Last week, I reviewed Helen Hollick’s The Kingmaking. I also had the privilege of interviewing Helen about her latest novel.
1. When did you first start working on your novel?
So long ago I can’t remember! It took me ten years to produce what turned out to be The Kingmaking, but I was “scribbling” ideas for many years beforehand – I don’t think I ever got further than two or three chapters before it went in the bin.
2. How did you become interested in Roman/Saxon Britain?
I enjoyed Rosemary Sutcliff’s books as a child, then re-discovered them in my early 20’s – Eagle of the Ninth, Frontier Wolf, Mark of the Horse Lord, and of course, Sword at Sunset. She inspired me – and when I found out that Arthur would have been Romano British not a Medieval Knight in armour, well that was it, I just had to write. If I can be judged half as good as Rosemary I will be satisfied.
3. Why did you choose to write historical fiction? Have you, or would you ever attempt to write in other genres?
I started off writing pony stories when I was 13, switched to science fiction and fantasy when Star Wars inspired me – that is Star Wars the original movie first time around! Then I got hooked on Roman Britain.
With historical fiction I enjoy the challenge of researching and turning what little we know into the plausible “what might have really happened.” To take a character from history and bring him or her alive again is such a rewarding experience.
Add to that, one nice thing about writing history is – you have a ready made basic plot.
4. Describe your daily writing routine. When do you feel you’re most productive?
Of a morning I do the “office work” – answering e-mails, maintaining my various Myspace profiles. Fiddling … having a game of scrabble on the computer! Then I usually do some of the boring housework, so quite often it is mid afternoon before I settle to “work.” And more often than not I keep going until the early hours of the morning. I am writing this at 1.47 a.m!
I have a theory that as most other people are asleep, there is more imagination to go round and looking to be used.
5. What is the most rewarding part, in your opinion, of writing an historical fiction piece?
Oh without doubt, bringing the characters to life. My main characters, to me, are real, live people. I can see them clearly in my mind, hear them nagging to get on with the next chapter. I truly do not remember writing some of the scenes about Arthur. The words just flowed from my fingers. So where did the inspiration come from? My imagination – or his voice whispering in my ear?
Mind you, the wretched so-and-so would never help me when I had no idea how to get him out of a sticky situation!
6. Why did you choose to write about Arthur? How is your novel different from other novels that attempt to tell the story of Arthur?
I had never had much liking for the ‘traditional’ Arthurian stories of Round Tables and Knights in armour. That King Arthur was such a feeble king to abandon his kingdom and his wife. Surely he should have foreseen that Lancelot and Guinevere would end up as lovers? I so disliked Lancelot and all those too-good-to-be-true knights. Even from an early age I realised these stories were not real history. Knights, chivalry, Holy Grails were not right for the Dark Ages. It was fine as a fairy tale but not as an historical novel.
Mary Stewart’s novels (The Hollow Hills and the Crystal Cave) had an author’s note about if Arthur had existed he would have been a Romano British war lord. That idea appealed to me and I devoured all the non-fiction books I could find. This was a ‘real’ and far more interesting Arthur.
When it came to novels about him though, I became frustrated! One portrayal of Gwenhwyfar so annoyed me that I threw it across the room. The only thing to do was to write my own. There would be no knights, grails, round tables. No myth, no magic. No Lancelot, no Merlin.
Instead, I turned to the early Welsh legends of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar. They were so exciting and emotional – who needed the Medieval fairy tale? Arthur had become real.
7. What have you enjoyed the most about the process? The least?
The least enjoyable is the hard work involved in editing and re-drafting. Reading through and correcting over and over can get tedious, but if you want to be taken seriously as a professional author it is part of the job and has to be done.
The most enjoyable is something I would not have expected when I started writing. It is meeting so many nice people. If it was not for my writing I would not have met the several very dear friends I now have – and I would not be here now “talking” to you!
8. What was involved in finding the right agent/publisher to represent your work?
I was fortunate, a good friend of mine, Sharon Kay Penman, recommended me to her agent. Who took me on. She managed to place me with William Heinemann / Random House UK.
It is a good idea to try and find an agent if you are a new writer – you can look on the Internet, the UK’sWriter’s Year Book, or (in the U.S.) Literary Market Place (LMP). Check to make sure the agents you approach handle your genre of book though. It is no good sending a romance to someone who only handles fantasy for instance. Be warned, however, it is very difficult to be accepted by an agent and even harder to get published.
9. What advice would you give to other aspiring novelists of historical fiction?
Think about your characters and bring them to life. Keep a note of every little detail, not just hair and eye colour, but scars, personality, quirks – what makes them laugh or cry. If they are not real to you, they will nor be real to your readers.
It is so useful to keep these notes, because if you then need the character again because you decide to write a series, all the information is to hand.
10. What other interests do you have besides the historical period of Roman/Saxon Britain?
The Golden Age of Piracy! I have another series of adventure/fantasy books that sprang to life because of Johnny Depp’s creation of Jack Sparrow. I wanted to write something that was a little less “serious” than my historical novels. I would still have the same writing quality, the same level of research and accuracy – and would still be for adults – but with a touch of plausible fantasy added.
I had researched the reality of pirates after enjoying the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and realised I had enough material for a novel. The whole plot, along with most of the characters, sprang to life while I was on holiday, walking on a beach in Dorset, Southern England. The ship would be the Sea Witch, the heroine a healer, midwife and white witch called Tiola Oldstagh – an anagram of ‘all that is good.’ The story would start in Cape Town then move to the Caribbean. There would be ship wrecks and swashbuckling adventures. But I did not have my pirate captain. I sat on a rock and looked at the dull grey English Channel, imagining it was the azure blue of the Caribbean (shows I have a good imagination!) I looked up. And there he was, standing a few yards away, dressed as pirate should be dressed; big boots, long coat, three cornered hat, a pistol through his belt and a cutlass at his hip. The light glinted on a golden earring shaped like an acorn. He raised his hand and casually saluted me.
“Hello Jesamiah Acorne,” I said.
And I swear that is true.
11. What projects are you planning to work on next?
I am co-scriptwriter for the proposed movie ‘1066’. Assuming the producer can get the funding we hope to start filming in 2010. This is the story of King Harold and Duke William of Normandy – the Battle of Hastings – basically my two novels, A Hollow Crown and Harold the King.
The third in my Sea Witch series (Sea Witch, Pirate Code and now Bring It Close) will be published in mid April, and then I have to decide what to write next. It will either be a fourth in the series (I plan on doing at least six) or maybe I might do another serious historical.
If the movie happens I may well write the story of Hereward the Wake – if not a serious novel set in the late 1600’s about a pirate explorer – William Dampier. Or who knows, some other character may stir his old bones and take my fancy!