a writer's research process, B.R.A.G. Medallion, Bernard Cornwell, connecting readers and writers, historical fiction, historical novel society, indie authors, ingredients for best sellers, researching historical fiction, Richard Denning, writing historical fiction
Several weeks ago, Geri from B.R.A.G. Medallion contacted me. This organization’s mission is “to recognize quality on the part of authors who self-publish both print and digital books” and to be “your single source for the best in self-published books”. A laudable goal given today’s industry dynamics. In turn, Geri put me in touch with Richard Denning, an indie author from the UK who writes historical fiction and has been recognized by B.R.A.G. Medallion for his writing.
You write a combination of historical fiction and historical fantasy. What do you love about immersing yourself in history? What sparked your interest in Anglo-Saxon times? What was the impetus to add writing to your work in the medical profession?
As you say I work as a General Practitioner (family doctor) with a North Birmingham practice. The day job is full of the gritty reality of day-to-day life so I find that when it comes to reading, TV, movies and hobbies I shy away from modern day reality. I have always had a strong interest in historical settings (as well as fantasy and sci-fi). I just find the past or other worlds far more interesting than the modern world. I don’t like politics much and there are many frustrations in the day job – not so much the patients as the politics and reforms – so I just like to get home at night and forget all that nonsense.
So for me writing is another form of escapism really. A writer can make up their own reality and populate it as he sees fit. There are no Health Service reforms in Saxon England!
Now the dark ages in Britain are a fascinating times. It is a cooking pot of races struggling to carve out a nation. Unpredictable, terrifying and exciting. It is a land full of colourful characters – warrior kings, religious leaders, poets and alongside them the ordinary man. We know so little about them that I wanted to find out more and then spread on that knowledge and interest.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? My house is full of books on Anglo-Saxon England. If I see a book I don’t own on this period, especially the underrepresented early period then I will probably get it. When researching a period I will check what I have on it. The internet is a vast help these days but I love to visit locations and walk them. There is nothing quite like standing where Wellington and Napoleon did for example to appreciate what happened at Waterloo.
As for writing I start with what I call my working document. This will contain an outline of the book as well as an outline of the characters. I like to get an idea of where the book is going before I start writing it BUT I also find that it will evolve as I write and new ideas spring up.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? My preferred reading would be Bernard Cornwell or Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Tolkien. Bernard Cornwell is of course a legend of Historical Writing but I also enjoy the Flashman Stories of George Mac Donald Frazer, the Roman mysteries of Steven Saylor, the Cadfael books, the Eagle series by Simon Scarrow. All these writers feature strong, well developed characters around which the story hangs. Many are great writers of battles – Cornwell a master of course – and I do love to read and write a good battle scene. They also describe well the locations they visit and I think that is important as it is reading about often lost locations that transports the reader back to those places.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? The writers I like to read do not drown you in history. They make you care about a character and let that character take you around the world exploring it. You see the world through their eyes and that is how you learn about the past world. I aim for that approach.
How do you select new stories to tell? Some series have a natural story ark and that is easy. Others need me to plot out the overall story but I tend to finish one book and decide which story I fancy writing next.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? I TRY and write a little each day. It is hard at times with the day job to juggle but even a paragraph moves it along. I would dearly love more time and energy but you just have to use what you have and make yourself get on with the jobs. The hardest part is the plot, then writing the first draft. I love the editing – that is fun and a reward when the initial hard work of slapping words on a page is done.
Do you think of yourself as having a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you reinforce it? I blend History with elements of fantasy even in my purely historical novels and all my books are suitable for a Young Adult Readership as well as adults. So I tend to focus on those areas of writing as well as targeting schools visits as a good way to reach readers.
Can you tell us a little about taking a self-publishing path – for example, what strategies are you employing? How much of the work do you do yourself? I am self-published via Mercia Books which is my own publishing house I set up to publish my own books. I employ a professional editor, illustrator and cover artist to help with the books and I lay the books out in Indesign not word. I also convert to e-books myself.
What is your marketing approach? What do you do to connect with readers? I am active on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/richard.denning1. And Twitter: http://twitter.com/RichardDenning. Have accounts also on Goodreads, Shelfari, Pinterest and Linked in although it’s the FB and Twitter I am most active on. I have a blog: http://news.richarddenning.co.uk/ and maintain quite a lot of resources on Anglo Saxons times as well as self publishing on my own website: http://www.richarddenning.co.uk/ I also issue occasional newsletters to a maillist. I do a fair number of book fairs and craft fairs when I can and also try and book in schools visits. (To talk about Anglo-Saxons, Time Travel, writing and Publishing).
What do you know about your readers? What data do you collect about your readers? I have a contact form on my website and add the contacts to my maillist. If I get emails about my books I always reply and try and answer questions. I have a mixed readership – as my stuff is YA I have a number of young readers who are keen on the books but also quite a few adults. I probably should do more to collect data and this question has made me realize I don’t know enough. I do watch the Amazon sales via a book tracker site.
What strategies guide your writing career? I am currently trying to write 1 to 2 books a year. I tend to follow the sales. So as The Amber Treasure and Child of Loki is doing quite well I am writing Princes in Exile – the next in that series. Shield Maiden has just won an award so I am also looking to get on with the second in that series.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? I rather fell into the whole writing and publishing and in many ways wish I could go back 3 years and plan it all better. For starters, am I wise to have 4 separate series on the go? The end result is I have 4 small groups of readers not one larger one! I would certainly have saved a lot of money if I had researched it all well in advance and really sorted out my plans before publishing books.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Make contact with other writers. You can learn a lot by chatting to them, reading their blogs and following them online. Get to the Historical Novel Society Conference if you can.
Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? Richard’s Question is: “If we enjoy a writers books what is the best way to show appreciation”
Richard’s answer: Firstly let them know. Go to their website and email them if you can. Follow them on twitter as well and retweet them occasionally. A massive help – and I mean MASSIVE – is to write reviews and tag them on Amazon and Goodreads. Share the reviews with their friends. Self-published authors like myself are always swimming against the tide to get our books noticed. Readers can help with that a lot.
Many thanks, Richard, for taking the time to tell us about your writing. I am inspired by how much writing you do in conjunction with working in such a demanding profession. I wish you every success.