Last week’s post was part 1 of my interview with Jennifer C Wilson, author of the Kindred Spirits series and also of The Last Plantagenet? She writes paranormal historical fiction. It’s not often the heroes of a story are the ghosts but Jennifer specialises in this and the books make for a great read. I met Jennifer at Swanwick in 2016.
So continuing with the interview…
You and I both adore Richard III and prefer our roses white but how difficult was it to keep bias out of writing your first book in the Kindred Spirits series. I can imagine it would be very easy to completely damn Henry Tudor for instance and perhaps gloss over Richard’s faults, so how did you overcome that?
Interestingly, I’ve just written a scene I decided I never would – the two men meeting in Westminster Abbey. I was gutted when I was sketching out plans for the book, and realised Henry Tudor was really the only sensible choice for my lead man – he fitted between all the stories perfectly, so I had to include him. But focusing on him, and his woes as a ghost, did make him seem a more rounded character.
I will always prefer my roses white, as you say, but you cannot look at Richard and say he was as pure as those roses. Mainly because nobody was. I cannot think of a single medieval monarch’s realm which didn’t include some form of bloodshed, and friends/family were far from immune!
Equally, Henry Tudor wasn’t just a wretched murdering upstart! Both were very much men of their time, and you have to look at them from their own time’s perspective, and not that of a contemporary world.
I hope I’ve addressed plenty of my characters’ faults, from Anne Boleyn, Jane Rochford, the two Georges, and the kings and queens of Westminster – because after all, books where all the characters are perfect would get very dull very quickly!
Share what you think are the joys and woes of writing ghost stories in particular but also the joys and woes of crossing genres.
To date, I honestly haven’t found any significant woes. When I started on Tower of London, I was really just enjoying the idea of writing historical fiction without having to worry about where people were when, what they were doing, how they would have reacted and so on.
I adore historical fiction, and do have plans for a ‘normal’ historical fiction project one day, but I know how much research is required to get those worlds feeling real. The writers I listed last week know their times inside out, and take the time to check that, say, if they write that Anne Boleyn was in Windsor Castle on a given day, she wasn’t actually recorded as being in residence at Hampton Court, or worse for the tale, abroad in France, that same day.
Similarly, it’s hard to read some historical novels where, especially the women, but sometimes the men, are thinking in far too modern a mindset for their times. It breaks the truth of it for me.
With the ghost stories I’ve written, there’s not so much of that worry. Anne Boleyn, for example, is still a woman of her time, and still acts largely as she has come across to me in the biographies I’ve read, but she’s been hanging around the Tower for centuries, so she’ll have met or overheard so many people and opinions down the years, of course she will have picked up different and new ideas and words. So, if she rolls her eyes and says ‘whatever’, it is ‘allowed’. It definitely made for some fun dialogue.
One woe I suppose has to count is having too wide a net in some cases, and really having to narrow down my ‘cast’. With Westminster Abbey, for example, my current project, there are three thousand potential ghosts at a minimum – that’s a lot of people to read about and discount.
What would you advise a writer new to writing ghost stories or who would like to cross genres because their idea seems to call for that and isn’t sure where to begin?
I’d say write the story first, and think about genres later. I appreciate from a marketing perspective, genres make things easier in the publishing world, but whatever story is bubbling up inside of you, just write it, and worry about the placing of it once it’s written.
Thanks to online publishing, and indeed self-publishing, there are far more cross-genre books out there, and happily so.
I was chatting to a fellow Cat (Crooked Cat author), who writes archaeological romance. Until I met her through Crooked Cat, I didn’t even know this was a thing, but it is, and she writes brilliant examples of it. And I think that just proves that it’s all about the story. I didn’t know I was a paranormal historical fiction writer until somebody said that’s what the Kindred Spirits stories were, after all. I thought I had just found a fun way to cheat at historical fiction!
Tell us why you wrote the Kindred Spirits series and what you hope the books will achieve. (I will assume generating more sympathy for Richard III was one of those ambitions!).
