15 October 2020

Guest Post: Writing a Novel, by Saga Hillbom ~ Part One: The Writing Process

Inspiration:  I have developed a love-hate relationship with the word ‘inspiration’. While I am fully aware of the fact that writing a book requires discipline in equal measure, I also know that writing without inspiration will eventually suck the joy out of the craft like a leech.

I admit that I once wrote a novel simply because I was itching to write something, not because the story truly appealed to me. Today, I can barely recall what I wrote, because it did not matter enough to me at the time. With my other books, though, including my upcoming novel Princess of Thorns, the process has been different. I have been given the ultimate gift for an author, as cliché as it sounds, namely an idea that refused to leave me alone.

Last Christmas, I was flipping through the pages of the first historical fiction book that captured my interest, Secrets of the Tudor Court by D.L Bogdan and Darcy Bonnette. I bought it for one pound in a thrift shop when I was eleven, and it kick-started my interest in the Tudor era. Since then, I have had various historical obsessions—from Ancient Greece to the First World War—but 16th-century England has always remained somewhere in the background. 

However, last Christmas, I realised that there was a world behind that of the Tudors which I had not yet explored: the Plantagenets’. Eagerly, I went and bought myself Thomas Penn’s The Brothers York and read it from the first page to the last in a matter of days. Once I finished the book, I knew what and above all who my next novel had to be about.

Those who are lucky enough to have writing as a job often talk about the importance of sitting down at their desk  to write x hours per day. For me, this has not been the ideal way since I am currently studying full time and will continue to do so for another few years. When I am not in school or writing an essay, I need some fresh air and a break from using the same keyboard.

That is why I in fact wrote most of Princess of Thorns on my phone, usually in Google Docs or even the notes app. That way, I have been able to get a few hundred words down when on the bus or waiting for a lesson to start. Unlike my computer, I bring my phone with me wherever I go, hence those ten minutes of spare time that sometimes pop up become my opportunity to write.

I tend to begin with a hefty dose of research and a fairly detailed outline, chapter by chapter, all in a regular journal. For Princess of Thorns, I wanted to write thirty chapters, each roughly 3500 words long. Of course, I strayed from the outline occasionally, but since I was following the life of a historical figure, there were plenty of events I had to include. Speaking of writing about a person who existed—in my case Richard III’s niece Cecily of York—I find that experience fascinating. Few things have intrigued me more than describing the events of 1482-1502 through the lens of a Yorkist princess. Perhaps I even became a little too invested for my own and my family’s good.

I began writing my first draft in late January, continuing my research as I went, and three months later, I had a manuscript of 120,000 words. I have never before produced that amount of text in such a short time, though I know some authors are faster. As terrible as the ongoing pandemic was and still is, it quite frankly helped me in the writing process. Suddenly, I had twice as much time on my hands as I used to have.

I proceeded to fill in the blanks in my first draft and ensured that all the scenes were in the correct order. I have a tendency to jump back and forth a lot when writing, so this step is essential for me. After making a few further alterations according to feedback from family members, I sent the manuscript to my editor. She really is a crucial contributor to my writing process; I do not know what I would do without her critique.

By the end of the summer, I was taking a walk along the beach near my family’s summer cottage. My editor and I were working on the third draft of the novel, and the characters still occupied my every thought. It felt and still feels as if I have known them for several years, despite the fact that I am writing this guest post just ten months after starting to outline my book. It is tricky to portray historical figures in a way that is both authentic and suits the story you want to convey. 

Personally, I feel guilty when neglecting historical details and I try to stick to them as much as possible, but I do take some small liberties. After all, that is why I write fiction rather than non-fiction. Often, I have been told that I include too many facts in my manuscript—this, too, has been a concern. How to relate enough information for the reader to understand an intricate chain of historical events without reading like a textbook? I do not believe I will ever figure that out one hundred percent.

During the autumn, I have taken the time to rewrite my old debut novel, while still polishing on Princess of Thorns. Now, I cannot wait to hold a proof copy in my hand. To me, the writing process can be compared to diving into another world and then reporting in a document what you saw and felt. It sounds a little odd, but what better way to escape from the dreary present? We can probably all agree that 2020 has been an exceptionally bad year in many ways, but perhaps it has been a good writing year. The publishing process has arrived, which always presents a challenge for me.

Saga Hillbom
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About the Author

Saga Hillbom is the self-published author of four historical novels, including Princess of Thorns, City of Bronze City of Silver, Today Dauphine Tomorrow Nothing, and A Generation of Poppies. She is currently studying history in Lund, Sweden, where she lives with her family. When not writing or reading, Saga enjoys painting, cooking, spending time outside, and watching old movies.. To find out more, visit her website sagahillbom.blog and follow Saga on Twitter @sagahillbom02

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