City of Ships really began with the mosaics. Classe in Talia is based on Ravenna in Italy, a small city on the Adriatic coast in the north-east. It is famous for the basilica, churches and baptisteries, all covered in marvellous mosaics dating back to the Sixth Century AD.
I?d visited only once before, for a day, in 1995, so was seriously in need of a research trip. This took place in September 2008 and we were bowled over by the mosaics. It?s an art-form I?ve always loved. I used to have a fantasy of becoming a mosaic artist, creating wonderful floors on mythological subjects, but I think it?s too late to do more than create them in my books.
While we were in Ravenna, we also spent a lot of time at cafés in the main square, which became the one where Flavia has her stall and the Ducal Palace flies its flag. When we got back, I knew I needed to find my own mosaicist and the Internet yielded the wonderful Robert Field. We started emailing each other and have formed a mutual admiration society: I now own some of his work and he has read all the Stravaganza sequence and my historical novels. Robert has acted as my ?mosaic consultant? on City of Ships.
One of the things I like about mosaics is that the colours don?t fade, unlike frescoes. If Leonardo da Vinci had created his Last Supper with mosaic tesserae the little ceramic or glass tiles that make up the total picture it would look as fresh today as it did five hundred years ago.
It was some of these tesserae, in a red velvet bag, that make up Isabel?s talisman. These ones are silver, something that wouldn?t happen in our world because silver tarnishes; if you want to achieve a silver effect in a real-world mosaic you have to use white gold, and that was what I bought in Ravenna: a bag of white gold tesserae. (Though the bag was plastic, not red velvet).
Like the other teenage Stravaganti from our world, Isabel is unhappy. She is younger by ten minutes than her twin brother Charlie and he always seems to make a better job of his life than she does. He is popular, good-looking, sporty, clever and musical. And the worst thing is that he is also nice, so she can?t even hate him.
So Isabel concentrates on never drawing attention to herself so that no one will compare her with her brilliant brother. She has friends of her own; one of them is Ayesha, Matt?s girlfriend from City of Secrets. Another is Laura, who will feature in City of Swords.
But in Talia, Isabel (Bel to her friends) meets a whole new range of people, including ?her? Stravagante, the merchant Flavia, Arianna, Duchessa of Bellezza, and her fiancé, Luciano, who mysteriously used to be a student at Bel?s own school. She also meets a pirate and has to overcome her fear of water.
Ah yes, Classe is a city on the coast, and that is where the ships come in. I always knew that the climax of this book would involve a sea battle. What I didn?t realise was how difficult it would be to move ships and people around and work out the strategies of two opposing navies. Here is a picture of my dining table while the Battle of Classe was being devised.
Then again, the book also has to carry forward the stories of Luciano and Arianna and the di Chimici?s desire to learn the magic of stravagation as well as help to resolve Isabel?s problems in her own daily life. Not to mention linking her up with the other Barnsbury Stravaganti. It doesn?t help that Bel?s brother, Charlie, accidentally stravagates to Classe too, and there is a dangerous sequence in the midst of an Elizabethan earthquake . . .
What is the book about this time? Not mosaics and ships and pirates and spies, although they are all in there. This time it is about belonging. It?s a need felt by almost all human beings, to discover a group, whether of family, friends, colleagues or Stravaganti, where they can feel at home and free to be themselves. Once Isabel finds out where she truly belongs, her feelings about being the younger twin change. To find out more, do read Stravaganza: City of Ships.