Interview with Elizabeth Chadwick
Award winning author of historical fiction
Elizabeth Chadwick is an award-winning historical fiction writer. Voted one of the Top Ten landmark historical novelists of the decade by the Historical Novel Society, Chadwick is acclaimed for her beguiling characters, faultless research, and her ability to bring history vividly to life. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell and Philippa Gregory, her latest novel, Lady of the English (published in September 2012), is a dazzling tale of two very different women battling it out over the English crown.
In this interview Chadwick talks about the inspirations behind her novels, what she is working on at the moment and much more.
How and when did you first become interested in writing about the Middle Ages?
It’s simple really. I had been telling myself stories since first memory, but I didn’t write anything down until my teens when I fell madly in love with a tall, dark handsome Frenchman in a children’s historical TV programme called Desert Crusader. You can read the story of my love affair at my blog: http://livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com/2008/04/tall-dark-and-handsome.html
It was set in the twelfth-century Kingdom of Jerusalem and starred Thibaud, a knight in flowing white robes who galloped around the desert having adventures. Back then there were no DVDs or video recorders, so if I wanted more of this beautiful man, I had to imagine him. Filled with inspiration, I began writing a historical adventure romance novel and had an epiphany as I realised that I wanted to write historical fiction for a living. From that moment, my career path was set. Of course it was more easily said than done; it took me another fifteen years to achieve that goal – but I was determined. Since I wanted my stories to feel as real as possible, I embarked on a steep learning curve of detailed research. I think my teachers wished that I was as keen about my homework as I was about my external study! My first published novel, The Wild Hunt, won a Betty Trask award and is still in print. I say my first published novel – I have eight unpublished works in my drawer at home. I can say with a wry smile that it takes many years to become an overnight success.
You are renowned for being able to bring the past to life. Will you tell us a little bit about your research techniques?
I believe you need more than just reference works to write good historical fiction. In order to make the story leap off the page, the author has to bring the research into the world of 3D. I have a five-strand approach to my research and these five strands are woven together into a detailed and (I hope!) seamless braid.
1. Primary sources.
I read original charters, documents and chronicles to gain a feel for the period.
2. Secondary sources.
I read numerous books on all sorts of subjects concerned with the period, generally from academic and university presses or specialist publications. I also use online study, but I am careful about the websites I use, as there is a lot of poor information out there as well as the useful material, especially on genealogy sites.
3. Location Research.
I visit locations mentioned in the novels where possible. So for example with To Defy a King, I travelled extensively in Norfolk, Yorkshire, the Welsh borders, South Wales and Wiltshire. I didn’t get to France this time around, but I have been there in previous years for research purposes. I like to get a feel for the places where my characters would have walked, even if the ground is sometimes very different now. I take numerous photographs and make detailed notes.
This is part of the 3D element. I re-enact with early medieval Living History society Regia Anglorum. The society does its best to be authentic for the period and conducts living history experiments on a regular basis. I own numerous exact replica artefacts, courtesy of craftsmen who work for museums and the re-enactment community. I know what it feels like to walk up and down castle stairs in flat shoes and a long dress. I have looked through the eye slits of a jousting helm. I have worn a mail shirt. I have used medieval cooking pots (better than stainless steel pans I can tell you!) and woven wool on a drop spindle. I can call upon the expertise of the members, many of whom are historians or archaeologists. There is nothing quite like experiencing it for yourself.
5. The Akashic Records.
This is a form of psychic research based on the belief that everything leaves its imprint in time and that if you have the ability, you can access this resource and look at the lives of the people who have gone before: their thoughts, their feelings and emotions; what they looked like and what they experienced. I don’t have the ability, but I have a consultant who does, and I employ her skills. You can find more on this particular subject at my website here.
The result is a bit like conducting an in-depth interview with the historical person involved, or perhaps like seeing a documentary of their life in sensory detail.
Do you have a writing routine?
I work seven days a week and probably fifty-two weeks a year. The laptop always comes with me on holiday and I have been known to sneak away to the PC even on Christmas Day! I am more of an owl than a lark. I am actually writing this interview well after midnight and will probably finish my working day about 1a.m. I tend to answer e-mails in the morning and do routine work, and then gear up during the afternoon and evening to do the new writing. I write about 1,000 to 1,500 new words every day, except when I’m editing.
I write about six drafts of the novel. Apart from the first draft, which is straight to PC screen, I like to edit the paper page, because I think it accesses a different part of the brain to screen editing and so adds in an extra layer.I also read the manuscript aloud to my long suffering husband (twice!) because the spoken word is different again and helps to pick up on things such as pace and repetition.
I use music for inspiration, but I listen to it away from the PC. It would be too distracting to have it on in the background. But I do gain tremendous insight from listening to tracks whilst doing the washing up or preparing food. Each novel has a soundtrack that equates to the storyline. So, for example, the inspiration for the main love scene between Mahelt and Hugh in To Defy a King was Kiki Dee’s ‘Amoureuse’. The feelings of Mahelt’s brother Will when being taken hostage and fighting against King John, were encapsulated by Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Murder Incorporated’. People are often surprised by this approach and seem to think I should listen to medieval music – which I do enjoy, but I also think that people’s emotions don’t change. Mindsets might, but not the feelings, so I’m quite happy to use this century’s music to bring people gone for eight hundred years back to life.
You are active on the Internet, on historical forums and networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. How important do you think these are?
As an author I think they are very important for letting the readers know you are there and for being accessible, but at the same time, readers very quickly become irritated with authors who want to talk about themselves and nothing else. It’s a little bit about giving something back, socialising and enjoying the interaction. I like meeting readers and talking to them, and not just about me. I’m a reader too, and I enjoy discussing novels with others, or indulging in historical chat. I see myself as an ordinary person who just happens to be a writer for a day job.
Do you have any favourite authors?
I read voraciously across all genres. Historically speaking my favourite authors in no order are Sharon Kay Penman, Dorothy Dunnett, C. J. Sansom, Diana Gabaldon and Lindsey Davis. I recently read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and loved it. In other genres I am especially fond of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. These are great to fit in between heavier reads to clear the air. I also enjoy the work of Katie Fforde and Jill Mansell, and I adore the earlier Terry Pratchett books, a particular favourite being Witches Abroad. Anyone who doesn’t fall for the personality of Grebo is a lost cause!
This is a new cover style for you. Do you have a say in the design of the covers?
I have a consultation say but my publishers have the last word. For the cover of To Defy a King, we all sat around the table with coffee and cake (I brought in a large tin of brownies!) and we discussed the various directions we could take the new look. Headless women in nice dresses have been great for the historical fiction market, but they are now something of a cliché and we wanted something different and fresh that still said ‘historical’ fiction and had a sumptuous feel to it at the same time. We talked over some ideas and then I left it to the design team. I think this is my best cover ever. I love it, and I’m not just saying it as a slice of marketing buzz or because I want to keep my job. They have honestly done me proud.
Are you writing anything at the moment?
I am never not writing anything. If I stopped I’d have to do housework – perish the thought! I am very busy with a trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine. The first book The Summer Queen will cover Eleanor’s early life, The Winter Crown will be about her years as Queen of England, and The Autumn Throne will cover the golden years when she came into her power as mother and regent. The books, although forming a trilogy will stand alone. It has been a very exciting journey so far and I’m looking forward to introducing my take on Eleanor to the readers. Expect some fresh and very different facets, but still in keeping with history.