Monday, February 2, 2009

Featured Author Interview - Jen Black

We're delighted to have as our Featured Author, Jen Black, author of Far After Gold. All this week, we'll be featuring Jen and her wonderful writing.

Please tell readers about yourself and your background.

I was born in Newcastle on Tyne and so have the dubious distinction of being a Geordie, but I’ve always had an affinity with the land and seascapes of Scotland, particularly the North West coast. Studying for a degree in English and History fostered an interest in early medieval Britain, and discovering how Shakespeare maligned Macbeth set me on a trail that resulted in writing the first book. That book and the second were written while I worked full-time. They were published in America as e-books and Print on Demand. I’m delighted to have secured publication for a third book with Quaestor, a new independent publishing venture in the UK.

I’m now retired after managing a library cum learning resources centre in a College of Further Education for twenty years. I live in a modern roomy house with my husband in the Tyne valley – just in case you think I’m living in a Gothic mansion as probably befits someone who writes historical novels. Now I don’t have to get up and go to work there is a wonderful thing called choice - if the weather’s good I can choose if I want to enjoy the Northumbrian countryside, or spend the day writing. We sneak off on skiing holidays just after Christmas, and disappear to France in the summer. Sometimes there are long trips to Australia where the family enjoys the Ozzie sunshine lifestyle.

Besides writing, what are your other hobbies and interests?

They vary from year to year and season to season. Books and writing are the one constant in my life – apart from my husband! I’ve tried painting, photography and dark-room work. I flirted with dressmaking when I retired but soon found that it was not the way of saving money that it used to be when I was young. The knitting needles come out every now and then. I tend to sit and watch tennis more than play these days and I so enjoy watching Rafael Nadal. I love driving, visiting old castles and stately homes, traveling anywhere. The only continent I haven’t been to is South America, and must confess I don’t really feel an urge to go there.

How long did it take you to research and write Far After Gold?

How long? I really don’t know, and that’s the truth. From a research POV it wasn’t too bad as some of the stuff about Vikings I knew from research for my first two books, BANNERS OF ALBA and DARK POOL. It was more a case of checking my notes for the bits I wanted. I remember getting out maps and atlases so I didn’t give my characters an impossible distance to travel, or whiz them from one place to another in five seconds flat. I try and work out how long any journey would have taken in their time period.

The first draft was easy, and took perhaps three months steady writing. But then I deliberately left it for a while and started something new. A couple of months later I came back and went through it again. After the second draft it went through a critique group, and then it began going out to publishers. That’s why it is hard to say exactly how long…

The setting of your novel is during the Viking Era. How did you re-create that past for your readers? And how do you develop your plots and characters?

I would say recreating the Viking period is down to two thirds research and one third imagination. It’s not hard to find facts, but darned difficulty to weave them in at exactly the right points so that it all sounds natural and doesn’t bog down the story. I knew Vikings had midden pits, so I had my heroine pushed into one.
How else could I mention middens in a romantic story?

I checked out videos of replica Viking ships sailing on the open sea so that I had some idea of what it was like, and then on rivers to see how different it was. I’ve taken boat trips on the very sea loch that Emer and Flane sail into, and know what the land looks like from the sea. I visit re-enactment groups whenever they come to my region to get a feel for how big a sword and shield really are in a man’s hand, that sort of thing. Then the imagination has some sort of a base to build on. After that, it is a case of describing everything as accurately as you can

As for plots and characters, I sit and think a lot. It might look like day-dreaming or staring out of the window to you (it does to my husband, I know!). It took me ages when I first began writing, and began with a character – Finlay. Now I start with a location, study the local history and think of characters that might have lived back then. There’s a bit…well, all right, a lot of thinking and discarding until I get the right mix, or rather, the mix I want. I like to know the end I’m working towards, and usually it will be a happy ending.

The plots kind of grow and merge with how the characters think and re-act to an initial set of circumstances, but after that it’s more a case of hitching their progress to the number of words you want and where the high points of the story should be. I did it instinctively for BANNERS and POOL, but now I’m working with Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet and happily I seem to have hit a rhythm something like his Beats right from the beginning.

What inspires you about the hero or heroine in your book? What makes them memorable for the reader? What motivates the hero or heroine?

