Read on to find out about Katie’s time studying online with CBC and what inspires her to write historical fiction…
You took our online Edit & Pitch Your Novel course in 2017 – what was your experience of studying online with us like?
The course succeeded for me on so many levels. I’d already started the process of looking for an agent, but felt I hadn’t really cracked the business of putting together a convincing pitch letter and synopsis, which of course the course, coming from the heart of the publishing industry, really helped with. Useful too was what I learned about self-editing. The success of the course depended also on the interaction between participants and subsequent networking. I am now one of the organisers, with another Edit and Pitch participant, of the Historical Novel Society’s 2022 Annual Conference (I’m a regular reviewer for the Society). Another writer on the course put me onto a lead which ultimately resulted in the publication of two novellas (under another pseudonym) and quite a number of short stories. I’ve been a beta reader for a number of writers on the course, and they for me. And that’s before I even think about the importance of moral support. A group of us from the course are in touch regularly, three years later, and a number of us are publishing.
You have a two-book deal with Bonnier Zaffre for your historical fiction. How did you feel when you found out about your publishing deal?
How do I begin to describe it? I still pinch myself. What is remarkable in a way is how quickly it happened, once I got an agent (and I’m convinced I’d have had a much longer hunt for her without the help of the course). People, don’t rush into self-publishing, as a good agent opens doors you didn’t know were even there. It was one of those unforgettable milestones, a bigger and better version of the ecstatic feeling I had when I first got a story published in a magazine. I have a job too, though part-time now to make space for writing, but once I got the deal I started to really think of myself as a writer, and changed all my social media to reflect that.
Can you tell us a bit about your debut The Gypsy Bride and the inspiration behind it?
I had already written an historical novel which though it garnered some interest, didn’t get me representation. I knew I wanted to write something rural next, with an English setting (the first novel is set in my native Ireland), possibly set in Kent where I’d lived for a while. In search of background reading, I discovered in an Oxfam bookshop WH Hudson’s A Shepherd’s Life (1904), and with the chapter ‘The Dark Men of the Village’ I knew straightaway where my hero was to come from. The life of the illiterate, itinerant Romani farm labourer Sam Loveridge I juxtaposed with that of a girl in a close-knit, rural Primitive Methodist community in the aftermath of World War I. My English mother descends from Oxfordshire ‘Prims’. They and other non-conformist movements were part of the warp and weft of rural life once, being active in agricultural trade unionism and in providing education to cottage children before and after the advent of compulsory schooling. Cultural contrast – and the resulting conflict – is a bit of A Thing where I come from (Belfast), and that drove the writing of this book. I’ve just completed the second round of edits on the sequel, set in 1950s Nottingham.
What drew you to historical fiction? And who are the authors that influence your writing?
Whilst I have written some contemporary fiction, I love the discipline of historical fiction, of ‘getting it right’ not just in terms of research into what-happened-when-and-why, but also trying to get the ‘voice’ of the time I am writing about. If I succeed at all, it’s because I read a lot of what people were reading at the time I’m writing in. The Prims published quite a few novels, often serialised in their magazines, always with a moral message and designed to be spiritually uplifting. They aren’t all great fiction, but they do say a lot about what that community thought about. In researching fiction set later, sources like Mass Observation, or Geoffrey Gorer’s survey for The People are invaluable. It’s true: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’
Authors who influence my writing include Thomas Hardy, whom I go back to again and again, EM Forster, Georgette Heyer (I read her for fun, as I don’t write about the Regency, but admire the way she got historical detail impeccably right and used it to build her narrative) and Graham Greene for clear, spare prose. I don’t know though that any of those writers would have thought I write like them. It’s probably safer to say that I admire them, as I do Rose Tremain, Adam Thorpe and James Robertson. Perhaps the common theme is that very strong sense of place they all have.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
My writing and my job fit around each other, so I can’t say that there is a typical day, but there isn’t a day that goes by without writing. I set myself goals, which though crude, are effective – things like word count. I also have other ‘writery’ gigs, like manuscript assessment, short story critiquing for competitions and reviewing. I am always doing research, but I don’t confuse that with actually writing (in other words I can’t count reading a history book as part of my daily writing target).
Inevitably, there are days that go better than others. When you’re on a roll, repel all comers, I say. One thing I almost invariably do to set myself up for the following day is to not entirely finish or write an idea out completely. That means I have somewhere to immediately start the next day. I also tend to work on more than one project at once. I liken it to being an actor in Rep: performing a play, whilst rehearsing for the following week, and reading for the week after. In other words, I could be revising one novel, drafting the next project, and doing research for the one beyond it.
If you could only pass on one piece of advice to aspiring authors what would it be?
Write every day. Don’t worry about how good or bad it is, because you can go back the next day and revise it. You cannot revise a blank page. If you get stuck with what you’re writing, write something else instead for a bit, like a short story for a competition, or a memoir piece. Am I allowed another piece of advice? Read well.
Finally, what’s next for your writing journey?
I’m planning not a trilogy as such, but three books that are related in some way, and involving members of the same family (think Sebastian Barry and his various McNultys). The first would be set in the late 19th century, the second in the Hungry 30s and the third just post World War II, starting with a family of flax-dressers moving from County Down to Cleator Moor in north-west England and thence to Barrow-in-Furness. The spark for this, as before, is family history. I’ve enrolled on S J Parris’s Writing Historical Fiction course to help plan this project.
Get your hands on a copy of The Gypsy Bride.