The Next Big Thing – ‘The House at Zaronza’

Nonza, the inspiration for my novel, clinging to its hillside
Nonza, the inspiration for my novel, clinging to its hillside

Since I wrote this (in 2013), The House at Zaronza has been published by Crooked Cat Publishing, in July 2014 and reissued by Ocelot Press in 2018 with a new cover and editorial amendments. Find out more about it on my writing site.

This post belongs here, rather than on my writing site, owing to its French/Corsican connection. Thanks to Susan Carey (pen name of Angela Williams) for tagging me for The Next Big Thing blog hop. Susan, who lives in Holland, is a talented writer and a fellow member of Writers Abroad. She had a bumper year in 2012 with her short stories and flash fiction, including being shortlisted in the prestigious Fish Publishing Flash Fiction competition out of more than 1,000 entrants. She also writes novels, poetry and articles for the ex-pat community.

What is the working title of your next book?

‘The House at Zaronza’

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It is based on a true story, which we unearthed while on holiday in Corsica last year. The framed love letters on the walls of the B&B where we stayed were obviously quite old. The owners told us they had found them walled up in the attic when they were restoring the house. The local schoolmaster wrote them in the early 1890s to Marie, the daughter of a bourgeois family in the village. The family would have disapproved of their relationship, so they carried it on en cachette and left their notes in a secret letter drop.

Marie had to marry a relative to keep the family possessions together and the schoolmaster eventually left the village. Marie’s husband also left and probably went to Puerto Rico, where there was a large Corsican ex-pat community, while she stayed behind. She lived in the house with a housekeeper who was widowed during World War I and had three children to support.

In the novel the story goes beyond World War I, when Maria (as I name her in the book) becomes a nurse on the Western Front.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s hard to categorise but I’d say it is a combination of romantic (although it doesn’t have a happy ending in the romantic sense) and historical. I’d like to say it was literary but I would just be kidding myself. Anna Karenina it ain’t.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I can’t imagine it ever being adapted for the silver screen. The story is written from the first person point of view of Maria and the screenplay would have to be quite different. But it wouldn’t have Keira Knightley in it.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Maria, a young woman from a Corsican bourgeois family has a clandestine love affair with the village schoolmaster but her family compels her to marry her cousin, condemning her to an unhappy life played out against the backdrop of World War I. 

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m a long way from making that kind of decision. But, given the difficulties of getting an agent, it’s more likely to be self-published, if at all.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I wrote it during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November 2012, so it took 30 days. But sections of it are only sketched out. I am doing more research on certain aspects, such as the organisation of military medical care during World War I.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I can’t recall anything similar but that’s probably just ignorance.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The true story was so compelling that I felt it deserved to be told in fictional format. Naturally, I have embellished it, adding and developing characters and taking the story into World War I and beyond.

We have visited Corsica four times and I am fascinated by Corsican history and culture. I wanted to explore how life must have been for a young woman in a patriarchal society that retained strict codes of behaviour in a changing world. Despite being part of France, Corsica was a world apart.

Up till now I have written short stories and flash fiction. The happy conjunction of unearthing the idea and NaNoWriMo gave me the opportunity to do a much more sustained piece of writing. Without the incentive of NaNo, I would still be on page 1!

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

The fact that it’s mainly set in a landscape and culture that many people might not know much about; it’s close enough to be familiar but far enough to be exotic.

Part of the book is set in military hospitals at the front in World War I, the anniversary of which is coming up in 2014. This is a neglected topic, at least from the French side, and the novel shows the experience of nursing in those conditions. I have consulted contemporary sources to provide colour and credibility.

I would like to tag the following writers to continue the chain. My only contact with them has been virtual but I feel I know them all:

Louise Charles (pen name of Jo Lamb), is founder member of ex-pat online writing group Writers Abroad. Jo is a versatile writer who writes short stories, novels and magazine articles. She published a collection of short stories, Reflections, in 2012 and they have also appeared in magazines and anthologies. Her writing is characterised by keenly-observed emotion, convincing dialogue and appealing characters.

