a writer's research process, connecting readers and writers, Drake, Elizabethan times, English Historical Fiction Authors, historical fiction, historical novel society, HNS, ingredients for best sellers, Jenny Barden, Mistress of the Sea, reading the past, writing historical fiction
I am delighted to welcome Jenny Barden to A Writer of History. Jenny’s debut novel Mistress of the Sea has received enthusiastic endorsement from readers and writers of historical fiction. It’s an “epic, romantic swashbuckling Elizabethan adventure set at the time of Drake, pirates and privateers”. Who can resist that combination?
How did an artist turn lawyer and then writer? I spent most of my early childhood in make-believe worlds on quests to defeat demon kings, vanquish monsters and find my way through secret passageways in gothic castles and across treacherous crevasses. So, in a way, I began inventing stories before anything else, but the stories were in my head and role-play, not written down. The first expression of my creativity that anyone acknowledged was my painting. I was blessed with a natural talent for drawing, which my artist-mother encouraged, and throughout my schooling my reputation was so tied up with this gift that it seemed only natural that ‘Jenny the artist’ would one day study Fine Art at university. What I hadn’t counted on was the swing to abstract and conceptual art that coincided with my arrival as an undergraduate keen to learn the techniques of masters like Caravaggio. I was also conscious that at some point I’d have to earn a living, and that would be difficult if my only skills were in being able to pontificate on the ‘numinous transcendence of the linear in space’. Better to switch to a career that would pay well and paint freely in my spare time.
So I switched to law, left university with an LLB and began training as a solicitor articled (by pure chance) to a cousin of WH Auden in my home town of Burton upon Trent. Then I transferred to a distinguished firm of corporate solicitors in Throgmorton Avenue in the City of London. I ended up being one of the first female solicitors they kept on to specialise in company commercial law, and I practiced in that field until the arrival of children (four in total) effectively put an end to my legal career. I then carried on with my art at home while raising my children, and for a while that absorbed me completely, until a chance encounter with the magnificent portrait of Carel Fabritius which hangs in the National Gallery caused me to be so entranced by this artist that I determined to find out more about him. That search for information led to my first hesitant efforts at writing in secret (because I didn’t think I could write a chapter, never mind a book) but in the end I produced a fictionalised account of the artist’s life, on the strength of which I secured an agent, and thus my career as a writer began. Writing, I now realise, has brought all the threads running through my life together – invention and escape, the love of art and attention to detail, a passion for history and adventure; I’ve been able to combine a lawyer’s rigour in research with an artist’s visualisation and imagination – and that leads me nicely to your next question.
Which profession has been your passion? At various stages in my life I’ve been passionate about all three, but my passion now – my greatest passion – is writing
How long did it take for your first book, Mistress of the Sea, to be published? About two years from first submission. The book was initially sent out by my agent in the summer of 2010. Within two weeks, Gillian Green, who is now my editor at Ebury Press, took the book to acquisition meeting, but it was turned down by sales and marketing. I then spent the best part of a year revising the book and building a better platform as a writer. The book was resubmitted in 2011 and then several editors took it to acquisition meeting, amongst them Gillian Green, this time successfully. I finally signed a contact for a two book deal with Ebury just before last Christmas and, after further revisions and editing, the book went to print and was released in hardback, trade paperback and ebook on 30 August this year.
Based on reader reaction to date, what is attracting readers to your novel? It’s still early days; my book has only been out just over a month, so there’s not been much time as yet for reviews and comment, though the Mistress has already picked up excellent ratings. I’d say that readers are attracted to the book by two things: first, what they’ve heard about it, and second, the look of it. In the main what’s driving the former is word about the book online. I’ve picked up an awareness of that by looking at comments on blogs and forums and social networking sites. For example, after an article of mine was posted on Sarah Johnson’s Reading the Past blog there were comments such as: ‘Very interested in this’ and ‘I’m looking forward to reading [Mistress of the Sea] as I love tales set on the high seas.’ There was a lot of feedback in that vein in response to posts I made on quite a few high profile sites (and much discussion about where Americans could get hold of copies as the book is not yet generally available in the US – one answer is here for those who are interested.
