What does it take to be a novelist?


Elizabeth Chadwick 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!

To Defy A King book cover Her first novel 'The Wild Hunt' in 1990 became an award winner, and 21 years later Elizabeth has just won another prestigious award, having received many other nominations in the meantime.

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 book cover '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!

Medieval woman preparing food 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?
Medieval knight 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.

Any secrets?
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.
Carole says:
Knights in battle "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.
Medieval woman cooking 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.

Read more about the RNA awards here.

Lady Of The English book cover 'To Defy A King' will be available in paperback in August, but is available now in hardcover and e-format. 'Lady of the English' is forthcoming in June.

'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,

Best wishes,

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.

Read the full terms and conditions


  1. Alison Kelly March 29, 2011 at 10:00 pm -  Reply

    Really interesting blog! I love reading-I’m not particularly fussy and enjoy most books except for sci-fi and horror. I really enjoy historical novels eg those by CJ Sansom (the Shardlake novels), Phillipa Gregory and Alison Weir. I also love thrillers, comedies and romance novels. Your blog has definitely inspired me to explore Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels-look forward to downloading them onto my Kindle-which I also love!!!

  2. Julie, Dorset March 30, 2011 at 4:50 pm -  Reply

    This is the first time that I have ever added a comment to a blog, but I was so inspired that I just had to. I’ve never really looked at historical fiction before as I am more of a thriller person usually, but your blog has inspired me to look at something new.
    It’s also really interesting to hear about your writing experiences so please keep us up to date with this and your other funny stories. You definitely brighten my day.

  3. debs flint March 31, 2011 at 12:29 am -  Reply

    Gosh – alison – julie – two amazing comments – you’re both obviously into your reading and I’m so glad you added your thoughts, thanks! Do please, anyone else reading this blog, put a comment, even if you’ve never done so before. In fact, especially if you’ve never done so before! It could win you a copy of To Defy A King!
    Thanks girls – I loved doing this blog, and hope to do a few more through the year – makes it more interesting than just updating everyone on my dogs and pass times, doesn’t it!
    I promise I’ll reply to any that need a reply too!

  4. Virginia Neary March 31, 2011 at 6:13 pm -  Reply

    A very interesting blog that I really enjoyed reading.I love to keep my brain active by reading and will read most books.
    My favourite book is Mist Over Pendle.I would have loved to have lived in the 1600’s,when they were after witches and the evil deeds they did here in Lancashire.
    I only live a few miles from where the book is set in Pendle.
    I’m now looking forward to reading some of Elizabeth’s books as it will be something new for me.

  5. John Saville March 31, 2011 at 7:38 pm -  Reply

    Great piece Debs, I have just finished the creative writing course and now shown the error of my ways I have to edit them by all accuonts I have way too many commas in the wrong places ha ha but on the whole they are good short stories, will be back here soon xx

  6. Caroline Jones April 1, 2011 at 7:43 am -  Reply

    I love reading your blogs Debs, they’re always interesting and amusing and this one in particular caught my eye. I love historical novels and the Tudors are my all time favs. Philippa Gregory covers this time period very well and is a favourite author of mine. I would have loved to have been at court in Henry VIII’s days to see all the intrigue and machinations that went on. The fashions all seemed sumptuous too and I wouldn’t have minded wandering around dressed in the finest velvet silk and lace (not as nice as a slanket but heyho lol) Cya on the Q soon Debs, Love Caz xxxx

  7. Vanessa Roberts April 1, 2011 at 1:41 pm -  Reply

    Thanks for this Debs. I love Phillipa Gregory’s books and am now definately going to have a read of Elizabeth Chadwick’s work. Love reading your blogs and keeping up with the doggy antics. Take care

  8. Louise April 1, 2011 at 5:26 pm -  Reply

    Hi Debs
    What interesting blogs you write. As I have mentioned before, I am more into factual tomes as opposed to novels. Elizabeth Chadwick may, however, be a welcome deviation from that as it sounds as if her writings are based on fact. I have never read her before but, in my opinion, this is probably what makes her such a successful author, the fact that she is writing about what she knows.
    Just out of curiosity Debs, why is it that your forte appears to be romantic fiction? Also, do you write for a target audience and how important is the pleasure and experience of the reader compared with the satisfaction you want / need to feel upon completing the novel? I know that’s a few questions but, as I’m sitting at work having finished my day’s agenda, my mind is still running on full! Plus, I am genuinely interested. I still have a desire to write a book about the history of workington in west cumbria. We have curwen castle, mary queen of scots visited us here, well not me personally, you understand! Have you ever been to cumbria? It really is a lovely county, we’re on the doorstep to the lakes, not in the sticks, as some would have you believe.
    Well, Debs, I’ve droned on for long enough. I thinkn I ought to renew my acquaintance with the public library, and get to know Elizabeth Chadwick’s work.
    Speak soon and take care. Love from my hounds to yours!

