Hi Louise. It is really lovely to meet you. 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!
And here it is:- What an earth possessed you to write about an obscure Renfrewshire family and an obscure period of Scottish history?
Er, because it seemed like a good idea at the time? That is, of course, the wrong answer - there was much more to it than that! I’m passionate about the local history and built heritage where I live in the west of Scotland, and I wanted to try and make it better known and more widely appreciated. So I started writing a fictionalised biography of one our local late medieval personalities - John 1st Lord Sempill – and I soon found out that I’d unearthed a very interesting story set in very interesting times. It was only later (much later!) that I learned I wasn’t the first to tread this narrow, obscure path: the celebrated historical novelist Dorothy Dunnett featured the Sempills in both her Lymond Chronicles and her House of Niccolo series...
If your latest book The Gryphon at Bay was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?
Alas! I’d have to travel back in time to pull this one off… The anti-hero of The Gryphon at Bay – Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie – played the supporting role in my first novel Fire & Sword, which I started writing in the late 1990s. From an early stage, I had a particular actor in mind for Hugh: Richard E. Grant. I’d clocked him in the BBC series The Scarlet Pimpernel, and I’d thought then, there’s my man, but it was only when I watched Withnail & I that it really clicked: here was Hugh, on a very, very, very bad day… He was around the right age in Withnail & I, too. But time does not stand still, and, no offence to the marvellous and indefatigable Richard E. Grant, but I don’t think he’d cut it as a 30-something these days.
What made you choose this genre?
I think it chose me… I had a passing interest in history as a child, when I went through a phase in which I was briefly passionate about the Ancient Greeks and the Romans (thanks, BBC adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of The Ninth). But I soon drifted off into reading and writing science fiction. I took up Archaeology in university in the hope it would inspire me to write better science fiction, and then in a roundabout way, I tried using fiction as a means of exploring history and archaeology in a different, more engaging manner. What started out as a fairly academic exercise soon became completely addictive!
How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
As far as the straightforward historical fiction goes, I often just stumble across things in the course of the day job that trigger off a spark of interest. Because I write books which are (in most cases) a conjectural interpretation of what might actually have happened in the past, my characters are constrained by the legacy they left in the historical record. It’s the process of reconstructing these individuals which I find both the most challenging, and the most enjoyable, aspect of the task.
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?
I’m wandering off the beaten track as we speak with my current work-in-progress, which is a time-travel novel of sorts. I like to think of it as historical fantasy or even speculative fiction: I wanted to turn the standard time-travel fare of ‘heroine goes back into the past and finds romance with alpha male hero’ into something more along the lines of ‘hero comes from the past and decides that life was so miserable back then that he wants to seek political asylum in the future.’ The hero in question comes from Ancient Sparta, so I think he can be forgiven for wanting to try his luck at surviving in the modern world!
On a more serious note, during the time I’ve spent working on this novel, I’ve had excellent opportunities to explore all sorts of aspects of our perceptions of people in the Past and how they differ from ourselves. In the hero, Lysander, I’ve tried to recreate an authentic Spartan, whose mindset is, in many ways, quite alien from our own modern worldview. At the same time, he’s smart, and he’s adaptable: there’s still this preconception that people in the Past were a bit slow and stupid compared to ourselves. I think this is very unfair: if it hadn’t been for their ingenuity, we’d never made it past the Stone Age...
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’m one of those strange people who have been writing for as long as they can remember. I started off as a very small child writing an illustrated tale based on the adventures of some plasticine mice I’d made, and by the age of 13 I was writing a long convoluted piece of Lord of the Rings/Dungeons and Dragons fanlit (in the days before fanlit was invented...). By my late teens I’d decided I wanted to be a writer, and early success only fuelled this desire: aged 19, I won the Glasgow Herald/Albacon New Writing in SF short story writing competitions with a piece titled Busman’s Holiday, a dystopian future tale set in an independent Scotland run by bus companies and inspired by the madness which resulted at the time from the de-regulation of bus services in Glasgow.
It’s been a long convoluted route, and like many practitioners of the art, I can’t afford to write full time. But I am writing, and I’m now getting to the stage where I bump into readers who tell me they enjoy my work, and that’s when it all becomes worthwhile, and something which younger me would have been over the moon about.
