Today I’m excited to share in celebrating the release of a new historical novel, set in the days of Mary Queen of Scots. Mary QoS is one of the most intriguing women of the 16th century, inspiring a large body of fiction and drama, the latest being the movie Mary Queen of Scots (2018) starring Saoirse Ronan. Her story has so many facets to explore. I sometimes wonder how her experiences would look in a modern-day context, but am more than happy to read more about her in historical fiction.
The Queen’s Almoner by Tonya Ulynn Brown is being released today and is going directly to my TBR list. I’m also looking forward to interviewing Tonya later this year for Last Word of the Week, and discovering more about her historical fiction.
In the meantime….Look at the blurb! Look at the cover! Enjoy!
The Queen’s Almoner
Sometimes loyalty to the queen comes at a cost.
Thomas Broune is a Reformer and childhood friend of the young queen, Mary Stuart. When Mary embarks on a new life in her estranged homeland of Scotland, Thomas is there to greet her and offer his renewed friendship. But the long-time friends grow closer, and Thomas realizes his innocent friendship has grown into something more. Yet he is a man of the cloth. Mary is the queen of the Scots. Both of them have obligations of an overwhelming magnitude: he to his conscience and she to her throne.
The Queen’s Almoner by Tonya Ulynn Brown
When he must choose between loyalty to his queen or his quiet life away from her court, he finds that the choice comes at a high price. Driven by a sense of obligation to protect those he loves, and crippled by his inability to do so, Thomas must come to terms with the choices he has made and find a peace that will finally lay his failures to rest.
Australian author Mark Smith lives on Victoria’s Surf Coast, where he writes novels and stories, and runs outdoor-education programs for young adults. His first novel, The Road to Winter (2017), attracted the attention of many literary judges and has since been adopted as secondary school reading here in Australia. Its themes of a dystopian future, survivalism, compassion and the struggle against injustice in its many forms are deftly packaged in a gripping and sparely written tale, with not a word too many. It’s almost poetic in its emotional intensity.
Mark’s second novel, Wilder Country, won the 2018 Indie Book Award for Young Adults, and the final book of the trilogy, The Land of Fences, was published to acclaim last year.
Australian author Mark Smith
Hi, Mark, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Here’s a tricky question: what would readers never guess about you?
I hated reading when I was young! I know a lot of authors are brought up in houses full of books or they are turned onto reading by a sympathetic librarian, but at the age of fifteen I’d never read a book. I knew how to read, I just didn’t have the inclination. I was very much an outdoors boys and I always associated reading with being closeted indoors. Then, when I was fifteen, I had a horse riding accident that left me with a badly broken neck – so suddenly I had to spend a lot of time indoors. My mum was an avid reader and she got me started on books like Storm Boy and I Can Jump Puddles. Discovering reading could transport into other worlds and other people’s lives, I progressed quickly to Catcher In The Rye, Steinbeck and George Johnston. By the time I returned to school six months after the accident I had read about twenty books and my outlook on learning and reading had changed completely.
That’s a very extreme version of book love! Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
Writing courses are hugely valuable. Though I have never studied writing at a tertiary level (a Victorian university rejected my application to do a PhD in Creative Writing last year because they didn’t consider twenty published short stories and three novels adequately met their selection criteria!), I have completed a number of short courses at places like Writers Victoria. As much as anything, I think they help expose the areas you need to work on in your writing. They are also valuable in creating writing networks that can support you through your successes and inevitable rejections!
The Road to Winter by Mark Smith
Good grief! That uni needs to take a good hard look. I also love the Writers Victoria courses and have found them very helpful in practical ways, while my degree was helpful in craft ways – a good supervisor is worth a few thousand rejection letters! What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
No one wants to hear it, but there is no silver bullet, no secret to success other than hard work and perseverance. When I started writing I had stories rejected for twelve months before one was accepted. Other than that, my own mantra for writing is: “Don’t let the words get in the way of the story.” If you are writing to impress, you are probably not writing well. Also, draft and redraft until it is the best possible piece of writing you can produce then – and only then – send it out into the world.
I love that, thank you Mark. Very happy to hear it! You talk about perseverance – do you have a go-to routine for writing?
I like to get up early – about sevenish – and write for at least two hours before breakfast. I can generally bang out a thousand words, if not more, and it gives me time in the rest of my day to do other things I love, like surfing, riding, reading and planning for appearances and workshops. I am more clear-headed in the morning but I use the rest of the day to mull over what I’ve written. I do a lot of what I call writing away from the desk. This is just thinking through scenes and descriptive passages, considering how I might improve on them. I can do this while I’m riding my bike, surfing or walking the dog on the beach. When I get back to the desk the next morning, I know what I have to do to improve what I’ve written the day before.
