As many of you know, I'm in the middle of writing a novel, and if you read my blogs regularly you'll know about the courses I go to, the people I meet and the different ways of keeping up to date with the publishing world.
Last week I mentioned the new RNA awards, and the amazing 'trailer' I'd seen for a book – yes a book! – on YouTube. Fascinated, I got in touch with the lady concerned, and to my delight she rang me back for a chat. There was so much interesting info that it deserves its own blog! And if you're also trying to get published, take note…
Medieval knights and 21st century bestsellers
Elizabeth Chadwick is a best-selling author of medieval sagas. She's also a lovely lady and a keen Tweeter! When you're trying to get your first book published, it's often useful to see what others have done.
We hear about legendary slush piles that agents receive – hundreds a month. Well this lady should have some tips to give us then, as she's one of those rare authors who was indeed chosen that way! Since then, her career has gone from strength to strength.
According to the Historical Novel Review, she's 'the best writer of medieval fiction currently around'. Over the last 20 years more than 20 novels have been published – even more have been written – and now Elizabeth has a finely honed process she goes through with every new book. It's a process all wannabe writers may covet, and her story of how her first book actually got published is one we all dream of!
In the recently announced Romantic Novelists' Association Pure Passion Awards 2011 she beat some stiff competition to win the Best Historical Novel Prize for 'To Defy a King', published by Sphere and due out in paperback in the UK in August.
The judges all agreed that "the history is deeply felt and conveyed, and is essential and integral to the plot". It's the story of huge emotional power set against the road to Magna Carta and the fight to bring the tyrant King John to heel.
Over 20 years or so, many of Elizabeth's books have gained recognition. 'The Champion' was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists' Award in 1998, 'Lords of the White Castle' in 2001, 'The Winter Mantle' in 2002, and 'The Falcons' in 2003.
'The Scarlet Lion' was also selected by Historical Novel Society founder Richard Lee as one of his 'Ten Landmark Historical Novels of the Last Decade'. Gratifyingly, her novels are now sold in 18 languages worldwide.
So what makes a woman want to write about life eight hundred years ago? And what makes her become a bestseller?
Historicals seem to be all the rage at the moment after all – with Philippa Gregory's Boleyn anthologies leading the way. Elizabeth's settings are further back though, and her fans say it's the research that sets her apart – her books are almost like a reference library to the twelfth century!
The Literary Project.blogspot.com's Gemma Noon has some ideas as to why she's become a bestseller – "She is one of those novelists who not only have a deep understanding of the period they write about, they live and breathe it. Literally. Elizabeth is part of a medieval re-enactment society, so she's as close to the period she writes about as it is possible to get, short of building a time machine. Not only is her work historically accurate, she writes a great story to boot. She's one of the best in the business, and her books are a pleasure, even for those of us who are anally retentive over historical detail."
Having ordered 'To Defy A King' for my Kindle, and having watched her impressive 'trailer' on YouTube (see below), it was lovely to get in touch with the lady herself, to find out more about her winning ways!
Interview with Elizabeth Chadwick, best-selling author
What made you become a writer?
My first memories of storytelling go back to age three, and through my teenage years they were probably about horses or the fairies on my hanky and such like. I always knew I was destined to be a writer though.
When I was 15 I saw a dubbed children's drama set in the twelfth century called Desert Crusader and fell in love with the hero, a knight called Thibaud played by Andre Lawrence. This inspired my love of all things medieval. I ended up writing a full length novel inspired by him. That's when I knew I wanted to become a writer.
How did you first get published?
It wasn't a fast track to success, as it took many years filling shelves in the Co-op and looking after my two small children before I was first published at age 33. I'd written about eight books by then, and had honed my craft – getting the first few books done meant I was a better writer as did simply maturing as a person.
I'd had lots of rejections previously; I'd started submitting when I was 18! But then when I was 32 I finally sent my manuscript for 'The Wild Hunt' to Carole Blake at Blake Friedmann in London. It's one of those legendary tales you hear about slush piles – she really did just pick up my submission from the slush pile and found herself wanting to finish reading the story.
I'd sent her the usual synopsis and first three chapters, and a covering letter. She wanted to represent me and it sold at auction three months later to Michael Joseph and Sphere. Thanks to Carole's faith in me the book went on to win the prestigious Betty Trask Award from the Society of Authors for First Novelists in 1990.
Agents only take on a few brand new authors every year but Carole discovered Julian Stockwyn, author of the Thomas Kydd novels that way too. Like his, mine must have just stood out. It's rare, but it happens. I'm so grateful that after many years of trying, it happened to me.
It also helped that I told Carole in the covering letter that I'd won a few competitions and was serious about writing. So mention anything which may show that you are too – courses you've attended etc.
I'd also studied how to present a novel – double line spacing, single-sided etc, and I did it all on an old Amstrad. Keep it straightforward and business-like – it won't help to say 'my mum and all my friends like it.'
Agent Carole Blake has a fabulous version of the story – you can imagine why it stood out from the slush pile.
"When I looked up from opening that envelope at my desk, 22 years ago, and realised I had read to the end of the first sample chapters of 'The Wild Hunt' by Elizabeth Chadwick I knew immediately that I wanted to represent her. This was unusual behaviour for me: normally I put aside the many unsolicited submissions to read later, but I had literally not been able to stop reading.