Marmite? Love it or hate it?
Lightly toasted brown bread, served hot, lashings of butter, a thin scraping of Marmite. An unbeatable breakfast treat! (YES!!!)
Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??
I always have a soundtrack for my writing which is specific to what I’m working on, sometimes specific to the character or even to the scene. I’m one of those strange writers who can replay the same track over and over again, particularly when I’m creating new work, as I try to recapture the atmosphere and get things just right.
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, I wish I could say ‘the characters,’ but it never works out that way! However much you want to sit down at the computer and just WRITE! reality always sticks its neb in.. There’s always something going on, whether it’s family, the day job, or whatever.
I suspect that those who are truly successful in this trade, as in any other, are those who just lock themselves away and get on with it, and to heck with anything else. Unfortunately, I prefer to have a life...
Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?
Well, I’m luckier than many in that I’ve been able to follow my chosen career path: archaeology. For the last two decades, I’ve worked in commercial archaeology, which can seem more of a challenge than a pleasure at times, but I’d find it difficult to give it up for anything!
I suppose my dream job would be to be appointed Curator of Bronze Age artifacts at any regional or national museum, but it’s too late for that now, as it would have required dedicating my entire life to my studies which would have meant the writing was set aside long ago….
Coffee or tea? Red or white?
Coffee, unless the weather is very hot and the sun’s out. Then a cup of tea’ll do nicely. And red, most of the time, but these days I seem to be getting a taste for a good quality white, too...
How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?
Usually I have a clear idea of where I’m going before I start to write. This is especially true of my historical fiction, where events are largely predetermined, and a detailed research phase is completed before I ever set anything down in writing. It always takes me several drafts to get all the characters to interact properly and to create all the texture and the subplots which are a crucial part of my work. It’s like reworking a painting, I suppose, you add extra highlights and shadows and create a more subtle final version.
If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?
Because I’ve always been traditionally published, I’ve never paid much attention to this aspect of the craft. I don’t suppose I’m that bothered with particular fonts, but I’d prefer it to be a) clearly legible, and b) traditional. Times New Roman is the one that immediately springs to mind, but there a number of alternatives which are much less staid and boring, though I couldn’t possibly name any of these! I tend to trust my publisher in these matters – he knows what he’s doing!
Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?
I’d love to see something, anything which could tell me how Hugh, 1st Earl of Eglinton (Hugh,2nd Lord Montgomerie in my novels) managed to get through the Battle of Flodden without being killed! Did he say, “S*d this, I’m not staying here to be killed,” and ride north before the battle? Was he even in the host as it rode south? He might have been waiting to liaise with the French reinforcements (which arrived wait), or even forming part of the acting government in the King’s absence. I’ve asked a number of historians, but they’re as much in the dark as I am. I wish I knew!!!
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!?
Usually the characters I’ve created in my historical fiction behave according to script – if they don’t I’m of the firm opinion that I’ve gone wrong somewhere in the research stage… But in anything other than historical fiction, I usually let them do things their own way...
How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?
I do an awful lot of research – Fire & Sword took about ten years to write and I was carrying out ongoing research in tandem throughout that time. I’m still reading about the time period and the places, often during the course of the day job…
I don’t think you ever stop learning. Having completed a Ph.D. in an entirely different subject, I’d say that the amount of work involved is about the same.
As for the research trips… Yes, I try whenever possible to visit locations and buildings in particular. I like historical fiction to be as honest as possible in geographical terms, because the landscape never lies. Though it’s important to remember, too, that buildings and landscapes are never static, they’re as prone to change and alteration as much as anything else. I always make sure I read up on climate and pollen analysis and other more archaeological aspects during the research process.
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?
In a word, no. History is always sacrosanct!
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?
Again, no. That’s not allowed. But I have been known to stretch the gaps between the facts pretty far. And if there are two conflicting accounts or interpretations, I’ll opt for the one which suits my story. And this may not necessarily be the version which Historian-Me believes to be correct. Historian-Me doesn’t always like this much, but Novelist-Me always takes a very big metaphorical big stick and succeeds in bludgeoning Historian-Me into submission. Strange that….
Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?