Victoria Corby, a fellow blogger, has lived in France since 1993. She has four published novels to her credit, including Something Stupid, Seven Week Itch and Up To No Good, all published by Headline. As all writers know, writing humour is fiendishly difficult but Victoria’s writing is both stylish and witty. She’ll tell you about her current novel in her Next Big Thing post.

Deborah Lawrenson is a novelist and former journalist. She divides her time between Kent and Provence, where she and her husband have restored a crumbling hamlet. The latest of her six novels, The Lantern (2011), was very well received and has been translated into many languages. Her ability to evoke the sights, smells and sounds of the Provence landscape is unparalleled. Read her blog and you’ll see what I mean.

Copyright © 2013 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


  1. Thanks again for the shout-out, Vanessa and all the very best with the book – looking forward to reading. I have a feeling it will be very good indeed. I’ve managed to post my part up now on the blog.


    • Thanks, Deborah. Writing it in a month is conducive to quantity but not necessarily quality, so there’s still a lot to do. Have looked at your post and your novel sounds fascinating – I hope it does well for you.


    • Thanks, Claire. The real-life story is as good as fiction. I have not yet told the owners of this B&B about what I am doing and would dearly love to go back there to quiz them more about how life in Corsica might have been in the early 20th century. This, of course, is an excellent excuse to get back to my beloved Corsica – as if I needed one!


      • Sounds like a plan to me and it reminds me of one of the settings of my first novel, an Italian village in Liguria, I was living in London at the time I started writing it and decided I must go to this fishing village in order for it to be authentic, so I did – and then returned to it on my honeymoon a couple of years later!

        Definitely recommend that kind of research, gazing at the views, mindfully sipping the wines and tasting the food to give the words that added authenticity! Meeting people who could tell you about the past and even show you pictures would be excellent. Good luck with it.


  2. It’s great to see so many Writers Abroad members involved in The Next Big Thing. I just did my post for it in another thread too. I love the title The House at Zaronza and the idea of a clandestine love affair draws me in right away. You have to finish and publish this novel, Vanessa as I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to read it. Keep in mind the 1914 anniversary date too as that would be the perfect time to release it – not that I’m putting any pressure on you….


    • Thanks, Dianne. I’m glad the title and the plot appeal. The 1914 connection might seem a bit hackneyed – and no doubt we’ll see legions of First World War novels coming out in the next year – but it is only a part of the story. However, I shall shamelessly exploit it when it comes to the point!!


  3. I love the story behind your novel, Vanessa, and am filled with admiration at how quickly you have moved with it, even if there’s still a lot of work. I look forward to reading the finished product (and would like to be included on the sneak preview list!)


    • It was a story just begging to be told. I just hope I will get the cultural and historical stuff right and still have a lot of work to do on that. I had better be careful with this sneak peek (correctly spelt this time) list, otherwise everyone will be on it – an incentive to get on with a decent version!


    • Thanks, Gail. As I said, without NaNo, I would still be floundering (in fact I still am with some parts and must sort them out). Will keep you posted.


  4. I forgot to say that as a nurse, I’ll also be really interested in reading the hospital/nursing part of your book!


    • That’s the part that is causing me the biggest headaches. Not in terms of describing medical treatments/interventions etc, since there’s plenty of stuff available on that and I don’t intend to go into a lot of detail; what’s more difficult is finding out how French military hospitals were organised, how volunteer nursing was organised etc. All the sources are in French and I’ve yet to find one that explains it all simply. But I have found some good memoirs by women who nursed in WWI, which have provided some helpful material.


  5. Okay, Vanessa…you’ve gone public, now you have to finish and polish your novel. I’m anxious to see it in print!


  6. Wonderful post, Vanessa and thanks for your kind words about me! A much needed boost at the moment.
    I love the title of your book and I can well imagine how the letters at the B&B got your imagination going. I would very much like to read it, or excerpts from the piece at some time!


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