Author Tracey Warr answered the call when I asked for second career authors to discuss their journeys. She’s an eclectic writer with works of historical fiction set in the middle ages, future fiction, biography, art writing on contemporary artists and book reviews.
What sort of career did you have before becoming a writer?
I worked as an art curator, organising exhibitions, and then as an art history university lecturer. I wrote non-fiction for the first 20 years or so of my working life – books, essays and journal articles on art.
Was there a triggering event that prompted you to begin writing?
I left a university job, disillusioned, and not sure what direction to take next. Around the same time my daughter reached 18 and left home. I had been a single parent and she my only child, and the focus of my life until that point. I went to stay for six months in a friend’s house in rural southern France, while he was away as a visiting professor in India. In France, I was inspired by the history and landscapes around me and experienced a sense of new vistas opening up – anything could happen.
I had always written (but not published) children’s stories for my daughter and, then, for my nephew. I visited a castle and medieval village in the Tarn Valley called Brousse le Chateau with my nephew. The village appears almost untouched over hundreds of years. With its steep cobbled streets and mossy-roofed houses, it conjures a vivid sense of living in the Middle Ages. We expected someone in a doublet or wimple to emerge at any moment from one of the crooked doorways. My nephew asked me to write a children’s story for him about the castle.
I started researching and came across Almodis de La Marche, the Countess of Toulouse and Barcelona and a powerful female lord. She featured in the children’s story I wrote about a fay or fairy with a serpent’s or mermaid’s tale, based on the medieval story of Melusine. However, I felt there was an adult novel or biography to be written about Almodis. I did more and more research about her and her times – the 11th century. Writers are often told to ‘write what you know’, but I enjoyed delving, instead, into histories that I knew very little about when I began.
I undertook a Creative Writing MA to give me committed time to write. I entered the Impress Prize with the first three chapters of the novel about Almodis and was runner-up. Impress Books offered me a publishing contract and I’ve never looked back. I returned to nine more years of university lecturing and struggled to write more novels alongside a full-time job. Eventually, I ignored another piece of advice frequently given to writers: ‘Don’t quit the day job’. I took early retirement from my academic art history job to focus on fiction writing. Now, I have published four novels, all set in early medieval Europe, and have a fifth novel in progress.
Do you now write full time or part time?
I see writing as my main job, but continue to do some freelance teaching, non-fiction writing and editing to augment my income. I bought a very small, very cheap house in France overlooking a river and, for a few years after starting my second career, I lived most of the time there, where my financial outgoings were low. I’ve recently returned to spending more time in the UK, to take care of my 1-year-old grandson, part-time. Living in the UK puts pressure on me to earn more from freelance work, but my fiction writing momentum is well established now, and I have contracts for three more books in the pipeline. Perhaps my grandson will be the inspiration, too, for me to finally dust off my children’s stories and see if they might be publishable.
What parts of the writing career do you enjoy the most/the least?
The only thing I don’t like about my writing career is that I can’t afford to write full time.
I relish the autonomy of being a writer. I love research. I used to be a voracious fiction reader. Now, I mostly read history books, medieval chronicles and the like – the more obscure, the better. If only they would let me, I’d be happy to move into the British Library. I draw on my former career, using objects and images in museums as inspirations for my writing. A statue of the Virgin in Albi Cathedral, for example, was the inspiration for my physical description of Almodis. A Viking serpent brooch in the British Museum was a recurring motif in my second novel. A particular landscape in Wales – the triple river estuary at Carmarthen Bay – inspired my current trilogy of novels about the Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys.
I love making up my characters and stories, thinking my way into the characters’ motivations, interactions and decisions. I revel in the moment when I have a whole first draft of a novel printed out and know that this big wodge of paper contains a world, a story that I have completely made up from fresh air. And then I love working on that first draft: editing it, starting to see what the story is really all about, bringing that out in rewrites. And I enjoy hearing about readers’ responses to the stories.
What parts of your former career do you miss/not miss?
I miss my students. I always enjoyed teaching itself. However, I continue to do a little art history teaching for an American University in France, and I teach on residential creative writing courses.
I don’t miss the overwork, the bureaucracy, the shifts that are occurring in universities now, away from an educational philosophy – pursuing knowledge together like hunters – towards a corporate ethos.
Do you have any regrets?
What advice would you offer other second career writers?
Go for it. Don’t expect to get rich or even earn enough to live on as a novelist. Only a small proportion of writers make a lot of money. I always say that I live cheaply so that I can live richly. You will take something useful from your first career into your work as a writer. It’s useful to think about what that is. Be nosy, observant, keep a journal. Even though I am writing historical fiction, I often use things that I’ve seen in contemporary life around me. A couple parting at a bus-stop in Oxford, for example, became two medieval lovers separating at the harbour of Narbonne. Buddy up with other writers. I share manuscripts in progress with a couple of writing buddies, and we give each other critical feedback. Join a writers group, and reading groups are also useful for writers. Be proactive about engaging with other writers and with readers. I speak at literary festivals, at libraries and bookshops, at castles, and at universities, and I very much enjoy sharing aspects of the writing process in discussion with other people.
So many bits in your post resonate for me, Tracey. Many thanks for sharing your journey.
Conquest: The Drowned Court by Tracey Warr – 1107. Henry I finally reigns over England, Normandy and Wales, but his rule is far from secure. He faces a series of treacherous assassination attempts, and rebellion in Normandy is scuppering his plans to secure a marriage for his son and heir.
With the King torn between his kingdoms and Nest settled with her Norman husband, can she evade Henry’s notice or will she fall under his control once more? As her brother Gruffudd garners support in an effort to reclaim his kingdom, Nest finds she cannot escape the pull of her Welsh heritage. While the dissent grows and a secret passion is revealed, the future of Nest and her Norman sons is placed in dire peril. In this riveting sequel to Daughter of the Last King, Nest must decide to whom her heart and loyalty belongs.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.