In a new series of special guest posts, I have invited some of my favourite authors to let us have a look 'behind the scenes', at how and where they like to write. The first is by Anne O'Brien, who inspired my fascination with the fifteenth Century:
For me writing has become a necessity. A compulsion. If I take a break from writing for even a few days (when real life kicks in) I suffer withdrawal symptoms, and worry about what my characters might be doing without me. Are they surviving if I let them off the leash? Have they changed tack without my being aware? Even if I take a deliberate break, my mind is evaluating new characters, new possibilities, and re-evaluating old ones. Considering new relationships. Would he really say that to her, when treason is sitting heavily on their shoulders?. What a splendid source of people and events and situations medieval history has become for me.
Writing for me is also a solitary thing, something done behind a closed door and not shared with anyone until the completed script is dispatched to my editor. I make my own decisions about characters and scenes, those included and those omitted to make the most impact on the reader. I never talk over my plans. I worry over the various strands on my own, until I am satisfied with the outcome. I prefer it that way. When my editor reads it, then we talk and negotiate and work out a happy compromise to achieve the best end result for her, for me, and of course for the women of history about whom I write.
I have an office where I work, a small room with a desk and a PC because for me that is the most comfortable way to work. I have a laptop but tend to use that only when travelling. In my office I can be surrounded by reference books and all the paraphernalia I find essential to put together a good story. I have two window with glorious views of oak trees on one side and a cider apple orchard on the other, with frequent buzzards circling overhead. I have to exert great self control not to lose myself in the scenery too often. The Welsh Marches are quite beautiful.
(The pics are of my office - but after a thorough spring-clean between books. I rarely see it so tidy. It is not so at the moment. I don't think I dare take a pic as it is now. If I tidy up when I am writing, I lose my references.)
I am definitely a morning writer, starting early - by 8.30 am - after I've cleared any urgent admin. Then I write through until lunch. I don't count words because first draft writing covers more ground than when I start editing and refining; here I work much more slowly. So I simply write for the time I have set myself. But even when my day's writing is over, the characters tend to live with me and keep me entertained - or anxious. I often find a need to make notes of what they might be saying, or directions of plot I had not previously thought of.
So how do I write? Over the years I have changed my approach to writing but the beginning is always the same because it is historical fiction.
1. An historical timeline is essential: to plot the known facts, dates and the general order of events. This is where the the main body of research takes place, so I can know exactly who is doing what and when. This has to be the bedrock of historical fiction, otherwise it becomes merely fiction.
2. Next comes some characterisation, or as much as I can discover from the sources, both primary and secondary. Some characters are well documented. Some barely at all. But I need some idea of how my characters will react and inter-react in any given situation. My characters must be true to the traits they exhibited in real life.
3. Then there is the true start to the writing of the novel - for me it is the highlighting of the scenes that are absolutely crucial to the telling of the story. I often write them first, even if it's only a rough draft and completely out of context. Just so that I have them in place and I can see the drama unfolding.
4. I might write the end of the novel at this stage - although this can change as I write second and third drafts.
5. By this time my characters are very familiar to me, and their motivations fairly clear. This is the point at which I start at the beginning and write a full draft through to the end, linking all the mains scenes. By the time this is complete, I have something that feels like a complete novel, even if no one else would think so.
6. Then - the most enjoyable part of all - I begin to add layers, polishing and refining the plot, adding connecting links, thinking what it is that I need my characters to say through mood and action. This is where the historical detail begins to influence the scenes - the costume, music, details on where and how they are living. Characters in novels do not sit still and talk. This is where the book begins to come to life.
7. Altogether I write four drafts followed by a quick read through to test for pace and relevance. Where the pace drops, or the interest, that is where there is a need for some cruel editing out of what I have written, even if it is one of my favourite scenes. Sometimes the characters do not really shine through until the fourth draft. I need to be patient and believe that it will happen.
The whole process takes me about a year. The most exciting part, for me, of writing historical fiction? When I discover a crucial piece of evidence that directs the actions of my main protagonists. When I finally realise what it is that makes him or her tick, even if they lived six hundred years ago. Suddenly everything fits together and it is immensely satisfying. And the end result, released in November, 2014
'The King's Sister', a story of love and treachery and betrayal at the Courts of Richard II and Henry IV.
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About the Author
Virgin Widow, published in 2010 was Anne's first novel based on the life of an historical character, Anne Neville, wife of Richard Duke of Gloucester. Her second novel tracks the early life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, through marriage, crusades and divorce, not to mention scandal, as Devil's Consort (In the USA published as Queen Defiant.) Other novels depict the scandalous life of Alice Perrers, mistress of King Edward III, who broke all the rules as The King's Concubine, followed by Katherine de Valois as The Forbidden Queen. Find out more at Anne's website www.anneobrienbooks.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter @anne_obrien.