As for the look of the book attracting readers, I could see that with my own eyes when I did my first Waterstones’ book signing in Plymouth. I had a fabulous time, and sales were so brisk that I moved up from instore bestseller rank #12 to #6 (and even overtook Philippa Gregory – at least for that day!).My strategy was to watch customers as they came in. If they drifted over to the bestseller chart (conveniently situated near the main entrance and my signing table) then I’d strike up a conversation. Naturally I’d say a little about Mistress of the Sea if I sensed any interest, but what I said depended on who I was talking to. For younger women I emphasised the romance in the adventure and the thriller element, for men I stressed the action, for nautical types (usually bearded!) I said the novel was about Drake’s first enterprise, for those who were obviously Plymouth locals I said the story began and ended in Plymouth. For older women I made much of the sweeping core love story, and for families with children I said the book was about pirates. Very few customers didn’t buy it! But what helped in all this was that the cover appealed to everyone in a positive and eye-catching way. The jacket has an overall gold tint which is instantly attractive. The cloaked and hooded lady in the foreground immediately engages the interest of women, yet the cover is not so feminine as to put the men off – there’s a ship at sea in the background which helps them, and the text on the back of the hardback jacket sums up the story and hooks interest very neatly. I watched customers very carefully while they were pondering – hands and eyes give away a lot! So I have a pretty good idea as to what works with the jacket for the Mistress and, all in all, I’d say Ebury have done an excellent job. In terms of reader feedback so far, the main attractions of the book seem to be its subject matter (Tudor era and an exotic Drake adventure), the accuracy of the research, the credibility of the characters, the drama of the love story and the pace which quickens as the story progresses.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? Of the utmost importance to me is getting as close as possible on the ground in the present to the pivotal scenes in which my stories are set. Only by ‘being there’ is it possible to gain some real appreciation of climate, topography, the natural environment and the conditions in which people must have lived at that location in the past. For instance, there is practically nothing left of Nombre de Dios in Panama as it was in Drake’s time, nonetheless I journeyed there and saw the shanty-style settlement that exists now with that name, and walked over the levelled site of the place, as near as I could determine it, on which the city had once stood in the early 1570s when it was of key significance to the episodes described in Mistress of the Sea. It doesn’t always happen, but quite often I find that if I ‘walkabout’ the place where one of my scenes is set then I can hear the characters speaking and feel them walking close beside me.I’m also fanatical about rooting out all the primary sources that might be relevant to the events in history that underpin my fiction. There’s been so much written about Elizabeth I, Sir FrancisDrake and the age in which they lived that it’s easy to feel swamped by the sheer weight of information available, yet, get back to the primary sources and, mercifully, what really matters thins out. These contemporary accounts are the most valuable of all for me in providing the hard evidence for what actually happened, and giving a sense of language and the attitudes of those involved at the time. It never ceases to surprise me how often, by digging deep, the ‘facts’ to which historians are sometimes perceived as having exclusive access, in reality prove to be no more than conjecture and speculation. There’s not enough space here to do this fascinating subject justice, but I’d say that historians are often involved in as much invention as storytellers, and that storytellers can provide as much insight into the past as historians.As far as my own personal approach to this process goes, obviously I’ll try to be faithful to the records, such as they are, but I’ll always have the story at the back of my mind, and be considering what will have motivated people at the time both in their actions and their accounts. From this foundation I’ll weave a narrative which I hope is both convincing and compelling. As to the interface between research and writing as a matter of practice, I research extensively before I begin in order to construct an outline, and I research as I go along in order to fill in the detail.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? Most certainly. Other writers have been a huge influence both in firing my imagination as a child and enriching my life as an adult. I’m an eclectic reader, but the fiction I enjoy most tends to be at the more literary end of commercial (though I really can’t stand literary fiction that’s up its proverbial!). I’m loth to pick out individual great authors because so many have made a profound impression on me, but I will say that recently I’ve found the work of Hilary Mantel extraordinarily fresh and energising. I believe she’s pioneered a new approach to historical fiction, bringing the past to life in a way that’s truly original, by getting right inside the head of a character (such as Thomas Cromwell), and showing not only what he might have perceived and felt, but his awareness as a stream of thought with all the fluidity of shifts in time and significance that this entails. I’ll confess to being in awe of her ability, though I would not dream of trying to emulate her or any other author, just as I won’t read fiction that’s at all close to my own when I’m writing because of the risk of inadvertently distorting my own voice. When I’m writing creatively my staple diet is non-fiction.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Did you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? An understanding of human nature and the craft of good storytelling, rigorous research in the broadest sense and respect for the known history are all qualities that can be found in a top historical fiction author, but as to what ‘makes’ for one, that requires a special magic tied up with market trends and public awareness, and if I really knew the answer I probably wouldn’t tell you! Have I planned for any of these ingredients in my writing? No – I’ve been too busy trying to get my stories down and knocked into shape fit for publication!
