Today I welcome C.W. Gortner, eighth on the list of favourite historical fiction authors. Since survey participants made me aware of Christopher Gortner, I have read The Last Queen and The Queen’s Vow – devoured would probably be a better word! I hope you enjoy his thoughts about writing and researching historical fiction.
Why do you write historical fiction? I’ve always been fascinated by history. I grew up in southern Spain, near Malaga, in a fishing village with a ruined castle that had belonged to Isabella of Castile. The people of the past were presences in my childhood; history never seemed dry or distant to me. In college, part of my Masters was in history. Writing historical fiction became a natural extension of my lifelong interest; I always want to know more than the facts. I want to delve beneath the surface and discover the hidden stories.
You are clearly good at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books? I can only quote what readers have told me: that they like the balance I bring to my characters. They tell me, I write about human beings, not clichés; that I show flaws and weaknesses as well as strengths. I also try to find the connections between them and us: that shared emotional experience that isn’t constrained by the differences in our eras.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? I do tend to research quite a bit, and travel is essential to me as part of that. I must see the places where my characters lived, even if those places have changed, as they usually have. Landscape is important to me: what surrounds a character is as vital to their development as what they experience. I also tend to write chronologically; it’s tough for me to jump around when I’m working on a book, even during the revision stage. I envy writers who can write any part of a story at any time, because much as I have tried, I can’t do it. I have to feel the story’s continuum at all times.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? Of course! I’m always influenced, in the sense that if I’m captured by a writer’s work I want to know how they did it; I want to dissect their language and discover the formula they used to create that sense of magic for me. But I have learned the hard way to rein in that tendency because it’s destructive. My voice is my own. It takes years for a writer to find his or her voice and it’s one of the most difficult skills to master, and one of the most fragile to retain. It’s frightening how easy we can lose our voice, especially when insecurity and doubt seduce us into wanting to be more like that other writer we admire. Truth is, we can only write as ourselves; it’s what makes us unique. To mimic someone else is a mistake.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? I don’t believe in set ingredients, per se. Books don’t come with recipes: you can’t brew them all the same way. I love all kinds of writing within our genre, from the so-called romantic to the allegedly literary to everything in-between. I think what truly makes for success in historical fiction is authenticity. A writer must be true to his or her vision. It goes to what I said above, about not being influenced. I plan what I think is important for my books: there are elements that I personally value in story-telling, such as details of landscape; emotional development; lack of clichéd values or heavy emphasis on one aspect of a story to the detriment of others. But that’s not to say I’m right. It’s what I prefer, and as we know, preference is subjective. One reader’s delight is another’s poison.
You seem to be creating books with two themes: (1) famous queens and women of power and (2) a spy series set in Tudor times. How do you balance these different projects? They are very different animals, so to speak. My queens are based on factual stories: I have set timelines and facts to adhere to; I can’t just run amok inventing alternative stories for them. I must find my love for them as people within the context of lives already lived; I also must remain bound to whatever is known about their personalities. While I can, of course, expand on these traits and find alternate reasons for their behavior, for that is what a novelist does, if every known fact states that, for example, Isabella of Castile was pious, I have to work with it. I can’t throw it out because it’s inconvenient to my particular vision of her. With my Tudor spy series, on the other hand, my protagonist is fictional, a young man with a secret past who becomes the intimate protector of Elizabeth I. The setting is factual, as are many surrounding characters, but he is not: Brendan Prescott is my creation and therefore reflects a lot more of how I feel about that era; while I must stay true to his development as a Tudor man, he’s also a stranger in his own world, an exile. He lives on the edge, in the shadows: he’s every man and no man, at the same time. I love writing him because I am free to inhabit him without constraints. He is what I make of him, for better or worse.
What advantages do you think will come from writing a series? Any disadvantages? The advantages, as I see them, are that I can grow the character and develop his personal storyline alongside the historical one. I deliberately set the first novel in the series, The Tudor Secret, before Elizabeth’s coronation, because the idea is that he and Elizabeth forge their bond through adversity, so that when she becomes queen (planned for the third book) they depend on each other and that dependency will wreak havoc in their lives. It’s not a romantic dependency: it’s the intimacy shared by those who are traumatized by their experiences and recognize in the other a safe harbor. But others will seek to destroy them because of it. Also, Elizabeth’s reign was long and quite eventful: Brendan can go anywhere, be anyone, as a spy. The possibilities are endless and very exciting to me as a writer. The disadvantages are, of course, the challenge of staying fresh; I don’t want the story to ever go stale or become repetitive. Also, every installment must stand alone in a certain way, so that readers can discover the series without feeling bound to its chronology. While reading the books in order will deepen the experience, one book should make the reader want to read the others, not necessarily oblige them to it.
