I am so very pleased to announce Deanna Raybourn as the first author in the Top Historical Fiction Author Series. Several weeks ago, I downloaded Deanna’s first Lady Julia Grey mystery, Silent in the Grave, read it with great delight then immediately downloaded the next in the series. I was hooked.
Deanna has graciously offered to respond to feedback. Please use the comments feature to post your questions.
Why do you write historical fiction? It’s the perfect marriage of my two loves, history and literature. Contemporary fiction is so immediate, so real. I like the gloss of romanticism that comes from writing about a different time and place where the setting may be quite exotic to us, but the people are very much the same. Plus, I like to write some fairly twisted things and I think it’s easier to do that at a distance. If I create a nasty murderer, it’s more fun for me not to worry if he’s lurking behind my shower curtain.
You are clearly good at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books? Thank you! First, I try to tell a good story with characters my readers will care about. I am rabid on the subject of historical accuracy and I work extremely hard to make certain my books are there. I do push boundaries a bit with the probability of something happening, but it always has to be completely possible. Of course, it’s complicated because there are things that get passed around and repeated as if it were gospel, and it’s hard to correct misimpressions. For instance, I keep hearing that Victorians were hugely uptight and very sexually moral and that premarital and extramarital sex were unthinkable–until you do the research and find out that country house parties for the upper classes were frequently just an excuse to facilitate affairs and that more than 50% of the lower class Londoners who married were already expecting their first child.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? Immersion! I read everything I can get my hands on in order to ferret out the facts I need but also to set the proper mood. I will watch movies and documentaries about my setting; I listen to music that feels appropriate for the time and place. I also make big collages with images related to each book to hang opposite my desk when I work. I like to have my resources at my fingertips when I’m writing. I’m also continually finding exceptional things to geek out over on the internet—for instance, Queen Elizabeth just made Queen Victoria’s journals available on a website she commissioned to mark her Jubilee. That’s going to be an amazing resource for those of us who love Victoriana!
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? The first big historical books I read were Anya Seton’s. I remember running across a condensed version of one of her epics when I was about seven and struggling to keep all the Saxons and Normans straight. It was hard going, but completely captivating. Then I got my hands on her marvelous novel KATHERINE. It’s a grand, sweeping book that covers about twenty years during the life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster, in the 14th century. I read it as a teenager and that book has always stayed with me. I was very surprised to discover last year that Katherine is actually my 17thgreat-grandmother! I am also terribly influenced by Victoria Holt in all of her incarnations as well as Jane Austen and the Brontës.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Passion and authenticity go hand in hand. You have to care about the history but you have to be committed to telling a good story about people who seem to be real—even if you’ve conjured them out of thin air. I think you also have to be able to write a story that feels historically real but completely accessible for a modern reader. It’s a very delicate balancing act, really, because you don’t want characters that sound stilted, but you certainly have to make them believably “other” when compared to your contemporary readers.