Why did you select this story about Drake? It’s such a fantastic little-known episode in Drake’s early career – a tale of endurance, courage and triumph against the odds, and it’s right at the crux of the emergence of England as a significant power and the dawn of the Elizabethan Golden Age. It was England’s mastery of the sea, which began with the opportunism of Drake and others like him, that led eventually to the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the development of the British navy and ultimately to the growth of the British empire. There are also so many inspiring facets to this true story that make it of special significance today: the fact that so few people could achieve so much, that Drake only succeeded with the help of Huguenot freebooters and escaped African slaves, that Drake stared defeat in the face not once but several times and never gave up, that he suffered terrible personal tragedy – the loss of many of his crew and two younger brothers – but still carried on. It really is a fabulously uplifting story in its conclusion, and with the love interest I’ve woven into it I think it’s a story that will hook anyone.
You already have a follow on story planned, what advantages do you think that presents? Any disadvantages? Being able to talk about the second book is a boon while I’m promoting the first. It gives readers the reassurance that there is more to come. Mistress of the Sea will not be a shooting star but the beginning of something larger. ‘What next?’ is such an obvious question that I’m very pleased to be able to answer it from a position of strength – there will be another book that my publishers have already commissioned. Of course the disadvantage is that I now have a deadline which already feels very close and the pressure of producing another novel while I’m still busy promoting the first.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? The best technique for me is to begin early and distance myself from interference. So I don’t write at or near my computer during the first draft stage, but rather scribble down my thoughts longhand – I find that enormously liberating. The biggest distractions for me are emails, twitter and facebook – though they’re also some of the most useful tools for promotion, so I wouldn’t cut myself off from them altogether. I just try to keep well away from my computer until I’ve made progress in achieving my daily word-count target. Mind you, my output is hugely variable, so the target is not something I get too worked up about! It’s simply useful in keeping me focused and giving me a sense of progress when I’m in writing mode – and there’s another rub – I can’t always flip on the writing switch when I want to. When I’m preoccupied with ‘other stuff’, whether it’s co-ordinating the HNS London Conference as I have been recently, or travelling to some event to promote my first book, or simply dealing with the demands of family life, then I can’t write at the same time. I try not to fret about that, but tackle issues early before they become worries and get down to my writing in a relaxed state of mind. Cycling or walking with the dog helps a lot! There’s nothing like fresh air and a change of view to help free the imagination!
Are you trying to create a brand? If so, how would you describe it and how do you plan to reinforce it? The brand is Jenny Barden! I think all authors aspire to creating a brand unique to their genre, subject areas and voice. At the risk of over-simplifying, I’d say my genre is historical fiction, and my subject areas (so far!) are Elizabethan epic adventures away from the royal court. My principal protagonists are a fictional ‘Everywoman’ as well as an ‘Everyman’, and my voice is lyrical but accessible. But please read Mistress of the Sea and judge for yourself. That’s my brand. I’ll reinforce it with the next book, The Lost Duchess, which will be another Elizabethan romantic adventure based on the first attempt to found a permanent English settlement in Virginia.
What do you do (or plan to do) to connect with readers? I hope to reach out to readers by engaging in interviews like this, making myself visible, approachable and always responding to interest. I have a fairly strong following on Twitter (@jennywilldoit) (over 2,200 followers) Facebook and Goodreads – so these are prime platforms for connecting with readers. I also have my website and I blog with English Historical Fiction Authors provide occasional features for the Historical Novel Society, and I contribute to other sites on an ad hoc basis. On top of this online activity, I make myself available for booksignings at stores and give talks in libraries, museums and other places (eg at the Golden Hinde near London Bridge on 2nd November. I also speak at literary festivals (eg the Bristol Festival of Literature and conferences (eg HNSLondon12). I’m looking forward to giving talks to book and reader groups as well.
What do you know about your readers? I believe the bulk of my readers so far have been intelligent well-educated women in the 20-60 age-group. I say that only based on personal observation.
What data do you plan to collect about your readers? I hope my publishers will enlighten me more! – But I’ll also gain in understanding of my core readership as I continue with my promotion.
What strategies have guided your writing career? Grim determination!
What would you do differently if you were starting again? I wouldn’t be nearly so precious about my writing as I was initially.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? Keep reading HF and join the HNS!