Wilder Country (Winter #2) by Mark Smith
I agree; a lot of writing happens inside your skull. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
Because my first book, The Road To Winter, is taught in schools around the country, I love hearing from students who have discovered reading through my books. I like to tell them about how I was also a non-reader until I was fifteen. I also like the fact teenagers are brutally honest. On a visit to a large boys school a couple of years ago, a student waited back after my presentation to talk to me about The Road To Winter. I asked him what he thought of it. He replied, “Well, it’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s not the worst!”
That’s high praise from a teenager, I suspect. How do you feel about reviews?
I know some authors say they don’t look at reviews and that they don’t take them to heart, but I think most do. Good reviews are great and bad reviews – of which there will inevitably be some – can wound. The best advice I ever got regarding reviews was that I should never take them personally. The reviewer is criticising your work, not you. And, in the end, it’s just one person’s opinion. This is particularly true of Goodreads reviews. Most are not from professional critics, just readers with an opinion. My favourite one star review from Goodreads was a short and simple one for The Road To Winter: “I hate it!”
Goodness, that is succinct. Has your work been compared to other writers?
Because I’ve written a YA dystopian series, my books are most often compared to John Marsden’s. To be honest, I am honoured to be mentioned in the same sentence as him. I was lucky enough to interview John at a festival last year and I found him to be a very humble and engaging man. He read my books in preparation for the interview and was very complimentary of my writing. My favourite comparison though comes from a review of my third book, Land Of Fences, by Fran Atkinson in The Age that said “…there is almost a Winton-esque lyricism when Smith writes about the big blue and the coastline that features regularly.” I am a huge Tim Winton fan and his writing has influenced me more than any other, so that quote now sits on the pinboard by my desk, for easy reference whenever I doubt my own abilities.
Land of Fences (Winter #3) by Mark Smith
I agree with her – there is a very Australian lyricism to your books which is reminiscent of Winton. Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer?
I started my career as an English teacher and I always had this little inkling in the back of my mind that I could maybe try writing. But, like most people, I didn’t do anything about it for years. I was in my fifties before I enrolled in a short story writing course taught by Emmet Stinson at Writers Victoria. Melanie Cheng was in the same class and we’ve been friends ever since. After lots of rejections, I began to get my stories published in a few journals and anthologies. But I still didn’t dare call myself a writer. Then I was lucky enough to win the Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize for a short story called Manyuk. With prize money of $10,000, it was one of the richest short story prizes in Australia. I didn’t realise at the time, but that’s as much as a lot of first time authors get as an advance on a novel. But, having won the prize and banked the cheque, I very tentatively started to call myself a writer. A three-book deal with Text Publishing confirmed it three months later.
Wonderful! How do you get feedback about your story, before it’s published?
I don’t show my drafts to anyone until I’m convinced I need a different set of eyes to read them. For each of my novels I have sought the advice of my local bookshop owner. I took a risk and did this with my first book because I knew she would be a speed reader (and therefore get back to me quickly) and she knew the book trade intimately so she would be able to tell me whether the novel had legs or not. As our friendship has grown, I’ve also encouraged her to be utterly ruthless in her feedback. Her instincts have been spot on every time!
She sounds a treasure indeed. Is it easy for you to meet other writers?
The best thing about becoming a writer is meeting other writers. We are a pretty small community in Australia and we need to encourage and support each other. I go out of my way at festivals and gigs to introduce myself to the other writers and I try as much as possible to attend their launches and events. Social media also facilitates this interaction – follow your favourite writers and let them know you like their writing. I have “met” a large number of fellow writers on social media, some of whom I’ve yet to meet in person. Following them also keeps me updated on their new releases and the events they have planned around them.
I completely agree. The Australian writing community seems to be very supportive and I love interacting with fellow writers online … like right now! Did you have a big break in writing? What happened?
This is an easy one to answer because my first manuscript was picked up off the slush pile at Text. I knew nothing about publishers so I simply chose the one who published my favourite authors and sent the manuscript to them. Text have a house policy of all its employees reading off the slush pile on Friday afternoons. One of the senior marketers picked mine up, loved it and the rest is history!
That’s wonderful, and a great practice by a publishing company. I’m so glad that your book was plucked out of the slush because it’s marvellous. Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Mark, and more power to your writing.
Mark Newman is an award-winning writer from the UK, who is a master of the intense and difficult art of the short story. In this interview, Mark shares his perspective on reading and writing and how he tested his writing through entering – and succeeding in – writing competitions.
Welcome, Mark, it’s great to talk with you. I first heard about you because we share a publisher, but I now know that you have a substantial CV as a writer of awesome short stories, and that you’ve been winning accolades for a while now. Let’s talk about how you got to be the writer you are.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Mark:The Magician’s Nephew by CS Lewis. I loved the whole Narnia series, and still go back to them every two or three years just for that hit of nostalgia. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is, of course, a classic, but I always loved The Magician’s Nephew for that first glimpse of the White Witch in Charn, the rings and the pools between worlds and the attics that ran between the houses. All kids ever want to do is find secret places. I don’t really think that feeling ever leaves you.
And that sense of possibilities in hidden spaces – I agree. You seem to be quite productive – do you have a go-to routine for writing?
