21 June 2022

Joanne Clague: ‘Be thorough in your research but wear it lightly; you’re not giving a history lesson’

by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students, Writing Tips

Joanne Clague studied with us on a six-month online Writing Your Novel course led by tutor Suzannah Dunn in 2017 – now Joanne is one of five students from her group with a debut out this year! Joanne’s debut historical fiction novel The Ragged Valley was published earlier this month by Canelo.

We caught up with Joanne to find out more about her time studying with us and the Great Sheffield Flood that inspired her debut.

You studied on our six-month online Writing Your Novel course in 2017. How did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?

I had zero experience of the publishing industry. The only thing I did know was that I had a lot to learn about the craft of fiction writing! The CBC course opened a door into the book world, gave me an understanding of how the industry works, and provided the tools I needed to become a more effective storyteller. I remember I was absolutely terrified the first time I showed my writing to my fellow students. I’d never allowed anybody to read my scribbles before, and one of the loveliest things I discovered is how supportive the writing community is.

Many of our students find their writing community on our courses – are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Yes! We were – and are – an exceptionally tight bunch, mentored so wonderfully by the lovely Suzannah Dunn. So far, we have four published novels between us and more to come. My writing buddies are the greatest gift of the course, and I count myself so lucky to have them.

Your debut novel The Ragged Valley is the first book in a historical saga inspired by the Great Sheffield Flood. Can you tell us a bit more about the novel and what first sparked your interest in setting a story around a historical event?

I was researching my grandparents’ lives as file cutters in Sheffield when I came across some information about the flood, and, although I was working on another book, it just wouldn’t let me go. Of course, a historical event is not a plot, so I developed the idea of a stranger arriving in town on the eve of the disaster, seeking his fortune.

Do you have any tips for writers on building a believable historical world inspired by real life?

Read fact and fiction from the period. I obtained a reprint of a complete history of the flood, written in the immediate aftermath by the editor of one of the local newspapers, which was an invaluable resource – and as well as recounting the disaster it gave insights into how people lived and worked then.

Be thorough in your research but wear it lightly; you’re not giving a history lesson.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I spent thirty years as a print and broadcast journalist, so I’ve always written, and I’ve wanted to write novels since childhood, but the time never seemed right and I loved my job. I do wish I’d started earlier. I think Doris Lessing says it best – ‘Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.’

Can you talk us through your writing routine?

I’ve got a busy family life, so the routine I’d like to have just isn’t possible. I write best in the mornings and try to spend time later doing research or editing. I’ve discovered I’m no good at getting through a first draft quickly. I can’t move forward until the previous chapter is as polished as it can be. I’m also a terrible prevaricator and consequently love being given tight deadlines.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Olive Kitteridge springs to mind.

What advice do you have for the aspiring authors reading this?

Write every day, if you can. Take it seriously as a trade, and learn it. Find your voice. Don’t give up.

Finally, what’s next for your writing journey?

I’m really excited to be continuing the series that has started with The Ragged Valley.


Get your hands on a copy of The Ragged Valley.

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