Well, hello! 😊 After a looooong hiatus, I’ve decided to start blogging again. And with the release of the new book in my Oxford Tearoom Mysteries (“Wrongfully Infused“, which is Book 11 – can you believe it? It seems like only yesterday that I was still working on the first draft of Book 1!) – I thought this might be a good time to share some fun trivia about the series, which even hardcore fans might not know…
So without further ado, here are some things that might surprise you about the Oxford Tearoom Mysteries:
1) The Oxford Tearoom Mysteries take place in a parallel universe Oxford… sort of.
One of the questions I often get asked by fans is: “Are the Oxford colleges and other places mentioned in the books real? Can I visit them?”
The answer is: it depends. If a college features in the story in a potentially negative way (eg. a character from the college is a murder suspect or a victim), then it is usually fictional (although it might be heavily based on a real-life one! 😉 – those familiar with Oxford might be able to guess which!) The reason for this is to avoid libel and also because it gives more creative freedom in writing, so you don’t have to worry about objections that “such-and-such” could never happen, due to real-life limitations in that college. It is also a convention established in many other books/TV series set in Oxford, such as the Inspector Morse series, which usually feature fictional colleges.
However, in my books, any college mentioned as background interest or as a point of reference will be real. So, for example, in the latest book, Wrongfully Infused, Pendlebury College, where one of the murder suspects is enrolled as a student, is fictional, but Trinity College and Balliol College, which are mentioned in passing, are real.
I follow the same rule for other places mentioned in the books. If a shop, pub or art gallery has potentially negative associations in the story, it will probably be fictional. However, certain famous landmarks in Oxford, such as the Bodleian Library, the Sheldonian Theatre, the Covered Market and the Botanic Gardens can’t be changed (otherwise it would be like Paris without an “Eiffel Tower”) so they will always be real.
(Photos from my research trip back to Oxford in 2016)
The village of Meadowford-on-Smythe, where Gemma’s tearoom is situated, is entirely fictional (and in fact, there’s a bit of creative licence with the geography – see below!) – however, it is inspired by several real-life Cotswolds villages that I visited during my time living in Oxford. In particular, there is a quaint village called Burford with a very famous tearoom called Huffkins Bakery & Tea Rooms, that’s well worth visiting if you’re ever in the area!
When I’m writing, I like mixing in real institutions and places as much as I can, since it gives a more authentic feel to the stories and it does mean that you can visit some of the places mentioned in the books! 😊
2) Seth and Lincoln are the same person! In a way 😉
Another question I often get asked is if any of the characters are based on real people. Well, you’ll find that most authors never base characters wholesale on a real person, mainly because it would be too limiting! You might want someone who looks like your brother-in-law but talks like your old boss and has a nervous tic like the cashier you met at the supermarket, plus spoils their cat rotten like your eccentric neighbour. So characters are usually a patchwork of different people that an author has met in their real life, smooshed together and tweaked to suit the needs of the story.
However, I can reveal that several characters in my Oxford Tearoom Mysteries were deliberately named after real people. Perhaps the most well-known is Devlin O’Connor, CID detective and the heroine Gemma’s old college flame. Devlin is named in honour of my high school English teacher, Frank Devlin, who was one of the first to encourage me to follow my dreams as a writer.
In addition, there are 2 characters whose names were inspired by a character in my favourite TV show of all time, a sci-fi show called Fringe. In that show, there is a character called Lincoln Lee, who is played by an American actor called Seth Gabel. The character of Lincoln Lee is a shy, reserved, bookish type who is a really “nice guy” (well, one version of him, anyway; Fringe is about fringe science and parallel universes, so there are alternate versions of each character! 😉).
And so when I was creating the characters of (1) Gemma’s shy and nerdy best friend, and (2) the “nice guy” potential love interest and rival to the brooding Devlin O’Connor… I decided Seth and Lincoln respectively fit perfectly for the images I had in my mind.
3) Muesli is a fake!
