Interview with author Eugenia West

I first encountered Eugenia Lovett West when her most recent novel – Sarah’s War – was released. As someone who began writing after a thirty-year career in business, I was fascinated to learn that Eugenia West is well into her nineties. She says that her goal is to keep on waking up every morning with the urge to create. Amen to that!

What was the inspiration for writing your first novel, The Ancestors Cry Out? 

Thanks so much for inviting me to be on your blog, What was my inspiration for writing my first novel, The Ancestor’s Cry Out? I fell in love with the island of Jamaica when visiting family there—and this was in the 1960’s before it became a popular resort. Women still walked along the road with baskets on heads and there were few cars. The beauty of sea and sky was dramatic, the people were warm and friendly. As well, there was great contrast between the shore and the higher elevation. A trip into the hills and a visit to a sugar plantation introduced me to a wilder landscape and sense of a strong sub-culture, sometimes voodoo. I read a number of journals written by wives of British governors with tales of uprisings and tragedy. The combination of beauty and the undercurrents of danger led me to invent a cast of characters and to send a young woman from Boston on a mission to find a lost inheritance.

What keeps you writing?

I believe strongly in the value of escape reading. For me, it started when I had little children and nap time was a chance to read and regain sanity. These days, the need for escape reading may be stronger than ever, and my aim is to give readers total immersion into another world. I come from a long line of preachers and teachers and I may have inherited a love of playing with words.  As well, the euphoria when a manuscript is accepted does overcome the pain of rejection. And—at age 96, it’s a gift to wake up in the morning with the urge to create.

Do you begin with plot or character?

For writing history, I’m apt to begin with plot. Sarah’s War evolved after reading about the winter of 1777 in Philadelphia, the contrast between General Washington’s disintegrating militia at Valley Forge, the sickness, the bleeding feet in the snow. Now picture British officers living the high life in winter quarters in Philadelphia. There were weekly balls at Mr. Smith’s City Tavern, sports, musicales. This culminated in a farewell party for General Sir William Howe modeled after an old fashioned jousting tournament and ending with a grand ball and fireworks costing thousands of pounds. An extravaganza—nothing like this had ever happened in the colonies. The contrast led me to start years of research. I spent four days reliving the Battle at the Brandywine River. I knew where every regiment in both armies was standing, and how the British general, Lord Cornwallis, made a fearful mistake by allowing his troops fall out for a leisurely lunch, giving Washington’s men a chance to avoid a trap and escape. The first version of Sarah’s War was far longer, with three main characters.  In the end, to make the story move faster, I concentrated on one character, Sarah. It caused me great pain to cut out many pages of careful research, but I tried hard to maintain a sense of what it was like to live in that dangerous time. Loyalists and fence sitters outnumbered patriots. The streets were filled with informers and spies. There was no structure of governance, just thirteen states each with their own demands. We owe a great deal to those first patriots who might well have been hung if the war for independence was lost.

You’ve written novels since the 1970s. What changes to the industry do you think are most significant?

My sense is that changes in the last few decades are giving writers far more opportunities to see their manuscripts become books that you can hold in your hand. When I started writing novels, it was almost essential to have an agent with connections to editors. The alternative was expensive vanity publishing. Now many books are self-published and profitable. There are more small presses, and there’s also a new game in town—hybrid publishing. The author pays up front and the hybrid publisher produces a presentable book—cover, ISBN, links to distributers etc.  Depending on the success of the print run, the author gets a high percentage of earnings. There have been other major changes. I used to work on an electric typewriter and mistakes had to be covered with white ink. Then came computers. Unlike children who seem to be born hardwired with technical skills, my generation struggled with the learning process—I still treat my computer with wary respect. In fact, when I started writing there was no internet and no social media like Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, giving writers the chance to build up lists of fans and followers.

What lessons have you learned from your long career writing fiction?

The answer is many—and often the hard way through trial and error. Readers and writers are starting off on a journey together. It’s up to the writer to create a bond—and that bond must be created as soon as possible. I learned that it takes many hours and many thousands of words to find one’s “voice” or particular style—my theory is that writing is 10% talent and 90% applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. I discovered that I don’t have a gift for clever metaphors, but I do have an ear for dialogue that can move a story along without lengthy descriptions. It helped that when my youngest child was in school all day, I became a freelance reporter for a number of weeklies in New Jersey. Journalism teaches one to check facts and to cut down on adverbs and adjectives that detract from strong writing. Feeling important, I rushed around with my Nikkon camera covering everything from sewage disposal meetings to national conventions. Then, instead of 300 words, why not 300 pages? My first novel was sheer trash, but the second, The Ancestors Cry Out, was picked up by Doubleday. I learned that, for me, suspense is essential. I want the reader to be compelled to turn the page.

