How did you become a writer? (Part 1)

Since I’ve been a published author, I’ve been invited from time to time to take part in “Q&A” interviews, which are posted on the website or blogspot of another author or a blogger. Sometimes these are published to support a blog tour for the launch of a new book, sometimes, the invitations come out of the blue, presumably because the author/blogger has read abut me and my books and thinks their readers might be interested in me! I’m always delighted to take part because it’s another way of promoting my work.

The interviews are usually about me and my writing, giving some insight into “who I am”, but also why I write what I do, and how I got into writing in the first place. If you’ve read my books but know little about me as a writer, you might find some of the answers I’ve given in the interviews of interest.

So I thought I’d share some selected questions and answers, all of which address various aspects of my writing journey.

I am posting this in two parts: today I will look at questions about how I started out in writing, and my writing process in general. Next time, I will consider questions specifically about writing historical fiction, and then look at what the future holds for me as a writer.

The beginnings

How did you get into writing?

Having written creatively as a child, I continued writing through my 20s and 30s and beyond, drafting novels and short stories, children’s stories, ideas for non-fiction books. But I never thought of publishing any of them. I simply enjoyed the writing process. Or perhaps somehow I couldn’t NOT write?

It was only in my middle age that I began even to imagine that maybe I might like to “be an author”. I completed one of those novels I’d been working on––contemporary women’s fiction––and sent it out to a few agents, but without success.

All this time, my writing had been pretty ad hoc (like most writers who are doing it alongside a career and family life!). To test whether I was deluding myself that I could ever be a published writer, I took a few short writing courses at local colleges. (I wasn’t delusional, apparently!) Then, in 2009, thinking a Masters degree in Creative Writing might give my writing more substance and focus, I enrolled at Portsmouth University. It worked! I wrote the historical novel that would become the first in my Meonbridge Chronicles series, Fortune’s Wheel.

And it was then that I said to myself, “Yes, I am going to do this!”. I did want to be “an author” and I was going to achieve it one way or another. 

Can you tell us a little about your publishing journey?

For me, the MA in Creative Writing gave me sufficient “focus” to enable me to write another novel, and one that was considered (by my tutors) worthy of publication. However, sending it out to agent and publishers still didn’t bring me the publishing deal I’d hoped for.

However, I’d enjoyed being back at university so much that I then read for a PhD at Southampton University, and the result was The Nature of Things, another historical novel (as yet unpublished).

I gave up on the idea of a traditional publishing deal, and decided to self-publish Fortune’s Wheel, with the help of a publishing services company, SilverWood Books, who did a great job and set me on my way.

By then, the historical fiction bug had bitten me, and I realised I had more stories to tell about the world I’d created for Fortune’s Wheel, the fictional manor of Meonbridge, and the Meonbridge Chronicles series was born. The second Chronicle, A Woman’s Lot, was published a year later, again through SilverWood.

However, when the third Chronicle, De Bohun’s Destiny, was ready for publication, I decided to do it differently. I would self-publish it entirely, through my own imprint of Riverdown Books, and I reissued the first two books at the same time with new layouts and covers. It was nerve-wracking, managing the whole process, but I got there. The fourth Chronicle, Children’s Fate, was published at the end of last year.

I’m now writing book five in the Meonbridge Chronicles series, and I’m planning other publishing projects in the future. More about those next time…

Where did/do your ideas come from? 

I really don’t know, which everybody says, I’m sure!

With Fortune’s Wheel, the original spark came from the draft of a novel I’d scribbled in my twenties (I never throw anything away…). I rediscovered the fading handwritten draft languishing in a box of old scribblings when I was trying to decide what to write for my Creative Writing MA. The novel was set in 14th century rural England and was about the lives of peasant families. The novel’s plot (and the writing) wasn’t great, but I was drawn to its period and setting. I had a light bulb moment and, a few days later, was drafting an outline for the novel that became Fortune’s Wheel.

In fact, research soon showed that the 14th century had a rich social history, and I thought the period after the Black Death might be interesting. So I had a timeframe, a setting and a context… The original main characters––Alice, Margaret and Eleanor––then somehow “presented” themselves to me. I honestly don’t know how that happened. It just did, and still does…

The plot for Fortune’s Wheel evolved from wondering how people would have coped in the aftermath of something so devastating as a plague that wiped out half of your friends and neighbours, and possibly most of your family. For each of the sequels, having already created the fictional historical world of Meonbridge, plot design mostly involves imagining new situations, problems and solutions for my characters. I choose which characters I want to “narrate” the story––and whether I need any new ones––and then develop storylines that are pertinent to those characters. I do also reacquaint myself with the history of the time, and where appropriate use what I discover to help develop the storyline. In the latest book, Children’s Fate, the storyline turned partly on the return of the Black Death in 1361.

For my unpublished novel, The Nature of Things, my “idea” was a bit more wide-ranging! My original concept was to write an “apocalyptic” novel of the entire 14th century. Lots of bad things happened in that century (as I suppose they do in most centuries…), famine, plague and war amongst them. I wanted to see those events through the eyes of “ordinary” people, and present a picture of the century through stories told by seven individuals. Where did the idea come from? Well, I think it was from reading a particular book when I was writing Fortune’s Wheel, which helped me to understand how medieval people dealt with disaster. The book is by historian John Aberth, From the Brink of the Apocalypse, Confronting Famine, War, Plague and Death in the later Middle Ages. Yes! It clearly fired my imagination. And that is I think how my ideas often come, from (sometimes random) reading…

As another example, I’ve an idea for a new series of historical novels lurking at the back of my mind… The series title will be something like Medieval Heiresses, but it’s not going to be about the nobility, so much as about relatively ordinary women who inherit property simply because they have no brothers. The stories will be fictional but based on various texts I’ve read over the past year or so about real women who did inherit property under such circumstances and made a success of their inheritances. I thought the idea sounded an interesting one to explore… 

The writing process

How did/do you go about planning your novel? 

