tile roofs . . . he could sit here for hours, given half the chance.
And what better place for an evening picnic than high above the town of Viana do Castelo, with the Santa Luzia church behind and a view over the town and waterfront?
They lapsed into a comfortable silence, enjoying the delicious picnic and gazing out over the town beyond the tree-covered hillside. It was getting dark and lights were coming on, giving the view a magical quality. The dark bulk of the Santa Luzia basilica loomed behind them with its huge round windows and dome. Apart from the odd couple out for a walk, there were few people around.
If all this hasn’t tempted you to visit Portugal sometime, I can tell you that the people are friendly, the countryside is beautiful, the architecture is fantastic and the language has a softly hypnotising lilt to it. Northern Portugal is less visited than the area round the capital Lisbon or the popular holidays spots further south in the Algarve – so it’s ideal if you want an authentic taste of the country.
And if you haven’t the time or inclination to travel there despite my trying to tempt you, you can always take a virtual trip with Laura and Daniel 🙂
Holding Back is available from: