Without further ado, here's my interview with Helen:
1. What inspired you to write The Kingmaking? Was it a subject you were familiar with before you began writing?
Until I became interested in Arthur I was a science fiction fan – in the years when Star Wars first came out!
I was bored by history at school. Lessons were given by a teacher who read from a book – I say read, she actually droned. I remember nothing of those “lessons” at all. The only lesson I enjoyed was English. Mrs Llewellyn brought passion to the classroom. She encouraged my writing and showed me how to make my essays so much better. I would so like to say thank you, but this was 1968 – a long time ago.
After leaving school I became a library assistant. There, I re-discovered Rosemary Sutcliff’s wonderful novels set in Roman Britain – Eagle of the Ninth, Frontier Wolf, Mark of the Horse Lord etc, and then Mary Stewart’s Hollow Hills Trilogy, and thus I discovered Arthur.
I had never enjoyed the Arthurian Knights of the Round Table stories. I could not accept that King Arthur could be so incompetent. He become King, married, then disappeared in search of the Holy Grail thereby abandoning his Kingdom. Surely he would have foreseen the affair between Lancelot and Guinevere? Nor could I tolerate Lancelot and those other goody-goody knights, so those tales were of no interest to me.
Mary Stewart’s novels, however, made Arthur seem real. They included an author’s note in which she stated that if Arthur had existed he would have been a post-Roman war lord, not a Medieval knight clanking around in armour. I liked the idea and read as much about this more interesting version of Arthur as I could. I was hooked.
2. On average from the first word on the page to publication, how long was the process? What tips could you offer aspiring authors about the process?
Tips – oh there are so many! Write what is in your heart and stop saying “One day I will write my book.”
Just get on with it!
I have a useful article on my website: “Discovering the Diamond” your readers are most welcome to make use of anything they find interesting.
Please note that I mention “cowboy” self publishers. In the UK this refers to a company up to no good, but I understand in the USA ‘cowboy’ means the opposite. The differences of expressions between the UK and USA is so fascinating!
3. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any "writing" books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott)
My good friend, author Sharon Kay Penman gave me a few tips when I first started out – not to use long “run on” sentences for instance. But no, I have not had any training, I suppose I am a natural writer.
I did go to a writer’s group once, years ago, in the days before I was published:
I had not written anything for my “One day I will write a novel” project for several months. I had managed several hundred thousand words (of what eventually became The Kingmaking) but I tumbled into writer’s block. Partly I think, this was because of an extreme lack of confidence. What on earth was I doing wasting my time scribbling all this drivel?
I heard about the writer’s group and went along. To my horror there were half a dozen women and their objective was to use the group as a therapy session. They all had various problems and wanted to “write them out of their systems.” I was too shy to get up and walk out, so sat there cringing as last week’s writing was discussed (“My husband/boyfriend/lover does not understand me”)
Then we were given a sheet of A4 paper and told to write what was in our hearts for fifteen minutes.
I was there because I had writer’s block – I hadn’t a single word in my head. After five minutes I realised I had to write something, even if I only put individual words. So I wrote down the first word that came into my head. Then another, and another. Then I wrote the word “battle”, then “sword” – and before I knew it I was writing a battle scene.
At the end of the fifteen minutes we were told to stop writing. I didn’t even look up, I just asked for more paper and told then to carry on without me.
That exercise ended up as the first chapter of Pendragon’s Banner.
As for useful books – well there is my Discovering the Diamond. Or I found Stephen King’s On Writing very interesting – and entertaining.
4. A great deal of writing advice suggests that amateur writers focus on what they know or read the genre you plan to write. Does this advice hold true for you? How so (i.e. what authors do you read)?
I know I am getting on a bit age wise (I am almost 56) but I am not old enough to remember the Dark Ages, so I know nothing of the subject personally, nor have I ever fought in a battle or know how to handle a sword. J
That has not stopped me writing about the period though!
If you research your subject matter you will not necessarily need to read novels of the same genre – however, you will need to read well written books.
I research my facts and read, read, read. Reading feeds the imagination. A starved imagination is an empty imagination. Fill it up to the extent that it has to spill a load of it out again!
I do, however, include things I do know about. For instance, in The Kingmaking there is quite a bit about horses – a subject I am familiar with. And whatever the period or the genre, people are people. Things happened the same then as they do now (although without the TV, cell phones or automobiles!) Messages are received that have shattering consequences, loved ones fall ill, people got food poisoning … had affairs, fell in love, out of love. Babies got born, babies died… adapt your everyday experiences into your story. That is what will give your characters reality – that is what will bring your story to life.
I tend to read what I am interested in. With writing taking up so much of my time I find reading difficult to fit in, so I feel very cheated if a book does not give me the enjoyment it should. Sad to say, if I am not hooked by the third chapter I give up. Reading time is too precious to waste on something I am not enjoying. I mentioned Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart, Sharon Penman is a guaranteed good historical read, and Elizabeth Chadwick. But I also enjoy Ian M. Banks, Dick Francis, James L. Nelson, Winston Graham (the Poldark series), C.S Forrester, Patrick O’Brian… P.G. Wodehouse. Lindsey Davis, Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter.
I’m afraid this question is rather like asking how long is a piece of string!
5. When you wrote The Kingmaking, did you have a particular routine or habit? For instance did you have music playing to inspire you? If so, what would be the top five on your playlist for The Kingmaking?
Yes, I often listen to music, but I’m afraid I can not remember what it was now (I wrote The Kingmaking over a long period, and some while ago.) I usually prefer instrumental, not songs, as I find I tend listen to the words, which is distracting. My all time favorite is Mike Oldfield.
Presently I am writing the third in my adventure/fantasy pirate based series for adults (Sea Witch, Pirate Code and the one I’m writing, Bring It Close) For background music I listen to Enigma, the soundtrack of Last of the Mohicans and Master and Commander – and Mike Oldfield (Songs of Distant Earth and Tubular Bells III – wonderful!) My apologies if these are UK based, not USA.
6. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?
Yes, my friends have changed since I was first published – but that was sixteen years ago, so I suppose that is to be expected.
My best friend, Hazel, sadly died nine years ago – I had known her since 1969, when I first started work. I still miss her very much.
I do have several authors as friends – Sharon Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick I have already mentioned, but I’ll not divulge any others as it is a little bit like name dropping. Except to say the maritime author James L. Nelson is a very good friend. He very kindly edits all the sailing detail for my sea-faring novels (see below)
Two of my good friends have taken the plunge, written their novels and become published. Raven Dane and Jo Field. While one of my dearest long term friends is now my webmaster. He keeps a very stern eye on my website.
I am privileged to have met so many wonderful people through my books. Two ladies came to interview me about Shadow if the King when it was first published here in the UK – we have remained very firm friends ever since, in fact we spent Christmas together – and a good time was had by all. I am also very fortunate to have met many eager new writers who have taken the plunge and decided to self publish. I support the Nottingham New Writers Group. Although I do not live near Nottingham – the Chair of the group asked for my support a few years ago and I was delighted to give it. The group has gone from strength to strength, producing good, quality, novels. Good for them!
And finally my best friends are my husband and my daughter. The amazing thing is, that after all these years they still do not complain about dinners I have forgotten to cook, undusted shelves, un-weeded gardens, un-ironed clothes. Nor do they mind me being grumpy when a chapter does not work as I want it to, or the fact that they often do not see me for days on end as I am entrenched in my office. Hmm, maybe that is why they tolerate me?
7. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?
Excuse me while I roll on the floor laughing! One big problem I have discovered: sitting on a chair all day tends to broaden one’s beam end!
Seriously, I have a hip condition – I am waiting for hip replacement surgery, so walking is often painful, especially the sort of walking you need for exercise, and I do tend to pick at food while writing. Most of my body seems to be heading southward at a rate of knots.
I would say to any writer, though, do not spend hours at a time at your computer keyboard – and make sure you have a comfortable chair, and a table/desk set at the correct height. Injuries to wrist, neck, shoulders and back are all too common – and are preventable. I frequently walk away from my desk to make a cup of tea, feed the birds in the garden, let the dog out etc.
8. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer's block?
Chocolate. Enough said.
9. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?
Hmm. I can not write in the mornings – I am not a morning person. I often write into the early hours though (as I write this it is almost 1 a.m. ) I remember finishing Pendragon’s Banner at 4 a.m.
I often talk to my main characters. I “feel” them standing behind my right shoulder, usually nagging me. Some scenes in the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy wrote themselves, almost as if Arthur was telling me what happened. Mind you, he would clear off when it became obvious I was stuck for ideas on how to get him out of the mess he had got himself into. Me? A demented scribbler? No…!
I often have a few scented candles burning on my windowsill by my desk at night, they look so pretty and are relaxing. By day, in the summer, when the sun moves round the light reflects on a few old CD discs that are also on the sill as “mats” beneath the candle holders. They send rainbow reflections dancing over the ceiling. Lovely!
I also have to hear a clock ticking.
10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.
My ideal would be to have a room with windows facing in two different directions. One would overlook the sea, the other fields and trees where our horses graze – or perhaps the stable yard so I could see them looking over their stable doors. There would be a blazing log fire in winter, a comfy chair to curl up in and bookshelves with all my beloved books all my treasures gathering dust, (as they do now.)
One can always dream.
My actual “office” is quite nice though. My desk is at right angles to the window, which looks out onto the patio, the fish pond and lots of trees. I live on the edge of the London suburban sprawl, but the little piece of privacy that is my garden is an oasis of peace and quiet.
I have tall ships and pirate pictures on my walls. So, I am sad to say, I spend a lot of time drooling over Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow.
11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?
I am writing the third of my pirate Sea Witch Series (hence the pictures) called Bring It Close. Although this series is not “serious” fiction, as in my other novels – these are adventure/fantasy stories ( a sailor’s yarn!) for adults, and they are as well written and as well researched. I am now a very good armchair sailor!
I wanted to write something that was for fun, and to have a totally made up character. Writing historical fiction is all very well, but we know the ending – what happened to Arthur, or King Harold II. I wanted to write some stories that were just that – stories. My main character, Captain Jesamiah Acorne is completely mine. I imagined every bit about him – what he looks like, sounds like. His past, his present, his future is all within the scope of my creation. Only a few historical events are included – the ones of my choosing. For instance, in the present storyline Jesamiah is in trouble (again) but this time it is with the infamous pirate Blackbeard. I am having such fun writing these adventures.
I am also involved in making a proposed movie – 1066. I am co-scriptwriter. I was approached because of my novel Harold the King – the story of the Battle of Hastings. All we need is the funding, and yes, if (when) it gets made, it will be released in the USA.
I have excerpts of all my novels on my website and if you click on the Sea Witch cover, you will come across an article on how I thought up the idea for writing Sea Witch – and how I “met” my Jesamiah.
My one realisation, Jesamiah and Arthur are very alike in character. And funnily enough, I fell in love with both of them.
Did I mention something above about being a demented scribbler…?
Thanks, Helen, for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions.
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