I’d like to welcome back award winning author Annie Whitehead today. She is here to talk with us about a big part of her writing. I first started this series-A Writer’s Life- over at Layered Pages and decided to bring it to indieBRAG for our authors.
Annie is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.
Her second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Aethelred the Unready. It too has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.
She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.
Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.
Annie, when writing, what makes you feel happiest?
When I’m researching. I love chasing down facts, cross-referencing them, hoping for that ‘bingo’ moment when I’m able to back up a piece of dramatic fiction with good, solid, historical fact.
What makes you feel the most frustrated?
Having to stick to those facts can be frustrating. Occasionally the dramatic impact is lessened by what actually happened, and it’s tough to find a way round that. At those times, the historian in me starts fighting with the novelist!
What are the challenges you face when sitting down to write?
Getting offline and on to my old laptop, which I don’t connect up to the internet. It’s so old that I fear it would fall prey to every virus known to machine if I were to plug it in! But tearing myself away from the web can be difficult. It was called the world-wide-web because it connected people, wasn’t it? But like any web, it’s sticky and it’s hard to remove yourself. Writing is a lonely, solitary business and I do like the interaction that social media brings, so it’s a challenge to deliberately shut myself off from it.
I used to get cross with myself when the words didn’t automatically come. Nowadays, I have learned that I just have to wait. Play a few games of solitaire, dust the windowsills, re-arrange my pens and pencils. Then it comes in bursts. A few paragraphs here, a hot drink and then a few more. The biggest challenge is probably getting back after a non-deliberate break in concentration – somebody comes to visit, or phones me. I’ve come out of ‘the moment’ and it can be hard to get back in.
What traits and values do your characters have that you have most in common with?
Tenacity. Introspection. Putting on a brave face. Loyalty. Putting family first.
How would your characters describe you?
As a hard task-master! I make them do things they don’t want to do. Some novelists let the characters dictate the plot, but I can’t afford to do that. You want to live to ripe old age, Mister tenth century nobleman? Sorry, no can do – it says here in this chronicle that you died in battle. You want lots of children, Mrs medieval lady? History records that you only had one.
If you were to write your memoir, what title would you give it?
New Kid in Town. I moved around so much when I was young that although I’ve now stayed put in one place for thirty years, this is my fifth house here, and I still feel like a nomad. One of the most difficult questions for me to answer is “Where are you from?” because not only do I not have any roots, but my family didn’t either. I actually have two birth certificates, which I’m guessing is fairly rare!
What are your themes in storytelling?
This is a very interesting question, because I didn’t think I had a theme, other than wanting to tell the stories of the Anglo-Saxons. But within those stories there are recurring themes, of strong women, and a sense of being in and yet not of the immediate world:
I try to make sure that my female characters live within the boundaries of their historical setting, so, for example, Aethelflaed would not recognise feminism, but all the women possess inner strengths which enable them to face, and sometimes even overcome, the obstacles in their paths. Káta knows that it is the men who go to fight, and the women who remain at home, but she uses other skills, equally powerful, to protect those around her. Alfreda, whilst perhaps not being the most sympathetic character, draws upon her life experiences to succeed where and how she can.
My characters do seem to feel a sense of displacement, of being in the wrong place or the wrong environment. Aethelflaed lives in a country which treats her as a foreigner, Alvar is catapulted into an unfamiliar world of politics and surrounded by hostile people, Káta is in a new area of the country and trying to adjust to their ways. How they deal with these challenges is very different, but the circumstances are similar.
What is the emotion/feelings you have after writing for hours?
The above-mentioned euphoria when research validates the story. The above-mentioned frustrations. But overall, after hours of writing, the emotion induced most strongly is contentment. For me it is a kind of meditation – I am so absorbed with what I am doing that hours can pass and I barely acknowledge their leaving. I am completely ‘in the moment’ and thinking about nothing else. It’s very therapeutic, cleansing and relaxing.
Do you have a habit in your writing that you wish you could get rid of?
A fear of writing too shallow a story probably leads to a tendency to over-complicate and put too much detail in. I think sometimes, too, I obsess over little words and whether to change them. The fun part of writing is early on; when you are about to send your book out into the world, it’s a matter of attempting to second-guess the readers’ reactions – will someone mind if I repeat a word that I used three pages ago? I tie myself in knots!
What is the best compliment someone gave you about your book(s)?
I’m always pleased when someone tells me that I’ve made them cry. I’m not a mean person, but if I’ve made people cry in the right places, then I know that the scenes worked.
And, following on from the above question, here’s what someone said to me recently:
“There are many good writers, but I notice things in almost all of them that I’d tweak a bit, such as the same word used too often. With yours I noticed none of this–NONE– plus, poetry is my first love and your writing is so very lyrical, poetic…I not only saw nothing I’d tweak but wanted to copy the style.” I think this is the highest compliment and the tables were turned; it made me a bit tearful!
More great posts with Annie here
Amazon author page
To Be A Queen
Alvar the Kingmaker
1066 Turned Upside Down
You are right, great questions and very insightful Annie!
Totally agree with Annie’s take on the historical record, the importance of dealing with characters within their own time, and especially the lure of the internet as a distraction…