I wrote the Kindred Spirits series purely and simply because I thought it was a fun concept, and that it would be good to maybe have a different interpretation of Richard III ‘out there’ just as he was back in the public eye thanks to the dig and funeral.
Having been at part of the services, and speaking to people in the Cathedral, there was such a buzz, it had to be picked up on. I liked the idea of him almost providing a commentary on how things had changed for him, and obviously, that couldn’t be done in a normal historical fiction novel, he would have to be a ghost. That and the poetry competition were perfect serendipity.
I’ve also heard from people who haven’t known about some of the people in the books, so that’s been nice. Being able to throw together people I just find interesting, and not having to create a realistic interpretation of how their world would have been means I can introduce people for a couple of scenes, having some fun interaction, then they can vanish for a while again.
Having said that, it can be frustrating, picking places with such large ‘cast lists’, and having to focus down. I still, every so often, find somebody new I wish I had read of or thought about further at the time of writing Tower of London or Royal Mile. But hey, maybe there could be a sequel!
As well as being published by respected indie publisher, Crooked Cat, you are branching out into self-publishing with your novella, The Last Plantagenet? How have you found this? What were the particular problems you had to overcome? For example, formatting – did you find that an issue having to deal with this yourself rather than have your publisher sort it out for you?
I’ve actually enjoyed the process, but I think that’s mainly because I’ve had the experience and support from Crooked Cat on Kindred Spirits to draw on. So I knew, for example, the hints about running an online launch, and how to drum up a bit of a buzz beforehand. Having that existing body of work I think also helped.
My biggest issues were in navigating Amazon’s set-up process. I had been to a workshop years ago run by Victoria of Elementary V. Watson (who also edited The Last Plantagenet?), and I could remember, for example, something critical about DRM (Digital Rights Management), but not the actual answer.
But this is where the community thing comes in. One Facebook plea for help later, and I had my answer, which I’ve subsequently passed onto another writing friend, also dipping a toe into self-publishing for a project. People were also generous in sharing blogs, posts and news (including yourself, thank you again!).
In terms of formatting, I had dreaded it, but (typing quietly, just in case), it was a doddle. Unless people are being kind, the formatting has been fine. I literally removed headers and footers, no page numbers, and no random fonts, and hit ‘upload’. And there it was.
It’s been so nice a process that I’m no longer afraid of the concept, and may well do it again.
Mind, TLP is ebook only. Maybe paperback production would be a different matter. I’ll report back…
I asked these questions of fellow indie publisher, Jacci Gooding, and it seems good to give them an airing again! What have you liked most about the self-publishing process? What have you loathed or found the most difficult to resolve?
I think what I liked most is knowing that as it’s all me, there’s nobody to let down. I had it professionally edited, and likewise the cover design (actually by my publisher, so I knew the quality would be fabulous), but they were paid for, and those services finished as soon as they handed the documents over. It was all on me. If it gets twenty 1* reviews I’ll probably go cry into a bar of chocolate, but at least it’s not going to upset anyone else. If that had happened to the Kindred Spirits books, I would have felt dreadful for letting the publisher down spectacularly.
In terms of the most difficult, as I say, it was probably the technical side of it, ensuring that I had all my settings right, so the actual ‘product’ was up there ok, and I was set up to actually receive any money it might go and make. The pros have outweighed the cons, so I’m definitely not afraid of doing it again in the future.
You hold down a full-time job as a marine biologist. Time is obviously a huge issue for you when it comes to working out how and where and when you can write so how do you manage this? I find the fact there isn’t much I want to watch on TV these days an enormous aid in freeing up time for writing!
Oddly enough, when I’m working, I do tend to have the TV on in the background. I cannot work in silence, so if it’s not a repeat of an old murder mystery or historical documentary (Forbidden History with Jamie Theakston is one of my favourites), then it’s an old boyband album. I think about my writing a lot to/from work, and try to use the commute to do the odd marketing tweet or share etc., then in the evenings, it’s dinner, half an hour of housework, then, if I can muster the energy, onto the laptop. It’s been harder lately with a few clashing work deadlines, but hopefully I can get back to the usual plan soon.
