A Writers Workshop – led by Barbara Kyle

In mid-June I took a writers workshop, joining nine others in a two-day event led by well-known historical fiction author, Barbara Kyle. Two days of insights, lively discussion and laughter. I thought it would be interesting to illustrate some of the techniques we considered with examples from one of Barbara’s books, The Queen’s Lady.

Inciting Incident – Barbara gave us a quote from Bruce Springsteen: “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” Readers want to care about a character right away. The inciting incident shows the essence of the major character in action relating to something of vital importance to him or her. That situation throws the protagonist’s world out of balance and the story tells how that main character brings their life back into balance.

Story Hook – the hook has to reflect the major essence and central drama of the story. It sets forth a significant problem for the main character.

The Queen's Lady by Barbara KyleThe Queen’s Lady – “She would remember this forever as the night she watched two men die, one at peace and one in terror.” Bang! The book opens. Right away we’re concerned. In a night of chaos, rioting and bloodshed, seven-year-old Honor Larke tries to find her father’s servant Ralph. Along the way she is threatened by thieves, soothes a dying man and has her first encounter with Thomas More. Then, at the bedside of her dying father, she watches a priest curse her father with “the pain of hell”. A short while later that same priest arranges for Honor to become the ward of a man she had never met, a man who will also control her father’s estate. We’re hooked!

Creating an Empathetic Character – writers need to create an emotional response for their readers as quickly as possible. This involves showing the characters conscious desires, motivations, and close relationships, placing them in high stakes circumstances, having them deal with everyday issues and ensuring the right blend of consistency and contradiction in their behaviour. According to Kyle, the more problems a character has, the more readers identify with him/her.

The Queen’s Lady – Honor Larke is the main character. Even as a young girl, she is feisty and courageous. Kyle immediately puts her in a threatening situation and then piles on the undeserved misfortune of being taken away from her home into the wardship of a man who only wants to marry her as soon as possible to his son and take over Honor’s fortune. With luck, Honor escapes that situation to become the ward of Thomas More but not without making a dangerous enemy of the priest who damned her father. Honor blossoms under More’s tutelage and ultimately earns a place at court with Queen Catherine. Justice and loyalty are critical to Honor’s character; both traits lead her into circumstances that risk betrayal and death. She desires love but pushes it away. She struggles with essential matters of faith. She is compassionate and yet tough minded.

As readers we engage with other significant characters: Queen Catherine, Henry VIII, Thomas More, and Richard Thornleigh. Barbara exposes their strengths and weaknesses, longings, fears and desires.

Dialogue – dialogue reveals character and must not present any barriers between reader and characters. All dialogue has subtext. Writers can augment dialogue with thoughts and body language to enhance the meaning and perspective.

The Queen’s Lady – a scene with Queen Catherine and Honor Larke. The Queen has found some evidence to prove she was a virgin when she married Henry VIII.

“Wolsey means to strangle this evidence,” she whispered. “He means to strangle my last hope. And I must do as he says. If I do not, the Privy Council threatens the most extreme consequences for my disobedience.” She dropped her forehead onto Honor’s shoulder. “Blessed Mother of God, what am I to do!”

“Madam,” Honor said steadily. “let me go to the Emperor.”

Catherine looked up, astonishment on her face. “What are you saying?”

“Send me to Spain. In Valladolid I can pour out to your nephew your pleas to release this document from his treasury. I’ll have it back here, safe in your possession, before Ascension Day. And with it you can confound these Cardinals in their legatine court.”

Catherine stared at her. “Oh, but my dear!” she whispered. “Dare I hope …? There is so little time. And … no, no, it is too dangerous.”

“Not for a pilgrim,” Honor smiled. “Don’t you see? Easter is the perfect time for such a ruse. I’ll be a pilgrim traveling to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela — just one among hundreds of English pilgrims.”

What does this reveal about Honor? She’s brave, loyal, compassionate and intelligent. And Catherine? She’s weary, fearful and almost hopeless and yet she cares for Honor’s safety and not merely her own needs.

At the end of the course, I had thirty pages of my latest manuscript full of notes and suggestions from Barbara and the other participants. Definitely time well spent.

Historical Fiction Author – Barbara Kyle

Barbara_Kyle_Author_PhotoToday Barbara Kyle has very kindly answered my questions about her writing. Barbara and I have corresponded on several occasions and she has been gracious and very supportive in each encounter. You will read in the interview about her very disciplined approach to writing – and she also finds time to lecture, instruct and offer one-on-one consultations. If you haven’t read any of her Thornleigh books, you should!

