Today I’m welcoming friend and neighbour, Judith Arnopp to our blog. Judith’s book, The Winchester Goose, recently topped the historical paid Kindle chart and is definitely worth a read!
Judith, you have an MA in history, which you gained at Lampeter University. Did this spark off your desire to write novels, or was that something that you had always wanted to do?
Hi Rachael, thank you for inviting me on to your blog. I have always written short stories and a bit of poetry but I never thought anybody else would want to read my work so I never did anything with it. It wasn’t until I went to uni and my lecturer there convinced me that I had a teeny bit of talent that I decided to try a full sized novel. The first one, Peaceweaver, set in the run up to the Battle of Hastings, took three years; lots of research, loads of rewrites, editing and hair pulling until I finally plucked up the courage to publish. It didn’t make the tiniest ripple in the market but by then I was hooked and ploughed on with novel number two. It wasn’t until I published my fourth novel, The Winchester Goose which is set in the Tudor court, that I began to actually make a living from writing. It is a hard, hard slog but worth it in the end.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to write historical fiction if they don’t have any qualifications in history? Is a love of history or a particular era enough?
I think it can be. It depends on what market you are aiming at. There are so many different facets to the historical fiction genre, from romances lightly based on historical facts to very serious tomes that stick rigidly to the historical record. I aim for somewhere in the middle. I research very carefully but I don’t like to bog my reader down with too much ploddy detail. Hopefully, I get a nice historic flavour but leave the plot enough space to flow nicely. For example, as a reader I hate to be distracted from the plot and the fate of the characters by an author showing off his knowledge on how to construct a clinker built medieval ship. It isn’t necessary.
Whatever era you decide to write in, you should research it until you can move through that world without thinking too carefully. If you do stray from recorded fact or accepted opinion it is best to protect your back by explaining in an author’s note at the end of the book.
How do you research for a new novel and how much of the facts to you put into the story to add flavour?
I begin by reading all the period non-fiction I can lay my hands on – it is not advisable to use a historical fiction author as a resource because we often stray from accepted belief. I read from every perspective – for instance if I was writing about the very topical Richard III I would read both historians who are ‘for’ Richard and those who are ‘against.’ Then I make up my own mind which direction I wish to approach from. It doesn’t matter which you choose but if you want to be canny about it, it is a good idea to do a bit of research on which is selling better. Just now there seem to be far more people who want to purchase books about Richard than his rival Henry VII. This would suggest to me that it would be a good idea to write the book from Richard’s perspective and get his name in the title so as to appeal to all the Ricardians out there.
Do you ‘see’ scenes from history in your mind? How much of these true events inspire your work?
I know everyone’s novel is born differently. I visit a lot of historical places and read an awful lot of non –fiction. Sometimes an idea for a novel just falls into my mind, sparked by something tiny; words on a gravestone or a worn step in a cathedral. For me, once I’ve been inspired, it is like watching a movie. The plot seems to unfurl as I type and sometimes I am as surprised as anyone at how the thing turns out. My characters have their own ideas about how they wish to behave.
I have quite a few favourites. I love early medieval, Anglo Saxon and early Norman, then I like the Wars of the Roses and Tudor. I’ve written in most of those eras now but for now I am sticking with the Tudors because I have a band of followers hanging out for my next book. The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn won me many new readers because she is so popular her fans are crying out for new material on her life. The Tudors certainly seem to sell better than the earlier periods but the bonus is that once people have read and enjoyed my Tudor fiction they then buy and read my back catalogue.
Judith, as some of The Write Romantics and our regular readers are either currently self-publishing or thinking about it, could you tell us what made you decide to go down this route and when did you start?
I finished my first full length novel in 2007, published it in 2009. Since then I have written five and a half further full length novels and a couple of short story pamphlets. I chose the independent route because I am just impatient and getting too long in the tooth to want to wait around to be picked up by a publisher. I had an agent for a while but she wanted to change the way I write, so that she could market me ‘like Philippa Gregory’ or ‘like Bernard Cornwell.’ I didn’t want that, I am me and I can only write like myself. I felt she was holding me back and since we parted company my career has blossomed. I may never be super rich or famous but that isn’t what I was looking for. The big publishers want no risk clients who promise high returns and my books were too distinctive for them to take the risk. I break rules sometimes, publishers and agents don’t like that, but my readers seem to. I make a tidy living, doing what I love, where I love and I also get to interact closely with my readers. I am also able to produce the book as I want it to be. I decide on the cover, the interior, everything. Plus I get to keep all my royalties for myself. What can get better than that?
