Today, I’m delighted to be talking with Robyn Young. Robyn has written a series of novels set in medieveal times, the Brethren Trilogy and the Insurrection Trilogy. Renegade, the second of the Insurrection trilogy has just been published, in fact only yesterday, so get your copy now.
Before we focus on your own writing I would like to look at where it all began.
Who has been the greatest influence upon you as a writer?
Many people have influenced my writing over the years, but I think the first, and perhaps most formative, has to be my grandfather, a gifted storyteller. Some of my best memories come from family holidays at my grandparents’ in Somerset. My cousins and me would gather in the evenings and my grandfather would tell adventure stories where we were the main characters. It was all rather Enid Blyton. I continued the tradition with friends, then on paper. At school an enthusiastic English teacher encouraged me to write poetry. I won several competitions, one of which saw my poem published in a national anthology. I still remember the first time I saw my work in print.
What made you decide to write historical fiction?
That came as a surprise. From poetry and short stories I went on to write articles for a regional newspaper, followed by two fantasy novels. But while my path as a writer seemed set fairly early on, I didn’t imagine I’d be penning history. It wasn’t a subject I did well in at school, or of any real interest to me, until I read a book on the Knights Templar, by historian Malcolm Barber. I’d listened to a conversation between two friends about these so-called warrior monks and my curiosity had been piqued enough for me to pick up this text when I saw it in a bookstore. Barber’s book, a harrowing account of the knights’ downfall, made me realise that history, far from being a set of dusty facts and figures, is a rich collection of stories. He brought the human element to it, which had been missing at school. The moment I finished reading, I knew I wanted to tell their story, which at this point – pre Dan Brown – was still relatively untold.
What’s been your favourite moment in your writing career?
That’s a tough one. You go on quite a ride when you’re first published, especially if you’re lucky enough that your novel does well. I’ve had some incredible moments these past years – seeing my first front cover, then the finished book on a shelf in Waterstone’s. I’ll never forget entering my publishers’ to celebrate the launch, to be handed a glass of champagne and told Brethren had gone into the top ten. Then there’s the very private, but no less triumphant point that you finish a novel – for me usually late at night after the last, long sprint to the final page. But I think the ultimate moment has to be my agent phoning me, at the end of a four-year struggle to get published with many rejections along the way, and telling me that I was going to be a published author.
You studied creative writing at University. What was the best thing about this?
I started with a foundation course in creative writing at Sussex University, where I began writing Brethren, which I’d started researching the year before. I felt so excited, yet so daunted by the prospect of writing a novel (a trilogy, as it turned out) set in such a complex period that I decided I needed the structured support a weekly class could offer. It was so beneficial I went on to do a Masters. There is a sort of stigma attached to creative writing courses – a tendency to believe that it cannot, or should not be taught. But writing is a craft as much as an art and one of the most valuable aspects of both courses for me was the feedback from my peers. One of the hardest, most vital things to learn is how to edit your own work effectively. Working with others, deconstructing one another’s writing, asking the questions you constantly need to ask yourself – why this point of view, what does this dialogue offer, what about pace here, exposition there? – teaches you to see where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Hemmingway called it having a built-in shit detector.
How do you research your novels?
It starts off with book-based research, during which time I write an enormous amount of notes, trying to piece this historical world together. First, I’ll read a selection of texts that cover the broad era, then biographies of my main characters, then I’ll start getting into the finer details, researching what people ate, what they wore, what they believed in, what their homes were like. It’s about building up as full a picture as you can. Even if you don’t use half the things you research, it will come across in your writing as confidence and authenticity. Web-based research is getting better, but I still only use the Internet when I have a good enough grounding myself to know which sites are good, and which aren’t. After the first bulk of reading is done, I try to visit as many of the locations as possible. I speak to historians and re-enactors about specific events or equipment and I like to try my hand at the various physical aspects of my novels. For Insurrection, I was taught to ride by a skill-at-arms tutor. I’ve tried sword fighting, worn armour, used crossbows, done extensive work with birds of prey, all of which have, I believe, added colour beyond the book-based details.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
It seems to go in cycles. Research and plotting tends to be more fluid – I’m usually reading and travelling. When editing I find I can’t be in the same place I write in (my study) – it’s a different headspace and I guess changing the physical space helps that shift. When I’m in the thick of writing I usually work best first thing or late at night. Afternoons tend to be fairly dead times creatively. I try to do a full morning’s work, then do admin or research after lunch, before perhaps going back to writing in the evening if I need to push on. It can get quite intensive towards the end of a book, when aiming for a deadline. In the last five months of writing Renegade I had about four days off.
Could you tell me more about fire-breathing on a café rooftop?
Lol. Yes. I used to organise festivals and ran a nightclub in Brighton, so I spent my early twenties at the heart of the music scene there, when the illegal rave culture was in vogue. One of my friends was a fire-breather and one night (well, dawn) at a rave on Brighton seafront, he taught me how to do it. We climbed up on the roof of a café and spent the next hour swigging paraffin and blowing balls of fire into the sky above the crowd. I was quite lucky really – I remember he lost his eyebrows.
Moorlands or coastland? Coastland
Morning, afternoon, evening or night? Evening
Fire or ice? Ice
Finally, Robyn, what is your current writing project?
I’m working on Book 3 of the Insurrection Trilogy, which is based on the life of Robert Bruce, the second of which, Renegade, is out this month.
In fact, it was published yesterday. Congratulations, Robyn and thanks for talking with me.
You can find out more about Robyn by visiting: http://www.robynyoung.com
On September 14 I’m talking with Douglas Jackson.
After that we’ve got Simon Toyne, N. Gemini Sasson, MC Scott and Harvey Black with many more authors in the following weeks.