Stepping Stones

Towse Harrison

An interview with Elizabeth Chadwick

Elizabeth Chadwick, whose latest paperback The Champion has been shortlisted for the RNA Book of the Year, explains why rejection slips should not be seen as stumbling blocks, but as the stepping stones to success.

How did you start your career as a writer?

As far back as I can remember, I had always told myself stories in my head. I know that at three years old I was combining illustrations in different story books to invent my own tales and create new episodes.

It was not until I was fifteen with the long school holidays stretching before me that I decided to keep a more permanent record of my imagination and actually write things down. I duly embarked on my first 500 page novel, scrawled in old school exercise books and pads of Basildon Bond. Twenty five years on, this unpublished masterpiece, entitled Tiger’s Eye, is still in my drawer. Inspired by a childrens’ television programme called ‘Desert Crusader’, (I was madly in love with the dark, handsome French hero), it was set in the C12th Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem and involved a plot by Islamic fanatics to murder the Christian King Fulke. My hero was a sort of medieval James Bond whom no woman had been able to pin down until the fair Cecile came along!

I relished the experience of writing the novel – it took me approximately a year, and I decided that yes, this is what I wanted to do for a living. Of course such an ambition was difficult to realise in the real world and I had a long slog ahead of me.

After A’ levels I went to work as a management trainee for a large department store. While I didn’t enjoy it much, it earned me a living and in every spare moment I worked on my novels. I went to night school and learned to type in order to further my dream career. I got married, I had children, I persevered. Novels were written, sent off to publishers and rejected, but I didn’t give up. I was learning all the time and I knew that I was improving. I began to have modest successes with short story competitions. Finally in 1989, I sent off the first three chapters and synopsis of my latest novel The Wild Hunt, to a literary agency in London . To my delight they took me on. Within three months they had sold the novel at auction to Michael Joseph. The Wild Hunt went on to win a Betty Trask Award and the rest is history (literally!).

Why historical fiction?

The roots lie in my Scots childhood I think. I was a born storyteller and I had an eye for a ripping yarn. I remember history lessons at school where the teacher would choose pupils to act out the more dramatic incidents of Scottish history. We had to gallop about in front of the blackboard on pretend horses – somewhat like Monty Python and the Holy Grail! The lessons were great fun and obviously they worked because I can remember them with far more clarity than the written stuff.

In my teens, the BBC were busy with such programmes as ‘The Six Wives Of Henry VIII’ and ‘The Canterbury Tales’. I loved the richness, the costume, the drama. The programme ‘Desert Crusader’ was the catalyst that sparked my pen, but it was only the final push I think in a long, inevitable development.

How do you feel about the perception of the genre with the reading public and publishers?

From my own experience, the publishers love historical fiction. My agent and my editor are two of my greatest fans. Problems occur I think when you reach the marketing/trade side of matters where the ‘men in grey suits’ are not disposed to be as enthusiastic. Indeed, in America, I was turned down by one major publishing house because the sales people didn’t want to know and yet the commissioning editor thought that the novel was superb. I think that fads and whims rule the market and are pushed in the press to the exclusion of long-term trends. People think they are individual but just end up following the crowd to Ikea or Delia Smith cranberry land.

The problem with the apathy of the trade is that only a limited number of historical novels reach the mainstream high street bookshelves, so they are not there in the first place for the public to discover. Getting a historical reviewed these days is tough too unless you have personal contacts or you are a ‘high profile’ author.

Have you a favourite historical novel (or novels)?

I have many, but let me name three. Alinor by Roberta Gellis was the book that inspired me to persevere with writing historical fiction. It has its flaws, but I had never met characters who were so convincing that they almost stepped off the page and into the room. I remember as a struggling wannabee sitting down and trying to analyse how Gellis did it, only to become so engrossed in the book that I’d forget I was trying to take it apart!

Book number two is Hanta Yo by Ruth Beebe Hill. It is the story of the Lakotah Indians on the eve of the coming of the white man. It’s a wonderful novel, profound, moving, scholarly, intensely spiritual. The author translated the story into Sioux and then back into English to get the correct idioms and there is a glossary of Sioux words at the back of the book. I would love to write a novel about native Americans, but having read Hanta Yo, I know that I don’t have the capacity to do justice to the subject.

