Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Historical Novel Society Conference London 2014 Part 1: Selling Historical Fiction

Here’s the paradox – both writing and reading are solitary activities, yet writers and readers love to create communities, particularly in this hyperactive era of social media. We find peer groups, like-minded souls, supporters – we share ideas, enthusiasms and dislikes. I’ve always been a reader, pretty much always been a writer and in the past few years I’ve felt more and more part of solidarity and fellowship, whether online or when attending writerly events.

Which leads me to the Historical Novel Society’s London Conference 2014. Cue bemusement that two years could have passed since I attended HNS London 2012! (See links to blogposts on that at the end of this post.) This year’s conference was held at the University of Westminster’s Marylebone campus, right opposite Madame Tussaud’s in London. It ran from Friday 5th to Sunday 7th September, and here’s the first part of my experience of it.

I’m afraid I wasn’t there at the start, at the Friday reception, where Elizabeth Chadwick awarded the HNS Indie Novel Award to Victoria Cox for The Subtlest Soul – I’m sorry to have missed that. I was there bright and early for the Saturday conference activities, though, which started with  words of welcome from the Society’s earliest benefactor and founder of its fortunes Richard Lee. The first panel discussion was ‘Selling Historical Fiction: the challenges and triumphs’, chaired by Carole Blake and featuring Matt Bates, fiction buyer for WH Smith Travel and possessor of a megawatt smile; Nick Sayers, publisher at Hodder and Stoughton; Simon Taylor, editorial director of Transworld; Susan Watt, editor at Heron Books; Katie Bond, once with Bloomsbury, now publisher with the National Trust.

Katie Bond
It’s interesting to compare this discussion with HNS London 2012, which also kicked off with an analysis of what sells HF – back then, there was a focus on covers. At the time, whether wearing embroidered gowns or wielding broadswords, headless characters featured on book-jackets all over the place, like a mass-exodus from Sleepy Hollow. This year, the speakers once again emphasised the importance of  ‘a really strong jacket’ (Matt). Katie Bond, talking about the difficulty of getting ‘the buzz' going, said that to break out a new writer, you need ‘a fabulous jacket’ – but you also need to ‘do something different’. As an example, she referred to Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and how Madeline started as an ‘American blue-stocking’ who rewrote the Trojan War as a gay love story. Ah, that’s how you do it …

Carole Blake
Carole Blake said, ‘You can’t force the public to buy a book simply because you like it … we’re competing with every other form of entertainment.’ Publicity campaigns are risky and costly: Nick Sayers commented that ‘We can’t spend that kind of money to get someone from a standing start to being known … there’s no short cut’. As readers, we’re all aware of times when publishers have invested heavily in pushing a book only to find the public cold-shoulders it – that no matter how gorgeous the cover, how sparky the blurb, how saturated the media attention, something doesn’t fire the readers’ imaginations – or, indeed, has the contradictory effect of making readers not want to read the book. Readers can be resistant to hype or to feel challenged by it – leading to a slightly belligerent ‘Go on, prove yourself!’ attitude towards the hapless author. Conversely, there are the ‘sleeper hits’ – the novels no one saw coming, but which sidled into popularity with a shy embarrassed smile; novels whose quality spoke out, spoke directly to the readers who discovered them – and then shared them.

Carole Blake and Simon Taylor
The panel was asked whether paid adverts or social media influenced sales more. Simon Taylor felt a mixture worked best but that a ‘butt-kicking campaign’ is less likely these days. Susan Watt felt that an advert wouldn’t work as well with an unknown author, although a London Tube strike had benefitted Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, simply because there was a captive audience, as it were. Oh, and it had a lovely cover, of course. Carole Blake reminded us that a gorgeous cover may not always work for both print and ebook versions: we need to bear in mind that a thumbnail image has to be both eye-catching and legible.

Matt Bates, Katie Bond, Nick Sayers
Debate moved into which era sells best – a topic about to be picked up in the next panel session. Matt Bates reiterated the popularity of the Tudor period. Indeed, Susan Watt, when asked how to break out an author who’s not yet known, said ‘I would recommend you start with a Tudor!’