How did you keep motivated and writing while waiting 14 years to get a book deal? How did it finally come about? I kept writing because that’s who I am—I tell stories even if no one is listening. During those years I wrote six or seven novels that are awful. They live in boxes in my attic and they will never see the light of day, but they were essential to figuring it all out. The book deal finally came about because after a particularly brutal round of rejections my agent told me to stop writing. She said I needed to take a break and do nothing but read for a year, that I needed to figure out who I was as a writer and the best way to do that was to figure out who I was as a reader. Although it was incredibly difficult, I did it. I just read for twelve months. I read only books I loved, and at the end of the year, I looked at what I had read and discovered they had many, many things in common. They were all historical, mostly British. They were witty; they were mysterious and romantic. They had really engaging characters. And then I realized that what I was looking at was a blueprint for the book I needed to write because, of course, the best book to write is the one you want to read. So I roughed out the plot for a mystery with a historical setting and two years later I finished it. By that time it had been three years since I’d talked to my agent! I sent it off to her and a week later she called and told me this was the book. That was SILENT IN THE GRAVE, the first Lady Julia Grey mystery. It took us two years to place it with a publisher, but immediately I saw a difference in the rejection letters. They weren’t form letters coming from very junior staffers at the publishing houses. They were personal critiques from executive editors who all had some very complimentary things to say even though they were passing on the book. Finally, the manuscript landed on a mystery editor’s desk at MIRA and she read it and realized it needed to go elsewhere in-house. She got up and walked it across the hall to the historical fiction editor who bought it that very month in a three-book deal. So my entire career hangs on the fact that one day a very lovely woman got up from her desk and walked half a dozen steps and changed my life.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? Nothing. I firmly believe I am exactly where I’m supposed to be on a path that’s headed where I want to go. Even those fourteen years of rejections helped build me into the writer and the person I am now. Of course, I couldn’t see it at the time! I wrote my first novel at 23, and at that age I would have been very ill-equipped to deal with all the demands that come with being published. I don’t think the writing was good enough, to begin with, but the author responsibilities would have really overwhelmed me. Plus, I had a child when I was in my twenties. Now that I’m in my forties, she’s almost off to college. I have the time and energy to devote to my career at the precise time she needs less of me. I’m also incredibly appreciative of success because I saw the other side of it for so long! I don’t think that would have been the case if it had come too easily. I was 38 when I first published and 43 when I hit the New York Times Bestseller list and that feels just right for me. Italians say a little suffering sweetens things, and it’s certainly been true over the long haul of my career.
Your series about Julia Grey: Did the idea for a series come after writing the first book or did you plan to write a series from the beginning? I was probably halfway through writing the first book when I realized these characters had much, much more potential than just one book. I also knew that a publisher would be more inclined to give me a multi-book deal if I could offer the possibility of a series. So that’s when I made the decision to wrap up the mystery in the first book but leave the romantic relationship dangling a bit.
What advantages do you think come from writing a series? Any disadvantages? The advantages are legion. It’s a flat luxury to be able to take so many books to write about a single set of characters and really explore their growth and their relationships in the course of their adventures. I’ve written over half a million words about these people, and I know them as well as I possibly can. Because of that, my readers know them too and they care what happens to them, deeply! The disadvantage is simply keeping it fresh. I take a break from the series every second or third book and that means I’m never too comfortable. That’s a strategy my editor devised and it’s genius!
What do you do to connect with readers? I blog, I am on Facebook and Twitter, and I do phone-in chats for reading groups. I also answer all of my personal email myself. Simple queries about releases will get delegated, but if someone takes the time to write an email or letter, they will get one back.
What do you know about your readers? They’re smart—scary smart! They are dynamic and enthusiastic, and they love caring about the characters I give them. I joke about being afraid of them because I killed off a character they liked and I am still hearing about it two books later! But I love that—it means they are connected to my work and, by extension, to me. I am always delighted to see readers when I’m at conferences or book signings and they astonish me by how well they know the books. Often, better than I do!
Mary Tod: On follow up, I asked Deanna to comment on the data she collects about readers (demographics, contact information and so on) as if planning a marketing campaign and whether she thinks about her writing in that way.
So interesting You should bring that up because I am deeply involved in a branding project right now! In light of the fact that my next two novels are going to be stand-alone, I am having everything redesigned–website, business cards, bookmarks, etc.– to reflect me as an author as opposed to anything specifically related to the Julia Grey series or Victoriana.
As to actual data, I don’t collect any. I have a very general picture of my typical reader–a college educated female–but it does vary. I just announced that the six novellas I’ve made a deal to write will be published in an ebook format only, and from the responses I can tell that most of my readers are tech savvy and very into ereaders. Out of all the feedback I had, less than five complained about not having a hard copy while some readers said they were happy to have an excuse to go buy an ereader!
What strategies guide your writing career? My gut. I have very good intuition and the older I get, the smarter I am about using it. I chose my agent based on my first reaction to her, and we’ve been together for fifteen years with just a handshake. As far as the work itself, my philosophy is to do whatever scares me the most. If I’m terrified, it’s because the project I’m considering is demanding that I push myself and stretch to the very limit of what I think I can do. And that’s a good place to be.
What a wonderful start to the series. Thank you so very much, Deanna.