Frances Quinn is our 60th former student to land a publishing deal (it was only in the summer of 2018 that we announced our 50th former student with a book deal!). She was a student on our six-month Writing Your Novel course in London back in 2014. At the end of the course Frances gained representation with Curtis Brown’s very own Alice Lutyens (Alice also represents former CBC students Jane Harper, Kate Hamer, Catherine Bennetto and Rachel Marks). Now her debut historical novel The Smallest Man has been snapped up by Orion.
We talked to Frances about how her novel has developed since taking our creative writing course, and what she’s learned about getting an agent …
The Smallest Man is inspired by a real-life historical figure – can you tell us about him, and about what inspired you to write a novel about him?
He was a dwarf called Jeffrey Hudson, who, as a boy, was given to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, as a sort of human pet. He made himself a bit of a celebrity, becoming known as the smallest man in England.
I found him when I was trying to write a historical murder mystery and wanted a character who was a bit outside society. I Googled ‘17th century dwarf’, to see how they were treated, and up popped a Wikipedia entry on Jeffrey. As soon as I read it, I wanted to write about him. He came across as someone who’d been dealt a difficult hand in life, and made the best of it.
Anna Davis remembers talking to you, on the course, about the very particular challenges for a writer in taking on a real-life subject – specifically how you go about making that character YOURS – feeling the freedom to invent rather than simply writing a biography – while also remaining true to the subject. How did you tackle this in your novel?
It helped that quite early on I decided not to make my character Jeffrey himself, but a fictional counterpart called Nat Davy. I actually did it because I couldn’t get on with a character called Jeffrey Hudson – it sounded like an accountant from Guildford. But once I changed the name, I felt quite free to invent Nat’s character.
What was more of a challenge was the story – Jeffrey had some amazing adventures, which I wanted to use, but his life didn’t have the shape of a novel, so I really struggled to force the whole thing into some sort of narrative arc. That’s the main reason it took me so long to write.
The novel is set in 1625 – how did you research the historical period – and how did you use that research – or indeed, not use it, in your novel? Any tips for fellow writers of historical fiction?
I read a biography of Jeffrey Hudson, several of Queen Henrietta Maria, and some general books on life in the 17th century, then researched more specific details as I went along, which sometimes meant losing whole afternoons to Googling things like ‘Did they have pockets in the 17th century?’ I also had to swot up on the English Civil War, which ought to be exciting and dramatic but is actually full of deeply nerdy stuff about religion and politics, and incredibly difficult to explain in a reader-friendly way. Let’s just say I won’t be writing another novel set in the English Civil War any time soon. Or ever.
My tip would be to do enough research to give you a good feel for the period, and any specific areas you need – then get started, and do the detailed research as you go. That way, if you hit points where the story you want to tell conflicts with the history, you’ll find ways round it, whereas if you do all the research first, those conflicts can derail you before you start.
And still on the question of writing historical novels – can we ask you about language and voice – particularly, though not solely, in dialogue? Many historical fiction writers adopt a slightly formal (possibly ornate) style and avoid modern slang in order to avoid jarring with the reader’s sense of the period; others – notably Hilary Mantel and CBC tutor Suzannah Dunn, make a point of writing in a more modern voice in their historical novels, on the basis that the language of the day would have been SO different to ours that it’s actually more natural to simply use modern-day diction. What is your approach to this in The Smallest Man?
I knew I didn’t want any gadzookery, but equally, I find it jarring when people in historical novels speak like characters from Eastenders. So I tried to find a middle ground with language that didn’t draw attention to itself as either olde worlde or very obviously modern, and I only used 17th century terms when it would have seemed weird to use a modern one – an example was ‘nappy’, which sounded all wrong so I had to use ‘tailclout’ instead.
This is the novel that you worked on during your time on our 6-month London-based novel-writing course. What impact did the course have on the way you approached writing your book?
