Many of her readers probably picture Dorothy Dunnett, hailed by the Washington Post as "the finest living writer of historical fiction," living in the kind of castle pictured on the covers of her books. But although she lives in Edinburgh, a city steeped inromantic history with a skyline dominated by the ancient castle where Mary, Queen of Scots, who appears as a child in Dunnett's novels, gave birth to the first king to unite Scotland and England, Dunnett's home is a sandstone semi-detached Victorian villa about 10 minutes from the city center.

She has lived here since 1956, and the first impression, as one steps into the hallway, is of a period grandeur. The rooms are spacious, decorated in strong colors, and there is a handsome staircase lined with family portraits, painted by Dunnet therself, that include a dashing, full-length likeness of her husband, Sir Alastair Dunnett, wearing his kilt. Sir Alastair, who edited Scotland's leading newspaper, the Scotsman, for nearly 20 years, was also a director of Scottish Television and chairman of Thomson Scottish Petroleum. He was knighted for his services to journalism and Scotland in 1995.

Lady Dunnett is a young-looking 74, smaller and slighter than in her publicity photographs, with silver curls and a pretty face that lights up with an infectious sense of humor. Her voice has the kind of soft lilt that endorses the view that Scots speak thebest English in the world, and her hospitality is traditionally Scottish: not a cup of tea but a generous slug of a fine malt whisky (she is one of the judges for the Glenfiddich Awards for Living Scotland).

Dunnett's latest book, Caprice and Rondo (Knopf) is the seventh in The House of Niccolo series, which chronicles the life and times of merchant-adventurer Nicholas de Fleury. The books are set in 15th century Europe, and she is currently working on the eighth and final title, which is due to be published in time for the millennium, when readers from all over the world plan to celebrate the completion of the series with a banquet in the Grand Hall of Stirling, another royal castle featured in Dunnett's novels.

The Niccolo series forms a pendant to the earlier Lymond Chronicles-reprinted in a splashy trade paperback set last yearby Vintage. The six novels in the Lymond Chronicles, first published in the 1960s, established Dunnett's reputation as a witty, stylish writer of romantic historical fiction that blends the pageantry of Renaissance Europe with the adventures of a fictitious buccaneering Scottish nobleman, Francis Crawford of Lymond. Action-packed stories with a cast of hundreds of historical figures and backgrounds ranging across Europe from Scotland to Russia, the novels are remarkable for their historical accuracy and an attention to detail that any academic historian might envy.

Dunnett's background was solidly middle-class. "My parents were not particularly academic. My father was a mining engineer," she says. Although she was born in Dunfermline, a small town not far from Edinburgh, the family moved to Edinburgh when she was about three. Dunnett grew up in Edinburgh and went to James Gillespie's High School for Girls (later immortalized as the Marcia Blaine School by Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).

Although not a classmate of Spark (Dunnett is six years younger), Dunnett agrees that the teaching was first rate. "I got a solid grounding in Latin that has proven invaluable in my research. I have no problem with medieval Latin and Romance languages."

But Dunnett is not a trained historian. In fact, history was her least favorite subject at school, and she was not attracted by the idea of going on to university. "Instead," she recalls, "I took a job as a press officer in the wartime Ministry of Information, which gave me time to go to painting classes in the evenings." It was to prove an inspired choice when she married her boss, Alastair Dunnett, in 1946. The job also honed he powers of observation. "It was working with Alastair and meeting his journalist colleagues that gave me an invaluable insight intohow men's minds work," she says.

A Larger Canvas

Dunnett continued to study painting when they moved to Glasgow in1946 and soon found that she had a facility for catching alikeness that enabled her to become a successful portraitpainter. She still undertakes the occasional commission, and herpainter's eye for colors enlivens her descriptions of people andplaces. But the painting studio in the back garden of her househas long since been converted into a writing studio.

It was not, however, until her late 30s that Dunnett beganwriting. "I shared with my mother a fondness for historicalwriters like Alexandre Dumas, Raphael Sabatini and Baroness Orzy [of The Scarlet Pimpernel fame], and I particularly enjoyedstories with a highly articulate central heroic figure, lots ofaction and touches of humor," Dunnett explains. "After a while, Iseemed to have read everything in the genre, and it was Alastairwho suggested that perhaps I should try writing a historicalnovel of my own.

"I wanted to create a fascinating central character and give hima setting that no one else had used," Dunnett continues."Sixteenth-century Europe appealed to me as a glamorous,exciting, gorgeous period, rich in fascinating figures likeSuleiman the Magnificent, Ivan the Terrible and Francois Premier,but I soon realized why the period had not been used -- it was verydifficult and complicated to research."

Dunnett's first effort required a huge amount of backgroundreading, but Edinburgh proved an ideal base with its renownedNational Library of Scotland, of which Dunnett is now a trustee."But these were the days before photocopying, so I had to spendlong days in the library, and I've still got dozens of notebooksfull of painstakingly copied material dating from my earlyresearch," she recalls.