I wish I did. Wouldn’t that be nice? I’m not really a routine person, though I see the sense in them. I just wait for sentences and ideas to drop through the ether, write them down until there is enough there to make a story out of, spread them out in the right order and fill in the gaps. It’s a wonder I ever write anything, to be honest.
Ah, the magical ether. Stories are a kind of wonder, even to the writer. What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
Getting shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award was pretty amazing. Seeing your face on a TV screen and blurb about your story scrolling through alongside other amazing writers was surreal. The Costa Book Awards was a weird experience – I don’t really belong in the same room as Dame Diana Rigg! It’s nice to get shortlisted for a competition that is judged by other writers as the Costa is, and the Retreat West competitions that I did so well in at the start of my writing, it really makes you feel you are doing something right.
My Fence is Electric and other stories by Mark Newman
Yes, winning is so affirming. I hope you took selfies at that awards night! Is writers block a thing for you?
Absolutely. I’m paralysed by the blank page and the blank gaps between the good ideas and good sentences. I wish writing felt like a good thing but it often feels like pulling teeth. The satisfaction comes when you read back something that works, but it’s often a long road getting there. But, it’s writing, isn’t it. It’s not brain surgery, I can’t really complain, I don’t have to do it.
It is often difficult, and we don’t have to do it, but then again we don’t seem able to stop! Those ideas still fall out of the ether, I find. On another tack, what do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?
We all have favourite books that have awful covers but it doesn’t really affect how we feel about the book. It’s the words inside that really matter, but a cover for a new author is super important. We’ve all picked up books because we like the covers and passed by covers we don’t like. I was asked for my opinions about the cover for My Fence is Electricbut, unlike some novel ideas I have where I have quite strong ideas for covers, I didn’t really have any thoughts about what I wanted. My publisher, Michelle Lovi, designed it and sent it to me and I was so scared opening up the file, but I absolutely loved it. Simple and beautiful – hearts and barbed wire, sums it all up perfectly!
Did you have a big break in writing? What happened?
I went to see Alison Moore speak at Loughborough Library in Leicestershire (UK). I had wanted to be an author for nearly 20 years and had written numerous starts to novels and then been unable to progress. She detailed her route to publication and spoke about the importance of writing short stories and entering competitions for her to find out if she was heading in the right direction. She got an agent early on from doing this as well and it all spread out for her from there. She andSusan Hill are my all-time favourite authors so I listen to anything they have to say! The first short story I wrote was highly commended in a competition and I was approached by an agent from one of the biggest literary agencies in London. Nothing came of that (apart from some great advice) but it gave me the confidence to keep going.
Author Mark Newman
That’s a great story, thank you. What kind of reader would like your book?
Short story fans. People who love Susan Hill and Alison Moore. As I said, I’m a big fan of theirs and I think it shows! Same kind of mood.
Is it easy for readers to find your book?
Not at the moment. The global pandemic situation has resulted in my launch event and follow-up events being cancelled and distribution problems mean it’s been hard to get a paperback copy of my book in the UK. It can’t be helped, it is what it is. My book hardly matters against what is going on. The eBook version is easy to get and The Book Depository have copies in stock at the moment. And I have a box full in my front room so if you live in the UK contact me on Twitter if you want to pay through PayPal and I’ll send you one!
Tricky times indeed – I hope things improve for all of us soon. Is your local bookstore thriving?
My nearest local bookstore is Kibworth Books in Leicestershire (UK) and it’s nine miles away. I’d be there all the time if I lived in Kibworth or drove. It certainly seems to be thriving though and long may it continue.
More power to bookshops! Thanks so much for speaking to me today, Mark. Congratulations on My Fence is Electric, and all the best with your writing.
Earlier this year I had the great good fortune to review an astonishing debut novel: People Like Us by Louise Fein. You can read my review here, where I describe this as a heartbreak of a book. It’s so much more, and I recommend you read it too.
People Like Usis being released worldwide this month, and I’m thrilled to have Louise on board in this special Something to Say post. Here she isto tell us a bit about the background of the novel and how is came to be published.
Welcome, and congratulations on your novel, Louise. It must be exciting to finally have it launched, even into a world filled with strangeness. Can you tell us a bit about the process and the story behind the story?
Louise: I’m delighted to announce the publication of my debut novel, People Like Us(in the USA, it has a different cover and the title Daughter of the Reich). Like so many authors, having a book published has been my ultimate lifelong dream. As a child, my ambition was to become an author and I spent many hours writing stories, usually based around the subject of ponies. But then I grew up, needed to earn a living and the appeal of ponies dwindled (well, only a little), so the writing took a back seat for a while.
The appeal of ponies never really dies. But you did get back to writing?