I suppose I’ve only written two heroes so far. The first was Finlay who figures in both BANNERS and POOL, and now Flane in FAR AFTER GOLD, so what I say now may not stand for all time! I want a hero who can hold his own amongst his contemporaries in the world of the book, a man who has looks and ability and a good set of basic moral values, but who has some flaw that stops him being perfect. I like imperfection, as long as it can be cured, since I think it adds more interest for the reader. Finlay’s fault was his flyaway temper, which hampers his progress, and Flane’s is a reluctance to make tough decisions until he has to. He thinks both Emer and Katla will fall into line with his plans and is surprised when they stick to their own agenda. Emer wants to escape before Flane’s patience runs out, longs to find her way home but has no idea where home is, or where she should escape to. Her flaw is stubbornness, but in her case, it helps her. I hope that most readers can identify with the struggle to beat flaws!

Who is the main villain in the story? Tell us about him or her and how he or she contributes to the story.

The main villain is Gamell, a warrior in the same war-band as Flane. He is Flane’s opposite, born without good looks. With few morals to start with, he gradually sours as he grows older and success eludes him. He wants Emer, and isn’t prepared to wait. He acts as a sort of catalyst so that the H/h realize how much each matters to the other.

What do you enjoy most about your heroine, Emer, and your hero, Flane, in this story?

I like writing characters who spark each other off verbally as well as sexually. Flyghting, as it was called in Viking and Anglo-Saxon days, is fun to write and since I’m one of those people who can only think of a smart rejoinder two days after the event, it is wonderful to get such a conversation down on the page as if there was no hesitation. It makes me feel good, and even if it takes three days to think up the appropriate response, no one but me will ever know!

If your works were made into movies, whom do you envision playing the hero, heroine, and other important characters?

I prefer imagination! There is a physical type I admire, but I try not to pin my H/h down too much. If readers want to do it, they should feel free and not have my likes and dislikes shoved in their faces. I’d be happy to read their suggestions and see what pictures they build from the words I’ve written.

Tell us about some of your other published works.

BANNERS OF ALBA is the story I began to research way back in the dim and distant past when I thought Macbeth had been so maligned by Shakespeare and everyone else since the play was published. So Finlay is my alternative version of Macbeth. I’ve shown a very young man who struggled against a malicious and power-hungry uncle to obtain his birthright, had his bride stolen from him and feared his best friend had turned against him. Alongside the political I’ve balanced two love stories, and there are deaths, battles and a large cast of characters. Loyalties are tested, and love struggles to survive.

DARK POOL takes place the year after BANNERS. Finlay tries to save Eba, a young girl stolen and taken to Dublin. While Finlay wrestles with Sitric Silkenbeard’s court, Eba is forced to marry an angelic looking but cruel young man called Kimi. She struggles alone but eventually discovers friends who help her. I researched a lot for the Irish part of the story, even down to horse-racing, hurley and the dishes that might have been served at Sitric’s board. I also persuaded my husband that I needed to go to Dublin for four days and we tramped the old streets where my characters played out their story. We also sampled a pint of Guinness on the top floor of the brewery, but that’s another story!

What prompted your interest in writing historical fiction?

I love it! I’ve read it, dreamed it, savoured it, watched it on TV and now it’s entrenched in me. Looking back, I can see it was almost inevitable, but at the time it was a very gradual one-toe-in -the-water sort of thing. Discussing Dorothy Dunnett’s writing with other enthusiasts and talking to the author herself was illuminating in that she sounded quite ordinary. Intelligent, obviously, but ordinary in so many ways, not least that she was prepared to talk to her readers and confess that she couldn’t cook and worked on her stories in a converted garage in the garden.

What do you enjoy most about writing in this genre? What challenges have you found?

I enjoy most things about it. The interest was always there, and I’ve fostered it by wide reading. I did one year’s history at university and then decided to transfer to single Honours English Language and Literature. I selected Art and Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England as one of my modules and indulged myself in hunting through the university library stacks for things that I wanted to read for personal interest rather than coursework. When you have an interest, everything seems to present opportunities to indulge that interest!

The only challenge I’ve found is deciding what kind of language to use in writing about the tenth and eleventh century. Obviously the languages spoken then bear little relations to the languages we speak today, so I am saved from what I think of as the “prithee, my lord” school of thought. It’s a bit of a leap, but my thinking runs like this: we speak freely today in our own language as the characters would have spoken equally freely in theirs. So why erect barriers? Why try and emulate a speech we cannot imagine and would not understand if we could?

I’m aware that some writers dislike modern English in historicals and pounce with glee on anachronisms, but I think this can be a little nit-picky. I make an effort to avoid words that were not in use until much later, such as adrenaline or psychotic, for example, but I’m also aware that written records show only words that were written down. Who knows the words that were spoken and never reached vellum or paper? We forget that writing was not a common thing until the turn of the twentieth century in this country.

What sparks your creativity? Any tips to help others spark their own creativity?