The historical tapestry Dunnett had chosen as her subject meantthat the books would inevitably be long, and when she submittedThe Game of Kings to Hutchinson, a leading fiction house at thetime, she sent the first half only. Despite an enthusiastic reader's report, the publisher was alarmed by the length andwanted cuts. A further five publishers all said the same thing,but Dunnett was not prepared to give in. Then her husband -- whoalways seems to ride to her rescue -- suggested she try an American publisher, as they seemed to welcome longer books. He had me tLois Cole, then an editor at Putnam who had worked with MargaretMitchell on Gone With the Wind, and he sent her Game of Kings.

Cole's response was gratifyingly immediate: she sent a contractby return mail with the message: "We want this, we want itssuccessors -- but you'll have to cut it."

Offered real commitment, Dunnett was willing to make cuts. She found Cole to be a splendidly sympathetic editor who shepherdedher first two books, introduced her to the museums and artgalleries of New York and left her a French dueling sword in herwill. It's an evocative souvenir, a 16th-century French shortsword with an ivory handle.

Publication in the U.S. was swiftly followed by publication byCassell in the U.K. Dunnett has since had a number of Britishpublishers, and all her historical novels are currently in printwith Michael Joseph/Penguin. Her books have always been popular,with sales steadily increasing over the years; there's also akeen trade in secondhand copies. The new books are firstpublished in London, and Dunnett works closely with freelanceeditor Richenda Todd, who has a sharp eye for any factualmistakes and inconsistencies, and with Susan Ralston and RobertGottlieb at Knopf. "Bob is the most famous editor in the world,"exclaims Dunnett. "And I feel very flattered that, although henow looks after a very small stable of authors for Knopf, he'spromised that he'll always edit me." The research and writing foreach book takes about 14 months, with the finished manuscriptflying between Edinburgh, London and New York for any smallqueries to be ironed out.

The books are meticulously plotted. "I use menu cards for thecharacters and record in tiny, tiny writing the main details as Iaccumulate them," Dunnett explains. "I keep them in a sh -box,and before I start writing a chapter I spend a couple of dayscombing out everything I need. When I go away" -- her latest booktook her to Poland and the Ukraine -- "I take masses of photographsand note down details of the smells, sounds, language, flowersand climate, then I fish these out and see what's relevant to aparticular scene. Once everything is clear in my mind I start writing, and I'll do half a chapter (about 2500 words) one day,and the second half the next."

All the battles are carefully designed. If a character sets out on a journey, she works out every stage in detail, calculatinghow long it will take by ship, on horseback, by sledge, thoughmost of this information never makes it into the book. Dunnettowes much of her knowledge of the sea to her husband, an avidsailor who put her into boats and also took her on ridingholidays. Dunnett's sailing experience became the basis for aseries of contemporary thrillers about an undercover agent,posing as a portrait painter named Johnson Johnson who owns ayacht, which she started when she was halfway through the Lymondseries and wrote under the name Dorothy Halliday.

The Graveyard Shift

Nowadays, Dunnett tends to work in her studio late at night whenshe can be sure of not being interrupted by phone calls, faxes ore-mail. The old Olivetti typewriter on which she wrote The Gameof Kings has long gone. Today she has a laptop and a desktopcomputer -- which offer access to the various Dunnett websites thatattract hundreds of postings a day (though she notes that someare accessible only by passwords she herself doesn't know).

Much of her time is taken up with interviews, various Scottishprojects of which she is an enthusiastic patron, readers'queries, plans for promotional tours, revisions for new editionsand approving new jackets. Her stamina is impressive. She and SirAlastair like to socialize in the evenings, so it is often quitelate before she is able to slip away to her studio. She worksthrough the night until dawn and compares her routine to theevening shift on a newspaper. "It's all part of the job. Mostwriting days, I don't get up before 11 o'clock, so I have nearlyeight hours' sleep, even if at rather unconventional hours."

Dunnett admits that she enjoys teasing her readers by setting uplinks between characters and events that keep them guessing tothe very last page. "I'm currently playing a guessing game withthe Lymond and Niccolò series. Although there's a time gapbetween them, the central families are common to both, andreaders are trying to work out the connections and in particularwhich family turns out to be the ancestors of Lymond himself,"she says.

Such gambits have earned her a steadfast readership. Since 1984,her readers have kept in touch via a quarterly magazine calledMarzipan and Kisses in the U.S. and Whispering Gallery in theU.K. Despite the predominantly male character of the novels andthe military action, her readership seems to be largely female,with the books offering strong plots and absorbing worlds intowhich to escape.

Dunnett's studio -- with its collection of foreign editions, files,maps, tapes, a printer, a photocopier -- is businesslike andsolitary, a reminder of the lonely, dedicated hours that must bespent by any successful writer. At one end, a door opens into thegarage, and she says that readers often ask what kind of car shedrives. Aware that her car was perhaps too ordinary, she askedone of her two sons to find her something more adventurous. Andhe did.

The fans are fond of Dunnett quizzes, so what sort of car wouldFrancis Crawford be driving if he were alive today? The answerhas to be the same as Lady Dunnett: a gleaming scarlet Porsche.