Perhaps the most famous character in the series, who is named after a real-life counterpart, is the feline star of the books. The naughty kitty in the stories is named after my own cat, Muesli, but I have to admit, the real Muesli is the total opposite in habits and personality!
Unlike the fictional Muesli, who is bold and cheeky, adventurous and friendly with strangers, the real Muesli is a bit of a “scaredy-cat”. She runs and hides whenever strangers come to the house (she especially hates workmen with big, clompy boots!) and is quite a nervous, timid cat in general: she startles easily, hates machines that make loud noises and is very wary whenever anything changes in her environment. She also hates going anywhere new and will try to burrow under things to hide away… nothing like the fictional Muesli who happily stows away and explores strange places with gusto.
However, the real Muesli is very affectionate, playful and confident, (even demanding!), when she is alone with us at home – it’s almost as if she changes into a different cat when she sees strangers! – so I suppose she does have that side to her personality and that’s the side that I feature more in the stories. (I can tell you that the exasperation Gemma feels when dealing with the naughty antics of her cat are definitely based on personal experience! 😉)
4) Oxfordshire Police & CID unit does not exist
The police force that covers the Oxfordshire region is actually called the Thames Valley Police. However, similar to the reasons for choosing fictional college names above, I decided to use the non-existent “Oxfordshire Police” just to avoid complications! There is a police station in Oxford, though, at the bottom of St Aldates, just like it’s described in the stories.
5) There’s a bit of creative licence with the geography in the stories! 😉
The Little Stables tearoom is located in Meadowford-on-Smythe, an archetypal Cotswolds village filled with quaint cobbled lanes and thatched-roof cottages, and a view of the famous “rolling hills” in the surrounding countryside. Gemma is often described as cycling from Oxford to her tearoom in about twenty minutes. This is stretching the truth a bit!
Although part of the Cotswolds is found within the county of Oxfordshire (and in fact, the Oxfordshire Cotswolds boast some of the most picturesque towns and villages in the region, such as Burford and Chipping Norton) – however, there is no Cotswolds village – of the “chocolate box” type described in the stories – that would be that close to the university city. The closest is probably Yarnton, which is about 4 miles (30min bike ride) from Oxford, and isn’t usually one of the “traditional” Cotswolds villages on the tourist trail.
Still, a Cotswolds village could technically exist where Meadowford-on-Smythe is supposed to be, so I’m not sorry for taking a bit of creative licence! 😉
6) Yes, art was definitely imitating life!
People often think that novels are autobiographical and it’s true that authors often write stories based on their own life experiences. When I first thought of the idea for this series, it was very much inspired by my time studying at Oxford University, and later continuing to live and work in the university city after I graduated. Thus, many of Gemma’s feelings, reactions and memories are drawn from my own student days.
However, more than that, there are several specific scenes or subplots in the books which directly mirror real-life events I experienced.
For example, Book 6: Four Puddings and a Funeral was inspired by the time we found found an injured hedgehog at the bottom of our garden and, with advice from our vet, attempted to nurse it back to health.
We were living in New Zealand and had our first cat, Lemon, at the time (as well as our Great Dane, Honey). Neither of them were very impressed with our prickly new house guest!
Similarly, a key scene in Book 5: Muffins and Mourning Tea, was inspired by my own experience after deciding that I wanted to learn some self-defence, to feel more secure and empowered. Thus, I duly went along to try out a Krav Maga class, which was great fun – although I have to confess: the only thing I managed to gain, after an hour of clumsy moves, was a twisted, swollen ankle.
But all was not lost because the whole experience became a great subplot involving Gemma and the Old Biddies at a Krav Maga class, and several close combat enthusiasts who will never look at little old ladies the same way again!
7) A (Evelyn) rose by any other name…
Gemma’s mother, Evelyn Rose, is one of the most memorable characters in the series. Fans find her both exasperating and entertaining, and I freely admit that she is inspired by a combination of my own mother and my mother-in-law (who, by the way, still can’t remember her iPad password! 😉).