Thanks for inviting me to do this interview, Mary. I always enjoy reading your blog.

Why do you write historical fiction?     Because of the grand sweep of it, the opportunity for big stories. I set my stories at crucial historical events – the “hinges of history” – in order to generate life-changing choices and actions in my characters. My “Thornleigh” books follow a rising, middle-class family through three tumultuous Tudor reigns during which they must make hard choices about loyalty, allegiance, duty, love, and family.

In The Queen’s Lady the setting is the nerve-jangled court of Henry VIII as he wrenches England away from the Roman church to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. In The King’s Daughter it’s the Wyatt rebellion when thousands of men march on London against Henry’s daughter, Queen Mary, and very nearly take the city. In The Queen’s Captive it’s the crisis when Mary imprisons her half-sister, the future Queen Elizabeth I. In The Queen’s Gamble it’s the emergency Elizabeth faced with John Knox’s revolution in Scotland against the Scotts’ French overlords. And in my upcoming release Blood Between Queens it’s the crisis created when Mary, Queen of Scots flees to England and throws herself on the mercy of her cousin Elizabeth. These historical “hinge” events are the crucible that test my characters’ mettle.

You are clearly good at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books?     People are endlessly fascinated by the high-stakes drama of the Tudor/Elizabethan period (and so am I) so I’d say that it’s Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas More, Elizabeth I, and Mary Queen of Scots, and who attract readers to my books. But the reason readers stay is for characters they can care deeply about, which in the main are the Thornleigh family members I’ve created: Honor and Richard, Isabel and Carlos, Adam and Frances. It’s a paradox: readers want to identify with a story’s hero (male or female) but they also want that hero to face extraordinary challenges of a kind that most of us never face. Great novels generate an empathy that asks: What would I do in that situation? That’s the experience I strive to give my readers.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?    I do. My contract with my publisher for the last three books and the next two is to deliver a book every year, so I follow a strict regime. I spend about three months developing an outline, a detailed document that is eventually about twenty pages and covers just what happens. Research is concurrent with building this outline. For me, the outline is crucial: it’s where all the heavy lifting of creation gets done, the development of the characters and plot. When I teach writers I call this process Storylining, because as writers we can never forget that we’re telling a story. Once I have an outline I spend about seven months writing the first draft, then about two months on the second draft, leaving the last couple of weeks for a polish draft.

Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you?    I’ve always loved and admired big, complex adventure stories and family sagas. James Clavell’s Shogun. Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. I also adored Edith Pargeter’s historical series: The Heaven Tree trilogy and The Brothers of Gwynedd quartet.

What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing?    I think we see successes all over the map in historical fiction, with a wide variety of ingredients appealing to readers, which is wonderful. In general, though, I agree with the conclusion you stated in your blog post that what readers enjoy reading about most is “greatness and great times.” Hence, my choice of various “hinges of history” for my settings.

You’ve created a very popular series set in Tudor times called the Thornleighs. What advantages have come from writing a series? Any disadvantages?    The greatest advantage is that readers love to follow the Thornleigh family characters from one book to the next, much like they enjoy following continuing characters in an enthralling TV drama series. They do identify with the Thornleighs as a rising, middle class family – the dangerously free-thinking Honor; Richard, the wool trader turned MP; the adventurous seafarer, Adam; Isabel, the reluctant revolutionary; Carlos, her Spanish mercenary husband – and their nemesis, the Grenville family. Continuing with a series is certainly satisfying for me, because I know the characters so well, which reduces the angst when I begin a new book. Disadvantages? I actually can’t think of any. My cast of characters is large enough to allow me to propel at least some of them into any dramatic situation I want.

I notice that you’ve recently released a thriller set in the present day. Why did you decide to try your hand at something so completely different?    It’s more a return than a departure. Before Kensington published my historical novels I wrote three thrillers under the male pseudonym ‘Stephen Kyle’ that were published by Warner Books (now Hachette) and did very well. Entrapped, my new thriller (under my own name this time) is a book I loved writing. It’s set in Alberta, Canada, where there’s a war going on between landowners and Big Oil. My thriller was inspired by the true story of a farmer whose land was surrounded by oil companies’ rigs and gas flares, and whose livestock were sickening and dying from the poisoned air and water, but his complaints were ignored, so he took matters into his own hands and sabotaged the rigs.