It made me appreciate how important rewriting and redrafting is, and how much you can change a story as you go along. Nathan Filer, author of The Shock of the Fall, told us 95% of the words in the manuscript that got him his agent had been cut or changed by the time his book was published. At the time I thought he must be exaggerating, but I reckon I wrote well over 200,000 words to end up with my final 95,000. It’s daunting, but at the same time, it’s freeing, because it means it doesn’t matter how rubbish your first draft is. Or the second, or the third. I did six in all, and even after the book was accepted by Orion, I had to completely rewrite the last section, which was around 25,000 words. But each draft was easier than the one before.
Many of our students find their trusted readers on our courses, are you still in contact with any of your CBC cohort?
Yes, during the course a group of us started meeting once a month for a writing day, and we still do. My book owes a lot to them – they’ve read countless drafts, and whenever I’ve dug myself into a big black plot hole, it’s been one of them that’s got me out of it. They’re incredibly good writers, all with quite different styles, and I’ve learned so much from all four of them – Kate Clarke, Lucy Smallwood Barker, Cler Lewis and Amy Hoskin. We’ve had a lot of fun together as well – and just spending time with people who are trying to do the same thing you are helps you believe it’s not a completely bonkers thing to attempt.
You’re represented by Curtis Brown’s Alice Lutyens – can you talk us through the process of how you met and signed with Alice? How did you know that you’d found the right agent for your novel?
I was so lucky to find – or be found by – Alice. At the end-of-course drinks with the CB agents, I was dreading anyone saying ‘So what’s your book about?’ because my ‘elevator pitch’ was rubbish. So I was massively relieved when Alice came up, looked at my name badge, and said ‘I like your book’. We chatted for a bit, and she asked if I had any more I could show her – we’d only submitted the first 3000 words. I sent another 10,000 words, and then the next 10,000, and then she offered to represent me.
Four or five other CB agents expressed an interest in seeing the finished manuscript, but I wanted Alice to be my agent from that first conversation. She asked me if the book was going to be about Nat having adventures, or ‘about him showing that he’s the same as everyone else’. When I said it was the latter, and she said ‘Good’, I knew she understood the story I was trying to tell.
You and Alice worked together for a long time, through the writing and editing of this book. Can you tell us a bit about that process?
Once I’d signed with Alice, she gave me a few general pointers on the book, but then she let me write the story I wanted to write, in my own time. I didn’t show it to her until I’d done a third draft, which was about two years later. I was rather pleased with it at that stage, which is embarrassing when I read it now, because it was awful.
Alice left me in no doubt that it wasn’t very good – she doesn’t pull her punches – but she said she still had a good feeling about it. She sent me home with a long list of issues to address and told me to take my time, which in my deflated state I took to mean ‘Please don’t come back soon’.
So I worked my way through the changes she’d recommended, and made some more of my own. I agreed with all her suggestions except one, but I gave that a go anyway, and of course she was right. She also wanted me to cut about 20,000 words, which I thought would be really difficult but was surprisingly satisfying.
I took another 18 months to do the fourth draft, and got much better feedback on that – though Alice said I should put back 10,000 words, and she was right about that as well! The fifth draft, with a few small tweaks, was what Alice sent out to publishers, and then three weeks later came the amazing moment when she sent me an email headed ‘First offer in’.
And what’s it like to gain your publishing deal now?
I feel like I’ve won the X Factor! Even though I’ve made my living from writing, one way or another, for over 30 years, writing this book was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It was the thought of how this time would feel that kept me going through mornings when I only wrote one sentence, and then deleted that, or days when I wanted to throw my laptop and myself out of the window because I just couldn’t make a character come alive. And it feels just as amazing as I hoped it would. I’m still finding it quite hard to believe it’s real.
What’s next for you, any ideas up your sleeve for book number two?
Orion want another historical novel, and there’s quite a lot of pressure to get the second book out quickly, so my plan is to stick with the 17th century, rather than research a whole new period. I’m playing around with an idea set at the time of the Great Plague – lots of pustules and dead bodies and people behaving badly in order to save themselves.