The inspiration for the character’s name, however, came from my garden: she is named after one of the beautiful David Austin roses I am growing: ‘Evelyn’ (Aussaucer). ‘Evelyn’ is an English shrub rose, with enormous blooms of a soft peachy-pink, fading to cream, and a lovely fruity fragrance. In fact, the rose is apparently named on behalf of the English toiletries brand, Crabtree & Evelyn, who used it in their range of rose perfumes. I thought it was the perfect name for such an elegant “English” character!
(‘Evelyn’ rose blooms and the plant growing on an arch in my garden…)
8) Gemma’s story is about second-chances… in more ways than one!
When we first meet Gemma in Book 1: A Scone to Die For, she has just returned to Oxford to follow her dream of opening a traditional English tearoom. To do so, she had to give up a high-flying career overseas as well as throw all her savings into the venture, and she’s desperate for her fledgling business to succeed because it would mean a chance at a new start in life.
You might remember that Book 1 features quite a bit of romantic tension when Gemma discovers that the CID detective in charge of the murder investigation is none other than her old college flame – the boy whose marriage proposal she once rejected because her family considered him “too working class”. Although they both try to pretend that they don’t care about the past, it soon becomes obvious that it’s impossible to ignore…
“Are you questioning my professionalism?” Devlin said in a silky voice.
I hesitated. There was nothing overtly threatening in his tone or words, but somehow I had a feeling that I didn’t want to push him. “I just think that… maybe you don’t want to admit it, but you’re prejudiced towards Justine. You’re letting your emotions affect your judgement. You have been known to let things get too… er… personal in the past, with suspects in murder investigations.”
His expression hardened. “I suppose Mabel Cooke and her friends have been gossiping about me?”
I shrugged. “It was in the papers. I’m sure it’s common knowledge. And besides, you should know by now that no secret is sacred in a small village.”
“It wasn’t a secret. There was nothing between me and the suspect in that case up in Leeds,” he said curtly. “I simply felt sorry for her. I knew she wasn’t guilty. In any case, I would never let my personal feelings interfere with an investigation.”
“Well, of course you would say that—but what if you’re not aware of it?” I said. “I mean, you say you knew that Justine lied about her alibi but you’re not doing anything about it. Why aren’t you taking it more seriously?’
“Because when you’ve been doing this a while, Gemma, you begin to realise that people lie for all sorts of reasons—but not always to do with murder.”
“I don’t understand.”
He sighed. “I don’t expect you to. Just… trust me, okay? I’m telling you that Justine is not the murderer. I… I have an instinct about it.”
“That’s a pretty handy instinct,” I sneered.
“Why don’t you be honest and say what this is really about?” he snapped. “You’re just jealous of Justine.”
“Me?” My voice was shrill. “I’m not jealous!”
“You could have fooled me.”
“How dare you!” I found that I was trembling with anger. “Don’t try to twist things around and make this about me, Devlin! Just because I felt something for you once doesn’t mean that I’d be so weak again.”
He stepped closer to me, his blue eyes blazing. “I’m not the one who’s been disappointed that things between us aren’t what they once were. Yes, don’t deny it—I can see it in your eyes every time you look at me. Bloody hell, Gemma! This isn’t some novel! Did you really think we were going to see each other again after all this time and everything would fall back into place? Is that what you were hoping for? That I would send you some fervent letter telling you that ‘I am half agony, half hope’?”
I flinched. I didn’t think those beautiful words, which I had always loved, could hurt so much coming out of his lips.
Keen fans of Jane Austen might have an inkling as to the “fervent letter” referred to in the scene above…yes, it’s the famous letter written by Captain Wentworth in my favourite Austen novel: Persuasion. 😊 (It is probably one of the most beautiful love letters of all time and I still get tears in my eyes every time I read it!)
When I started writing A Scone to Die For and realised how much of the story and overall series was about the theme of “second chances”, I decided to incorporate this into Gemma’s personal life too. And so Gemma and Devlin’s relationship is very much inspired by Jane Austen’s beautiful romance of “second chances” and there are many deliberate parallels.