I am passionate about ‘being there’ – engaging with the location of my stories as much as possible – tasting and smelling them, enjoying and enduring them…


Sir Francis Drake

My early research for Mistress of the Sea was given a tremendous boost by adventurer and author Michael Turner, founder of the Drake Exploration Society, who has made it his life’s mission to visit, investigate and chart the exact geographic course of all Drake’s voyages where they touched land. I could only hope to savour a fraction of the relevant places that Michael has explored. But he was able to show me exactly where to go. With his book In Drake’s Wake as my guide, I was able to see almost every site that was significant to the story, and get a feel for the rest from other places.

Panama la Vieja


The Royal Road

The Royal Road was the route by which the treasure from South America was carried from the Pacific to the Caribbean. I was fortunate to be able to experience a little of what it must have been like to journey along this road over steep hills covered in dense forest, fording torrents, passing hidden drops, at times precipitous, often dangerous, to fight off the insects and feel the enervation of coping with almost a hundred per cent humidity.

Mule prints – Las Cruces Trail

In places along the well-preserved Las Cruces Trail, an extension of the Camino Real, it is possible to see stones worn to the exact shape of a hoof by the passage of countless mule-trains over the centuries. This is tangible history, and I love it.

Giant Toad

Giant neotropical toad showing large poison glands at the sides of the neck.


The site of old Nombre de Dios was largely buried under earth and vegetation when I saw it, and the geology of the bay has changed dramatically since Drake’s attack on the city in 1572. But it is still possible to see a place like this and imagine how it might have been, then think back to events over four hundred years before, on a night when the moon was up and storm clouds were rising…

This is the real joy of breathing life into a story – overlaying the first-hand accounts with the experience of place. When the magic takes hold the characters begin to talk, move, act – and suddenly the story is telling itself.




These are the islands where Drake hid his ships – the coral atoll once known as the ‘Cativas’ by the English, and now forming the San Blas Archipelago within the remote region of Kuna Yala. With the exception of the sand flies, this might approximate to paradise, but the mosquitoes still carry the yellow fever that in all probability killed over a third of Drake’s men.




Ellyn might well have been left on an island such as this. With characters in mind, it’s good to tread the ground over which they would have walked, observe the landscape that would have been familiar to them, and hear the natural sounds that would have been part of their experience – whether it’s the booming of howler monkeys at dusk, or the crash of thunder over the sea…



It was the sight of the ‘Southern Sea’, the Pacific as we now know it, that determined Drake to sail upon it one day, a determination that he saw through in his later famous circumnavigation of the globe.



For Mistress of the Sea my main sources have been the Elizabethan accounts in ‘Sir Francis Drake Revived’ by Drake’s preacher Philip Nichols, which was edited by Drake himself, and those compiled in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation, particularly the depositions of the page Miles Philips, and the gunner Job Hortop, together with John Hawkins’ own account of his 1567-8 voyage. In addition (and for a balanced view) I’ve also made good use of the Spanish first-hand accounts compiled and edited by Irene Wright. By overlaying these with the experience of ‘being there’ the story came to life…



Read what was written at the time, and the world as it was begins to come alive…

“…This realm is at the present moment so terrified, and the spirits of all so disturbed, that we know not in what words to emphasize to your majesty the solicitude we make in this dispatch…”

(From a plea sent by the Council of Panama to King Philip II of Spain, February 24th 1573, following Drake’s attacks on Nombre de Dios and Venta de Chagres.)

Get close in location then you can be there afresh…

…It was a release to channel tension into powering fast across the bay, unlocking cramp, making for the low silvery buildings below the quiet black hills, and hear only the steady slap of the sweeps hitting the sea, then drawing through with a sloosh, driving the boats over the rip, tholes grinding as the oars turned. There was no talk. The helmsman called the stroke to grunts and hoarse breathing, the focus in the union of body and mind, pull and push, each man intent on working his oar in the race to reach the harbour before the guns came to life…

(From Mistress of the Sea)


The sequel to Mistress of the Sea is The Lost Duchess.