It’s hard to remember how I actually set about planning Fortune’s Wheel or indeed The Nature of Things, both of which I started several years ago. I was then very much learning how to write and structure novels. I do know that they both took many, many iterations of planning and rewriting, as I wrestled with their storylines, as well as with the structure and the writing style.

However, I can tell you what I do now, more or less.

I’m not a terribly disciplined writer, so nothing is set in stone! But neither am I one of those writers who just start writing and see what happens as they go along… I’m basically a “planner” and a “pantster. I couldn’t write a book without having some idea of its structure and broad content, but I do allow the story to go off plan as I’m writing, and, to some extent, let the characters dictate it. 

Obviously the first thing to do is to come up with an underlying premise for the novel. How this happens is sometimes a bit mysterious. I’ve talk already about how ideas come… In the case of a new Meonbridge Chronicle, the plot or premise will arise partly out of the timeframe (the Chronicles follow chronologically, two or more years apart) and partly from furthering the characters’ stories. I have to decide which characters’ stories are to be told this time (the principal narrator characters sort of “take turns” and sometimes I bring in different lead characters to give a new perspective). I then do three things. 

Firstly, I make further acquaintance with the characters. Because my stories are very much character-focused, I have to clarify in my mind their motivations, anxieties and transformations. Initially, I wrote profiles for my main characters, outlining their physical characteristics, occupation/interests, where/how they lived, families/friends, and my initial thoughts about what drives them. Of course, when you write in series, by the time you’re on to book 5, as I am now, you know most of your characters quite well. However, the whole point of a story arc is to have your central characters change or develop in some way as a result of the events you put them through, so it’s important to revisit your understanding of “who they are”. You need to get your head around their personalities, and identify their relationships, good and bad, with other characters, remembering that, as in real life, those motivations, anxieties and relationships might change over time. The important thing is to know your characters as people.

Secondly, I write a broad outline––my plan––of the whole story, from start to finish, although the ending at this stage is usually pretty vague. This is more than a synopsis. For me, it’s a summary of each chapter, sometimes down to scene level. The summary of each chapter/scene is sometimes detailed, sometimes less so, depending on how much I “know” at this stage. I might even include snippets of dialogue, if they happen to occur to me. I play around with the outline for a while, trying to ensure that the story flows, that it is reasonably well-balanced in terms of light and dark, excitement and calm, and that each narrator––my novels tend to have three or four narrators––gets their “turn”. None of this is rigid, but it’s a start…

Thirdly, I undertake some research into those aspects of the storyline or background that I don’t yet know enough about. Obviously when you write a standalone novel or the first novel in a series, there is huge amount of research to do to establish the authenticity of the “world” you are building for your story. But, when you are writing a series, by the time you are on the fifth book, you are already familiar with the “world”, so you don’t have to research everything from scratch. Yet there is always something you don’t know, and there’ll be new story threads that you won’t have used before that need investigating… Overall it might take months to research a book but, typically, I do enough research initially to enable me to make a reasonable stab at making a start on writing, and then continue researching as I write, when things inevitably arise that I realise I don’t know about at all.

When I feel I’ve made sufficient acquaintance with the characters and have a storyline with a reasonably workable structure, and I’ve also done “enough” research, I start writing the first draft. As I write, I follow the outline, but not at all slavishly. I plan but I also permit change, indeed I expectchange. My plan is essentially a framework of the storyline, a skeleton of events that I expand, round out and particularise with description, character interactions and dialogue into what I hope is a vibrant, page-turning novel… It works for me!

What do you think is more important: characters or plot?

For me, characters. Though of course there has to be “plot”, or storyline, otherwise the novel would have no momentum, no forward progress. The characters have to have something to be concerned about, a problem to solve!

But my books are definitely “character-driven”, in that it’s their personalities, concerns and motivations that drive the story. I write my characters ––or at least the main narrator characters––in a way that is quite consciously intimate. And sometimes I get terribly drawn in to a character’s plight. And here’s the thing about “characters”: in theory, once you close your laptop lid, they no longer exist… Except that, of course, they DO! They hang around inside your head. They talk to you in the middle of the night. They evolve from being just a name with a set of invented features and traits into a corporeal-seeming person with thoughts and feelings, worries and aspirations. Goodness! No wonder I think they’re important.

How long, on average, does it take you to write a book?

The first book in the Meonbridge Chronicles series, Fortune’s Wheel, took about six years from when I started drafting it to when I finally plucked up courage to get it published in 2016. The next three have taken roughly a year each, being published in 2018, 2019, 2020. I would like to write faster, so I could publish more often, but I think that just isn’t possible for me. All writers are different! At least writing in series makes it slightly easier in that much of the “world” and many of the characters are already clear in my head. But there’s always something new to discover. For example, for book five, which I’m writing now, I need to know more about life in a castle, and about the training of knights, and about tournaments, none of which I’ve needed to know much about before. So that research has to be done. 

More Q&As next time…

____________

Addicted to #HistFic? intrigued by #medieval life?

Have you read THE #MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLES?

“A book/series I’ve been waiting for” (Amazon reviewer)

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