The writing bug never left me, and over the years I wrote ideas for novels, poems, diaries and stories, in and around work and family commitments. But I never fully committed to writing a novel until I finally took the plunge and began a master’s degree in creative writing at St Mary’s University, London. It was then that I began work on People Like Us. My idea, initially, was that I would have the novel finished alongside the MA in a year. How naïve I was!! The first draft took around two years to complete, after I ditched the first attempt half-way through my MA year. But it was just that. A first draft. It required a lot more work, many re-drafts, and a good deal more research, until finally I had a manuscript ready for submission to agents.
I haven’t found the agent road an easy one to travel. How did you get on with it?
It took essentially another year to find an agent. There were many rejections, but I also had interest from some and that spurred me on to keep going and keep submitting. I carefully selected agents I would really like to represent me, and I was very lucky that one of my favourite agents liked my work. Much of the agenting and publishing world works very slowly, but sometimes it moves at the speed of light. I sent my manuscript to the agent who is now my agent one Friday afternoon, and I heard back from her the very next morning that she loved my book. The same process happened when I went on submission to publishers. Within a week there was interest from a publisher in the UK and then I went on submission to the US and there was interest the same afternoon. In the end the book was pre-empted by William Morrow (imprint of Harper Collins).
That’s such a great story! Rejections to instant acceptance – definitely the stuff of dreams.
My dreams had more than come true, they had exceeded all my imagination. On top of that, I have also had some wonderful foreign translation deals (eight to date) and these really have been the icing on the cake. So what I would say to any unpublished authors out there: Keep going: keep improving your work, keep submitting. What feels like an impenetrable wall can be breached. I was hooked off the slush pile and knew nobody in the publishing or agenting world at all. It is all possible, but it’s a long game.
That’s such an affirming story, thank you, Louise. Now about the book…
So, a little bit about People Like Us. It’s a story of forbidden love, set in the tumultuous backdrop of 1930s Leipzig. The novel is told from the point of view of Hetty, a young girl who has grown up on a diet of Nazi propaganda and is hungry for a part to play in Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. Until, that is, she encounters Walter, a friend from her past, a Jew. As the thirties spiral ever deeper into anti-Semitic fervour, Hetty and Walter’s developing relationship puts her beliefs into stark conflict and danger forces them to make choices which will change their lives forever.
People Like Us by Louise Fein
I believe you have a family connection to this story?
The book was inspired by the experiences of my father’s family, Leipzig Jews, most of whom fled Germany for England or America during the 1930s. Whilst the story and the characters are fictional, the setting is authentic, and it is based around real events. My father died when I was only seventeen and he never spoke of his experiences of living in Nazi Germany.
Instinctively, I knew the book should be fictional, but its form and content were shadowy. I read Mein Kampf and learned about the experience of growing up under Nazi rule; I travelled to Leipzig and met with experts; devoured family papers and listened to the memories of survivors. The characters of Hetty and Walter came to me, and with them their story. The more I read, the more interested I became in trying to understand how a democratic, civilised nation could, in just a few short years, overthrow democracy, demonise the Jews (and others), and descend into a violent, fear-filled fascist state who aimed to exterminate the Jewish race. I felt my story would be powerful if told from the point of view of a young, innocent girl, brought up to fear and hate perceived difference. What could possibly change her beliefs?
It’s a story of the fragility of freedom, and the ease with which one group can de-humanise another to the extent of un-imaginable horror. But it is also the story of friendship, hope, and above all, the power of love.
It’s a very important book, I think, and I’m so glad that you wrote it. Thank you for telling us about the release, and I look forward to speaking with you again soon about how it’s going. Stay safe, Louise!
Elizabeth Ducie is a full-time writer from Devon. Although she wrote prize-winning fiction at school, she went on to study science and have a career as a manufacturing consultant, technical writer and small business owner, publishing pharmaceutical text books and editing a technical journal during that time.
Elizabeth also writes and lectures on The Business of Writing, teaching business skills for writers running their own small business, and has published a set of books under that name.
Elizabeth Ducie, writer
Welcome, Elizabeth. You have a fascinating background for a novelist. Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
Elizabeth: When I wrote Counterfeit!, my sister Sheila challenged me to bring some of the characters from my previous novel into the story. And there are occasionally references to real incidents from my travelling days, although usually heavily fictionalised.
Your secrets are safe with me! How do you feel about reviews?
There are many beliefs about the impact reviews have on the algorithms of Amazon and other platforms, but I’m not convinced. There are too many exceptions out there to allow me to believe in a magic number, a threshold above which exciting things start to happen.
But, as a way of hearing what readers think, they are invaluable. I only wish more people would consider posting them. Even a negative review is better than dead silence.
Yes, the silent echo chamber is unnerving. Is there anyone in your past who’d be surprised at your writing?
There was a biology teacher who took me to one side at the start of the upper fifth year (equivalent to year 11) and told me there were girls in the year who were going to do well, but I wasn’t one of them, so I wasn’t to get my hopes up! It still rankles, more than fifty years on. I would love to send her a signed copy of each of my books to make her eat her words.
Yikes! Oh, I hope that was her way of motivating you and not her true opinion! How much research is involved in your writing?