The panel referred to the power of TV series not only to promote specific books but to influence what is produced: ‘sales guys love a good label’. Game of Thrones was mentioned, of course, along with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and Bernard Cornwell’s Anglo-Saxon series – bought by the team who brought us Downton Abbey. Visions of Maggie Smith as a shield-matriarch …

Carole Blake, Simon Taylor
Susan Watt, Matt Bates
(lighting conditions not ideal!)
At the end of the discussion, each panel member gave a final piece of advice. Simon Taylor: ‘Don’t give up the day job.’ Susan Watt: ‘Tell a story.’ Matt Bates: ‘Get the cover right.’ Katie Bond: ‘Enjoy the writing of it and edit and edit.’ Nick Sayers: ‘It’s got to have something about it to sell.’ Carole Blake: ‘Don’t follow a trend.’

I’ll round off this first post on the conference by giving the last word to Carole – when pitching, she says, ‘Don’t be mad.’

Duly noted.

Here are my posts on HNS London 2012:
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5 
My upcoming Fictionfire by the Sea workshop/retreat in Cornwall is here.

My upcoming season of Focus Workshops for writers, from October to December, is here.

The HNS Conference teaser video  will give you a flavour of what it was like to attend the conference  - much hilarity involved!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Announcing Fictionfire by the Sea Workshop and Retreat for Writers

Godrevy Lighthouse from St Ives

I hope you’ve had a wonderful summer. Much of mine was spent teaching on creative writing summer schools for Oxford University, but before that we had a lovely holiday in Cornwall. I’ll be heading back to Cornwall next month – and I hope some of you will be too! I’m delighted to announce I’ve not only opened bookings for the autumn/winter season of Focus Workshops, but I’ve also organised a weekend workshop and writing retreat for you in St Ives.

Here are brief details of these upcoming events – visit the website to find out more!


Do you dream of a place where you can step back from the real world, where you can take time to think, free from distraction, where you can share the joys and challenges of writing with like-minded souls? I’ve designed my first Fictionfire by the Sea guided workshop retreat for you, in St Ives, Cornwall, from October 17th to 19th.

St Ives
There’s nowhere better to be if you’re looking for inspiration. St Ives, with its magical light and atmosphere, its thriving artistic community and its spectacular views, is just the place to feed your spirit with renewed creative energy.

The venue for the weekend will be Zelah Studio, only metres away from Porthgwidden Beach and with great views across St Ives Bay to Godrevy Lighthouse. I’ll be running workshops focussing on how to stay true to your writing dreams and on evoking the spirit of place in your fiction. You’ll also have the time to pursue your own writing projects and I’ll be on hand throughout to give you advice.

Porthgwidden Beach
Local Costa Award-winning novelist Ann Kelley will join us on Sunday 19th for a reading and Q & A session – her stories evoke an exquisite sense of location.

Accommodation will be available at discounted rates for those who want it, at

Zelah Studio
Much fuller details of the location, workshop schedule and what’s included are on the Fictionfire by the Sea page on the website: The aim is for you to recharge your batteries, fill your notebooks with fresh writing, and leave with rediscovered vision and purpose.

Booking for Fictionfire by the Sea is now open – limited numbers of places available –

FOCUS WORKSHOPS October to December

1 Share and Support (October 11th)
You’re invited to share and discuss your work with other members of the group in a friendly and supportive atmosphere. These Share and Support Workshops are very popular, so do book early!

2 How to Write a Synopsis (October 25th)
Synopsis-writing = Stress! This workshop will show you how to encapsulate your work while still keeping its power to hook the reader.

3 Paths of Glory (November 8th)
In this centenary year of the outbreak of World War 1, this is the first of two workshops exploring how writers deal with the subject of conflict – how they explore concepts of honour, how they convey drama and emotion.

4 Aftermath (November 22nd)
The second of these workshops on the subject of war examines how conflict affects the soldier who survives, the family at home, the nation. We’ll consider honour, victory, defeat, loss and memory.

