Reader Interview Series – Kris H.

Woman Reading - Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Woman Reading – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

A Writer of History is hosting a series of interviews with readers, particularly those who enjoy historical fiction. I hope these interviews will augment the survey data I’ve collected. Please welcome Kris, one of my Facebook friends as she tells us about her reading.

Tell us a little about yourself.     I was born in 1944, the illegitimate daughter of a divorced German soldier and a young Norwegian woman. Whether my mother left to follow her lover, or was forced by circumstances beyond her control is not clear, but 14 months later she gave birth to yet another daughter (by the same man), whom she left with her older, married half-sister. I had been left with her parents, then in their late 50’s. Having sold their farm (Holtan South) due to ill health, we lived in a small whaling village near Larvik.

I spent my first 5+ years with my grandparents who adored and spoiled me, especially my grandfather who read to me and told me all the old stories. By the time I was 4, my grandmother taught me to read, using the local newspaper and the older children in the village often would drag me around the shop windows and marvel at my ability to read the text on the advertisement. (Normally children did not start school until age seven).

When I was 5 or so, my mother returned and soon married a Norwegian whaler and my life in a home with no books began. Fortunately my grandparents lived nearby and I was able to visit almost daily to read (with my grandmother’s encouragement) despite my mother’s frustration at her failure to keep me home.

Throughout the school years I visited the local library, which was open every Wednesday, taking home as many books as I could carry. The woman who ran the little circulating library eventually learned to keep some goodies aside for me and did not restrict me from any book that struck my fancy.

I have never stopped reading since and thank my grandparents for this gift.

In 1964, following a unhappy love affair (no doubt a failure because it didn’t live up to my expectations based on my reading), I decided that Norway was too small and too small minded to contain my rebellious self. I left Norway for the US and, having lived on both coasts as well as in Ontario CA and the Midwest, I am currently living near Seattle, WA working full time as bookkeeper. Aside from spending time with my two adult sons when possible, my main interests are reading, travel and Fabric Arts.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences.     Based on my Kindle history for the past year, I can say I read between 3 and 5 books a week. I read in bed, on the couch while pretending to watch TV and while at lunch. I read Hard Covers in bed (prefer cheap paperbacks in the bubble bath); read my Kindle at lunch (and sometimes at work) and while travelling.

Since I am a fairly fast reader, I prefer longer tomes and usually read one book at a time.

Historical Fiction and what I like to call Crime Noir (Nordic Noir and Icelandic Noir) and the Police Procedurals set in the UK are my preferred escape from the sometimes emotionally gutting Historical Fiction I adore. Occasionally I will mix in some Contemporary Fiction (most recently The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin).

How do you decide which books to buy? What influences your purchases?    I use any avenue open to me: haunting libraries, Big Box Bookstores (not so much anymore), Independent Book Sellers, and, of course I visit numerous Literary Facebook Pages as often as I can, for example: Historical Novel Society, The Review and Before The Norman Invasion. In addition, I follow my favorite, old and new, authors’ FB Pages and Twitter accounts.

Before the Internet, I relied on the cover attracting my attention, Goldleaf and Reds rarely failed, then I read the inside cover. Once I find an author whose words speak to me and whose characters engage me emotionally (i. e. break my heart) I will track down every one of his/her published works.

What do you like about historical fiction? What don’t you like?    I like that a well written historical fiction takes me to the time and place described and makes me fall in love with the characters, real or fictional. I am not so fond of the hybrid historical fiction that incorporates Sci-Fi and/or Super Natural Elements (though I have been known to read them).

What types of historical fiction do you prefer?    My favorites are the ones that shed light on a time of importance in history, and flesh out the people of the era, especially when all the old myths and romantic notions are stripped away to show a very human side of a romanticised/vilified/mythicized figure.

Do you have historical fiction books or authors you would recommend to other readers? Can you tell us why?

Should not embarrass you but I have to list M. K. Tod’s Unravelled – because it is the first novel set in this time that I have read and I loved it. Loved it so much it led me to Charles Todd’s The Inspector Rutledge Series. [MKTod – I did not pay Kris to say this!!! Thanks for your very kind words, Kris. I’m honoured to be on your list.]

Dorothy DunnettThe Lymond Chronicles and King Hereafter are my favorites – because of her painstaking research, exquisite character development, intricate plotlines and luminous language.

Sharon Kay PenmanSunne in Splendor * The Welsh Trilogy -Because of her (again) meticulous research, believable character development of real historical figures and their relationships, and (again) flawless language and plot development.

Mary StewartThe Arthurian Saga – because she doesn’t fall into the mythology trap regarding Merlin and the Arthurian Legend.

Cindy Brandner The Exit Unicorn Series –   for her lyrical prose, excellent characters and riveting historical setting.

Sara Donati (Rosina Lippi)’s Wilderness Series – because of the fresh look on the almost unreadable James Fenimore Cooper originals.

Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter – because it was my first historical fiction, read in the original Norwegian as a teenager. This book opened my eyes to other worlds and other times.

Elizabeth ChadwickShadow on the Crown – for shining the spotlight on an influential woman of her time who has been long neglected in fiction.

Gillian BradshawThe Horses of Heaven – for its unusual setting.

Morgan LlywellynThe Horse Goddess & Grania– Wonderful look at Irish History/Legend

Then there is phenomenon that is Diana Gabaldon and the Outlander Series (with Auxiliary Novellas and Short Stories). I resisted picking this up for a long time because I was leery of the Time Travel element. When I finally (accidentally) picked up Dragonfly in Amber at the library I was captivated enough to buy the entire Series. For about a year and half I was a rabid fan. Unfortunately for Dr. Gabaldon the bloom is off the rose for me. I feel more and more like a victim of an evil marketing genius and do not like the feeling of being sucked into cult-like following. That is not to say she is not a wonderfully imaginative writer. The first three books are unforgettable … but after that I prefer the Lord John Gray Stories.

In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to talk and learn about books – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book clubs – can you tell us about your experiences, where you go to talk or learn about books, why you enjoy discussions about books?    I am pretty much on my own here; I do “lurk” on a lot of Facebook Literary Group sites, also follow many authors, and make occasional comments. I am somewhat less enamored with Goodreads. I must say I would really like to find a group or book club where I might find likeminded book lovers who actually read the books.

What advice do you have for writers of historical fiction?    OMG … I couldn’t presume, but first of all do your research, don’t filter morals of another time through a 21st Century lens, and do not insert sex scenes a la 50 Shades, rather evoke emotional suspense.

Is there anything else about reading historical fiction that you’d like to comment on?

Read, read and read.
WOW, Kris. What a great interview to kickoff this series. Your childhood could form the basis for a novel on its own! And you’ve given so many wonderful recommendations for other readers. 500 books in one year – that’s an incredible amount of reading. Many, many thanks!

Top Historical Fiction Authors – Sharon Kay Penman

Source: Author’s Website

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.

Thank you, Sharon. Your responses offer a fascinating peak at the life of a favourite author. And thanks for telling us about the medieval chronicles and pipe rolls. The fact that you spent twelve years researching Richard III shows us all what passion and perseverance can do!

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. 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.