Saturday, 8 July 2017

Diana talks to Carolyn Hughes

Hi Carolyn, Lovely to welcome you here. Hopefully this interview is an interview with a difference and I have come up with some unusual questions!
First things first I am sure there is a question that you have always longed to be asked. Now is the chance. Ask your own question and answer it!
Don’t you regret not getting published earlier in your life?
Yes, I suppose it would have been lovely to be, say, an Elizabeth Chadwick or a Philippa Gregory, successful historical novelists for decades. I’d have liked that, of course I would. But I didn’t think about it when I was younger and, anyway, I might well have never achieved their great success!

As it is, I’m pretty thrilled to be published at all, even at my (relatively aged) time of life, and I look forward to many more years of writing and publishing. In truth, I’m probably really lucky to have found this source of inspiration so late in my life, something to keep my mind and my imagination active and vigorous!

If your latest book "Fortune's Wheel" was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?

Mmmm, I’m not sure about this! Fortune’s Wheel doesn’t have a single lead role, but if I were to choose Eleanor (who is pretty much the lead in the first sequel) then the actress would have to have red hair. So, let’s say either Emma Stone or, even better, Rose Leslie, who I think probably has the right “look” for Eleanor.

What made you choose this genre?
When I had to choose what to write as the creative piece for my Masters in Creative Writing at Portsmouth University, I mostly just wanted a change from the contemporary women’s fiction I had been writing for the previous few years (none of it yet published).
Searching for inspiration, I was looking through some of my old scribblings, when I rediscovered the fading handwritten draft of about 10,000 words of a novel I’d written in my twenties. Set in fourteenth century rural England, it was about the lives of peasant families. To be frank, the novel’s plot (indeed the writing itself) weren’t terribly good, yet I was drawn to its period and setting. I had one of those light bulb moments and, a few days later, I was drafting an outline for the novel that is now Fortunes Wheel.
It’s true that I’d long been intrigued by the mediaeval period, for its relative remoteness in time and in our understanding of it and, I think, for the very dichotomy between the habitual present-day perception of the Middle Ages as “nasty, brutish and short” and the wonders of the periods art, architecture and literature. The briefest of investigations quickly convinced me that I wanted to know more about the period, and I suppose I soon realised that, by writing an historical novel, Id have the opportunity both to find out more about the mediaeval past and to interpret it, which seemed like a thrilling thing to do.
How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
I really don’t know, which everybody says, I’m sure! With Fortune’s Wheel, as I’ve already said, the spark for the setting and period came from an old novel draft. Research suggested that the fourteenth century had a rich social history, and I thought the period after the Black Death might be interesting. So I had a timeframe, setting and context… The characters – Alice, Margaret and Eleanor – then somehow “presented” themselves to me. I honestly don’t know how that happens – it just does. The plot simply evolved from wondering how people would have coped in the aftermath of something so devastating as a plague that wiped out half of your friends and neighbours, and possibly most of your family. For the sequel, two years further on, I’ve developed one or two minor characters from Fortune’s Wheel, and thought up plot threads surrounding “women’s issues” in the context of the time – I’ll say no more. The truth is that characters and plots do just sort of evolve, seemingly without all that much input from me… How weird is that?!
If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!) you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?
To be honest, no. Perhaps because I’ve become a published author quite late in life, I’m still fairly in love with my chosen genre, historical fiction, both as a writer and a reader. I do read other types of books, and I especially enjoy crime thrillers, but I can’t ever imagine being able to write one. So I’ll stick to historical fiction for the time being!

Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously.
I’ve been writing on and off all my adult life – short stories, novels, children’s stories, ideas for non-fiction books. But for a long time it never occurred to me to try and have anything published – I wrote for pleasure, or perhaps because I couldn’t NOT write. Eventually, though, I did begin to think publication might be possible and tried submitting my contemporary women’s fiction to agents, but I got nowhere. Then, quite late in life, I decided to take an MA in Creative Writing – to give a “focus” to my writing, as I told myself. And it worked. The result was Fortune’s Wheel, which I eventually self-published. And I WAS then a “published writer”, a writer of historical fiction, and that is what I now think I am.
Marmite? Love it or hate it?
Definitely love. On hot toast, with butter preferably, or low-fat something-or-other if I really must…
Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music…??
Not really. I’m not a terribly disciplined writer, so I tend just to get out my laptop and write whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself. I do drink rooibos tea almost all the time, and sometimes I’ll listen to music – Chopin typically, rather than anything “medieval” – but really I don’t have any particular needs…
I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?
Oh, the characters, definitely. Although perhaps I’m lucky in a way that I don’t have the “family” at home any more (apart from my OH). So I can quite safely “forget” about them while I’m writing and let my characters be my family.
Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?
I was a technical author (a different sort of writer) for thirty years, and I loved my work. If I hadn’t done that, I might have liked to be something like a curator in a museum – surely handling old and interesting artefacts all day long would be wonderful! 

Coffee or tea? Red or white?
Tea, preferably rooibos – I drink it all day long (it has no caffeine…). Red and white, as long as the red is full-bodied and the white is dry, although actually I don’t drink all that much of either these days!
How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?
Once I have a broad concept for the novel, I write an outline of the whole story, a summary of each chapter, sometimes down to scene level, depending on how much I already “know”. The ending is usually pretty vague at this stage. At the same time, once the characters have “presented” themselves, I make closer acquaintance with them by writing their profiles – physical characteristics, occupation/interests, where/how they live, families/friends, and my initial thoughts about their motivations and anxieties.
When I feel I’ve made sufficient acquaintance with the characters and have a storyline with a reasonably workable structure (and I’ve also done “enough” research), I start writing the first draft. As I write, I follow the outline, but not at all slavishly. Nothing is set in stone. I expect change. The plan is just a framework, which I expand and round out with description, character interactions and dialogue as I write the draft. It works for me!