You’ve written both historical fiction and contemporary. What appeals to you about each genre?

As a story teller, not a bone fide historian, I owe a great deal to non-fiction writers like McCullough and Ellis and Philbrick. History can be flexible, accounts handed down are subject to change. For example, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it wasn’t Boston patriots dressed as Indians that boarded ships and threw tea overboard. It was tea smugglers, concerned that imported tea would eat into their profits. Historical fiction demands that you balance facts and imagination. Great care must be taken when introducing actual figures like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. On the other hand, for mysteries, there are rules to follow like planting red herrings, valid clues, surprise endings. The villain is always caught and justice must triumph. Mysteries come in many shapes and sizes, but for me a husband killing his wife in a bathtub is not an option. Mine have global sub-plots like advanced weaponry, illegal viruses, and cybercrime. To sum up, I think there is a special dimension to writing history because both reader and writer gain insights from expanding our knowledge of the past and of the people who changed the world. It’s a never ending source of interest.

Many thanks for sharing your perspective, Eugenia. Readers will be fascinated with your experience and inspired by your career.

Sarah’s War by Eugenia Lovett West ~~ 1777 is a pivotal year in the United States. The Revolutionary War has long since begun, with no end in sight. George Washington and his untrained militia struggle to survive. The thirteen states are torn apart by politics. Amidst all this chaos, Sarah Champion—a beautiful young Patriot and parson’s daughter whose twin brother was killed in the Battle of Long Island—is sent from rural Connecticut to live with a rich Loyalist aunt in Philadelphia. There, she is plunged into a world of intrigue and treachery. She spies on British officers enjoying festivities in winter quarters. She goes to Valley Forge with information about a plot to kill Washington.

As the war drags on, Sarah digs deep for the strength, courage, and wits to overcome the numerous deadly threats she faces, driven on by her determination to realize one dream: being part of the efforts to form a new and independent country.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

 

Perspectives on writing with author Bob Rich

Bob Rich is a professional grandfather. His main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which his grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. He’s worked as a research scientist, a builder’s labourer, a nurse, a psychotherapist and always as a storyteller. For eighteen years, he’s written a newsletter – a collection of thoughts and insights on a wide range of topics – called Bobbing Around. I think you’ll find his perspective refreshing.

Why do you write historical fiction?

Mary, it’s not like that for me. Writing is the chocolate icing on the cake of life, and research is the yeast in the cake mix.

I started with nonfiction, and without meaning to, built up a wide following in Australia, where I live. As a kid, one of my favorite activities was to read anything that taught me something new. I used to read encyclopedias, and could get lost in them for hours. This gave me an understanding of our world, and how it can be improved.

For years, I had a concept in my mind: a small group of forest-dwelling teenagers, facing an invading patrol of nomads who kill the boys and abduct the girls. When I felt confident enough, I started writing, and this resulted in a series: The stories of the Ehvelen. The Ehvelen are the REAL little people, the base of the many myths. I know, because I visited them in 700 BC. They became the protectors of the wild places, the Mother’s sword against cruelty, slavery, exploitation.

My writing skills have greatly improved during the past 20-odd years, and I should rewrite the books, because the content is great. Only, I’ve grown since, and now I am less interested in opposing evil as in changing it into good. For example, my award-winning novel, Sleeper, Awake, has plenty of tension, but no villains at all. It’s also historical, but the time is 1500 years into the future.

Another historical project was set between 1939 and 2000. It’s the story of a woman who did the impossible and survived the unsurvivable, more than once. She used intelligence, creativity and ruthlessness to survive the Nazi occupation of Hungary, then built a million-dollar business behind the iron curtain. Only, this is nonfiction: my mother’s biography. After she died, I had a suitcase-full of research materials, but couldn’t even look at them for two years. The resulting book has the highest number of awards among my 17 titles. It’s Anikó: The stranger who loved me.

In 2013, I had book published that’s mostly historical fiction: early Viking times in Ireland, the period surrounding the Irish rebellion of 1798 and its sequel of Irish people being deported to what became Australia, then the Victorian era, and finally our times. Why did I write this one? Because it is my life story, though fictionalized to protect the guilty. It’s the story of my life, and five of my past lives I recalled in 2007, but the hero is not me. Rather, he is the person I’d like to be. This is Ascending Spiral.

