I first met Jennifer C. Wilson in 2016 at the first Swanwick Writers’ Summer School for us both. We became friends and this year we had the great joy of “racing” each other to Swanwick’s Book Room to put our books out for sale!
In Jennifer’s case she had her two books in her Kindred Spirits series, Tower of London and Royal Mile, to put out. In mine, it was From Light to Dark and Back Again. So yes I do have catching up to do on the number of books written front!
Two huge advantages of Swanwick are the range of talks which can help you develop as a writer and, at the same time, getting to meet so many other writers, some of whom write in the same genre as yourself and others in genres alien to you, and yet you make new friends across the board.
Writing can be a lonely business. Nobody but a fellow writer really understands that (or the drive to write. There are easier things to do if you are just after a hobby).
Jennifer’s Kindred Spirits series combine her love of history and ghost stories. I’ve found Royal Mile made me feel some sympathy for Mary Stuart (not my favourite person I admit) because of the way Jennifer portrays the unfortunate Queen trying to help her father and another sad ghost character, Boy.
Tower of London immediately appealed to me because the hero is Richard III (and it is so nice to have him as a hero! Much as I love Shakespeare, I do not rely on the Bard of Avon for historical accuracy. There is also controversy over his portrayal of Macbeth. Having said that, you do have to give the Bard his due. He knew what his audience and patrons wanted – and he delivered!).
I’ve never understood the “don’t cross genres” school of thought I’ve often come across in writing circles. Some of my favourite books have done precisely that. Jennifer’s ghosts are, if you’ll pardon the phrase, real flesh and blood characters. Each ghost character comes to life well on the page and you find yourself rooting for them to have their own happy ending. And yes, there is a happy ending for some in Jennifer’s stories. Hopefully you’ll be wondering how a ghost can have a happy ending now. Do go and find out! No spoilers here!).
The amount of research needed for any kind of historical writing is immense, as Gill James confirmed when I interviewed her about her historical fiction. Jennifer would have faced the same issues as Gill yet also have had the dilemma of how to portray her ghosts realistically.
I think you have to take it as a given anyone not able to suspend disbelief to read a ghost story is not going to accept any portrayal of a ghost could be realistic. This same problem happens for those not able to accept the idea of other worlds as this tends to mean they don’t read fantasy and/or sci-fi.
There is not a lot any writer can do about this. This is all down to the personal tastes of the reader but for those who love ghost stories, sci-fi and fantasy, taking the “basic ingredients” of a story and doing something new with them should be appealing. J.K. Rowling did this with her Harry Potter series and in an era where boarding school stories were definitely not in favour, by crossing that idea with a magical setting, she helped reinvigorate the genre.
Jennifer is published via Crooked Cat and has recently self-published her novella, The Last Plantagenet.
So Jennifer, on to the questions.
How did you get into writing? What was that initial trigger?
I’ve always loved stories, from being told them at bedtime as a child by parents and grandparents, to making them up, inspired by places I read about, or got taken to on holidays. I think I’ve always been blessed (or cursed) with a vivid imagination, so the notion of making up stories has always come naturally to me. Pinning them down on paper came much later, only really kicking off once I moved back to the north-east. I got involved in a writing class through the local adult education initiative in Hexham and haven’t looked back.
What has kept you going during the inevitable period of rejections?
I’ve been extremely lucky in that the rejections I’ve received were for poetry and short stories, which, if I’m truly honest with myself, I’m not really cut out for. I love writing poetry, but see it more as for myself, and I now know how hard short-fiction is, so am hardly surprised my early efforts got rejected – it was deserved! With my novels, I was ridiculously lucky the first publisher I sent Kindred Spirits: Tower of London to took it on, and has been so supportive since. I know publishing stories are meant to start with years of rejections, so I do appreciate how jammy my tale is!
What made you combine historical fiction with ghost stories? (Not the obvious mix!).