Book three is Vainglory by Geraldine McCaughrean. It’s set in late medieval France and is like the Jean duc de Berry Book of Hours put into words. It is as rich and sumptuous as a heavy velvet curtain. Utterly, utterly wonderful. She has written a prequel to it, Lovesong, which is dreadfully disappointing and inexcusably historically inaccurate, but Vainglory is a triumph.

You have been a member of the medieval re-enactment group Regia Anglorum for some years – how important has this been as an inspiration for your work?

I suppose there have been moments of inspiration. For example I did a tablet weaving scene in Shields of Pride, and for The Conquest I spoke extensively to members who had been at the re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings, both Normans and Saxons. What is vitally important I think, is that being a member of Regia has helped me walk with utter confidence thought the world of the early Middle Ages. There are many authors who make a passable attempt at portraying the times, but that is all it is – passable. I like to think that Regia has helped me put a greater depth of realism into my writing. I have gained knowledge that no text book could ever give me and I know that experts on any medieval subject are just a phone call away. My greatest compliment recently came from a Regia acquaintance who works for museums both in Britain and abroad, making facsimile articles to show alongside the often mangled archaeological originals. Having read The Champion, he told me that he couldn’t find a single dodgy historical detail. Now that is praise indeed!

How do you manage to cope writing so prolifically (8 novels in 5/6 years is quite an achievement), especially with the demands of a family?

It’s easy. I write approximately 5,000 words a week, 50 weeks of the year. Sometimes things have to go by the board. In my case it’s usually dusting and tidying, but I can cheerfully do without them. Even as I’m not a slave to housework, neither am I chained to my PC, but I am disciplined. Four weekday mornings 9am-1pm are spent writing. The other day I see a friend and perhaps just do a couple of hours in the evening. Saturdays and Sundays see two more three hour stretches arranged around the needs of my family. If I have extra writing on the go, a deadline to reach, or work to do on a manuscript I’ve been sent for appraisal, then I have plenty of scope to put in more hours. I love the job. I can work from home, hours and coffee breaks to suit, and occasionally I get to go and whoop it up in London. It beats the hell out of working in a shop!

How do you go about tackling historical research?

I am fortunate in that I started writing about the Middle Ages at fifteen and I now have twenty five years of reading and experience under my belt. When this is added to all the knowledge I have gleaned as a member of Regia, it means that I can walk in my imaginary Medieval world with as much confidence as I walk in the C20th. I also use text books and I have an extensive personal library. These in their turn have useful bibliographies. If I can’t find what I want at home, then I can order it from the library or write to the author. I don’t read Latin, so I use translations or secondary sources. In the latter case, I usually double check what the book has to say. It is not unknown for text books to get a detail wrong, particularly where costume is concerned.

What other periods of history might you like to explore in your writing and why?

Anything up to the Black Death. As the Middle Ages wanes, so does my interest. I would love to write an Arthurian story told from the point of view of the Saxons. They always seem to get it in the neck from the Celts, no-one has ever told it from their viewpoint. Were they common adventurers or refugees displaced by nomadic tribes invading their own homelands? Another topic I wouldn’t mind exploring is the Viking trading links with North America.

What advice would you feel able to give to unpublished authors of historical fiction?

I know it is horrendously tough out there at the moment. Publishers and agencies are only taking work from authors already established. My own agent says that these things go in cycles. The crime market is still growing but the historical market is as flat as a pancake. It will change though, she is confident of that. My advice is not to give up. I wrote for sixteen years before success came my way. You have to see rejection as a stepping stone, not a stumbling block. If historical fiction is genuinely what you want to write, then you’re likely to do it better than something you’ve tried you hand at just because it’s in fashion. Support the Historical Novel Society for all it is worth. The more media attention drawn to the historical novel, the faster it is likely to reappear on the bookshelves and the more likely you are to be published.

As a member of the Historical Novel Society – what do you see as the benefits of such a society and how would you like to see it develop?

The main benefit to me must obviously be reviews (by people who have a genuine interest in historical novels) and publicity when it is so hard to obtain either via the mainstream press. I would also say that contact with like-minded people is an excellent reason for joining, and anything that raises the profile of historical fiction has to be supported and nurtured as far as I’m concerned. With 400 members, it is already larger than the Romantic Novelists Association.
As far as the society’s development goes, I cannot sum it up better than Richard Lee did in the letter that accompanied the recent Review. I agree with him on every single point.

First published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, Issue 3, Spring 2008.

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