I am a book geek but I can honestly say I was very excited to attend the launch of the new novel by the bestselling author, Barbara Erskine who returned to Hay Festival in the year that marks the 30th anniversary of her sensational debut bestseller, Lady of Hay.
Not only did Barbara return but she launched her brand new book, that is also set in Hay, Sleeper’s Castle. The book isn’t scheduled for release until June 30, 2016, but those that attended the festival were lucky enough to buy an early copy and for Barbara to personally sign each copy. Being an addicted fan and also in the throes of writing my own novel I couldn’t help but also ask her to sign a blank page of my own personal writing notebook that I carry everywhere in my handbag. Kindly Barbara happily obliged and I’m hoping that little bit of inspiration will keep me going at times when I need it.
With 30 years novel-writing experience under her belt, Barbara’s talk was actually really inspiring as a novice writer so I thought I’d share a few of her thoughts on here with you (written from my notes):
When writing about historical characters, what do you owe them?
Difficult question. So many historical records contradict themselves on when something happens, how something happened, sometimes even, if something happened. I always try to look for sources written by academics, professors, etc. I also try to remember it’s a story I am writing, it has to be an enjoyable story for the reader, not just filled with historical information.
Do you have an example of Historic Differences?
Speech. I try not to use an historic voice in my writing. At the same time, I try not to put in any modern slang, habits or references. I want the reader to identify with the characters easily, even those in another time period.
Do you start with a character?
With Lady of Hay, it was the character that first caught my attention. I kept seeing Matilda everywhere and knew I had to research her and find out more. This is often the case, sometimes other characters that I have read about and never intended to use worm their way in and tell their own stories. Sometimes a character is just too good to miss.
Where do your ideas from the past come from?
The past is all around us and there are so many places that have these strong links to the past (Hay being one of them). So many little towns have their own castle or fortified houses and their own history. Sometimes the history of these places is unknown even to the local community.
One of the golden rules of fiction is “Never Write Dreams”, yet dreams often feature in one form or another in your novels.
Firstly, I had no idea that was a golden rule. I don’t always write dreams there are so many ways a link to the past can happen, dreams, written accounts, re-incarnation, sleep-walking, etc. Mystical places like the borders often feel that the veil to the past is so thin you could almost reach out and touch it. I guess, if it feels right – write it.
What is your ratio of research-to-writing?
Well, it took me 10 years of research and writing for Lady of Hay but that was because it was just a hobby, something I loved doing and found interesting. With time, this habit has changed. I would say now I spend about a third of the time doing research then just start writing. I write my first draft quite quickly and leave little markers saying fill in detail so that I can go back and add the historical details as I need to.
How do you plot your stories?
I start with a mind map, I then do my research and I then create a linear plot to slot everything together. This gives me a good plan and a clear synopsis of my novels.
Does sitting down to write get easier?
No, you just have to do it, you have to sit down to write. The more you do it the more addictive it becomes. Just keep reading and writing, reading and writing. I think of it as a movie where you get to be the script-writer, director, producer, cast manager, costume designer and more. Only writing a novel lets you do all that and gives you that level of control. You’ve just got to write it.
Who do you enjoy reading?
I try not to read historical fiction novels or time-slip novels they are sometimes called now. I have read Daphne Du Maurier’s House By The Strand and enjoyed it immensely but my favourite genre to read is crime.
Any inaccuracies above are from my notes (or memory), my admiration of Barbara’s writing talent is indescribable and I wanted to capture a little bit of her talk here, I later realised I captured Barbara’s answers but not always the questions asked, so I have tried to remember what I could.
Barbara doesn’t have a particularly large online presence so learning from her wouldn’t be an easy thing, seeing her speak so passionately about writing, and noting these little hints and tips has increased my appreciation of her work even more. I hope you enjoyed my notes and got a little glimpse into the talk.