Fiona McIntosh takes us on another journey

Fiona McIntosh has travelled far and wide researching her historical sagas. From the lavender fields of Provence, to the streets of London, to the frontline of Gallipoli, her novels transport you to another time and place.

The best-selling author, who worked in the travel industry for many years, thought she would have to pack away her suitcases when she took up writing at the age of 40, but has instead earned many more stamps in her passport.

She says her latest novel The Tea Gardens, which is set in the north of India, was her most daring trip yet.

"I had no concept of the Himalayas and the foothills of the mountains and just how extraordinary they are," McIntosh says. "It was such hard work to get to there, everything is a challenge, there's this crush of people on trains, in the streets, you feel every inch the foreigner.

"And then you take this, what seems like a vertical road, which zig-zags precariously on the way up. It's like you're in heaven but you wonder if you'll get there alive."

But she says the journey, both the literal and the figurative one, was worth it.

"India changes you," she says. "I defy anyone to go to India and not come back changed in some way."

For her 35th book, and her 10th historical saga, McIntosh wanted to go back to where it all began for her, both with her writing and her adventures. Her first historical saga, Fields of Gold, published in 2010 was set in the south of India where her family originated but there had always been a connection to the north.

"When we were exploring the region for the book we stumbled upon this place Kalimpong, which is well up into the foothills. I thought I know this place, this is a place from my childhood, I had heard about Kalimpong around the dinner table as I was growing up."

McIntosh realised it was the place her recently widowed grandmother had gone to teach at an orphanage in the 1940s.

"My grandfather died very young leaving her with seven children, three still at school, and the only job she could find was 2500 miles away up in the Himalayas teaching at an orphanage.

"When my mother came out of school about six months later, she was feeling lost and lonely so she made the same journey that my grandmother did. My mother is 90, she would have been 16 tops when she headed north. I remember her telling me about this train journey and how she thought she was going to die."

McIntosh went to the orphanage, met with the children and the teachers.

"Life is strange, it takes its twists and turns, but history comes and taps you on the shoulder when you least expect it."

Like her dear friend Lyn, who McIntosh met when she first came to Australia when she was 19. They were working together, about the same age and stage of life, and become firm friends. They worked out that they were both Anglo-Indian, were born within a month of each other. About a dozen years into the friendship they worked out that Lyn's mother had been an orphan at Kalimpong and McIntosh's grandmother had been her teacher.

Not that any of these charming stories has anything to do with the plot of The Tea Gardens, McIntosh laughs.

Set in the 1930s, it's the story of Isla Fenwick who sails off to Calcutta to set up a midwifery clinic.

"She's quite a confident woman, driven, a highly motivated individual who's quite strong," says McIntosh of her heroine. She knows her mind, she's got opinions, she's not young, she's highly educated and she comes from wealth.

"All of that together gives her, not an ego in the worst sense, but certainly she's a complete person who doesn't question her own decisions."

The story moves from the slums of Calcutta into the tea plantations outside Darjeeling. McIntosh spent time at the Glenburn Tea Estate overlooking the mighty Kanchenjunga mountain range.

"It was stunning. I couldn't have conjured a more awe inspiring place."

McIntosh says there was a lot of "emotional oxygen" surrounding the writing of The Tea Gardens.

"I think it's some of my best storytelling; there was all this synergy. This book was very meaningful to me for so many reasons."

Join Fiona McIntosh for a literary high tea at the InterContinental Hotel, Sydney, on November 17 at 11am. $70. Bookings essential.

Join Fiona McIntosh for morning tea at the Civic Library, Canberra, on November 23 at 10.30am. Free. Bookings essential.

This story Fiona McIntosh takes us on another journey first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.