What brand are you trying to create for yourself?    I don’t think of a brand really. In a nutshell, I would say that I want readers to know they’re guaranteed an exciting story about characters whose desires and dilemmas they can care deeply about.

What do you do to connect with readers?    I send out a newsletter about three times a year to my mailing list; readers sign up for it through my website. I have a Facebook Author Page. I adore Twitter and have an ongoing dialogue with many readers there. (Is that a Twialogue?)  The best is when readers connect with me, usually by email, and then it’s a joy to reply.

What do you know about your readers?    They have good taste!

What data do you collect about your readers?    Just email address when they sign up for my newsletter through my website.

What strategies guide your writing career?    My strategy is to write compelling novels and deliver them to my publisher by the contract deadline! I don’t mean that flippantly. To accomplish both is a full-time job.

What would you do differently if you were starting again?    I would educate myself earlier about the publishing industry. When I began writing I was rather ignorant about the business imperatives that publishers have to deal with. For example, an acquisition editor may take a chance and buy a debut novel that she loves but that has limited appeal so it fails in the marketplace. If she does that a few times – buys books that fail – she gets fired. So no wonder they’re cautious. Publishing is a business, and it behooves writers to remember that.

Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction?    I’d say don’t be a slave to academic facts. Readers want characters who feel alive, and that life comes from you giving breath to the characters through your individual and vivid worldview, your distinct vision. That’s priceless.

Many thanks for such interesting responses, Barbara. Your phrase ‘the hinges of history’ really speaks to me and I imagine it will to others as well. I’m also intrigued by the concept of storylining and your example from the publishing world brings home the realities facing all authors both debut and established. Since we live in the same part of the world, I hope we can connect in person some day!

BLOOD BETWEEN QUEENSBarbara Kyle is the author of the acclaimed Tudor-era “Thornleigh” novels published by Kensington Books, New York, including The Queen’s Lady, The King’s Daughter, The Queen’s Captive, The Queen’s Gamble and Blood Between Queens. Over 400,000 copies of her books have been sold. Barbara has taught writers at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and is known for her dynamic workshops for many writers’ organizations and conferences. Before becoming an author Barbara enjoyed a twenty-year acting career in television, film, and stage productions in Canada and the U.S. Visit www.barbarakyle.com

Books, books, books

After conducting the historical fiction survey and discovering a bunch of favourite authors, I decided that I should read as many of them as possible – not all their work but at least one book each. In some cases – Philippa Gregory is an example – I had already experienced the author but others, like CW Gortner or Deanna Raybourn, were unknown to me. So here’s my progress on the top 40, by the way, I’m concentrating on living authors.


  • Sharon Kay Penman – Time and Chance
  • Philippa Gregory – the latest was Fallen Skies (an early work set in post-WWI times)
  • Elizabeth Chadwick – The Running Vixen
  • Bernard Cornwell – Sword Song
  • Ken Follett – Fall of Giants
  • CW Gortner – The Last Queen and The Queen’s Vow
  • Michelle Moran – Cleopatra’s Daughter
  • Susan Higginbotham – Traitor’s Wife
  • Helen Hollick – Forever Queen
  • Anne Perry – The Sheen on the Silk
  • Geraldine Brooks – People of the Book
  • Jacqueline Winspear – Maisie Dobbs
  • Deanna Raybourn – Silent in the Sanctuary and Silent in the Grave


  • Diana Gabaldon – one of her Lord John Grey series (since I’ve read almost all of Outlander)
  • Alison Weir – Mistress of the Monarchy (a new author for me)
  • Margaret George – Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles (such a tragic figure)
  • CJ Sansom – Heartstone (one of his Matthew Shardlake series)
  • Tracy Chevalier – The Virgin Blue (interweaving present and past)
  • Hilary Mantel – Bring up the Bodies (completing the Wolf Hall story)
  • Sarah Dunant – Sacred Hearts (set in a 16th Italian convent)
  • Colleen McCullough – The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet (haven’t read this Australian author since The Thorn Birds)
  • Lindsey Davis – The Course of Honour (another new author)
  • Edward Rutherfurd – Dublin (who can resist Dublin?)
  • Sarah Waters – The Night Watch (WWII is up my alley)
  • Jean Auel – I’ve read them all (no pun intended)
  • John Jakes – On Secret Service (because I enjoy spies)

I have my work cut out for me. I’ll be trying to figure out what makes them such favourites.

PS – I’ve also read The Mathematics of Love by Emma Darwin, Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom and The King’s Daughter by Barbara Kyle.