Getting along to writing group helps – if I write on a Monday, then I type up on a Tuesday, and that somehow spurs me on for the week. Basically though, I’m a list-maker and a planner. I have notebooks everywhere, and just try to keep my notes in order, so that when I do / can sit down to work, it’s there and ready for me.
How many Kindred Spirits books are you hoping to write?
As many as Crooked Cat will have me for! I certainly have a few more locations in mind, and am planning research trips for later this year, and early in 2018, so we’ll have to see how those go. I’ve got a couple of other ideas I want to explore as well, to see how they pan out.
Do you have a particular favourite historical era? (Richard III’s time is clearly one but is there anything that can top that for you?)
I’m afraid, feeling like a bit of a traitor, the Tudor court of Henry VIII, when it was at its most glamorous, in the late 1520s / early 1530s, is an appealing option. Comparatively glamorous, I suppose, when you think of sanitary conditions and lack of heating, but those dresses, and the dances, sports and dinners… Yes, that would be fun. And equally, around the same time in Scotland, and into the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots. Late 1400s to mid-1500s Britain in general would be my favourite, obviously with Richard at the top of the list.
You were able to go to Richard III’s funeral (and thinking about it, that is such a bizarre thing to write given you were born centuries apart!). How did that affect your writing?
Yes, there can’t be a huge number of historical fiction writers who attended part of their leading man’s funeral!
For me, it was just a massive kick to get moving and get the edits of Tower of London finished. Thousands of people entered that ballot for a place, and I was one of only 600 members of the public who got in. I had to believe it was a sign for me to get a wriggle on and write ‘something’ about Richard III and try to get it out into the world.
I remember sitting in the hotel bar after Compline (the hotel being on the alleged site of the inn Richard stayed his last night before leaving for Bosworth), and writing page upon page of ideas, plans for Tower of London and so many draft poems.
It also gave me the hook for The Last Plantagenet? In that, Kate, my heroine, also wins a place at the ballot, and seeing the coffin at the end of the ceremony (we were even allowed to take photos with it), just brought the whole thing strangely home. He was in there. I had to write about him.
How much research do you do for the historical side of your stories?
The biggest bit for me is physically visiting the places. For the people, I can read detailed biographies for my leading cast, or just snippets in other non-fiction for the more walk-on roles, but you cannot really fake being there in person. Not when you’re talking about characters moving around a place, or vanishing through one wall and ending up in a different room – that can be checked by people, if they choose to, so you have to be mostly right.
It’s also good to get a general feel for the place.
During the day in Westminster, it felt a bit like a tourist attraction, with lines of visitors snaking around where Jeremy Irons told them to on their audio guide. But after they’d gone, I was waiting for Evensong, and sitting in the row of chairs before being shown through, THEN it felt like a truly historical place, and a place of worship too. We were allowed to sit in the wooden stalls of the quire, and thinking about who had had their names engraved there, which of the great and the good had sat where I was sitting at that moment, that feeling can’t really be captured by reading about it.
I’ve got to ask: do YOU believe in ghosts?
I don’t know. I am so sure that I’ve seen one in my parents’ garden, but in all honesty, I’m such a coward, I don’t really want to believe in them!! That said, when I’ve wandered around historical buildings and other sites, I’ve certainly felt a sense of the people who have been there before, and of the history that’s gone on there. But is that ghosts, or just knowing your history?
For example, I always feel ‘heavy’ and a bit emotional in Glencoe. But if you dropped somebody off there, without telling them where they were, or anything about the massacre, would they feel the same, or would they just think “this is a nice valley” (which it really is) and start taking pretty photos?
Are you hoping to bring out more novellas or is The Last Plantagenet? a one off?
I’m certainly not afraid of the option anymore. There’s an idea that started in Oban a few weeks back, another timeslip, set in and around an abbey, which might be a novella, or might end up being longer, I don’t know yet. But it’s been a fun experience, and I’d like to give it another go if the right idea comes along.
Many thanks for your time, Jennifer, in answering these and to all who are looking for a different kind of ghost story, why not give the Kindred Spirits series a try? Good luck for your future writing endeavours.
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.