  9. debs flint April 4, 2011 at 12:36 am -  Reply

    Virginia – glad you’re going to try Elizabeth’s books!
    What is Mist Over Pendle about?
    and the 1600s would be ok – as long as you weren’t a witch! lol
    Thanks so much for your comment!

  10. debs flint April 4, 2011 at 12:37 am -  Reply

    John- good luck with the short stories – that’s an art form in itself!
    Don’t forget – no semi-colons either!

  11. debs flint April 4, 2011 at 12:39 am -  Reply

    Caz – I also love Tudor times – Hampton Court is quite near me, and has always been one of my favourite places!
    Ta for writing!

  12. debs flint April 4, 2011 at 12:41 am -  Reply

    Vanessa – thanks for commenting! Nice to know you like reading the antics! There’s be an update soon on the doggy swimming scenario -Patch will be accompanying Gracie soon! Hehe.

  13. h.chapman April 4, 2011 at 12:42 am -  Reply

    Hi,having read all of the very enthusiastic remarks,it seems that I must read some of Elizabeth Chadwicks books…my imagination has been fired up!!To date,THE most impressive historical novels that I have read,and enjoyed so immenseley,are those written by Diana Gabaldon,I also love to read R.F Delderfield.
    You appear to be thoroughly enjoying your writing experience…I wish you good luck and fulfillment.

  14. debs flint April 4, 2011 at 12:49 am -  Reply

    Louise –
    Thanks for asking! I have always read thriller/drama/adventure books – Cussler, Grisham, Archer. But from age 16 also read my fair share of Jilly Cooper, Jackie Collins, Danielle Steele, and so on. Then two years ago I saw a TV prog about writing a romance for Mills and Boon which showed a writing holiday in Tuscany – so I booked on it. Having to read tons and tons of Mills and Boon’s for that, and since, I realised how much I love them too! Probably the same reason I buy both The Sun and The New Scientist! Lol.
    I write what feels right, if that makes sense. In terms of the story rather than who’s reading it. Although if you’re writing a specific genre they kind of go hand in hand. Mills and Boon criteria are very specific though, which makes it easier in one way and much harder in another!
    The York Festival – which I just got back from – rammed home the fact that you HAVE to write for your own pleasure – do it cos you enjoy it. As there’s a very slim chance the average person will get published by a major publishers.
    Finally, no not been to Cumbria, but the idea of your book sounds good! There are lots of publishers looking at non-fiction, so good luck with it! Maybe get the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ which lists all the publishers and agents you can contact to ask.
    But mainly – do it cos you love it! I do! : – )
    Thanks for your comment!

  15. debs f April 4, 2011 at 9:37 pm -  Reply

    Dear H. Chapman (helen? Harold? : – ) )
    Thanks so much for commenting too – I’d be interested to hear what you think of Elizabeth Chadwick’s books too! Yes I do love writing – and writing about writing! lol
    best wishes

  16. Caroline Jones April 4, 2011 at 11:33 pm -  Reply

    Hi Debs,
    Didn’t know you were near Hampton Court – I can never read or hear that without thinking of the Two Ronnies sketch where ‘Good King ‘enry got ‘is ‘ampton court’ It sounded very painful lol. Maybe we should write a Tudor based novel between us!
    Caz xx

  17. debs flint April 6, 2011 at 1:16 am -  Reply

    Caz – yes I lived in Morden for years as a kid, then another 12 just after I got married and had kids – not far, just down the A3! I love all things history-archaeology etc as you may know if you read my blogs often enough. I’d love to do a historical one day but for now I’ll leave it to the experts like Elizabeth Chadwick, cos it takes a lot of research and expertise to get it right!

  18. Caroline Jones April 6, 2011 at 1:43 pm -  Reply

    Hi Debs,
    I love your blogs and read them as often as I can, as we have a lot in common. Three of my favourite things are history, archaeology and labradors, and I’m hoping to do both a proof reading course and a writing course in the near future. I’d love to write a historical novel too, but agree that it needs a lot of researching etc, so thats on the backburner until I have more time. Cya on the Q soon

  19. TRACY L April 13, 2011 at 9:53 pm -  Reply

    HI Debs,
    have to admit i haven’t read historical stories before however i think you have inspired me to give them ago. i do like to read alot of true stories and have been in the process of trying to write a book for the last 12 months.its still in the early stages and its very theraputic (i think) as i can only write an A4 page at a time or find i have waffled on so i imagine it will take me a long long time to perfect. but hey even if it never gets anywhere it is certainly very relaxing lol
    take care debs see u soon on qvc x

  20. debs flint April 17, 2011 at 11:56 pm -  Reply

    Tracy – me and you both hon! I’m aiming to get mine finished by end of Aug tho – that’s my deadline! Keep me informed when you finish yours! We can spur each other on.
    Glad you’re going to try historicals – do give To Defy a King a go!
    best wishes

  21. backgammon November 28, 2011 at 10:49 am -  Reply

    I always wanted to become a writer

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