Saturday, 18 November 2017

Diana talks to Annie Whitehead

Recently the new online book club, of which I am a member, chose the first book we will read and discuss. Almost exclusively, the book that received the most votes was To be a Queen by Annie Whitehead, the true story of Aethelflaed, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’, daughter of Alfred the Great, the only female leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. 

I took the opportunity to ask Annie Whitehead if she would be happy to talk on Diana talks..... so without further ado! 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!

Thanks Diana – these questions have certainly been interesting and challenging to answer!

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!

Nothing to do with my writing, directly, but I have a little fantasy about one day being interesting enough to be asked onto Desert Island Discs. My choice of eight tracks pretty much represent or remind me of most points of my life, one way or another. Marooned, I’d have sun, sea, I’d be able to do my workouts, I’d have my music, I’d be able to read, so the only luxury item I’d need would be pen and paper.

My tracks:

Won’t Get Fooled Again - The Who

Who Are You Now? – Blue Jays

Song for the Summer - Stereophonics

A Piece of Sky – Barbra Streisand

Theme from Out of Africa – John Barry

Little Bird, Little Chavaleh – Fiddler on the Roof (Bock/Harnick)

Solsbury Hill – Peter Gabriel

Backstreets – Bruce Springsteen

And my Book: It would have to be a fat one, so – English Historical Documents, Vol I, all 867 pages of it!

What is the genre you are best known for?

Historical Fiction, specifically set in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia.
What made you choose this genre?

I’ve always loved history, and writing stories, so a fusion was inevitable, I suppose.

How do you get ideas for plots and characters?

Always from studying history. I’ll read about a period, and simply find that as I’m studying them, the characters present themselves to me as sympathetic main characters, or villains, and I think ‘Yes, I want to write this story.’

Favourite picture or work of art?

Hobbema’s ‘Avenue at Middelharnis’ simply because it looks like where I used to live in the Netherlands (it’s actually just a few miles away from where our house was). I’ve been lucky enough to see it ‘in the flesh’ at the National Gallery.

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

I remember trying to pen a letter to my father, just before I graduated, explaining that all I really wanted to do was write. I never sent the letter, and have found my other career as an Early Years Music teacher very rewarding, but there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. Music, history and writing – these are the ‘things’ that I love.
How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?

Writing about historical events means that I have a ready-formed timeline, and I decide where to start the story and where to bring it to an end. There’s flexibility within that, such as the settings for each scene, and whose point of view I use.

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

It would be an imaginary or lost one. As far as we know, there was never a Mercian document to rival that of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and I’d love to find out if one was ever written in Mercia. Also, and alas, countless Mercian documents were destroyed during the Viking incursions. I’d love to discover a cache that survived, after all, and changed our thinking about that period.

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 sometimes find them in parts of the country, witnessing documents, which simply doesn’t square with where I’d placed them in my story. That can be infuriating! But once I know a fact about them, I find it hard to ignore it, so I tend to work round it, annoying as it might be. If they manage to travel around without leaving documentary evidence, I’m fine with that; I’ll make stuff up behind their backs!
How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?

I do a lot of research; studying primary sources, and reading around the subject as much as I can. Research trips don’t help much in terms of checking out locations, because there are so few Anglo-Saxon buildings and the landscape has changed radically. But visiting sites does help me connect – and it gives me shivers to know that my characters, real people who lived over 1000 years ago, really stood on that same spot. All my holidays are sort of research trips anyway, as they are always to historic parts of the world. Our family breaks used to be accompanied by regular cries of “Not another castle please, Mummy” or “Does this castle actually have a roof on it Mummy?” One of my ‘kids’ (22 now) was asked if I do a lot of location research. She replied, “She stands in a lot of fields and gets emotional, does that count?”  ((Diana actually laughed out loud!!))

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?

It can be frustrating when real characters get in the way of my narrative. But usually I have thought about this at the planning stage, and since all my characters (with the exception of a servant here or there) are real, I either work with the irritating characters or make a conscious decision to leave them out of the story altogether if they are not going to behave themselves! I suppose the benefit of sticking so closely to the history is that I am forced to find reasons why people behaved as they did, so it’s quite a psychological exercise for me – I like examining human behaviour and analysing it.

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?

Rarely. When I’m writing an historical novel, I’m trying to dramatise real events, so in my planning I’ve probably already put everything into place. The most I might do is move a minor character’s death by a few months, or, as I said above, rework the narrative so that I don’t have to include the obstructive scene/event/character.

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

I don’t often hate any of them. I don’t like pantomime villains, so I do at least try to find some motivation for any bad behaviour, although I’d stop short of excusing it. Love? Oh yes, I think it’s fair to say that I lost a piece of my heart to all three of my leading men.

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

You might want a strong drink of ale or wine to feel part of the feasting scenes and perhaps to calm your nerves during the battle scenes and other tense moments. And to toast the happy couples during the more tender moments. So, essentially, yes, just wine or beer!

Last but not least... favourite author?

Can I only choose one? Okay, Sharon Penman. No wait, KM Peyton. Hang on, maybe RA MacAvoy. On the other hand, I read a lot of EV Thompson. And Helen Hollick…there’s also Mary Stewart and … I think it’s safe to say that I can’t answer this question! I’d better go before I shout any more author names at you. Thanks so much for talking to me – I’ve enjoyed it immensely. 

About Annie Whitehead:

Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar, who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of alternative short stories. She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, and in October 2017 she won the inaugural HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition and To Be A Queen was voted finalist in its category in the IAN (Independent Author Network) Book of the Year 2017. She’s also won non-fiction awards, and is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.



Earlier this year The Review's Sharon Bennett Connolly, author of Heroines of the Mediaeval World, reviewed To be a Queen. You may read the review but please note the competition is now closed.

© Diana Milne January 2017 © Annie Whitehead November 2017


  1. Loved this interview with Annie. Thank you, Annie, Diana. I particularly liked what she said about being unable to ignore a fact once it came to light and working her plot around it. And this part was funny ... "If they manage to travel around without leaving documentary evidence, I’m fine with that; I’ll make stuff up behind their backs!" :)

    1. Thanks Simone - and thanks to Diana for giving me the opportunity to chat! Yes, I do get cross when I find I can't move my characters around because somebody documented their whereabouts, but I do occasionally sneak up on them when the scribes aren't about and no one's looking! ;)

    2. That amused me too, Simone. The whole interview was really good and so enjoyable. It was a real pleasure, Annie. Thank YOU!

  2. Unusual interview, not the typical questions so this was a really interesting read. Great stuff.