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December 7, 2018

Fiona Davis: A Sense of Place

Posted by tom

We are kicking off this year’s Holiday Author Blog series with Fiona Davis, the nationally bestselling author of THE DOLLHOUSE and THE ADDRESS. In her latest novel, THE MASTERPIECE, she takes readers into the glamorous lost art school within Grand Central Terminal, where two very different women, 50 years apart, strive to make their mark on a world set against them. Setting plays a key role in Fiona’s books; before determining the plot or developing her characters, she chooses a location (specifically, an iconic New York building) and lets her research guide the story. In this first blog post of the holiday season, Fiona explains how THE SECRET GARDEN (which she received as a Christmas present one year) and The Rookeries (her grandmother’s house in England) have served as inspiration for her work.


My family moved around a lot when I was kid, from Canada to New Jersey to Utah, then back to New Jersey, before finally landing in Texas. You really couldn’t have picked more disparate places, from the mountains of Salt Lake City to the Jersey shore, and I found I never quite fit in anywhere. On top of that, my parents are English, which meant all our relatives were a plane ride away. This sense of discombobulation at times overwhelmed me.

To fill my days, I became a voracious reader, often plucking novels from our bookshelves that were way above my capability. Even though the Jane Austen books were wordy and dense for a 10-year-old, I cheerfully plowed through them, wanting to read anything that my mother loved, while completely missing all the subtle humor and social commentary. Then, one Christmas, she gave me a copy of THE SECRET GARDEN by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

My father had been born in India of English parents, so Mary Lennox’s early years helped me understand what his life had been like. Later, his mother settled in a big house in England, called The Rookeries. It was my brother’s and my favorite place to visit, with a secret stairway in the back, lots of enormous, dark rooms to explore, and perched on the edge of a vast moor. From my bedroom in Salt Lake, I reveled in Mary Lennox’s adventures, as memories of visiting The Rookeries flooded over me. I smelled the scent of rosewater that permeated the bedrooms, and imagined poor Colin tucked away behind dark passageways on the third floor. The house in the book and the one in my memories merged into one, grounding me in a way I’d never felt before.

So it’s no surprise that when I started writing books of my own, I began with the setting. Before the plot is hatched or the characters developed, I choose the location --- whether the Barbizon Hotel for Women or Grand Central Terminal --- and let my research guide the story. I have THE SECRET GARDEN, and The Rookeries, to thank for the inspiration.

Recently, while visiting my parents, that marvelous house was brought up in conversation, and my father wondered if it was still standing. He’s no longer able to travel like he used to, and I could hear the wistfulness in his voice, as the home had been the source of many happy memories. I pulled up Google Maps, curious if I could locate it, and to all our surprise, there it was: smaller than I remembered it, but still handsome, with hefty columns on the front porch and the name of the house in slanted letters on the front gate. We explored the street, zooming in close to the front porch, then way out to the satellite view of the entire property, a virtual visit that cheered my father immensely. It reminded me, once again, of the power of place, just as THE SECRET GARDEN had so many years ago.