I’ve always been a dreamer, both at night and in the day time. I wonder if…comes naturally to me. The ideas are not a problem. It getting them into a functional shape, and then writing down that story – that’s where the hard slog comes in. So if you don’t enjoy the writing part, the playing with words and ideas, if you are not prepared to chuck whole sections that took you hours but don’t really fit the whole, then it will always be difficult. Sheer perseverance pays off for me on those days when I think I’d rather be doing something else. I shut my mind off to all those tempting distractions, sit down and start writing. The first paragraphs might be rubbish, but the trick is not to stop. Keep going. You can always edit later.

Some of those days I say Sod it, and head for hills. Everyone has a limit!

What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing? Can you share some tips to help others get past similar problems?

The first stumbling block was the need to go out and earn a living. It doesn’t leave much time for all those other things like buying groceries, meeting friends, sleeping. Also, if the job is physically or mentally demanding, there isn’t much creative energy left at the end of the day. Some people get up at 4am and write before they go to work, but I’m not a morning person. I wake up groggy. I’m better at night, but then socializing gets in the way. It isn’t easy, and sometimes it can be a very slow process.

The other big stumbling block is getting an agent or a publisher to accept your work. All I can do on those fronts is polish up my query letters and spend some time on getting a synopsis that works. Don’t know that I’m there yet!.

How did your interest in writing develop? How and when did you decide to write your first book?

I don’t think I ever actually decided to write a book. I was never that confident. I’d always liked to write at school, essays, compositions in junior school, and I’d always got excellent marks. Most writers say that, don’t they? As an adult I wondered if I could write. The idea appealed to me. I got around to thinking I would try to write something…a few pages, and see what happened. What I ended up with was a 5 page story outline! Then a 19 page outline of the same thing. Then I realized that if I stuck at it, I had a story. It was a very incremental thing. And very slow. I worked on BANNERS over a period of 17 years. Often there would be long, long breaks before I went back to it, but each time I went back, I could see how to improve what I had.

How do you balance your writing and research with family and other pursuits?

Luckily I don’t have to. The family are grown up and gone – to Australia in this case – and I’m lucky that my husband lets me get on with what I’m doing without complaint. He’ll get excited, he says, when the film rights are up for grabs!

What is your favorite book, and who is your favorite literary character?

Not a favourite book, but a favourite series. The writer is Dorothy Dunnett, and the series is The Lymond Chronicles. The first book of six is The Game of Kings and the most fascinating character I’ve ever encountered is Francis Crawford of Lymond. A hero to die for. I love her books, even the contemporary Dolly books.

Do you have a favorite comment or question from a reader?

I think the comment will always be “You know I’ll read it!”

Tell me about the most unusual things you have done to promote your books.

I’ve hardly done anything yet. I’m very new to this game, and have to say it doesn’t come easily to self promote. I tap into Yahoo groups, run a blog ~ My website has never been much to write home about, as I’m not very good at web technology and don’t have any savvy offspring at home to do it for me. The current one is about to expire, (website, not offspring!) so I’m going to push everything through the blog.

FAR AFTER GOLD was released for publication on Friday 30th January, but I understand that US sites (Borders possibly, and almost certainly others) will start to show availability once the Lightning Source, Nielsen and Bowkerlink database updates feed through. This can, however, take weeks, so all I can say to anyone wanting to read my book is don’t give up hope. Be patient!

The older titles are available from Fictionwise and Mobipocket is you want to sample my early stories in the meantime.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Keep trying. It’s a tough world. Expect to work at it for years before getting any sort of recognition. Don’t give up.

What do we have to look forward to from your pen/computer next?

I have a Regency to sell just at a time when Regencies seem to have been on the back burner – typical!

A romance set in Tudor England is also looking for a home, and I’m coming to the last third of a Victorian romance.

How may readers contact you?

Via the blog.

Any closing thoughts you would like to share?

I think I’ve said it all! Thank you for being so patient! If you want more, see reviews on my blog or check out
The Hexham Courant ~ there’s feature on me!


Anne Whitfield - author said...

Great interview!

Joanna Waugh said...

Wonderful interview, Jen. Good luck with Far After Gold!

Kelley said...

Great interview. I agree with what you said about writing dialog for historical time periods. It always irritates me when I have to re-read dialog over and over again before I understand what is being said.

Ginger Simpson said...

Great interview. It was nice to learn more about the person I only know through critiques in our group. Best of luck in finding an agent, and when you do...tell him/her about your best friend, Ginger. *lol*

Jen Black said...

Thanks guys. Good to see you here.
Enjoy the excerpts to come, let me know where I went wrong!

MarthaE said...

Very thorough interview! Best wishes for your success! I love historicals.