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The Agony and the Adventure: The Girl with the Scarlet Ribbon by Suzanne Goldring

Writing.ie | Magazine | Historical Fiction | Interviews
The Girl with the Scarlet Ribbon

By Suzanne Goldring

I’ve never really thought of myself as a historical novelist. Yes, my novels cover a lot of past events, but because I love writing dual time line, to my mind it is about exploring how the past has influenced and shaped the present. And I’m certainly not trying to deliver a history lesson in my books. Although I thoroughly research the period in question and am obviously keen to avoid anachronisms, my overriding objective is to write a darned good story, not an accurate historical account.

I feel there comes a point in research when I have to stand back from the known facts and say, yes, but what if? I found this particularly so in writing my latest novel, The Girl with the Scarlet Ribbon. Set in Florence during the year of the German occupation in WW2 and also in the present day in 2019, the facts I unearthed began to make me feel I was playing a game of ‘word cricket’. Many writers who have attended creative writing workshops will be familiar with that exercise, where random words are tossed at a group of students, all scribbling at top speed to catch each word as it falls and incorporate it into a coherent narrative, often with hilarious results.

As I read and made notes about that period in Florence, discovering the horrors of the Sad Villa, the Figli della Lupa ( Children of the She-wolf), the Carita gang in which the main torturers were known as The Four Saints, I could sense a story developing. Then when I went to Florence in November 2019, before the world became a fearful place for travellers, I discovered the finestra del vino – the city’s wine windows – and the memorial to the wartime deportations of Jews and partisans on Platform Sixteen at the city’s station. Adding these two ingredients to the mix of facts I already had collected and which I went on to expand, suddenly suggested an exciting narrative involving coded messages, secret letter drops and potential betrayal. Then, when I discovered that Major Carita and his gang of thugs had involved the Major’s daughters in their interrogations, I could sense exactly what direction my story should take.

However, as many writers know, the development of a plot can be surprising, even for one who has mapped out the characters, the key scenes, major locations and dénouement. I knew the timeline I had to follow, I had noted the dates of significant historical events during that time of occupation and I had read eye witness accounts from the period, but I was still faced with an enormous surprise during the writing of this book. And it came in the form of one character, a spirited staffetta – a female messenger for the resistance.

I had always intended that my wartime protagonist should become a partisan at some point and I was inspired by descriptions of the young women supporting the Italian resistance in Damien Lewis’s SAS Italian Job.  But what I hadn’t expected or originally planned, was how much Stefanina would grow to be a major part of the novel as I wrote about her. I’d imagined she would be a companion, a side-kick for my protagonist, Gabriella, but from the moment she said ‘I’m going to teach you how to flirt’, she acquired a will of her own and became a hugely significant figure, embodying all that I had hoped to capture about the fearless, flirtatious staffettas.

Now I know that a writer is supposed to have total control over their plot and characters, but don’t you just love that moment when the hard work suddenly becomes a thrilling adventure? The moment when you think, I have some idea of where this going, but I’m not exactly sure what unexpected route it is going to take? That is the time when all the agonising over whether this is the right way to develop the story, whether you have done enough research, whether you are even any good as a writer, seems to melt away and the narrative begins to tell itself. Is that what’s called inspiration? Whatever it is, it’s the exact opposite of writer’s block, because that is the time when the writing seems to flow, when the characters speak to us, telling us where they need to go next and you just have to hang on tight and enjoy an exhilarating ride with all its ups and downs.

Of course, that’s not to say that I don’t welcome being pulled over by my very astute editor, Lydia Vassar-Smith at Bookouture, or my wise agent, Heather Holden-Brown, nor my open and honest writing companions, but I like to think that being given the freedom to have an adventure increases the chances that I will be giving my readers an exciting experience too. For me, writing would become a very dull process, a grinding task even, if I always had to write prescriptively and wasn’t permitted to go off-piste whenever I spotted a challenging path ahead. Sitting at a desk, tapping away on the laptop for hours, month after month, would become very boring if I wasn’t allowed to have fun from time to time.

But when one adventure ends for a writer, another has to begin. Now I’m planning the next novel… more dual timeline, WW2, post-war Germany…and I need to play a few more rounds of ‘word cricket’ in preparation for another exciting ride.

(c) Suzanne Goldring

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About The Girl with the Scarlet Ribbon:

She put her family in danger. She would risk her life to atone for it…

Florence, 1943. As the bells toll in the solemn dark streets and enemy soldiers loiter by the city’s beautiful bridges, schoolgirl Gabriella is racked with guilt. She is ashamed of the crush she had on the soldier with raven-black hair, a crush that allowed a secret notebook to fall into the hands of the enemy. As a result, men in uniform have come for her family. Her father is arrested and her younger brother Riccardo devastatingly injured. Faced with her brother’s haunted eyes and the prospect of never seeing her father again, Gabriella is determined to make things right. She seeks out her old schoolfriend Stefanina, an unlikely member of the Italian resistance with her beautiful curls and scarlet ribbon.

Soon Gabriella is riding her rusty black bicycle, criss-crossing the river with deadly information in her basket, and learning everything she can from Stefanina. But one terrible day, Stefanina doesn’t appear at their meeting point and Gabriella, desperate to find her, goes where she shouldn’t, into the shadowed corners of the city…

Years later Sofia, mourning the loss of her famous painter father Riccardo, carries out his last request to find his long-lost sister Gabriella in Florence. When she meets her aunt, an elegant old woman living in a palazzo filled with roses, she is shocked when Gabriella tells her about the dark stories behind her father’s art. And when Sofia learns of a missing painting, a picture that has not surfaced since the war, a shocking and tragic story begins to unfold – the story of an independent, courageous young woman, with a scarlet ribbon in her dark hair, whose youth and beauty was no protection from the enemy. Will Sofia finally understand why her father could never speak about the war, and piece together the shocking events that inspired his missing painting?

A completely compelling and heartbreaking story of a beautiful city, a violent war and the extraordinary bravery of a daring young woman. Fans of The Alice Network, The Nightingale and My Name is Eva will be captivated by The Girl with the Scarlet Ribbon.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Following an eventful career as a public relations consultant, specialising in business and travel, Suzanne Goldring turned to writing the kind of novels she likes to read, about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. Whether she is working in her thatched cottage in Hampshire or her seaside home in North Cornwall, Suzanne finds inspiration in the secrets hidden by everyday life.

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