Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Marsha's Special Feature: An Interview with Bestselling Author Elizabeth Chadwick

I am honored to welcome bestselling historical fiction author, Elizabeth Chadwick.  Elizabeth was kind enough to answer a few questions about her writing, research, favorite authors, and much more. The first book I read by Elizabeth was The Greatest Knight, a novel about the extraordinary knight, William Marshal. Thus began my love affair with the Marshal and his sire, John FitzGiIbert. FitzGilbert's exciting life is told in Elizabeth's wonderful book, A Place Beyond Courage. The research and authenticity that Elizabeth puts into each book is amazing, which is one of the reasons she is often my go-to author when I want a brilliant read. Having just finished Elizabeth's newest book, The Summer Queen, a tale about Queen Alienor of Aquitaine, I am anxiously awaiting the second book of the trilogy coming soon, The Winter Crown.

 Hello, Elizabeth, and thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions.

Q: Have you written any other novels in collaboration with other writers? 
No, it’s always my own work.  I have adapted a film script though. I was asked by Columbia Pictures to adapt the script from First Knight starring Sean Connery and Richard Gere and turn it into a novel as part of their marketing process for the film.  Daughters of the Grail started life as a one page film treatment, but I had to provide the main story and work it up into a novel.  The film never got made – as is the way with these things so many times.  But the above are the nearest I have ever come to working with anyone else.

Q: How much research do you do? 
How long is a piece of string!  I began researching when I was 15 when I started to write my first novel about a character in the Holy Land. I knew very little about the 12th century Middle East and I wanted my book to feel as real as possible, so I immersed myself in the research to world build the stage on which my hero and heroine were going to interact. In the story they return to life in the Angevin Empire under Henry II, so I had to research the European aspect as well.  I was never, ever as diligent about the WWII history homework being handed out at school at that time! 
 I am never not reading about my historical period.  As well as the need to know material, just browsing the era for fun is tremendously rewarding and deepens my knowledge. If you are going to write about 12th century people then you owe it to them, your readers and yourself to make them as of their time as possible.  My research is in depth and inter-disciplinary.  So I read primary sources, secondary sources, archaeology reports, I visit locations where possible and I also re-enact with a living history society to get a feel for the period.  I use online research as well, but you have to be careful.  There are some fantastic resources out there but also a lot that give out unreliable information.  You need a kind of ‘garbage radar’ to keep you safe online!

Q: Do you ever get any ideas about something to write by photos you have, or places you remember?
Photos sometimes.  They come in useful for descriptions and I enjoy looking at them, especially for the above mentioned research. I get a lot of ideas and emotional resonances from music though. That’s a very strong source of ideas.  I’ll hear a song and immediately be able to work up a scene from the lyrics, or have it push me into new ideas and ways of thinking. All of my novels have soundtracks attached to them and most scenes will have songs associated with them that are pertinent to the scene, or to a person in the scene and how they are feeling. The songs are seldom medieval. Emotion is emotion whatever causes it, and the feelings created by the song are just as powerful today as they were then.  The Eleanor trilogy has two songs that cover a main resonance of her story for me. ‘Do You Want The Truth or Something Beautiful?’ by Paloma Faith – because getting at Eleanor through the centuries of scandal, gossip, detritus, bad press and the opposite heroine worship has been interesting.  And the Abba song ‘Eagle’ for the chorus, which encapsulates Eleanor to me and symbolises the great white (female) gyrfalcons of Talmont which I have imagined as her totem symbol.  Her relationship with her husbands?  How about ‘Bleeding Love’ by Leona Lewis!  Henry II? ‘King of the Hill’ by Roger McGuinn, or ‘Solitaire’ by various artists.  The pair of them together from Eleanor’s viewpoint would have to be the well-known  ‘Rolling in the Deep’ by Adele.  Very pertinent lyrics!

Q: On average how long does it take you to write a novel? 
I have 18-month contracts at the moment, but that’s to build in time to do things like online interviews, days out to do talks, and all the online social interaction that is part of most writers’ lives these days. Also the research, which is detailed. When I first began writing, the early novels with imaginary protagonists took me about a year, but obviously now that the books are more complex they take longer. The internet was a lot less busy then too.  I always make sure I build in enough writing time.  I have never been late with a deadline and I never intend to be. It’s unprofessional.

Q: Where is your favorite place in your home to write? 
I write in my study, which is a converted bedroom in our cottage overlooking the garden.  I have a large screen and a large desktop PC and keyboard. The bigger the better.  I can’t get on with laptops – can’t stand them for writing. 

Q: Do you have a favorite coffee or tea by your side while writing? 
English breakfast tea is first choice - a decent quality supermarket tea does the job fine.  I sometimes like Earl Grey, but have to be in the mood.  I drink Redbush tea too, perhaps a few times a week.  Coffee every morning around 11.30 and some chocolate with it – that’s a must!

Q: Who are your favorite writers? 
Too many to mention all of them, but I have wide ranging tastes and I tend to read outside my period of historical fiction for leisure.  In my period I love Sharon Kay Penman, and currently James Aitcheson. I autobuy C.J. Sansom.  I enjoy Barbara Kingsolver, Diana Gabaldon, Peter James, Barbara Erskine, Charlaine Harris, Essie Fox, George R.R. Martin, Anita Shreve, Terry Pratchett.  Told you I was all over the place!  I like variety.  I like entertainment.  