It was a complete accident! There was a competition for a poem about ghosts, and as I was reading a lot about Richard III and Anne Boleyn at the time, I started thinking if their ghosts ever crossed paths, it could make for an interesting event, given their mutual dislike of Henry Tudor, albeit a generation apart. I had wanted to write about Richard for ages, but not found a ‘way in’, and this seemed a good a plan as any. It wasn’t. The poem was dreadful, and I didn’t even enter it. But the idea kept niggling at me, and as NaNoWriMo was coming up, at that point without any idea to work with, I decided to see if my poem could become a longer piece of fiction, bringing in some more ghosts. The Tower of London seemed the perfect place to set it.
NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The idea is those taking part write every day throughout November and they aim to have completed 50,000 words in that time. It works out at just under 1,700 words a day. The idea is just to write (you edit later) and many writers find this useful for making them focus on the getting their stories down. I’ve not taken part in this myself but can see the value of it. It can be invaluable for making you get that first draft down and you have the support of other writers taking part too.
What are your three top tips for writers?
1. Keep going! Just keep writing at ‘something’ even if your actual project is currently throwing you into pits of despair. I’m writing this having not written more than a couple of hundred words on my WIP in the last fortnight, but doing this means I am at least feeling productive, and who knows, writing about my writing might just kick off those little grey cells again…
2. Get yourself into a writing community. Ideally in real life, but even if you can only manage a virtual writing world, get interacting. It can be so lonely, as you say above, which is why I value my Monday nights with the Elementary Writers so highly, love running the monthly North Tyneside Writers’ Circle, and am already looking forward to Swanwick 2018. Having said that, also make sure you don’t just talk writing. As part of The Next Page, my friends / colleagues and I accidentally shop for ages, and now make sure we actually natter about what’s going on outside of writing as well!
3. Read. I know this is the obvious one, but it’s one I’ve failed at miserably recently. I realised in about July that I simply hadn’t read any fiction all year. I’m making a conscious effort to change this now, and I’ve found it’s really helping with my plans for more shorter, timeslip romance pieces, which is fantastic. The ‘TBR’ pile next to my bed is now huge, but it’s nice to see it, and feel inspired to read again.
Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and/or ghost story writers? (So yes you can name up to six! One advantage of crossing genres perhaps!).
Well, you know the truth, there’ll be no ghost story writers here – I am way too much of a wuss! So I’ll stick with my historical fiction writers:
1. Philippa Gregory. It’s thanks to The Other Boleyn Girl that the Kindred Spirits ever happened, I think. I love her books, and once I’d made it through all the Tudor novels, I decided I didn’t want to go ‘forwards’, as I find much of our history post-1600 fairly dull, so went ‘backwards’ instead, and discovered Richard III. And we know where that’s ended up! He’s now been the lead in two of my projects, and is even featuring in my current project, what I hope will be the third Kindred Spirits novel.
2. Elizabeth Chadwick. A lot of her books focus on another favourite historical hero of mine, William Marshall, but she writes him so well, I’d never dare touch him! Her books are a lot earlier than anything I’d ever read before, back to the 11/1200s, but the characters are so strongly-written, I can’t put one down once I start.
William Marshall was a true knight of the realm, having fought for several kings and was still active in this regard at a time when he would’ve been considered very old. He was Regent of England to the young Henry III and an early example of a self-made man. William won his way to money, power and influence by fighting brilliantly at tournaments.
3. Anne O’Brien. I could be biased, because I love her version of Richard III, but all of her books are absolute page-turners for me. I remember feeling the need to re-read her book about Katherine Swynford after visiting her tomb in Lincoln. Seeing the grave had felt like visiting that of a relative, the book was so compelling.
Katherine Swynford is famously the mistress, and later wife, of John of Gaunt. Her descendents were the Beauforts from whom Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII came. They were specifically barred from the throne being the result of a double adultery but this did not seem to bother Margaret or Henry! Henry VII incidentally did not draw attention to this, unsurprisingly, and claimed his right to the throne to be by conquest but dated his reign to 21st August 1485, the day before the battle of Bosworth. This way Henry could claim that anyone fighting for Richard III was guilty of treason and forfeit their lands, which he did. The legality of this is open to question to say the least.
Next week’s post from Jennifer will see her discuss the joys and woes of crossing genres as she does with her fiction. She also shares her tips for writers and her experiences of self-publishing her novella, The Last Plantagenet?
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.