So far, most of my fiction has been set in places I used to work (Former Soviet Union countries, Latin America, Africa) so a lot of the research was done on the hoof. However, my novels tend to have historical flashbacks, for which I do quite a bit of research. But only when I’m editing. I don’t let lack of knowledge interrupt the flow during the first draft.
Gorgito’s ice rink by Elizabeth Ducie
Ironically, my latest book is set in South Devon where I’ve lived for the past thirteen years. I’m doing far more research for that than any of the internationally-based ones.
That’s ironic, but good to know. What do you think about covers, and do you have any say in yours?
Covers are critical, especially for fiction, where they are a major signpost to the reader on what they can expect from the book. I am independently-published and therefore have absolute say over my covers. When I’m teaching, I always empasise that an indie book should be indistinguishable from a traditionally-published one in terms of appearance and quality of the finished product. This means having a professionally-designed cover. I use Berni Stevens for all my novels. I developed my own covers for The Business of Writing, but I used a Canvatemplate, which still means the original design is professionally produced.
I completely agree about covers – I believe most readers DO judge a book by its cover. I’m interested in your books aimed at writers, too. Is it easy for you to meet other writers?
They say that writing is a solitary occupation, but I find it’s all too easy to meet other writers. There’s a huge writing community here in the South West of England, plus there are any number of online groups.
I am a member of two great writing groups: Chudleigh Writers’ Circle and Exeter Writers. They are very different in approach and I find my membership of each one invaluable. Plus I still meet up with a small group of writers from the MA we completed in 2012. I have a writing buddy with whom I work on each novel at the developmental editing stage. And this year, I’m Director of the Exeter Literary Festival. And that’s before I even think about Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all of which are stuffed full of writers.
To be honest, it’s tempting to spend far more time ‘networking’ with other writers than I do writing. But it’s all great fun; and that’s one of the reasons I gave up the day job to write ‘full-time’.
Always. I have an event in our local parish church, the largest space in our small town, with readings, music, cake and fizz. I usually sell quite a few copies on the night, but it’s also about celebrating with my friends and family.
I’ve also been holding online launch parties since 2011. Over the years, I’ve experimented with different formats; and sometimes I don’t have one at all. Lessons I learned along the way included: don’t try running a party for 12 hours; and don’t try running an online party on the same day as the main party. Both occasions were exhausting!
But they do sound like fun. You have an MA, I see. Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable?
It depends on the individual, their experience and their ambitions, but I’m not convinced creative writing is an academic subject. So I’m slightly skeptical about formal university courses, even though I completed one myself. I do, however, think it’s important to attend classes, webinars, conferences, anything that helps train us in our craft, keep us fresh, and build inspiration. I attend the Writers’ Summer School at Swanwick every August; I go to occasional classes or workshops such as those run by Literature Works in Exeter; and I am a real sucker for a free webinar or online conference. The ones run by ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) are particularly good.
The Business of Writing by Elizabeth Ducie
Great to know. I love the way you approach writing as a craft that can always be honed. Lovely! Thank you for talking with me in this episode of Last Word of the Week.
You can find Elizabeth’s novels and her Business of Writing books here
Discovering Diamonds (independent reviews of historical fiction) first led me to award winning author Caroline Warfield, because her book Christmas Hope seemed a perfect match for my own The Stars in the Night. (Put them together for a perfect present!) Caroline excels at family-centred romance set in the Regency and Victorian eras.
Caroline has been many things: traveller, librarian, poet, raiser of children, bird watcher, Internet and Web services manager, conference speaker, indexer, tech writer, genealogist—even a nun.
She reckons she is on at least her third act, happily working in an office surrounded by windows where she lets her characters lead her to adventures in England and the far-flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart.
Welcome, Caroline, and thank you for speaking with me on Last Word of the Week. Can you tell us about the first book you read for yourself—or bought for yourself?
Caroline: All writers are avid readers—we have to be. I don’t remember not reading so this question is hard. A more vivid memory isn’t so much the first book I bought for myself but the moment I liberated myself from the children’s section of the public library. The door to that building was in the center, and for years I turned to the right to the children’s section when I came in. One day at twelve I turned left instead of right. No one stopped me—it was a heady and powerful feeling. The book I took out that day was Jane Eyre.
How wonderfully liberating. What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
The best advice I ever got was simple. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. Just sit down and do it. What is more to the point, keep doing it every day. Don’t diddle, talk, or dream about it. Do it.
Do it. Of course! Is writers block a thing for you?
Yes, although it is usually less dramatic than a complete block. I will cruise along writing 1-2000 words a day on a book, hit a speed bump and come to a screeching halt. Some of it is that I can’t envision the next steps of the plot, but I’m learning that the underlying issue is usually that I’ve failed to get well enough acquainted with the characters—their personality, life, wounds, scars, underlying goals…that sort of thing. Once I know them well, and I’ve put them in a situation, the writing flows. When I hit a wall, it is time to go back to character charts and backstory for a while.
