In the spring of 2012, I conducted a reader survey focused on historical fiction – the first of 6 such surveys. Among the questions on reading habits, I asked readers to identify their favourite historical fiction authors. Sharon Kay Penman was at the top of the list. I’d read and loved many of her novels, so I plucked up my courage, found a way to contact her and asked if she would agree to be interviewed. To my delight, she said yes.
A few years later, Sharon also agreed to write an endorsement for Lies Told In Silence – what a thrill that was! And at the 2015 Historical Novel Society conference in Denver, I had dinner with Sharon and Margaret George – a real highlight.
The HF community is reeling from news of Sharon’s passing. As a tribute, I thought I would share that original interview. You will see that her personality and character shine through it.
I am extremely pleased that Sharon Kay Penman is here today talking about writing historical fiction. This spring’s survey placed Ms. Penman in the number one position with readers – a truly wonderful accomplishment. I remember being captivated by Here Be Dragons and The Sunne in Splendour and my current read, Time and Chance, her novel about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, is equally captivating.
Why do you write historical fiction? I always wanted to write, scribbled my first story at age six. In my teens, I did a novel that mercifully has vanished from the earth, for I am sure it would be very embarrassing to read. But I didn’t have a story burning to be told, and so my writing efforts were sporadic and random. Then I stumbled onto the history of Richard III, and my life changed—literally. I felt compelled to write his story, if only because my friends quickly grew tired of listening to me preach to them about the terrible injustice done to this long-dead medieval king. The end result was The Sunne in Splendour, my first novel. By that time, I’d spent twelve years in the fifteenth century with Richard, so it never even occurred to me to write of another time period. And I’ve been happily ensconced in the Middle Ages ever since.
You are clearly very skilled at writing historical fiction. What do you think attracts readers to your books? I wonder that myself at times. I feel very fortunate to have such amazing, devoted readers. From what they’ve told me, they appreciate my efforts to be as historically accurate as humanly possible. Obviously, any novel is a work of the imagination, but I believe very strongly that it needs a strong factual foundation, and this is what I strive for when writing. If I do take any liberties with known facts, I clear my conscience by reporting that in my Author’s Note. My readers also seem to like that I am writing of people who actually lived and events that really happened, for there are very few purely fictional characters in my novels.
Do you have a particular approach to research and writing? I research on two levels, general and specific. For example, I researched the life and reign of King Richard I before beginning the first of my two novels about him. This enabled me to know what I would need to dramatize. I also do specific research as I write, usually about a particular battle or castle, etc. I am now following that pattern in the sequel to Lionheart, A King’s Ransom, which entails doing considerable research about Austria and Germany, where Richard was held prisoner on his way home from the Holy Land. I love researching, so my concern is to rein my enthusiasm in. I became so fascinated with medieval Sicily and Cyprus in Lionheart that I probably went overboard with my research of their societies, and I am trying to show a bit more self-discipline with A King’s Ransom.
Have other writers of historical fiction influenced you and, if so, how have they influenced you? I don’t think I have been influenced by other historical writers. There are many writers I admire, of course—Anya Seton comes at once to mind. Among my contemporaries, I am a fan of Bernard Cornwell, Margaret George, Elizabeth Chadwick, C.W. Gortner, and Steven Saylor, just to name a few. I also enjoy historical mysteries very much, my favorites including Priscilla Royal, Margaret Frazer, and Sharan Newman.
What ingredients do you think make for a top historical fiction author? Do you deliberately plan for these ingredients in your writing? Truthfully, I have no idea! I can tell you what I look for as a reader. Historical accuracy is very important to me, both as a reader and a writer. I also believe that we owe a debt to the people we are writing about. My fellow writer, Laurel Corona, expressed this perfectly when she said, “Do not defame the dead.” I think that ought to be the First Commandment for all writers of historical fiction!
How do you select new stories to tell? I usually have ideas marinating in my brain for years before I actually begin to write. If I did not have another novel in mind as I came to the end of one, I’d probably panic. I tend to write trilogies, so that makes life much easier for me. What my readers call my Welsh trilogy is set in the 13th century, and dramatizes the clash of cultures between the Welsh princes and the English kings. I then did what was to be a trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. But as I finished the final book, Devil’s Brood, I realized there was still so much of their story to be told, and the result was Lionheart and now A King’s Ransom; so my trilogy turned into a quintet.
What advantages do you think come from concentrating on a period of time or creating a series like you have done? Any disadvantages? I feel so comfortable in the Middle Ages that it would feel strange to write about another time period. After so many years, I am familiar with medieval customs, beliefs, superstitions, and the details of daily life. So I would find it somewhat daunting to start from scratch in writing of another era, ancient Rome, for example. I know some writers who do shift from one time to another and do it very well; Margaret George certainly does, writing about the Tudors, Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy, just to mention some of her books. But I’ve put my roots down in the Middle Ages for thirty years now, and have no plans to move.
