Today, I’m delighted to be talking with Elizabeth Chadwick. Elizabeth is the author of novels which bring to life the turbulent times and fascinating personalities of the Middle Ages.
Martin: Which authors have had the greatest influence upon you?
Eizabeth: I have always been a voracious reader. Influences are so numerous and subconscious that I wouldn’t be able to name most of them. However, a few do stand out for specific reasons. I became interested in medieval history as a subject for fiction in my teens. I discovered Roberta Gellis and thought her work was amazing. She wrote on the line between straight historical fiction and historical romance. Her research was very detailed – she read the primary sources and as a result her characters were of their time and not modern people in fancy dress. Her storylines were entertaining and often edge of the seat and her characters so believable that you felt as if they were standing in the room with you. She had one particular hero called Ian de Vipont who was the romance hero cliché of being tall dark and handsome. In a less skilled writer’s hands he could have been made of cardboard but Gellis turned him into a living breathing three-dimensional character. I learned from Roberta Gellis that it was possible to write romantic historical stories and remain true to the period.
Sharon Kay Penman, now a dear friend, was also one of my influences. Her contribution was to show me that it was also possible to write about real people and tell their story in an entertaining way without warping history.
My other main influence was Dorothy Dunnett. As well as the amazing research and the fabulous characters, Dunnett’s use of language blew me away. She’s in a league of her own. I may never be able to write like Dorothy Dunnett, but I always feel that reading her work helps me to raise my game. Fortunately although I am inspired by other authors, I don’t tend to pick up their voices when it comes to my own writing.
One of the joys of being an historical novelist is that you can range over space and time. What made you choose the Medieval period for your novels?
It’s a long story but I’ll give you the short version! The first reason is that I was inspired at junior school by a particularly excellent history teacher who brought the subject to life in the classroom. I only had her for one year though and that year coincided with medieval study, so that gave the period an advantage.
Later in my teens I fell for a handsome knight in a children’s TV programme. I began writing what initially started out as a piece of fan fiction but quickly changed into my own tale. I had to research the medieval period because I wanted the background to feel as real as possible. The more I researched the more interested I became and the more I want to write about those times. I have been studying for several decades now and the more I research the more I realise how much I don’t know, and the passion for the period continues. If I were to start writing about another time, the amount of research I would need to do to bring myself up to scratch would be phenomenal.
Some historical novelists are very strict about historical accuracy while others are willing to modify history to suit their novel. Where do you stand on this?
Aha! The poisoned chalice question! I’m one of the strict ones. I say if you need to modify history to suit the story then you’re actually not a good enough writer. A good writer will find a way that tells a terrific story without having to modify history. I add the big caveat that obviously we all have to use our imaginations and we can’t know everything. We are products of the 20th and 21st centuries and with the best will in the world we are coping with our own mindsets even while trying to put ourselves in theirs.
Part of the fun of writing for me is the challenge of finding a way round the knotty problem of telling a story when the history seems to be getting in the way. It’s like putting a puzzle together and usually once I’ve thought outside the box and reorganised the story pieces, I find something that’s a good fit, and it’s very rewarding. I think the more research you do in the background the easier it becomes to fit story and history together. You should never dump your historical research into a novel, but your research will inform how you write it and the more you research, the easier the writing and the story will become.
The other thing is that you are writing for a wide audience of readers who all have their own foibles and expectations to bring to the experience. Some will demand intense historical authenticity. Others are just in it for the story. The best thing to do is write for both types of readers. That way those who like their accuracy can relax and those who just want story can be on the edge of their seats and loving the ride.
Of course you can sometimes find the attempt to be authentic is a double edged sword. I received a review of one of my novels where the reader said it was a fairy tale because they didn’t have side saddles in the 12th century. But they did and I have primary source provenance. It goes back to the author not being able to legislate for what the reader brings of themselves to the experience.
Are you someone who plans and plots your novels very carefully or do you follow where the pen takes you?
I write about real people these days so the basic route map is laid out for me. I know where I’m going, but I don’t always know the scenery until I write it, and sometimes there are digressions along the route. I do write a very detailed synopsis at the start of the project, but it is still more like ‘guidelines really’ to quote Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean. I research as I write and sometimes the research will throw up something that means I need to digress from my initial synopsis – but that’s not a problem; it’s all part of the fun.
How do you research your novels?
It’s a multistrand approach. I research the absolute need-to-know detail at the outset when I’m writing my synopsis and first three chapters. Then I continue to research while I’m writing the rest of the novel. I research the primary sources and from as many different angles as possible. When I was researching LADY OF THE ENGLISH, I looked at the chroniclers who were for the Empress Matilda and those who were against her and pro-King Stephen. This helped me get a rounded view of proceedings. I also research primary source social documents to get a handle on mindset and daily life. I look at academic secondary sources both the political and the social. I use reference works of which I have an extensive library, and also the Internet.
I go to various locations involved in the novels where I take photographs, pick up the guidebooks and walk the grounds. Even if there’s not a lot left one still gets a sense of atmosphere. I re-enact with an early medieval society called Regia Anglorum. This too helps me get a feel for the period. It brings history out of the textbook and into 3-D and is a vitally important research tools far as I’m concerned.
