Saturday, 17 June 2017

Diana talks to Elizabeth Chadwick

Hello Elizabeth. It is really lovely to talk to you. Thank you very much for agreeing to chat with me.
I am sure that you are tired of being asked the usual questions that would be interviewers ask authors, so hopefully this interview is an interview with a difference and I have come up with some unusual questions!

If your latest book The Autumn Throne was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?

I have no preconceived ideas.  As long as the actress bore some resemblance to the character and did them justice I would be happy. The best ever portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine in my opinion is by Jane Lapotaire in the BBC production from the 1970’s The Devil’s Crown.  You can find the episodes on Youtube.  Recently Jane wrote to me to say how much she had loved my novels about Eleanor, which was a wonderful surprise and a lovely reciprocation because I had admired Jane’s portrayal of her for so long.

What made you choose this genre?

I became interested in Medieval history at school when an enlightened teacher got us to act out scenes from our lessons in front of the class.  This was then compounded by falling in love with French actor Andre Lawrence playing the knight Thibaud in a BBC children’s TV programme titled Desert Crusader. I began writing a sort of fan fiction that developed a life of its own.  I wanted my medieval story to feel as real as possible and began immersing myself in the life and times of the 12th century.  The more I learned the more interested I became and the more I wanted to write historical fiction set in that period.

How do you get ideas for plots and characters?

Initially by reading primary sources.  There are so many fascinating stories to be told.  It is often said that the truth is stranger than fiction, and the truth is a brilliant hunting ground for a novelist.  I also find inspiration from music.  All of my novels have soundtracks that have helped me explore plot elements, emotional moments, landscapes, personalities. For example I am writing this and listening to the soundtrack of my recently completed novel Templar Silks and one of the tracks is the Bangles If She Knew What She Wants – about a woman who can’t make up her mind.  The lyrics perfectly sum up the personality of one of my characters. I find the patterns, resonance and lyrics in music very inspirational.

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?

Oh yes.  I’d write ghost stories.  If I said above that the truth is stranger than fiction I have plenty to go at.  My husband once had a long conversation with a ghost and regularly sees an old car drive up a lane near us that is now a cul de sac, and then disappear.   I have so much background material – like yarn to be knitted into a garment, that I’d never run out. 

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 was born telling stories.  My first memory of storytelling comes from when I was three years old. I can remember lying in bed on a warm summer evening and telling myself a story about the fairies printed on the cotton handkerchief under my pillow.  I told myself stories verbally throughout my childhood and early teens.  I began writing my first full length historical novel when I was 15.  Once I’d finished it, now 16, I knew that it was what I wanted to do for a living.  So although it was a pastime it was also a serious intent to make it into a career if I could.  I went to night-school to learn to touch type for example with that career in mind. I saved my money to buy reference books and a good type-writer and then later an Amstrad Green-screen.  So for me it wasn’t a drift into thing.  It was a serious game plan from my teens. As far as I was concerned it was what I was meant to do.

Marmite? Love it or hate it?

Love it.  Toast and marmite with a poached egg provided by the free-range hens at the farm down the road is a favourite breakfast – and nutritious!

Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??

Nope.  I have mundane usuals such as check e-mails, Twitter and Facebook and post material such as a research book of the day, but these are daily tasks rather than rituals. I do like a nice mug, but I don’t have a special one. Just now I’m drinking from a lovely, chunky oatmeal-coloured earthenware mug that I bought as part of a pair in a charity shop because I liked them!

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?

Family is very important of course, but one has to set boundaries.  Working from home doesn’t mean that you are at their beck and call. There would soon be a ruckus if I walked into their work place and expected them to drop everything!  But within those parameters, of course family has to come first.  So, for example, lots of us had birthdays recently, so we all took a day off to go out together for the day. And if someone is poorly or needs help, then it’s a given that I’ll be there.   I do have the gift of being able to multi task and switch the writing on and off like a tap.  I have never suffered from writers’ block and that does help.

Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?

I’d be an archaeologist – a long-term dream.  Or a historian.

Coffee or tea? Red or white?