What techniques do you employ to write productively? I have an established routine by now. I begin with an outline of the novel, and then I do a chapter at a time, staying with it until I am satisfied. Some of my writer friends do several drafts, but I’ve never tried that approach. Of course I always do some last-minute pruning and polishing, but once I’ve completed the novel, that is the final version. I don’t do any rewriting unless my editor requests it.
Do you think of yourself as having a brand? No, I do not think of myself as a brand.
What do you do to connect to readers? I have always responded to letters and then to e-mails, but social networking sites like Facebook have made it so much easier for writers and readers to interact. I confess that I was hesitant about venturing onto Facebook at first, but I soon became addicted. In addition to my personal Facebook page, my readers have set up three Facebook fan clubs, and I try to stop by as often as I can. I had formed friendships with readers via snail and e-mail, but Facebook makes it so much easier. This past week I had a phone chat with my Australian Fan Club, who were holding their annual meeting, and it was so much fun. I feel as if I know them all by now, and I have moved a visit to Australia to the top of my Bucket List as a result. So far I have avoided Twitter, but writer friends tell me I should give it a try, so that will probably be next on the agenda. I have also formed friendships because of my blogs, for blogs are inter-active, too. And websites like Goodreads and LibraryThings are another way for writers to meet with readers.
What do you know about your readers? Well, they have good taste in books! They are also well educated and, to judge from their letters and Facebook comments, quite articulate and often very funny. They share my passion for the past. And my publishers have told me that I am unusual in that my readers are split about evenly between men and women; apparently most of historical novel readers are women. But I’ve always had a fair share of male readers, too.
What data do you collect about your readers? I do not collect any data about my readers. I am not that organized!
What strategies guide your writing career? Truthfully, I’ve never had a strategy. I was just following my passion, the need to write. This led to The Sunne in Splendour and after that, the dominos seemed to fall naturally into place.
What would you do differently if you were starting again? I have been so fortunate in my writing career that I don’t think I would change anything. I love writing and still feel blessed to be able to do it. I have a wonderful editor, who has been my editor for all twelve of my books, which is almost unheard-of in publishing. I have very gifted agents on both sides of the Atlantic. And I have never been required to meet a word quota, as some of my writer friends are. This is both remarkable and rare and I feel so lucky.
Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction? If at all possible, I would try to find an agent. I know that can be quite a challenge, but I think it is well worth the effort. And of course publishing is very different now than it was when I first began my career. Writers today have options that writers never even dreamed of in the past. E-books are becoming more and more important, so I would advise writers to educate themselves about this phenomenon. Some writers are choosing to bypass publishers altogether and to publish their books themselves. This was once a high-risk venture, and it still can be a bumpy road. But in the era of e-books, it can be an enticing option and I think it is one worth exploring for those just starting out, as long as they remember how time-consuming it can be.
Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked? Actually, there is one. What are your favorite research sources?
That would be the medieval chronicles, which are a fascinating mix of the foreign and the familiar. The chronicler will be complaining about high prices, bad roads, and corrupt sheriffs, stories that could be found in any of today’s newspapers. And then I will come across an account of green children found in Kent! The chronicles cannot be taken as gospel, for the chroniclers often pass on rumors and gossip. I also have to take personal bias into account. The vast majority of chroniclers were monks, so they tended to look upon women with a skeptical eye, as daughters of Eve. Nor were they free of nationalism; French chroniclers were highly critical of English kings and vice versa, and the English were hostile to the Welsh, who returned the favor. But the chronicles open a window to these distant times and offer us personal glimpses of people dead for centuries. This was especially true for my last novel, Lionheart, much of which was set during the Third Crusade. The Lionheart of legend smolders like a torch, glowering, dour, and dangerous. But the chroniclers who accompanied Richard I to the Holy Land and the Saracen chroniclers give us a very different man—sardonic, playful, unpredictable. I worry that Lionheart has spoiled me for future books, as I will never have such a rich treasure-trove to draw upon again. I had eye-witness accounts of the battles fought between the crusaders and Saracens, told from both sides, and for a novelist, that is beyond wonderful. For those interested in reading them, too, I list them all in the Acknowledgments of Lionheart.
I also mine for gold in the Pipe Rolls and other government records. There we learn that Lady Neville had to pay King John a fine of 200 shillings “to lie one night with her husband.” What I wouldn’t give to know the story behind that cryptic entry! Another favorite entry captures a royal temper tantrum for all time, reporting the cost of repairing the crown of Edward I, noting that it was damaged “when it pleased the king to throw it into the fire.”
As you can tell, Mary, I love researching! To be able to spend time studying the Middle Ages and then to write about it and actually get paid for doing so—well, it does not get any better than that.
Thank you so much for inviting me to visit your blog.
January 2021 – Thank you, Sharon. Thank you for your kindness, your warm heart, your brilliant novels, and the wonderful example you’ve offered to generations of authors to come.
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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.