The following article was written by Rachel McMillan, author of a numerous historical fiction novels set in different European cities. Here McMillan explains the inspiration behind her recent novel set in Vienna: The Mozart Code, which we have been reading this month as we Travel Europe Through Books.
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Vienna is my Muse
by Rachel McMillan
To me, Vienna has always been the most beautiful city in the world, since I was 10 years old and read a historical novel called Vienna Prelude. Other kids wanted to visit Narnia or Avonlea, I hankered after Vienna. To me, it was a city of beautiful steeples, a million kinds of coffee, opulent opera balls and music. Music dripping from every window and spilling over every corner. As an adult, my love for the city, its Baroque architecture and its foundational musical history, remained as influential. I have since been to the city several times, always on my own, always with a notebook in tow to write away descriptions at the Café Mozart in Albertinaplatz, or to attend concerts in the Goldener Saal of the beautiful Musikverein concert hall.
And to plot.
Vienna is my muse.
I’ve been fortunate enough to explore it in several contemporary romances in my Three Quarter Time Series. Every one of these self-contained stories finds my heroes and heroines involved in (what I find) fascinating and unique tenets of Viennese life: from Ball Season to the many types of coffee (named for empresses and horse drawn carriages), to the music and classical concert world, home to so many of the world’s premiere musicians, even to the thriving Christkindl Markets that erupt over the city every winter and the famed Sachertorte cake from the eponymous Hotel Sacher.
When my publisher, Harper Collins, wanted me to find more suspenseful type stories in which to explore the Second World War, I knew I wanted to paint Vienna on page again, but this time at its most vulnerable. Paris is so often the literary canvas for stories in the WWII and post years but Vienna has not found as broad an audience. Still known as the City of Spies, Vienna’s post-war melancholy was so brilliantly popularized in the work of Graham Greene’s The Third Man-–both in book and film form; the movie is played near daily to appease English audiences. The more I learned about Vienna during the post-war, the more I found a layered and complicated beauty. The city, famously occupied in the Second World War after Hitler’s Anschluss was less-famously quartered between its Allied victors in the months and years immediately following. The Americans, French, British and Russians all had ideas on how to tailor the city to reflect their own conceptualizations of a perfect post-war city. At the precipice of the Cold War and with the threat of Russia rising, Vienna became dangerously close to falling behind the Iron Curtain.
To be able to write the city I love for the first time in a historical setting in The Mozart Code, was a delight. Just before the pandemic lockdowns, I took a return trip to Vienna and Prague specifically to immerse myself in Sophie and Simon’s world. I knew that my hero and heroine would see the world through two very different lenses: one of a chess board and one like a Mozart composition. Learning that the Austrian composer’s sister was a chess master in her own right allowed me to intertwine those perspectives against the darkly shadowed beauty of a fallen and bombed city. More still, it gave me the opportunity to write civilian spies. So often in literature, we have an archetype of spies being eight steps ahead of the game—a brilliant James Bond type, so to speak. In actuality, the Cold War was on many levels what I affectionately call “a war of nerds”: regular people thrust into impossible situations. And in the case of my operatives Sophie and Simon, a place to live out their slow burn marriage-of-convenience love story. As with all of my books, my on-location research allows me to use my pen as a camera and scribble descriptions I later incorporate into my manuscripts in hopes the reader feels they are right there with me.
Schloss Schönbrunn Palace Grounds, directly after bombing
I was so interested in expounding on the post-war fascination with rebuilding and restoration, which
fascinated me as the setting for a book like The Mozart Code. More still, the idea of restitution. With Vienna’s occupation and tight Nazi hold, a lot of priceless works of art and age-old musical compositions were dispersed in Nazi pillages —most often from Jewish familial collections. Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s Der Messias was one such a piece I thought plausible to be of Nazi interest.
Indeed, the first drafts of The Mozart Code were far longer than the final product on account of my wanting to write so much about the fascinating worlds of Prague and Vienna in this seminal time period. I hope my enthusiasm spills through the page.
Vienna, I hope, becomes as much a character to a reader of The Mozart Code as the characters
I just returned from Vienna again —this time on a three week trip to dive into my 2024 book for Harper Collins and while I cannot divulge the subject completely yet, I can let readers know that they will find themselves in Austria again and with a fascinating part of Viennese history that changed one course of the whole war.
Schloss Schönbrunn Palace Grounds
While there, I ascended the long hike up from Schönbrunn Palace Grounds to the Gloriette that overlooks the city. Standing there, after the pandemic and many lock-downs kept me from my city, I recalled its imaginative hold over me. The Mozart Code opens in the very same spot (albeit when the magnificent, columned structure was recently bombed) with the dashingly attired Simon Barre meets a contact for his job with MI 6 and sets off the events that will see him through two beautiful, wrecked cities during the course of the years following the war. The most flattering compliment I get from readers is when they inform me they have booked a trip to Vienna on account of meeting it through the pages of my books. I hope that I can keep inspiring readers to uncover unique historical aspects of Austria which is, to me, the most magical country in the world.
Rachel McMillan is the author of the Herringford and Watts mysteries, the Van Buren and DeLuca mysteries, the Three Quarter Time series of contemporary Viennese romances, the London Restoration and The Mozart Code. Her current releases include The Castle Keepers (with Aimie K Runyan and J’Nell Ciesielski) and Operation Scarlet (releasing December with Harper Collins). Rachel has written two works of non-fiction. She is currently writing a biography of Sir Christopher Wren for UK Publisher Pen and Sword to be released in 2025. Rachel lives in Toronto, Canada and is a literary agent by day, scribbler by night.
Learn more about Rachel at:
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