Tea, but I like coffee too.  Not keen on wine except in cooking.  But I like gin and have several on the go depending what I fancy.  We also make our own home made fruit vodkas.  The apple and cinnamon one is going down a treat at the moment!

How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?

It depends.  I always know the beginning and the end.  I always know the major destination points along the way. But the scenery or the roads to those points will often only emerge as I write. Another analogy would be like coming to a new house with lots of rooms. You know there’s a basement, a kitchen, an attic, but you have to see them for the first time and turn on the lights.  And the house is bare so you need to furnish it, but that will come as you look at the shape and acquire a feel and decide what kind of impression each room needs to make.  Successive drafts are like painting the walls and trying out colours.  Putting in appliances and furniture and shifting it around until you get the result you want.  I write a fairly detailed synopsis for my editor and agent (like house ground plans) and I write the first 3 chapters in good depth. After that I just follow the rough plan and I don’t look back or correct.  In the 6-9 months it takes me to write that very rough draft, my subconscious is busy at work in the background, and has had time to work on the raw material ready to spruce it up.  The rough draft is followed by as many more drafts as it needs, including a read through on paper and a read through aloud, because each process is slightly different in a neurological sense.

If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?

Never think about it. I leave that entirely to the publisher. I know some people are very font sensitive, but as long as it’s clear to read, I don’t care.  I do think it’s daft to have ‘Old English’ medieval fonts on a book cover though because they can be unreadable.

Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?

Well it would depend if it existed in the first place.  A signed confession by whoever did in the Princes in the Tower would be dynamite!  It would have been very interesting if Odo of Deuil had written a continuation of the chronicle of the second crusade continuing from Antioch – then we might have seen more of what happened between Eleanor of Aquitaine and her first husband Louis VII of France.

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!?

Yes, when I was writing The Champion.  My hero, Alexander, had a brother called Hervey who had been a major secondary character.  My plan was to kill him off somewhere around the middle of the book.  However, he refused to die.  I’m not squeamish about killing off my characters.  If they have to go, they have to go.  But Hervey was determined he was not going to shuffle off the mortal coil. In the end, he suffered a life changing injury but lived on to make a vital contribution to the novel.  So there was definitely a reason that he had to live!

How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?

I have been researching this period since I was 15, and I’m a few decades older than that now – cough.   This means that I have a good base line working knowledge of my period.  I am never not researching, although often I’ll just read a book on my period at random because that way I often pick up information and nuances that I wouldn’t otherwise do.  I have an extensive research library because while one should never, never, never dump information into one’s novel, one should always know one’s historical world intimately in detail. How else are you going to be able to move around in it?  Our family holidays are often research trips at the same time.  This year I am spending some time in Ireland researching the hero and heroine for my next novel.

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?

Not really.  Every character brings their own set of traits to a plot and the ones you don’t like can be just as fascinating as the ones you do.  King John for example.  He’s hardly hero material but he does have a certain horrifying charisma.  Sometimes I have started a novel quite liking someone, but by the time I have finished my research, my opinion has changed.  I used to be quite a fan of Henry II.  I still do feel he was a great king, but having finished my Eleanor trilogy, although I pitied him at times, I wound up thoroughly disliking him.

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?

The short answer to this is no. The slightly longer answer is that sometimes one has to question whether the known facts are correct – sometimes ‘known’ facts are actually ‘assumed facts’ or even fantasy.  I had such a headache over the appearance of Eleanor of Aquitaine for example.  Her biographers have made an astonishing variety of claims as to her appearance. I found her as a blond, a brunette, a red-head.  And all without any kind of provenance, or else provenance based on total misunderstanding of historical detail.  I stick to the facts that my gut instinct and my knowledge tells me are right. I’ve been researching the Middle Ages for 45 years, so I have a good knowledge base from which to assess those facts.  People say that you can’t let facts get in the way of a good story.  Of course you can’t. But you also can’t see facts as an insurmountable obstacle. A challenge, yes. If a fact is blocking your way, then quite simply you need to work with it, not around it.  It’s a fascinating challenge, like doing an interesting jigsaw puzzle.  If you can’t find a way to integrate the fact and the fiction for the reader then either you are writing the wrong thing or you are not a good enough writer yet. There’s always a way.

Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?

Yes, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing as long as the blurring is actually a blending and not a distortion. The Romans said there was truth in wine. Sometimes there is true in fiction and untruth in fact but it’s up to the writer to do that blurring with integrity and authenticity and then reveal in that author’s note where the blurring has occurred.

Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?

Yes. I fell in love with John Marshal, father of William Marshal when I came to write A Place Beyond Courage.  Initially I was curious – that’s how it always starts out – I want to know things about my characters, things that they have told no one else, or that are unknown about them.  John Marshal is infamous for having turned his back on his five year old hostage son – the future great William Marshal, and is supposed to have said that his captors could go ahead and hang the little lad because he the father had the anvils and hammers to get better sons than him.  I began to wonder what kind of man would have said such a thing. What I uncovered in the throes of detailed research was a very different story and it led me to a deep admiration and abiding affection for John Marshal.  I am still studying him now.  Since writing my novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine, I have to say that King Henry II, while I pity him, has become slightly persona non grata with me, again down to the research. He had many great qualities but it didn’t include people skills with his family – and no, I’m not thinking in modern mindset here either.

What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?

I don’t read medieval fiction for pleasure because after a day immersed in that world, and also researching that world, I need a break. I tend to read modern thrillers, ghost stories, tales from other countries that take me far away from my own doorstep, historical novels from other periods, some modern dramas and a judicious dose of literary fiction as long as it’s not too heavy.  Some biography too.  I’ve just read Diana Athill’s Alive Alive oh!  I’m currently reading Val McDermid’s The Skeleton Road (Scottish thriller). I like Leah Fleming’s engrossing relationship novels. I really enjoy J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith.   I like books that take me away from my own doorstep and usher me into different worlds.

What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?

Whatever takes your fancy. Everyone will bring a part of themselves to reading the novel and I am not going to tell them what to drink.  For me it would be tea – because I love tea. But then again, if I’m settled in for the evening it might be an ice-cold gin and tonic or some home made plum vodka.

Favourite author?

Too many to mention but Dorothy Dunnett is a genius and a classic. 

Last things last!  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!
Name 3 nice things that would not have happened to you if you hadn’t become an author
The first would be being nominated for a Betty Trask Award for my first published novel The Wild Hunt. Before that I had been filling shelves in a supermarket to help make ends meet, and it was a bit surreal to go from the cat food aisle in my local Co-op, to shaking hands with HRH Prince Charles at the Banqueting Suite in Whitehall and receiving my cheque from him.

The second, would be having a reader write to me and tell me that he was an usher at the House of Lords, and offering to take me and my agent for a private guided tour of the House of Lords and the House of Commons.  We spent a wonderful morning going around Westminster, seeing all the places that the tourists don’t get to see!  I was able to tell our usher guide the names of the men who would have been doing his job back in 1138 – how wonderful is that?  Job continuity for a thousand years!
The third is sharing my love of history via novel writing.  It has inspired many to go and delve further into the history for themselves, and to even go to university to study various aspects of medieval history for degrees.  Not having a degree myself, I enjoy their pleasure and success vicariously!

New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Chadwick has written over 20 historical novels sold in 18 languages worldwide. Her first novel, The Wild Hunt, won a Betty Trask Award, and The Scarlet Lion was nominated by Richard Lee, founder of the Historical Novel Society, as one of the top ten historical novels of the last decade. Elizabeth's nineteenth novel, To Defy a King, won the RNA Historical Novel Prize in 2011. THE SUMMER QUEEN, the first novel in her stunning Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy, has now been followed by THE WINTER CROWN and THE AUTUMN THRONE.
© Diana Milne January 2017 © Elizabeth Chadwick May 2017









  1. A great interview ladies. Elizabeth I think you're amazing research quantifies you enough, in my eyes to be a historian already. As far as I can see, you have more knowledge than many of the so-called real ones and you are so gracious with your research too, always ready to share if anyone asks about something. Thank you , Diana for making this interview possible and 🙏 you Elizabeth for coming along today !

  2. A brilliant interview and what a variety of questions from Marmite to John Marshal. Thank you, Elizabeth and Diana.