María Dueñas, 47, never intended to write a bestselling novel. She never even dreamed of becoming a fiction writer. A professor for almost 20 years, with a Ph.D. in English philology, Dueñas says she was perfectly happy teaching at the University of Murcia in Spain. But she also says she felt it was time for something new: “I’ve always been a good reader, I’ve always been involved in the world of language, how it works, and I have always had a very vivid imagination, so I decided to put those three things together.”

The result is her debut novel, The Time in Between (Atria), an epic story filled with history, adventure, romance, and political conspiracies. Dueñas says her years working in the academic world helped her tremendously with her process, which involved creativity along with extensive research.

The novel is set in Madrid, North Africa, and Lisbon, from the start of the Spanish Civil War through WWII. Her family, most specifically her mother, was the inspiration for the setting of the story. The youngest of five children, Dueñas’s mother was born in 1940 in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco (which existed from 1912 until 1956, when Morocco established its independence), and Dueñas grew up hearing stories about what life was like during that time and place. Drawing from the testimony of her family, Dueñas used their memories to create the atmosphere for the novel. Still, she needed more factual information and began researching the era: “It was fascinating—the historical information was so rich and I learned a lot. I researched archives, books, old newspapers. I focused on the capital city of the protectorate [Tetouan] where my mother was born. Then I started to research the Spanish administration there, the role of government officials, the people in charge.”

Dueñas became particularly intrigued by Juan Beigbeder, the high commissioner of the protectorate in Morocco. “He gave me the arc for the novel—my mother was responsible for the place; he was responsible for the time.” But there wasn’t much information about him, so Dueñas decided to “keep on searching for more ingredients for my novel, and I found different articles that referred to conspiracy movements in Morocco. So I thought that I could create an espionage story. That’s when I started to create a fictional character.” The main character, Sira Quiroga, is a seamstress turned couture designer. Dueñas made Sira a seamstress for several reasons, she says. She has many memories of going to the homes of seamstresses as a child, “how they worked, all of the talking, and the pieces of fabric on the floor.” Also, she says, “I needed a woman who could be independent. I wanted Sira’s character to be able to survive without a husband, earn money, and be able to move around.”

“I knew that the story was like a road, a path,” Dueñas says, “and I knew there must be a development, a progression of the character, how she got from one place to another and also her personal progression. She becomes more and more independent, more in control of her own life because in the beginning she is following others’ influences, her mother, her boyfriend, her lover—she is not in control of her own life. I knew that her actual travels would provide the plot of the book, but that she also had to grow on the journey. I planned everything, and then I used my imagination.” At one point, Sira passes along classified information with stitches in the hems of the clothing she makes that are actually Morse code messages.

The Time in Between, a bestseller in Spain, is scheduled to publish in more than 20 languages (Dueñas is thrilled with the English translation). Married with two grown children, Dueñas, not teaching at the moment, is working on her second novel. She says she is often asked, because of The Time in Between’s open ending, if she will continue the story. “I never say never, but for now I think the story needs a rest—and me, too!”

Ruby Cutolo is a freelance writer and editor.