Q: Who are your influences? 
Several when I was starting out and for different reasons – as well as enjoying their books!
Roberta Gellis – for showing me via the first four Roselynde Chronicles that romantic historicals could have all the ingredients that romance readers love, but still deliver on feel right for the time period.  In my very early stages of writing she showed me how much doing the research reaped benefits. 
Sharon Kay Penman – for showing me via Here Be Dragons that you could tell a romantic story about real people (as opposed to Gellis’ imaginary protagonists) and still keep true to the history.
Dorothy Dunnett – because she is a mistress of both language and complex plot.  I am in awe.  The way she uses words is an inspiration. When setting out, I always read Dunnett when I wanted to raise my game.
Mary Stewart – Her Crystal Cave novel made me think, ‘Yes, I’d love to write absorbing, descriptive fiction like that.  That’s the kind of thing I want to do for a living.’  Again, I am in awe of the way she paints with words.  I’d  love to take some of the scenes she creates and hang them on my wall.

Q. Have you found out anything in your research about a certain person that changed your perception of them?
There was John FitzGilbert the Marshal, star of my novel A Place Beyond Courage.  He has often received the fuzzy end of the lolly from historians, armchair historians and novelists as the dreadful father who gave his son as a hostage for his word and then abandoned him to his fate by saying that he’d do as he pleased and if the other side didn’t like it, they could go ahead and hang the little chap because he John had the anvils and hammers to get better sons than him.  I was curious as to what kind of man would say this, and when I read at a superficial level, it didn’t look good.  But when I started sweeping away modern thought patterns and actually looking at the man and his situation in depth, then a very different character emerged, a man with a strong sense of duty caught between a rock and a hard place during some very difficult and dangerous times and having to make some very tough decisions about everyone’s survival.
I also have to say that the things I have been discovering about Henry II while writing my current project The Winter Crown have left him a lot more persona non grata than he was before I started out!

Q. You are a member of  Regia Anglorum. Has being a re-enactor helped with the writing of your novels?
Definitely. Being a member of a living history society makes you think in different ways about aspects of medieval life and also gives you an appreciation of how innovative, clever and skilled they were.  Also that you don’t need high technology to obtain results.  I have a replica 11th century clay cooking pot that is every bit as good as modern saucepan. If I make a beef and barley stew in it, it will simmer away for ever on a very low heat (at the side of the hearth in medieval parlance), the contents don’t evaporate because the liquid condenses on the rim of the pot and the top remains cool enough to pick up in the hands.  The thing with re-enacting is that I can find these things out about the item in use rather than just seeing the glued-together pieces in a museum exhibit or as a photo in a book. Re-enacting really helps me to understand the people back then and their way of life, and that’s what helps in its turn to make the fiction live.

Born in Bury, Lancashire, Elizabeth Chadwick began telling herself stories as soon as she could talk.  She is the author of more than 20 historical novels which have been translated into 16 languages.  Five times shortlisted for the RNA Major Award, her novel To Defy A King won the historical prize in 2011.  The Greatest Knight, about forgotten hero William Marshal became a  New York Times bestselling title, and its sequel The Scarlet Lion was nominated by Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society as one of the best historical novels of the decade.  The Summer Queen, the first novel in her new trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine  was published in June 2013 and became a hardcover bestseller in the UK.  It is to be published in the US by Sourcebooks in summer 2014.  When not at her desk in her country cottage, she can be found researching, taking long walks with her husband and their three terriers, reading, baking, and drinking tea in copious quantities.
She can be contacted at her website, Twitter and on Facebook.

I want to thank Elizabeth for taking the time out of her busy schedule to do this interview and to highly recommend her novels to anyone that loves a well researched historical fiction book.



  1. What a fabulous interview. I love the cooking pot story and of course I absolutely agree re romance and getting a hook on the medieval mind set. Life might be tough on earth but there are rewards in heaven and also those qualities of duty were very important. I was interested in the books that influenced Elizabeth and her choice of novels. I, too, like many there, though Penman I find difficult. I enjoyed reading this.

  2. great interview Marsha, thoroughly enjoyable read, as you know Elizabeth Marshall also made me fall in love with John and especially William Marshall and I am anxiously waiting for the next book in the trilogy. I also liked seeing the books that Elizabeth reads to influence her writing and the choices of music were really interesting and I found myself thinking of the scenes in the books and singing the tunes lol. Annette x

  3. What a great interview. I also love Elizabeth's books.I was interested in seeing which author's inspired her . Thank You Marsha

  4. Such a fantastic interview, Marsha! I, too, enjoyed reading this and look forward to more!

  5. Fabulous interview Marsha, I really enjoyed this... and We do love the Marshall's <3 <3 and like another comment I am singing along :)


  6. Marsha, I really enjoyed your interview with Elizabeth Chadwick. Like Carol Mcgrath, I too liked the cooking pot story. Extremely interesting.

  7. Marilyn Smith

    A wonderful interview about a superb author, Marsha. Elizabeth is the best!

  8. Lovely interview, Elizabeth and Marsha. My personal favourite is The Greatest Knight. And yes, Mary Stewart's Crystal Cave enthralled a generation, well, several probably.

  9. Great read, Marsha. Elizabeth has some amazing stories which made for a great read. :) I'm going to think every day at 11:00 now about Elizabeth eating her chocolate.

    Hook of a Book

  10. Interesting interview! I enjoyed Elizabeth's connection between writing and music. I have to have quiet in my life to write. Even when I'm cooking or cleaning, it has to be quiet or I can't think. Maybe that is why my ideas come when I'm trying to sleep. So I found it interesting that music helps Elizabeth.

  11. This interview is completely fabulous!!!