Finally, one of my recent books is historical fiction, set in Australia in the mid-19th century. The inspiration for it was my work as a counselor in an (Australian) Aboriginal health service. I came to love and admire these people, who are the survivors of genocide, and terribly traumatized from what the invaders did to people of an amazingly wise culture. So, Guardian Angel is a tribute to them.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?

Typically, I invent a few characters, and put them into a situation. They then take over, and tell me what to write. Often, they tell me what I need to find out before I can make it happen. For example, Maraglindi, my Aboriginal heroine, told me that her life began near Newcastle, in New South Wales, so then I researched the area, contacted local Aboriginal associations, consulted with experts on various aspects of life in the area during the 1850s, and suchlike fun activities.

What advantages do you think come from concentrating on a period of time?  Any disadvantages?

I think I’d get bored with sticking to just one time-and-place. Life is too short for the seriousness it deserves. (A young fellow told me this in 700 BC.) If I get a concept for a particular time, or location, then I have the joy of researching it.

What techniques do you employ to write productively?

I’m not fussed about speed, or deadlines, and have several projects going at the same time, all very different from each other. I had a historical novel published in 2017, a contemporary one earlier this year, I am almost ready to send a nonfiction book (From Depression to Contentment: A self-therapy guide) to my publisher, and am working on a science fiction series set in the present time. I started the depression book about 10 years ago, and worked on it only when the more fun fiction projects dried up.

Writing for me is not distinct from life. Ideas bubble up all the time. Some I let go, others I grab hold of, and they take me over.

What strategies guide your writing career?

Get a piece of work as perfect as I can make it. Then I seek beta readers, and improve further. I’m always open to suggestions for improvement, and there is no such thing as a mistake, only learning opportunities.

Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction?

Enjoy. Do enough research that you could move into that time and place and be indistinguishable from the locals. Listen to your characters. They know better than you do.

Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked?

What sets literature apart from the forgettable?

You can have a perfectly enjoyable book, which will merge into the great crowd of other memories within a few weeks, or at the most months. Other books stay with you. Real life events will bring something from the story to mind, and you feel a better person for having read it.

I think the difference is the message. Every book has a set of messages, which is the belief system of the author. When the subterranean messages are bland, the book is forgettable. When they challenge you, take you out of the ordinary and get you to question what others take to be common sense, then you have literature.

Many thanks, Bob, for sharing your views on writing. What an eclectic mix of stories. You mother’s life story sounds fascinating.

Guardian Angel by Bob Rich

1850, a small town in Australia: Glindi, an Aboriginal woman, gives birth to a daughter, the result of a rape by a white man. She names her Maraglindi, meaning “Glindi’s sorrow,” but the girl is a joy to all those around her. She has the gift of love. During her short life, she encounters everything intolerant, cruel Victorian society can throw at people it considers to be animals. She surmounts the savagery of the white invader by conquering hate with love. Even beyond death, she spreads compassion, then she returns a second time, with an ending that will touch your heart. Maraglindi: child of the land, fruit of an evil deed, and instrument of love.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Interview with Barbara Gaskell Denvil

Barbara Gaskell Denvil is an award-winning author with eclectic tastes in that she’s written historical, fantasy, mystery for both adults and children. At one point in her career, Barbara worked at the British Museum Library amongst the collection of ancient folios and manuscripts. A perfect background for writing historical fiction. Let’s see what she has to say about her writing.

MKT: You write both historical fiction and fantasy. How are these genres similar and how are they different?

BGD: Both are certainly escapism. I make every effort within my writing style to bring these worlds alive but of course, the difference is that medieval England really existed, and therefore I am attempting to recreate truth whereas with fantasy I am attempting to create believability from scratch. But until a Tardis is invented, we cannot really be sure what the medieval world was like. I have adored walking those narrow cobbled alleys in London, wandering the Tower and the castles of the north, and imaging the bustle of folk around me. That is what I try to convey. But documentation from that period is scarce, and it does not relate everything by any means. With fantasy, on the other hand, I make my own rules and I walk those roads in my mind – not in fact. So both are escapes into my own imagination and yet both are serious attempts to turn imagination into reality.

What ‘magic ingredients’ do you try to weave into your novels to make them unforgettable and irresistible?

This is where I rely on inspiration. The magic is in my head. I try to make that magic believable, but it continues to dance in bubbles inside my mind as I write, I suppose I simply put on paper what comes into my thoughts, but I never feel I can write about a place in history until I can smell it in my imagination.