I try not to let them. I have to keep reminding myself that what I write is not trying to be an actual replication of the Past, it’s an interpretation of that Past...
Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
I heard an author say once (I think it was Diane Duane, at a science fiction or fantasy convention I attended many moons ago) that every author is a little bit in love with all their characters, and at the same time, there is a little bit of the author in all their characters, too. Which probably makes all authors narcissists to some extent, but I think there’s more than a grain of truth in the statement. And if it wasn’t Diane Duane who came out with that quote, then apologies both to Diane Duane, and to the author from whom the quote actually originated….
What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
I’m drawn to specific authors, rather than genres, and to be honest, I find it difficult to enjoy a lot of books. I like a book which is complex, but fairly fast-paced. I don’t mind belting through it and being left thinking, “eh? I didn’t quite get that,” as long as the characters are sufficiently engaging for me to want to spend time with them. I enjoy the historical fiction of Hilary Mantel, in particular, her French Revolution epic A Place of Greater Safety. I also love the Botticelli Trilogy of Linda Proud, which is just exquisitely written, and I’m getting into Dorothy Dunnet’s work, too.
I also read science fiction. I’m a fan of C J Cherryh’s Union Alliance universe in all its variety, and I love the writing style of Ray Bradbury. I’ve also recently become a big fan of Iain Banks – not writing with his science fiction hat on as Iain M. Banks, but rather his surrealistic, fantastical novels. The Bridge and Walking on Glass are two examples which spring immediately to mind. I would class both, by the way, as science fiction, though the Scottish literary establishment would probably throw their hands up in horror at the mere suggestion...
What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?
Claret – Scotland’s other ‘other national drink!’
Last but not least... favourite author?
Oh, it has to be Hilary Mantel. What I find particularly inspirational is the way in which her characters actively participate in creating their own history. I find much historical fiction quite pre-deterministic – the characters are carried along by fate, or circumstances, or whatever. Mantel’s novels recreate history as a series of consequences, sometimes intended, often not, which I think more accurately reflect the way history operates. It’s an approach which I try very much to replicate in my own novels, though I’d be the first to admit that our writing styles are totally different. I spent years wishing I wrote like Hilary Mantel – but these days, when I see how readers are polarised by her work (5 star reviews balanced by 1 star reviews), I’m a bit relieved I don’t! It’s probably more healthy to have a less contentious approach, in a stylistic sense…
Writing Biography for Louise Turner
Born in Glasgow, Louise Turner spent her early years in Scotland where she attended Greenock Academy and later, the University of Glasgow. After graduating with MA (Hons) in Archaeology, she went to complete a Ph.D. in the Bronze Age metalwork hoards of Essex and Kent. She has since enjoyed a varied career in archaeology and cultural resource management. Writing has always been a major aspect of her life and at a young age she won the Glasgow Herald/Albacon New Writing in SF competition with her short story Busman’s Holiday. Her second novel, The Gryphon at Bay, which follows on from the events described in her first novel Fire & Sword, is set in late 15th century Scotland and was published by Hadley Rille Books in March 2017.
More about the Gryphon at Bay
In this gripping follow-up to her debut novel Fire and Sword, Louise Turner returns to the splendour and intrigue of Renaissance Scotland and the court of King James IV.
It is a year after the old king’s death, and his son now sits upon the throne. Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie has achieved great things in this short time. He’s been granted a place on the Privy Council, and given authority in the King’s name throughout Lennox and the Westland.
Success is a double-edged sword. The old king’s murder has left its scars and there’s rebellion in the Westland. Now Montgomerie must choose between his king and loyalty to his kinsmen, the Darnley Stewarts, treading a dangerous path between pragmatism and treason.
Closer to home, he is challenged by his old rivals the Cunninghames. The feud between the two warring families intensifies, with tragic consequences. And the time comes for three women, drawn together by their hatred of Montgomerie, to plot revenge.
As Montgomerie sees the world turn against him, just one ally remains: John Sempill of Ellestoun.
But Ellestoun may have his own agenda. Will he stand by his so-called friend, or seek retribution for past injustices...?
Buy it here Gryphon at Bay
Amazon UK e-book
Amazon US e-book
© Diana Milne January 2017 © Louise Turner June 2017