When you first published your work, how many other books did you have ready and how quickly did you launch them?
I began with Peaceweaver. I was very green at the time and made many mistakes with it. I produced the paperback first and it wasn’t great but this was five years ago and things have changed immensely since then. I have now repackaged it and it is so much better. In the beginning I only had Peaceweaver but I pushed on to write The Forest Dwellers straight away and this time, knew what I was doing and produced a much better book.
It wasn’t until I published on Kindle that things really started to move. My third book, The Song of Heledd , didn’t do too badly but once you have three books out there you begin to make a bit of a return on your investment. The Winchester Goose, set in the court of Henry VIII, really took off and I earned enough to make the paperbacks that followed even more professional looking and repackage the others.
The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn sold like hot cake and Intractable Heart, that came out a few weeks ago, is doing nicely too. It is possible to write and publish one at a time and that is how I approach it but I do know people who write three novels before they publish the first so they are ahead of themselves. It is best to do it the way that suits you best.
How do you promote your work? What do you find the most efficient way and why?
I promote on facebook, twitter, google+ and I also blog on my own and other blog pages. I write straight historical pieces that relate to whatever book I am promoting, with cover shots and sales links at the bottom. It seems to work well enough.
I have never paid for promotion. I have done some free promotions with kindle for a limited time. That can bring some new readers but I rarely do that now. I usually do a free promo on my birthday or run a competition; sometimes one of the blogs I write for will be doing a free paperback giveaway which brings new friends and followers. I think the best way to sell books is to make your writing as good and as tight as you can, produce a professionally looking product and get as many quality books out there as you can. Also, it is important to interact with other authors and help them promote their books, hopefully they will do the same for you. Your readers are precious. If you get a nice comment on your work then thank them, show your gratitude. If you get a bad one, never ever react. There are some nasty people out there just waiting for you to fall into that trap and they can bring you down. I know authors who have given up because of one small minded group (I won’t call them readers, they are not looking for good fiction, they are looking for victims). Concentrate on the people who like your work, they are the people you are writing for.
What is the best thing about being Indie?
I get to work in my pyjamas if I want to. I can structure my own day to suit me. The end product is what I want it to be. I don’t have to compromise on cover, plot or characterisation. The best thing though is the close relationship with many of my readers. I don’t believe traditionally published authors enjoy such a closeness. They help sell my work by telling their friends, inviting people to like my facebook page and generally convincing other readers my books are worth looking at. The royalties are lovely but it is reader comments that are the most heady reward of all. I’ve had an email from a man telling me that a line I wrote in Peaceweaver helped him and his wife come to terms over the loss of their teenage son. I’ve had a message from a reader in New York telling me I made her cry on the subway on the way to work. I have another reader who tells all and sundry that I am her favourite all-time author. These are just a few of the messages I’ve had and they are awesome. Being an independent author is brilliant, hard work – but on the whole brilliant.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a novel that has been in my head for ages. I wrote a short story some time ago about Elizabeth of York meeting Perkin Warbeck, the man who claimed to be her brother, one of the lost princes in the tower. You can read that story free by following this link: http://juditharnoppnovelist.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/the-king-is-in-his-counting-house.html
The novel will be called A Song of Sixpence (because Elizabeth of York is traditionally believed to be the Queen in the parlour eating bread and honey, and the King who is counting out his money believed to be her husband Henry VII). I am hugely enjoying writing it; it is a dual narrative. One from Elizabeth of York in which I have to be fairly true to recorded fact, and the other from Perkin, his adventures overseas and his return to claim Henry VII’s throne and his eventual fall. Because we don’t have any idea of the real truth behind his story I am able to be far more creative with this half of the narrative. It is a mix of joy, sorrow, fear, tragedy. Elizabeth’s second son whom we all know better as Henry VIII is a toddler during the time the novel reaches its peak and he is turning out to be a proper handful. As you’d expect from him he is liable to take over the story if I let him.
Any other advice you’d like to share with us?
Methodical research, check – double check, and then check again to be sure. Find a proper editor. There are some on Facebook, or lurking in writing forums. Try to get someone recommended by another author. I have a troop of beta readers, two proof readers and a professional editor. It is money well spent. Grow a thick skin and learn to ignore negative people. Enjoy your readers and have fun. Like everything else in life if it isn’t any fun then it isn’t worth doing.
Thank you Judith, for a really interesting interview. I am certainly looking forward to reading A Song of Sixpence!