Characterisation is even more important to me. My principal characters, and even most of the minor characters, must leap alive in my head before I can write about them. Then they seem to write themselves.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

Yes, I think there is an inherent difference, for the way a character must act, believe and think is so varied in historical fiction. What is expected from people 500 years ago is certainly not the same as that expected nowadays. Therefore the general direction of historical fiction is different from the start. There is also the limitation of historical accuracy, the fascination of genuine historical characters, the warfare and the poverty. When writing of crime (as I often do) we enter a world of confusion and ignorance, for not only were there no forensic aids (no DNA, finger prints, understanding of blood or stains nor even of exactly how someone must have died) but there was no actual police force. The Constable of an area did not DO investigations himself and there were certainly no detectives. Therefore in historical novels the author has both the advantage and the disadvantage of writing under a whole new set of rules, and this offers us some very unusual plots and storylines, and the reader will find himself walking through a strange new world indeed.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

I have been researching that period of history for many, many years. I have read so much non-fiction that there are times when I feel I live in the 15th Century, and I even dream of it. I love the medieval castles and villages of England and Europe and have travelled extensively to those places. It is therefore comparatively easy for me to slip back into those times, and recreate them in my novels. I feel I understand the difficulties and the ways of thinking which existed back then. However, there are also problems. I do not agree with attempting to re-create the manner of speaking since it would prove completely unreadable to our modern world. However, I do try not to include words which would have been out of context back then, or references to ideas, scientific or medicinal, which would have been entirely unknown. I try to keep a balance with characters speaking in a modern fashion, but without absurdly modern ideas. There also needs to be a balance when referencing 15th Century religious practices. Because many of our surviving documentation was written by the priests of the time, some people believe that folk were wildly religious. However, we also know that humanity tries to escape the limitations of strictly confining practice, and in spite of the clergy’s teaching, sexual infidelity and other so-called sins were widely practiced even by kings. I therefore use my own careful standards in keeping accurate detail without making my books unreadable. After all, even in the call of accuracy (which I believe extremely important) what would be the point in writing a book of boring confusion?

Which authors have inspired your writing? Why?

So many authors have inspired me since I was a child and I could probably say that every single book I’ve ever read has given me inspiration of a sort. I adore Shakespeare – then discovered Dorothy Dunnet, migrated to Mary Renault, on to the simple delights of Georgette Heyer, deeper into C.S. Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkein – and a hundred and more non-fiction books drawing me deeper into the English medieval.

Rather than list so many authors, I should say that the written word and the creative genius of so many just sets me on fire. But life is my greatest inspiration. Just looking up at the sky, watching a sunset or dawn, the amazing chaos of India where I have recently been visiting, the gentle glory of the Eastern countries, and the shimmering flutter of wisteria, rose petals, magnolia and irises in my garden. The astonishing variety of everything, both the kindness and the brutality of people, and the strange motivations we have for every action.

I reach out for inspiration when I first wake each morning – and it continues through my colourful dreams at night. I have been known to forget what is real and what is fanciful. Oh dear – sometimes I think all authors are simply crackers.

Have you ever been inspired to write a modern novel? What is the main difference?

Because the modern world is so well known and understood by us, there is no scope for describing it, nor attempting to bring it to life. And there is less scope for creating believable adventure. In the past the battles and extremes of everyday living were far more brutal, and the struggles were more common. I find that many modern novels offer us plots concerning a life even more drab and boring than those we live ourselves. There is less personality and less colour, whereas in the bustling escapism of both history and fantasy, both the writer and the reader can use their imaginations without being confined to dreary routine. Of course, some books set in modern times are remarkable and wonderfully composed and written, but I prefer the inspiration of turning the unknown into believability.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

After many years of writing for adults, I have been inspired to write a new series for children, combining history and fantasy. These are books of adventure and excitement in two worlds – medieval England – and the fantasy world I have invented. The series is BANNISTER’S MUSTER and Book 1 SNAP is already published while Book 2 SNAKES AND LADDERS will be out soon. They are aimed at an age group of roughly 8 to 12, So far they are proving very popular.

I have frequently felt sorry that so little history is taught in schools these days, and I wanted to re-create a fascination for the past in young minds. More but simply, I just wanted to write some good old fashioned adventure, and I also wanted to try my hand at writing for children.

I have also created a new website for these children’s books, so please do drop in and visit both my adult website –   http://barbaragaskelldenvil.com

And my children’s website –   http://bannistersmuster.com

All will be revealed ———-

Many thanks for sharing your thoughts on writing, Barbara. And yes, sometimes we writers are crackers!

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (either through WordPress or by using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.