a writer's research process, Dorothy Dunnett, Elizabeth Chadwick, favourite historical fiction authors, historical fiction, historical fiction survey, Living the History, Roberta Gellis, Sharon Kay Penman, top historical fiction authors
I am very pleased to announce Elizabeth Chadwick as the fourth interview in the Top Historical Fiction Author Series. In a recent survey of 805 individuals, readers ranked Ms. Chadwick third in the list of favourite authors. A wonderful accomplishment.
I’ve read several of Ms. Chadwick’s books, the most recent being The Running Vixen. Originally published in 1991, the reprint clearly shows that Elizabeth Chadwick’s writing stands the test of time. I was immediately transported to 1126 and immersed in the tale of Adam de Lacey, Heulwen FitzMiles and England in the time of Henry I and his daughter Matilda.
Please use the comments feature if you have questions or comments for Elizabeth.
Why do you write historical fiction? It began with teenage hormones and falling in love firstly with Keith Michelle when he played Henry VIII in the BBC series about his six wives, and secondly with a French actor called André Lawrence in a series about a handsome French knight living in the holy land in the 12th century. I had told myself stories from earliest memory, always verbal never written down and usually inspired by things that had fired my imagination – frequently cowboys and Indians, horsey stories, or traditional fairytales with a dash of excitement. While on my French actor crush, I began writing my own tale about a 12th century knight who had been born in Syria of Anglo Arab parentage, and decided to return to Europe. I had to research the period because I knew nothing about it. The more I researched the more interested I became and the more the story grew. By the time I arrived at page 500, I knew that what I wanted to do for a living was write historical fiction with strong themes of adventure and romance. In the decades since then, I have continued to research and the mediaeval period still holds its fascination for me, as does writing about it.
You are clearly very skilled at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books? I have always written for myself. That was how it began – stories to entertain me, but once they were written and I entered the adult world, I began to wonder if I could write historical fiction for a career for other people to enjoy. Going from what readers tell me when they write to me, or talk to me on Facebook and Twitter, they love feeling as if they are there in the moment with the characters. They really appreciate that the characters are of their time, believable and not anachronistic, but also accessible. They enjoy the vividness, the colour and also the emotional and historical integrity.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? Once I have decided who or what I am going to write about, my first task is to write a synopsis and the first three chapters that will sell the novel to my agent and editor. That means a lot of polishing on the thinking and writing front over a short space of time and concentrated area. At this stage I will do preliminary research – enough to know the broad brush strokes and the major points I’m going to be using to dramatise the novel. Once it’s a done deal, I do the writing and the research alongside each other.There are two aspects to my research. One is the must-have detail. What do I have to know in order to write this novel? That is obviously a primary concern. The other aspect is ‘What might be interesting to know to deepen my awareness of the period I’m writing about and to help develop my characters and their situations?’ In other words I research both specifically and in a more random fashion. Since I’ve been studying the 11th to 13th centuries for 40 years now, I have a reasonable working knowledge base, but I’m still aware how much more I don’t know.
I also research in a multidisciplinary way. I research the primary sources to get a general idea of mindset, and by primary sources, I include archaeology and living history. I re-enact with early mediaeval living history Society Regia Anglorum to get a flavour of the life and times and to learn and experiment with the crafts and artefacts of the period. Re-enactment and archaeology bring history off the page and into the three-dimensional which make all he difference to the writing when my knowledge is filtered through those mediums and returns to the page in novel form. I go to locations to walk around and get a feel for atmospheres and a closer look at the local history of the area. Of course one should never ever splurge one’s research into the novel as info dump. It’s one of the fastest ways to send the poor reader to sleep. However, the more one knows about one’s chosen historical period, the easier it becomes to walk around within that period and the more the characters will be of their time.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? Several in my early days and for various reasons, not least that all do their research in depth. There are others beyond the three below, but these ladies were probably my major influences when I was starting out.
Roberta Gellis – Among her oeuvre, she has written several very strong romantic historicals set in the Middle Ages. I picked them up during my late teens and early 20s. Bond of Blood, Knight’s Honour, The Sword And The Swan, and the famous Rosalynde Chronicles where I fell head over heels in love with Ian de Vipont – a tall, dark, handsome hero who could have been the generic romance novel cardboard cutout, but proved in Gellis’ hands to be so real that I swear I could see him standing in my room. Roberta Gellis showed me that it was possible to write strong historical romances where the characters were of their time and not modern people in fancy dress.
Sharon Kay Penman. With The Sunne in Splendor and Here Be Dragons, Sharon showed me the other side of the coin to Roberta Gellis. i.e. that it was possible to write deeply engaging and romantic (in the best possible use of the phrase) novels about real people and make you utterly bereft that you had to leave them behind when you came to the end of the novel. That you could weave the research into a fantastic story without warping the historical fabric out of true.
Dorothy Dunnett. Whenever I wanted to raise my game, I would read Dorothy Dunnett. Not that I ever have or will raise my game to her level. She was in a league of her own and still is. She taught me a great deal about the imaginative and fearless use of language.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? A top historical fiction author will be someone who can tell a story that brings the past to life while maintaining the historical integrity. There should be sufficient drama, history, entertainment and food for thought to keep the reader busy from beginning to end, and perhaps go away wanting to know more about the subject, and to read more of the author’s books! I don’t deliberately plan these ingredients, but hope that they happen as a matter of course.