More controversially I use the psychic. If one believes in it then it’s a hotwire to the past. If one doesn’t, then it’s a superb way of accessing otherwise hidden realms of imagination. I have the material vetted by a professor of medieval cultural history. I am told that it’s medieval mindset coming through, so wherever it comes from that’s good enough for me. Striving to get the mindset right is one of the holy grails of historical fiction!
Which of your characters has surprised you most and why?
I think John Marshal in A PLACE BEYOND COURAGE. He was the father of my hero William Marshal in THE GREATEST KNIGHT and THE SCARLET LION and he had something of a bad reputation. He is famous for going back on his word when his son was a hostage and under threat of death. He is supposed to have said that his enemies could go ahead and hang the boy because he had the anvils and hammers to get better sons. I was curious as to what would make a father say this about his own child. What were the circumstances behind the story? What I discovered very much overturned the accepted history and showed me that John Marshal had been judged through modern eyes and not the mindset of his own period. When I went searching I found a very different story, and just had to tell it.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
A typical writing day is a long one! It’s probably best if you ask me what is a typical writing week as days tend to vary. I work seven days a week most weeks of the year. I get up, have breakfast with my husband who is retired. Then I head to my office which is a converted bedroom. I log onto the Internet and check my e-mails and Twitter. I then head to Facebook and for my followers I post a research book of the day, a research fact of the day, and the opening line from my current work in progress. Then I’ll embark on a couple of hours work. During that time I will pop in and out of Facebook and Twitter to check my feeds and answer as necessary. I’ll take a lunch break of about three quarters of an hour during which I’ll read for pleasure. If it’s a day at home then I’m back at work for the afternoon.
Work doesn’t just involve writing a novel, it also involves things like this interview, which I’ve been working on for over an hour now. Replies to queries. Blog posts. More Facebook and Twitter interaction. I’m published in both the UK and the USA by different publishers and they’ll both want input from me. For example at the moment I am writing a new novel for my UK publisher having just handed in the previous one. That has been sent back to me for copyediting. Meanwhile my American publisher has also sent me a backlist novel for editing, so I have to fit this into my working day as well. I’ll stop to cook an evening meal and do more reading and chat to my husband. Then back to work until about 11:30 pm. After that I’ll unwind for an hour or so by watching a film or TV programme. Then to bed to read for a short while and lights out about 1.30.
On a non full working day, it’s the routine as mentioned above, but I’ll go out and do the grocery shop, go to the gym or see a friend for a couple of hours. Sometimes I walk the dogs with my husband. Quite often I have to go out and give talks. Next week for example I have to take an afternoon out to give a talk at a library on Tuesday, and then I’m away in London to give another talk on Thursday so that’s almost a full working day taken out. So it’s not all about writing a novel. It’s about all the peripherals going round the writing. It’s extreme multitasking!
What’s been your favourite moment in your writing career?
That’s hard to say. There have been quite a few highlights. Perhaps I can list a few of them. All of them are experiences I would never have had if not for my writing.
1. Having THE WILD HUNT accepted for publication and then the novel going on to win an award which was presented to me by HRH the Prince of Wales at an event in London.
2. Going on (anarchic!) breakfast TV when THE CHAMPION was shortlisted for an award.
3. Having a reader write to me and say that he’d loved one of my novels and his only complaint was that it wasn’t nice to make a grown man cry on the train!
4. Having another reader write to me who is an usher at the House of Lords and inviting me to take a personal guided tour of the Houses of Parliament and House of Lords. What an experience that was!
5. Discovering William Marshal and his family. They have become a lifelong passion
6. Winning the Romantic Novelists Association award in 2011 for the best historical novel of the year with TO DEFY A KING
7. Having THE GREATEST KNIGHT become a New York Times and USA Today bestseller
If you were to give advice to someone thinking of writing a novel what would it be?
Don’t think, get on and do it. Write from the heart and write for the sheer pleasure of the words and story. The rest will follow. Make sure that you read voraciously and eclectically. This will help you find your own voice and will show you what’s out there. It will also help you develop your personal built in editor. Writing like flying improves with the number of bum on seat hours you undertake. It also improves with the amount of reading you do. I heard one very famous lady author of historical fiction say that reading ‘trashy novels’ would ruin your voice. That’s utter rubbish. One person’s ‘trashy novel’ is another person’s marvellous read. Just enjoy reading whatever you want and you find it will help you to write in the long term.
What is your next writing project?
I’m currently engaged in a long-term project to write three novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine. THE SUMMER QUEEN will be published next June and I’m busy working on the middle novel of the trilogy THE WINTER CROWN. As each novel takes me approximately 18 months to write, I am going to be busy for a while yet! I do have a couple of ideas for after that, but I’m not saying what!
Thanks very much for talking with me today, Elizabeth. It’s been fascinating.
To find out more about Elizabeth and her books please check out the following links:
My website www.elizabethchadwick.com
My main blog. http://livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.co.uk/
My Twitter name @chadwickauthor