Character charts – why didn’t I think of that?! What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
My favourite praise is “I was up all night finishing your book.” SIGH
That is high praise indeed. Lovely! Your focus is on historical novels – how much research is involved in your writing?
Heaps—especially when I allow some impulse to set characters down in a setting and historical situation about which I know little. The worst was the time I sent a character to India and realized I knew nothing about the East India Company, the country itself or its culture. Research, research, research.
With a fabulous reason to do more of our favourite thing – reading! Do you get feedback about your story, before it’s published?
Always. I drop little excerpts of my WIP to reader groups on Facebook as I write, and I always get it to beta readers before I do one final self-edit before sending it to the publisher.
That sounds like a good feedback system. What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
I’m doing something a little different this year. I have two projects in process at once. Because readers like series, and they don’t like long waits between books, I’m holding on to finished manuscripts. But I’m writing two series at once. The first is a new set of books in my British Empire series using sons and daughters of characters in my earlier books. We’re up to about 1840 in that saga. Book one is finished in rough draft. That one, The Price of Glory, takes place primarily in Egypt and Nubia. The other series is more of a traditional Regency world, it covers two interrelated families around a coaching inn in a village in the English Midlands. The hero of book one in that series is half-brother to both families, the innkeeper’s and the earl’s, who has been called home reluctantly in 1817 after leaving for good (he thought) fifteen years before. My goal for 2020 is to have the two books in the Empire series and one in the other finished, with two other stories well under way
That’s a big year you have in front of you, but it sounds fascinating. What’s your favourite genre to read?
I read historical books. Mysteries, romance, straight up fiction, non-fiction, biographies—if its historical it will find its way on to my to-be-read pile.
I bet we have a few overlapping favourite authors. Where do you get inspiration or ideas from?
Often, ideas come to me from travel. I once sat in a café in Rome and asked myself whether I could set a Regency novel in Rome. Turns out I could and Dangerous Secrets has become one of my favourites. I also rely on reading, on my own previous books, and, of course, bits of historical trivia.
Do you plan your books, or do you listen to your muse?
I rely entirely on the girls in the basement. I fill them with settings, history, and characters and they give me back stories. If I do my preliminary work regarding characters and setting, and we agree on some key turning points, the girls and I, it works. Over-planning puts them to sleep.
What a delightful process! Is it easy for you to meet other writers?
Not always but it is vital. Since I moved to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania I no longer belong to a local chapter. Luckily, I have made some excellent friends online. We brainstorm, read each other’s work, and encourage one another. Every year we produce a collection of new stories with interrelated story elements. One year it was a house party overrun with kittens (Holly and Hopeful Hearts). One year it was a Valentine’s Day ball (Valentines from Bath). This year, timed for Valentine’s Day, it is Fire & Frost in which all five stories converge at the 1814 frost fair on the frozen Thames.
How marvellous! I must say, Caroline, I love your work. Thank you so much for sharing today.
Linathi Makanda is a young South African poet and author whose first book of brilliantly-realised love poetry was published last month. I reviewed When No One is Watching recently, full of enthusiasm for a new voice that so perfectly captures the heart of feeling, from first delight through to lonely despair. I consider that poetry is the perfect vehicle for emotion, and I haven’t felt so close to heartache-in-words since I first read Sappho’s fragments as a teenager.
Author Linathi Makanda
I’m thrilled that Linathi has joined Odyssey Books, the wonderful publishing house that has done so much for me, and I’m very grateful that she has agreed to be first up in 2020’s Last Word of the Week series.
Welcome, Linathi! Can you tell me about the time you decided you are a writer? Linathi: I started feeling like I was a writer when I started producing work that I felt like was authentically me, when it came naturally to me. I’ve always known that I wanted to write but struggled a lot when it came to finding my voice. So I internally identified as a “writer” when I was ultimately happy with the work I was producing.
When you writing spoke as you, that’s a good measure. What would readers never guess about you? The fact that I’m very fearful of a lot of things. As an expressive, people often view you as bold. People would be really shocked to know how often I get anxious or nervous, especially when it comes to my writing.
You’re right, your nervousness doesn’t show. Your poetry has a beautiful, confident, authentic voice. Why is writing important to you?
Expression, in general, is important to me. I think it’s important for each generation to show how their forms of expression have evolved from the last. Books, writing and art in general have so much continuity and apart from us wanting to indulge in these crafts and enjoying them, it’s also equally important to make sure that we leave traces of ourselves for the next generations and I guess writing is my contribution to that bigger picture.
What five words would best describe your style?
Relatable – Emotive – Simple – Raw – Captivating / Gripping
I like the way you snuck in an extra word! What do you think about creative writing courses? Are they valuable?
They definitely are, especially for readers and writers of younger ages. As a young writer myself, it has become important to me that young children and writers are given the opportunity to explore themselves in creative spaces. Too often, reading and writing is boxed in in academia. It’s therefore important to show people that writing and reading can and does exist for purposes other than just for academics.