How do you select new stories to tell? Usually something will spark my interest when I am reading a primary source chronicle. I will think ‘Hmmm, I want to know more about this incident, or this person’. So I will go and find out more, and if that more is interesting and has a full story behind it, then it becomes a viable subject for future work. With William Marshal and The Greatest Knight, I kept coming across him whenever I was doing research on my earlier novels. I knew he’d led a full and adventurous life and I thought it would be interesting to explore in fiction. With the Eleanor of Aquitaine novels which are my work in progress, I know she has been written about before, but there is so much left to find out and to say, that I think my novels will bring a whole new set of facets to her life story.
What advantages do you think come from writing trilogies as you have done? Any disadvantages? One advantage is a nice long publishing contract, so I can plan a couple of years in advance! I have time for the characters to develop and change as they would in real life and to flow through the scenes like turning seasons. Readers become invested in the lives of these characters and are keen to engage with the next instalment. Disadvantages – not so much a disadvantage, but something to be aware of, is keeping it fresh. You can’t suddenly decide you want to write something completely different in the middle of book two. You are in it for the long haul. It is also better to make sure that your novels stand alone even while being part of a trilogy, so that a reader who picks up book 3 will not be bewildered, and will be encouraged to go back and read books one and two.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? Backside on seat basically! I set myself a word count of at least 1000 words a day, seven days a week when I’m writing fresh material. I don’t have a problem with writer’s block, but should the words be flowing more slowly, then I will write my scene as a rough sketch and come back to it later to fill in the colour. Even though I am writing 1000 words a day, I give myself regular breaks. Some of these breaks will be of the go for a walk, make a cup of coffee type of moments. Others will be dropping in to Twitter or Facebook for a few moments of chat. This is extremely productive as it’s engaging with readers and with interested and interesting people. I have to stress that I can do this because it’s the way I work. I’m an extreme multitasker. if you’re someone who needs to sink into your world for hours on end my particular way of working won’t suit you. But if you can work on several levels at once, then it’s a good method. One of my breaks in the day is to go to the gym and this helped keep up my fitness and energy levels. I think this too is important. Build some exercise into your routine.
Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it? Loosely I think. I haven’t pro actively gone out to build a brand, but that brand has formed around me by a couple of decades of really strong word-of-mouth recommendations by readers. The perceived view is historical accuracy married to vivid storytelling that puts the reader there in the moment. Again it’s what I’m told, and what I have built on from there. I run a blog called Living The History which contains essays on different aspects of the mediaeval period and characters I’m studying. (The most popular post is a mediaeval sexuality!). I have extra historical information at my website. On a daily basis, I put up books from my reference library and my historical photo archive at Facebook, and talk further about them in response to reader comments.
What do you do to connect with readers? Simple. I talk to readers at Facebook, Twitter, Good reads and on blogs, and I just treat them as I would like to be treated myself when talking to someone about a subject I’m interested in. I chat. I sometimes have a giggle. I keep it good-humoured and I’m just me. It seems to work. I never ever do it cynically either. You have to mean it; you have to be yourself; and while it’s okay to put the novels and your success at the forefront every now and again, don’t make it a daily habit. Give the readers added value, and they will value you.
What do you know about your readers? That they are lovely people from all sorts of different backgrounds round the globe who have a keen interest in history and a love of historical fiction. They want to engage; they want to talk history; they want to know. But they also want to be entertained. Age and gender are no obstruction.
What data do you collect about your readers? If they write to me or openly volunteered information, then that tells me something about them, but I don’t go collecting information or keeping tabs on them. That smacks too much of cynical marketing, and while cynical marketing will get you so far, it’s not always productive for the long haul and the hearts and minds. I’ve done very well indeed by just being open and natural and me. Readers can smell the whiff of marketing a mile off. Sometime being full on works, but you really have to know what you’re doing. It doesn’t suit me. I prefer the gentler approach with grace.
What strategies guide your writing career? Professionalism. Always hand in a manuscript that is the best you can do and ahead of deadline. Do everything with a whole heart and to the best of your ability. Play nice with others but always be true to yourself. Sounds a bit like a mantra for life I guess, but then writing is my life. Keep an eye on the market, but don’t be it’s slave, and don’t get hung upon self-destructive emotions because someone has given you a snarky review or said something unpleasant about you online. That’s their problem. Don’t sweat the stuff you can’t change. I have seen authors get themselves a bad reputation with readers because they bite back at bad Amazon reviews. It doesn’t matter, really it doesn’t. Be professional – as I said.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? It’s a very different world out there now. I would probably network a lot more, and I would really love to have done a history degree and learned the nuts and bolts of academic study in a dedicated course rather than having picked it up as I’ve gone along. As a writer I wouldn’t have done anything differently.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Do not defame those who have gone before – maintain the integrity even if your characters are imaginary. You are building a world for your readers and it has to feel real to them, so that means you have to do the research. You don’t have to dump it into the novel, but you do need it to inform your writing. It’s like the difference between watching men fight with rubber swords where you can see them bending, and with the real thing with the battle light gleaming off the steel. C.S. Lewis called it the deep magic, and if you write with that deep magic, audiences will know and appreciate that difference. I would also add enjoy yourself!
What great insights and information about how you write, Elizabeth. I find the notion of ‘deep magic’ very intriguing. As someone who reached out to contact you for this interview, I can attest to your gentle and graceful approach as well as your professionalism.
Readers and fellow writers will truly appreciate your candour.