If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?
I really don’t know much about suitable fonts for books. I like Garamond and Baskerville, but as long as my books are printed in something with a serif, I’m easy…
Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?
Something that almost certainly doesn’t exist – letters from an educated (just taught to read and write) fourteenth century peasant woman. Something like the letters of the real fifteenth century lady of the manor, Margaret Paston, but those of a far lowlier woman, one of those whose voices have not come down to us. How wonderful it would be to read her thoughts and concerns! But, sadly, the wonder of it will have to remain in my imagination.
Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?
I haven’t had quite that experience, of them going off on their own… But characters do often seem to develop sufficient “agency” to determine events in the novel. Initially, as I write, I put words into their mouths, and thoughts into their heads, and I move them about on the stage I have set, in the role that I have planned for them. And I’m pretty sure that, for a while at least, they do what I say. But then, without much warning, I sometimes realise that I’m writing something that I hadn’t actually planned – typically, a passage of dialogue, or maybe some sort of introspection – that changes some aspect of the story. The characters, it seems, have become strong enough – real enough – to decide for themselves what to do or say or think, rather than just letting me decide for them. They don’t completely take over, but they do seem to take on a sufficiently real existence to enable them to share with me the telling of their story.

How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?
I do spend a lot of time reading history books of one sort or another. I’m always coming across more books to read, with fascinating new information, and I can find the research quite a distraction, especially if the writing is not going too smoothly… I do enough research initially to enable me to make a reasonable stab at writing a draft, and then continue researching as I write, when things inevitably arise that I realise I dont know about at all, or have only a vague memory of and need to check.
Because I live where my Meonbridge Chronicles books are set (in Hampshire), I don’t have the need to undertake research trips to exotic foreign places, which is perhaps a pity. But I do love visiting medieval places in England, including those managed by English Heritage, such as the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton, and castles and manor houses, such as Stokesay Castle in Shropshire. A favourite visit of mine is to the Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex, where buildings of different centuries have been reconstructed so that you can gain a sense of what it was like to live inside them. And of course, there are always museums…
Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?
That hasn’t so far happened to me, as there are no real characters in any of the Meonbridge Chronicles.
Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?
It hasn’t arisen so far, but I don’t think I would alter facts for the sake of the story, but rather mould the story to fit what we know happened. At least I think I would…
Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?
It’s not really an issue in my books.
Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
I can’t think where that’s happened so far. But I’m sort of hoping with the third Meonbridge Chronicle, where I’m creating a very nasty character, that I’ll write him so terribly well that I really will loathe him… We’ll see.
What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
Historical fiction, mostly – all periods, in principle. But I also do enjoy a good crime thriller, something a bit bloodthirsty perhaps, which I could never write myself.
What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?
Mmmm, well I suppose it should be weak ale, if you’re feeling “peasanty”, and rich red Gascon wine, if you identify more with the gentry. But, for me, it’d just be a cup of rooibos – I wonder what on earth fourteenth century folk would make of it, or even of just a cup of Everyday Breakfast?
Last but not least... favourite author?
I always say the late William Trevor, because he was such a master of the short story, and of the subtleties of human interactions. So, not an historical novelist, but just the most brilliant writer.

About Fortune's Wheel:

Plague-widow Alice atte Wode is desperate to find her missing daughter, but her neighbours are rebelling against their masters and their mutiny is hindering the search.
June 1349. In a Hampshire village, the worst plague in England’s history has wiped out half its population, including Alice atte Wode’s husband and eldest son. The plague arrived only days after Alice’s daughter Agnes mysteriously disappeared, and it prevented the search for her.
Now the plague is over, the village is trying to return to normal life, but it’s hard, with so much to do and so few left to do it. Conflict is growing between the manor and its tenants, as the workers realise their very scarceness means they’re more valuable than before: they can demand higher wages, take on spare land, and have a better life. This is the chance they’ve all been waiting for.
Although she understands their demands, Alice is disheartened that the search for Agnes is once more put on hold. When one of the rebels is killed, and then the lord's son is found murdered, it seems the two deaths may be connected, both to each other and to Agnes’s disappearance.

About Carolyn Hughes:

Carolyn Hughes was born in London, but has lived most of her life in Hampshire. After a first degree in Classics and English, she started her working life as a computer programmer, in those days a very new profession. It was fun for a few years, but she left to become a school careers officer in Dorset.

But it was when she discovered technical authoring that she knew she had found her vocation. She spent the next few decades writing and editing all sorts of material, some fascinating, some dull, for a wide variety of clients, including an international hotel group, medical instrument manufacturers and the Government.

She has written creatively for most of her adult life, but it was not until her children grew up and flew the nest, several years ago, that creative writing and, especially, writing historical fiction, took centre stage in her life.

She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University, and a PhD from the University of Southampton.

© Diana Milne January 2017 © Carolyn Hughes June 2017

1 comment:

  1. What a joy to read this interview. I was fascinated by Carolyn's answers and books sound very interesting. Congratulations to her and best wishes for the future