Well said. Is there anyone in your past who’d be surprised at your writing? Funny thing is, I think everyone I’ve encountered would and is probably surprised about my writing. I’ve never really let people in on the fact that I write. It’s been a strange transition going from people not knowing that I write, to being a published author.
Did you have a big break in writing? What happened?
My big break in writing has definitely been my book deal with Odyssey Books. As a writer, you dream of such things happening but they still seem very out of reach. Being the first South African author at an international publishing house means a lot to me as a writer and as an individual and I’m eternally grateful to my publisher, Michelle Lovi, for that opportunity.
Michelle is very special, and I find her very enabling. Congratulations on being published! What kind of reader would like your book?
I’d like to think my work is quite relatable and accessible to a range of people but more specifically, people who are highly in tune with their emotions, the lovers, the dreamers, the expressive and the people who aren’t scared to face their demons head on.
The lovers and the dreamers – I think I know a few! What would be a dream come true for you? I’ve had a lot of my dreams come true at the end of 2019. My pictures were published on Vogue Italia and that really meant a lot for me as a self-taught photographer, I also got the book deal etc. But another one of my dreams would definitely be to see my poetry collection, When No One Is Watching, reach greater heights and to possibly venture into writing another book. Every writer definitely would like their bodies of work to gain traction and even though I didn’t necessarily write for recognition, the book itself doing well is something that I would really love to see happen.
Is it easy for readers to find your book/s? Yes, definitely. When No One Is Watching is currently available on a wide range of platforms, namely Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Odyssey Books website as well as on Goodreads.
And it comes highly recommended by me! If you could write a note to someone about to read your book, what would you say? Well, I’ve already snuck a little note in there for my readers (wink), but more than anything, I’d want to say “breathe in and be ready to fully experience all forms of yourself.”
That’s perfect! Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Linathi, and I look forward to seeing more of your work in words and pictures.
It’s 2020! I’m not sure how we suddenly arrived at 2020, but here it is. A new month, a new year, a new decade.
And many, many new books to read. Yay!
2019 was a stand out year for me in both reading and writing (see next week’s post for more about that). I met many great books, and authors, for the first time. In this post, I’m listing my Top 10 of 2019. I’m dividing them My Way, in alphabetical order by genre, because numbers are too hard, don’t you think? I’ve already made a resolution to do a top 20 at the end of this year … 10 is too few!
All of these books found me with a permanent smile of pure enjoyment on my face, cover to cover. Except when things got scary, of course. I recommend them all, especially if your taste in reading matter matches mine.
Too many to choose from, of course, when we start talking about my favourite genre. However, for sheer ingenuity and enjoyment, I’m nominating Desdemona and the Deep by CSE Cooney. I loved every baroque word of this glorious adventure. I reviewed this for Aurealis and named it one of my two favourite ‘books of the year’. Yes, we were allowed to choose TWO.
Only two! LOL
This was quite a crowded field for me this year. The story which has lingered longest is Voyage of the Dogs by Greg Van Eekhout. I just loved the Barkonauts on the crippled spaceship Laika trying their best to find a home. Dogs and space travel. How could I resist? Read my review here.
This is of course another favourite genre for me, which always makes it difficult to choose. Yes, I know: all these are difficult to choose. Right up there is The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. I am a dedicated reader of Barker’s wonderful writing, and this did not disappoint. A clever and touching re-telling of the Trojan War story. Read my review here.
My second nominated ‘book of the year’ for Aurealis was Icefall by Stephanie Gunn. Maggie and her wife Aisha travel to the planet of Icefall so that Maggie can climb the mountain that nobody has ever survived … I was enthralled! Space, diversity, adventure, romance, and AI. Perfect.
I was lucky enough to read the whole series for Aurealis this year, and Queens of the Sea by Kim Wilkins was a fabulous conclusion to a sword-and-sorcery adventure about five royal sisters. My favourite is of course Bluebell who is the warrior sister, with her own special magic.
Can you believe I’ve started reading some witchy books? My 2019 favourite was The Lights Go Out in Lychford by Paul Cornell. This short novella, which I reviewed in Aurealis, is very well crafted and great fun, and definitely makes me want to read more about the Witches of Lychford. You’ll devour it in one gulp and come up slightly scared, mostly reassured, and looking for more.
That’s the list for 2019. I’ve already started a list for 2020, but more about that next week. In the meantime, happy reading, happy writing.
‘I’d always imagined attending a book launch would be something you’d only do if an opportunity to stick rusty nails into your cornea wasn’t available,” writes author Katy Colins in her blog #notwedordead
Luckily I read Katy’s fabulous piece about book launches before I prepared my speech for the unveiling of The Ruined Land, and laughed myself out of all my nerves. Book launches can be fun, and I have enjoyed every one that I’ve attended. Talking to booksy people about books? What could be better?!
I’m so grateful when people come to my launches. And kind of surprised. They must have run out of rusty nails…
How long should a launch speech be?
I aim for under four minutes, which for me is maximum 400 words.