Then, as now, her words immediately and effortlessly transported me to a different world: in that instance it was Wales in the 11th century. Her characters are believable, well rounded people who enable us to experience what life was like in a different time. My reaction to receiving a new manuscript from her hasn't changed: I always aim to leave my office right away, so that I can immediately read it at home. I've never been disappointed: each new manuscript has surpassed the previous one."
So with that incredible support from one of London's most prestigious agencies, the career was born. But how does Elizabeth keep producing these fascinating stories year after year? It obviously take a fair bit of discipline and a good routine.
Authors typically suffer from distraction – doing any displacement activities they can to avoid writing. They joke about it all the time on Twitter. So what's the best way to get a book finished would you say?
Set a target, a realistic one, one you can easily do – then you can feel good about yourself if you do it, and great if you do more. Even if it's only 200 words a day that's better than none. Just write the story and don't look back until the crappy (she's being polite here, the usual word authors use starts with 'S'!) first draft – or 'SFD (see!). Only then do I allow myself to edit.
How many words do you target yourself with nowadays?
1500 a day. I know myself so well now that if I do more than 1500 I'll end up writing drivel! I tend to sit at my computer and multi-task – 10 minutes writing then check Twitter. Another 10 then make a cup of tea and check Facebook, or put the washing on or go onto Historical Fiction Online.
I find I am able to just switch it on and off. The times I'm away from the keyboard it's as if my subconscious is processing – so I'm ready for another session when I return. But you have to do what works for you – if it's 200 words then so be it. Some authors such as Anna Jacobs will sit and write the novel in long chunks of the day and not multi-task, while others such as myself, tend to bit and bob, and that there's no fixed way to do it.
Once the first draft is written, what then?
That's where the fun begins. I find it much easier to edit – a blank page can be daunting. That's why it's so important to write the first draft start to finish and don't look back. Get those words on the page in the first place then you've got something to work with.
Then I go back and do a second draft which is the first edit. Although that's also a proper job, the edit never feels like work because it's always come so naturally to me. The third draft is done by printing the pages out and going away from the computer and reading it like I'm reading any book. You're looking down when you read and I believe it uses a different part of your brain. Marking up any changes in pen also adds something extra.
Then the final draft is when I read it aloud to myself or my husband – you're using your ears then, you see, and you can spot repetition and things like that more easily. Once the final changes are made, that's it done. That's my system now.
What are you working on at the moment?
A book about Empress Matilda is due out in June 2011, I've just done the final proofs for that and I'm at contract stage about an exciting new project too. I always have the next book lined up in my head and often begin it even before I've finished the previous one. As we've mentioned, the research is all-important too, and has to be done accurately in order to weave the story around the facts and the facts around the story.
The job isn't only about writing nowadays though is it?
Absolutely right! There's lots and lots of networking to do now, as well as readings, helping with promotion etc. I've been creating my own trailers for YouTube too – like a film or TV trailer only for a book.
I'm proud that I've managed to work out how to drag and drop the photographs into a special programme – Pro Show Producer – and set them to music which I get for a small fee online. Magnatunes has a small membership fee, but royaltyfreemusic.com and Renderosity.com charge one off payments. The photos are mostly my own too – from my re-enactment events.
Fascinating! Tell us about the re-enactment events.
Oh it's such fun! I attended one at Nottingham Castle where a colourful pageant was being staged and discovered that I was able to do my research in 3D with people standing in front of me dressed in period costumes, demonstrating the trades etc.
Two guards dressed in full Norman war gear told me they owned the costumes and belonged to an early medieval re-enactment society called Regia Anglorum, which means Kingdoms of the English. Their events aim to portray the life and times of the British Isles in the tenth and eleventh centuries. I applied to join soon after.
One of my pictures on the new YouTube trailer for 'To Defy A King' is of a chap in chain mail who was at an event. Now I go along regularly and love to be involved – it brings it all to life for me and helps make my novels more authentic – there are 're-enactment moments' scattered throughout my books.
Something based in antiquity helping to create something as modern as a YouTube clip! Where do you think technology is taking publishing?
I do believe we are going towards interactive e-books, especially with historicals. If a story is based on real people, places or events you can put in links to sites to get more info. Or you could link in a piece of music, or photographs or even a video of the view that inspired that scene. It's exciting and I'm embracing the new technology even though I'm not particularly good at hi-tech things!
Well I've got my copy of 'To Defy A King' waiting for me on my Kindle so congratulations on the award and thanks for the advice! I'd like to think that one day, I'll even be making impressive trailers like this one too!
Elizabeth Chad wick's own site has much more info about her many award nominations, and her previous bestselling medieval novels.
'The Time of Singing' is the stand alone prequel to 'To Defy A King'. 'The Greatest Knight' and 'The Scarlet Lion' both tie-in to 'To Defy A King', being about the same family dynasty. Prolific or what?! I have to say this lovely lady's become my hero… er heroine!
Well that's it for now – if you liked this blog, do let me know, in case I can do some more chats with other authors in the future. If so, which would you like me to interview?
All this talk of books has really got me in the mood for more writing – as did the York Writers' Workshop Festival last weekend – more news of that in the next blog.
More next time,
PS – to win a signed copy of 'To Defy A King', just leave a comment below about this blog, or let me know your favourite period novels, or if you've ever been to a re-enactment. Or even which era would you like to have lived in!
Closing date for last entries is April 15th, so get typing! The winner will be chosen at random and will be added as a comment to this blog by April 19th.