What brand are you trying to create for yourself? I rarely thought about branding when I started. These were stories I wanted to tell: that was my goal. Now, of course, branding has become essential and invested publishers strive to create it. Also, every writer wants to reach that point in his or her career when readers buy our next book because they love our work, regardless of the subject matter. I honestly don’t know if I’m there yet; I would like to reach that plateau because I have other stories I’d like to write, about lesser-known eras. I don’t want my brand to constrict me, as these things tend to do. If I were solely responsible for creating my own brand— and I’m not, let us be clear about this: branding is a marketing effort that often transcends the writer’s intentions— it would be as an author of strong historical fiction that brings to life those misunderstood or maligned characters or eras. I am drawn to controversy and always will be; for a story to interest me, it has to have an edge. It can be subtle, embedded in the era itself; after all, not everyone can be a Catherine de Medici, but an edge has to be there, nonetheless.
What do you do to connect with readers? I maintain an active social media presence, to the best of my abilities, as well as an e-mail address where any reader can write to me. I answer all my e-mail personally, even though the volume can be overwhelming at times. I also do events, attend conferences, and in general try to be responsive to readers. I even respond to criticisms, though I draw a line at rudeness.
What do you know about your readers? Sometimes a great deal; sometimes very little: it all depends on what the reader wants to share with me. I know that almost all of my readers love historical fiction; that they want to discover a living history that entertains them but also makes them think. I also believe most of my readers are women.
What data do you collect about your readers? I’m a firm believer in privacy. I don’t collect data. I have over 3,000 readers on my mailing list and I know nothing more than e-mail addresses for the majority of them.
What strategies guide your writing career? Perseverance, to start: it’s a tough business. You have to want to do this, more than anything else. I also rely on the advice of the professionals who help guide me: my agent, my editors, the marketing experts. It’s a team effort. I have to stay open to different points of view. I don’t always know what’s best for me.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? Hard to say, honestly; success is often a combination of perseverance, talent, and sheer luck. Fortune can play an incredible role; the right agent with the right material at the right time can cannon-blast an author into the stratosphere and guarantee a lifetime of accolades, though sometimes, (more than we think) that same author ends up crashing back to earth. Other times, it takes years to break in and build slowly but surely, as I did and hope to continue to do. Perhaps the only thing I’d do differently would be to not suffer as much as I did. It took me thirteen years to find that right agent, with the right material, at the right time; many of those years were steeped in anxiety. The seemingly endless round of rejection can do a number on you. Looking back, I realize that I put myself through the wringer; in truth, it happened as it was supposed to. And I learned so much about myself and writing in the process. I should have enjoyed the journey more; because it’s always about the journey, in the end.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Everything I said above. Trust your gut. Find your unique voice. Master your craft. Write the very best book you can and don’t settle for anything less. Never give up, if you want to see your words in print. But recognize that if you really don’t, it’s okay, too. I had to ask myself that question about ten years into it, before I got published, when I lost my fourth agent and had no drive to find another, nothing left to give: I put it all aside for a year. I made myself experience life without it. I was miserable, so I knew I had to try again. That was when I understood – the gods save me – that I’d never be satisfied until I succeeded.
Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? More of a statement: I love animals and I believe we can each make a difference in creating a humane world, where we no longer treat our fellow beings, who share this earth with us, as something disposable. Every time we lose a species, every time a pet is euthanized in a shelter or wild creature hunted down and killed for sport, we sacrifice the very privilege that being human entails.
Thank you for your candid responses, Christopher. I particularly like your comment about a writer’s voice as “one of the most difficult skills to master, and one of the most fragile to retain” and the notions that “books don’t come with recipes” and that “one reader’s delight is another’s poison”. My next sampling of your work will have to be the first in your Brendan Prescott series!