Then I add a five minute extract (about 600 words), so under ten minutes in all.
Add 4-5 minutes for the lovely person who introduces me, and the official stuff is wrapped up in under 15 minutes. That’s my aim.
Here’s my latest, at 369 words, in case you’re interested.
Launch Speech for The Ruined Land
First up, some words of gratitude.
Thanks so much to Nat for those thoughtful words. I’m very appreciative of the love and support I have from my dear friends. I’m actually very grateful to have worked at UniMelb, because I met some of the world’s best people there.
My friends and family have been endlessly supportive, and I’m so glad many of you can celebrate with me tonight. My publisher, the cover designer, the editor – they’ve all been fab. As has Readings which has now hosted all four of my book launches.
A couple of special mentions – to my niece Kate, who along with Aveline my friend in London, is a fabulous beta reader if anyone wants a recommendation.
And my brother in law Bernard is responsible for the very cool maps which you now find inside all three books of the Chronicles of the Pale. He comes highly recommended too!
So. The book.
Having a book published is definitely a Dream Come True – something I imagined in primary school. But there’s a bit more to the dream than that. The Chronicles began with an actual dream in 2013, a dream of abandoned babies and refugees, people I couldn’t reach to rescue. In the dream, my German shepherd dog Dinny, long since departed, saved the day. The character Mashtuk is based on Dinny
This was back when PM Scott Morrison was the minister for immigration. I feel that now the world is much the same, or maybe even darker.
My dream became a short story, which became a novel, which became a series, which became some sort of fully populated, fully imagined world parallel to the real world. There are now even more stories there because this mirror world we live in hasn’t changed enough.
Dreams can come true, but I’d like some happier dreams.
OK, I’m going to read from the very beginning of Book 3. This is Mashtuk, the canini scout, recovering from the wounds he suffered when the ravine was attacked.
The very talented Kate Murdoch exhibited widely as a painter both in Australia and internationally before turning her hand to writing. Her short-form fiction has been published in various literary journals in Australia, UK, US and Canada.
Kate’s second novel, The Orange Grove, about the passions and intrigues of court mistresses in 18th century France, was published by Regal House Publishing in October 2019. I absolutely love the cover! Isn’t it gorgeous?
Kate was awarded a Katherine Susannah Pritchard Fellowship at the KSP Writers’ Centre in 2019 to develop her third novel, The Glasshouse.
Welcome, Kate, and thanks for speaking with me today. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Kate: I’m an artist turned writer so I write visually. I’m also fascinated by human motivation, the complex relationship between peoples’ past and present circumstances/traumas, and their actions.
An artist! That explains a great deal. What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
Hard to say but I wrote a black mass scene in The Orange Groveand that was fun both in terms of imagery and in creating a menacing atmosphere.
It must be! If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
Duchesse Charlotte: What a heinous thing to say. I am most certainly real, and if you don’t believe me I’ll throw a vase at your head and set one of my Bichons on you!
Brilliant! Well done, Duchesse! Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
Kate Grenville has been an inspiration for the way in which she can, with few words, create vivid imagery and layered emotional nuance.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez has also been an influence and inspiration for my writing. His lyrical style, detailed description and romantic themes made an impact as did his ability to move me.
A couple of iconic writers there; great inspiration. Now take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Relax a little. You can direct things more than you realise. Appreciate all the positives and more of them will arrive.
Relax. Of course. What’s next for you in the world of writing?
I’m on the second draft of my third novel, The Glasshouse, about a girl orphaned in the Messina earthquake of 1908 and adopted by a wealthy Palermo family. I’ve also started work on a dual-timeline novel set in World War Two Croatia and 1960’s Melbourne, told from the perspective of three generations of women.
I’m doing a number of events for The Orange Groveand am looking forward to talking with readers.
And The Orange Grove is garnering some very enthusiastic reviews. Congratulations! I have it on my summer reading list. Now finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
I’d quite enjoy being Romain de Villiers, the tarot reader in The Orange Grove. Aside from his money problems, he does what he likes, has numerous love interests and moves between the château at Blois and Versailles, mixing with lots of interesting people across the classes.
He sounds very interesting indeed. Thanks so much Kate for speaking with me today. Meet you in the Grove!
The Orange Grove:
When status is survival, everychoice hasits consequence.
Blois, 1705. The chateau of Duc Hugo d’Amboise simmers with rivalry and intrigue.
Henriette d’Augustin, one of five mistresses of the duc, lives at the chateau with her daughter. When the duc’s wife, Duchesse Charlotte, maliciously undermines a new mistress, Letitia, Henriette is forced to choose between position and morality. She fights to maintain her status whilst targeted by the duchesse who will do anything to harm her enemies.
The arrival of charismatic tarot reader, Romain de Villiers, further escalates tensions as rivals in domestic politics and love strive for supremacy.
In a society where status is a matter of life and death, Henriette must stay true to herself, her daughter, and her heart, all the while hiding a painful secret of her own.