Today I’m delighted to be talking with MC Scott, historical author and chair of The Historical Writers’ Association. Thanks very much for talking with me, Manda.
Martin: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was there a specific event that made you decide?
Manda: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was very, very young. As a child, I wrote ‘books’ from the perspective of the owls in the kitchen (my mother ran a rehab centre for birds of prey and every summer, we’d have a kitchen full of owls and kestrels, some of whom had to stay over winter). I studied veterinary medicine, but still had some romantic notion of being able to be a good vet and write books, which just wasn’t possible, though I did manage to run the two together for about 8 years.
Which authors have had the greatest influence upon you?
In my youth, Alan Garner (his latest book is just out, a sequel to The Moon of Gomrath, it’s just arrived and I’m desperately mining time out of the days to read it), and Rosemary Sutcliff, particularly ‘Sword at Sunset’ which was her take on the Arthurian myths and is still one of the best, though Mary Stewart’s ‘Crystal Cave’ trilogy was exceptionally good and really influenced my childhood.
In adolescence, I discovered Dorothy Dunnett and read ‘King Hereafter’ endless times.
As an adult, Mary Renault, particularly her ‘Fire from Heaven’, the story of the young Alexander, and, of course, more recently, Hilary Mantel, who has shown us all what historical writing can be in the hands of genius.
What’s been your favourite moment in your writing career?
That’s hard – the publication of each novel is such a huge high point, it’s hard to separate them out. I suppose being shortlisted for the Orange Prize with my first novel, Hen’s Teeth was a fairly high point, as was the nomination for an Edgar with No Good Deed. Most recently, writing ‘Eagle of the Twelfth’ was an exceptional experience – I’ve never had a novel write itself before, but this one came pretty close.
How do you research your novels?
I read a lot, I talk to people, I try things out… I’m lucky in that I taught for years at the Cambridge Vet School and as a result, have lifetime access to the Cambridge University Library which is an astonishingly good resource. I read endlessly into the minutiae of the subject and then try to work out what might actually have happened around the event or person in question – at least for the historical novels. In terms of place, I’ve just come back from a trip to Orleans which was research for the new novel I’m working on just now.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
Definitely. I can’t cope without some kind of structure to the day. I have a competition agility dog, so a lot of the day’s structure is formed around training with her: we go out for an hour or so onto the hill in the morning, then I have regular 10 minute breaks through the day when I run her down the lane and back, and then another hour in the evening. Those are my thinking times. In between, I try to clear all the admin in the morning – though with the advent of the HWA, that’s becoming ever-harder, and then edit the scene I’m working on first. The afternoon is for writing new material, for throwing down the raw text to be worked on in the next few days. Left to myself, I can work through to nine or ten at night, but my partner tends to want to see me and so I stop around 7:30 – 8.
Who or what inspires you most?
Anyone and everyone who does what they do exceptionally well. So in the context of historical writing, Hilary Mantel is a constant source of awe and wonder although more recently, I’ve read Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE and been completely blown away by the lucid-complexity of his thinking.
In agility, my trainer, Lee Gibson gives me something to aim for and Lauren Langman in Devon is an inspirational instructor who understands the science of dog behaviour and how to best apply it to our dogs.
If you were to give advice to someone thinking of writing a novel what would it be?
Don’t give up the day job. Seriously, we’re in the midst of a recession and fewer and fewer people are buying books. It’s harder now to break into professional-level writing than it has ever been. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write: I wrote my first three novels while working full time and I was holding down 3 different part-time jobs when I wrote No Good Deed. Get yourself a good agent, and then write 500 words a day every day, you’ll have a novel within a year.
What is or would your favourite writing space be like?
I have dreams of a garden office which is made all of wood and glass, to passiv-haus standards. It has a 4m planted aquarium along one wall and I write at a ‘walk station’ which will stop me from ever again getting RSI. I look out on the garden where the dog is secure and there’s a pen for the pups I will inevitably breed from her. I have broadband 35Mb access (a dream; I live in a very rural area with minimal connectivity) and the phone never rings. The cats sleep on the desk and the dog has her own dog flap. My actual writing space is the spare room which has a north facing window and a view over the neighbour’s half-built self-build wreck of a former barn.
Spring, summer, autumn, winter? Autumn
Dreams or daydreams? Dreams
Hare or rabbit? Hare
What is your next writing project?
I’m in the very early stages of a novel that will have a contemporary thriller thread set in modern day France and a historical thread set in the fifteenth century. I think I know who Joan of Arc really was (and I’m certain she wasn’t a 19 year old peasant girl who just happened to be able to don full armour and jump on a trained war horse without falling off), but the revelation of who she is and how she came to have the ability to lead the French armies to victory after nearly a century of defeat is only half the story. The bigger part is what might happen in the very near future in France if that was revealed. The hard right have taken ‘The Maid’ as their mascot and if someone had proof that she wasn’t who they have been told, I think they’d kill to keep it quiet. So the book opens with a death and we slowly work through the reasons. It’s new and fresh and utterly inspiring…
Chair – The Historical Writers’ Association
Thank you very much for talking with me, Manda, and good luck with the thriller.
The next talk will be on 9 November when I’m talking with Harvey Black. One week after that I’m talking with Ben Kane.