VEH Masters answers most Frequently Asked Questions about being an author of Historical Fiction
What’s the best thing about being a writer?
When the proof arrives and I can hold it in my hand, then I know the hard work is over and the book is finished after nearly a year’s work. I also have to admit to checking my sales data daily and the excitement when I’ve had a good week or month.
What’s your working day like?
It depends where I am in the writing cycle. I’m very strict with the first draft otherwise I’d never get it finished. I set myself a daily target of 1200 words which I have to achieve regardless of how much faffing around I do. Sometimes I’m doing research and then I also spend time linking with readers either through my newsletter, blog or Facebook. I love when readers get in touch and I can sense how engaged they are with the characters. Every day is spent doing a bit of each.
Where did you get the ideas for your most recent book The Familists?
When I was writing the second in series The Conversos, who were a very distinct group of Jews that were forcibly converted to Christianity in the 1490s, I learned that they were fleeing in increasing numbers through Antwerp to Venice and onto Constantinople. The sultans welcomed them because many Conversos were very wealthy and they were permitted to freely practise their faith (as were Christians living in the Ottoman Empire). I found this fascinating. It was the starting point for my journey across Europe.
Then I learned about the followers of Henrik Niclaes who developed the philosophy of familism which fitted beautifully for who some of my characters were and gave me the title of The Familists. Finally I brought in the French wars of religion, most specifically the Siege at Rouen in 1562 and by a roundabout way I had the main theme of the book which is essentially how does a family of different faiths hold together – or can they?
What are you working on now?
The final book in the series, which as is yet unnamed. It’s set in Scotland so my characters will come full circle back to their homeland. I’m currently researching life in Scotland of 1588 and the resources are all on my doorstep which will make it a lot easier. It’s due out In November.
Who is your favourite character from The Seton Chronicles?
Well. there’s the fictional characters but also those who were real people who lived then.
I have to like the main characters otherwise I couldn’t spend so much time with them. Grissel the servant is funny, feisty and loyal. I think it has to be her, although Bethia her mistress comes a close second – and then there’s Mainard, the husband who’s kind yet very determined. I’ll stop now…
Both Jews and Christians could live in Istanbul without fear of religious persecution. They weren’t treated as equals but some ended up in very powerful positions as advisers to the sultan and physicians in his court. Most famously Don Joseph Nasi, who Marlowe is said to have based his play The Jew of Malta on. He appears in both The Apostates and The Familists. Of even greater interest to me was his aunt Dona Gracia who helped countless Conversos flee from Portugal and Antwerp. She was a fierce woman who brooked no nonsense yet she saved so many people, and spent vast amounts of her own fortune to do so – although the family were as rich as kings and indeed lent money to many of the European monarchs.
How do you keep learning as a writer ?
I try to do some learning regularly and always have a post, podcast, ebook or print book, and occasionally a course, on the go. Currently I’m listening to How to Crack your Novel’s Beginning and Ending which is a Reedsy Live Podcast with Caroline Leavitt – she’s excellent and gives great examples which have been helpful for me in understanding how I can improve the beginning especially, which I struggle with.
Sometimes when I listen to or read stuff on writing, especially when they start trundling on about arcs and archetypes, I freeze. Also the sheer volume of material out there can be overwhelming so I’ll sign up for things but have now become quite selective about what I stay with, otherwise I start getting red warnings over my full in box.
One how to write book I did really enjoy was Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s so honest and accessible.
Where did you learn to promote and market your books?
A lot of persistence and trial and error and both very necessary, I fear. Many writers dislike this aspect of the business (and being an author feels very much like running a business to me), but once I began to understand more of how to do it I’ve quite got into it.
This year I’ve been working away on Matt Holmes course Jumpstart Facebook Ads. He’s not a writer but instead manages his wife’s author business very successfully. He regularly updates his courses and I have no hesitation in recommending this course which I have made a lot of use of. It is not a magic solution and does require constant application so anyone considering doing the course should bear that in mind. Btw this is an affiliate link.
Currently I’m reading an ebook by Lori Culwell called Funny You Should Ask: How to Do Search Engine Optimization: SEO for Marketing, Blogging, and More and learning about how to do SEO better and putting what I’m learning into practise. She makes it fun and is most emphatic that there’s nothing complicated about SEO beyond the jargon. She also puts out a regular buzzy newsletter full of the energy and passion she obviously feels for what she does which is useful. It’s people like Lori who make marketing enjoyable and I actually look forward to reading the next chapter!
What made you choose historical fiction as your genre?
It chose me. I wrote the first book The Castilians because I so loved walking amid the ruins of the castle and cathedral in my hometown of St Andrews, Scotland. There’s something about running your hand over stone that was once touched by people five hundred years ago – and going into house that old or older of which there are some in St Andrews, that gives me a connection with the past and a shiver down my spine.
It was the best reason to write historical fiction – the connection I felt and the questions I wanted answered about what it would’ve been like to live through the siege of 1546.
What historical fiction do you enjoy reading?
I’m a fairly eclectic reader, although I do tend to side swerve anything badged ‘literary’. Maybe it’s laziness but I mostly want to read stuff I enjoy rather than be thinking it’s ‘good for me’.
Which authors, alive or dead, would you invite to dinner, if you could?
Sir Walter Scott, even though his books aren’t much read anymore, because he was the great romanticiser of Scotland. Lots of words and phrases we use today came from Scott and we’ve stayed in his house Abbottsford, which was huge fun for all the family. Here’s a blog I wrote about it.
And if I have Scott then Scotland’s other great writer from the following century, Robert Louis Stevenson would have to be invited too, along with his remarkable American wife Fanny. Stevenson’s books are read in Scottish schools still and he is the most consummate story teller. I know he could teach me a thing or two.
And staying with the Scottish theme I discovered the great Dorothy Dunnett when I was half way through writing The Seton Chronicles. I’ve seen a video of her speaking and she was very witty. I guess her husband better come too, although she said her character Lymond from the Lymond Chronicles was based on him, and that was certainly a man who didn’t suffer fools so I’d be on the edge of my seat. Indeed I hope someone else is doing the cooking because I’ll be far too stressed with all these famous people, and their quirks, to manage.