5 Share and Support (November 29th)
The second of this season’s Share and Supports – for details, see Workshop 1.

6 Festivities and Frost (December 6th)
How do writers make use of descriptions of winter and Christmas scenes? What purposes do they have? What effects do they create? Whether you’re ‘Bah, humbug’ or ‘God bless us, everyone’, this workshop will show you the potential of the festive season in fiction.

As usual, all workshop last from 2-5, with servings of tea, coffee and cake. Each costs £30 and there are discounts for booking more than one workshop.
Visit for more details. Booking is now open.

In other news, I’ll be attending the Historical Novel Society’s conference in London this coming weekend. Last month I was so happy to win first prize in Words with Jam magazine’s First Page competition with the opening page of the historical novel I’m working on, so that was a brilliant vote of confidence in the project, spurring me on. Here’s the link:

Hoping to see you by the sea in Cornwall or at a workshop in Oxford soon!

Monday, 18 August 2014

Words with Jam competition win and upcoming Historical Novel Society Conference

HNS Conference 2014

I haven't posted for a while because the past few months have been quite challenging. However, as we come towards the end of the summer, I'm beginning to look around me and come up for air after several weeks of teaching - first at the University of Winchester's Writers' Festival, then on two creative writing summer school programmes for Oxford University. I'll soon be posting details of the autumn series of Fictionfire Focus Workshops and of an exciting new event I'm planning in October - do please sign up to the mailing list on the Fictionfire website to be kept informed.

I also have some good news to share: the opening of the historical novel I'm working on won first prize last week in the First Page competition run by Words with Jam, a magazine for writers and publishers. I'm honoured and delighted - and even more pleased to see my other entry also made the longlist!

You can read the winning entries and the judge's comments here.

This win couldn't have been better timed, as I'll be attending the Historical Novel Society's Conference in London on the 6th and 7th of September. I'm looking forward to meeting old friends and new, to listening to some great discussions, sharing great reads and recharging my creative batteries! Whether you love to write historical fiction or you love to read it - or both - do come along!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

London Book Fair 2014: It's What You Choose to Make It, Really - Part 2

On Day 2 of the London Book Fair (see my previous post for Day 1) I attended the 'Hallmarks of Self-Publishing Success' seminar, presented by Orna Ross of the Alliance of Independent Authors and best-selling authors Rachel Abbott and Polly Courtney. Rachel told us she didn’t think that ‘books are successful by accident. You need a plan.’ She stressed that the difference between self-publishing and trade publishing is that the trade publishers market to booksellers and self-publishers market direct – to the reader. Orna emphasised building a relationship with readers over time. Polly recommended that you ‘get people involved right from the start.’ When Dan Holloway asked about their greatest failures (because we all learn from failure, right?), Polly said it was having had an amateurish cover for her first book, Rachel said that she had had her book proofread but not structurally edited – which I think is a brilliant point to make. All too often writers think that if the apostrophes are in the right places and the spelling is OK, the book is fine. Not so – the shape and flow of it, the engagement the reader is likely to have with it, need to be addressed too. This ties in with what Orna went on to say – that ‘most of us publish too soon’. All too understandable in our desire to reach out to the reader. ‘The great thing,’ she added, ‘is we go back and re-do.’ Online publishing gives us that chance to hone and perfect our work, even after initial publication.

Roz Morris, Catriona Troth, Jane Davis, Gilly Hamer,
 Jane Dixon-Smith, Dan Holloway
In terms of publicity, blog tours weren’t seen as all that useful – and they’re expensive - but guest-posting or hosting interviews and guest-bloggers on your own blog were. Orna stressed the importance of getting our metadata right – our keywords and categories, to make our work more visible. (I know! I know! But try slotting a book like The Chase into any other category than ‘literary fiction’!) Polly reminded us that many writers believe the myth that if you get a trade publishing deal, then ‘proper promotion’ will be done for you. Orna, who had worked in publishing for 20 years, wasn’t even allowed to attend the marketing meeting when Penguin were publishing her! Yikes! Both she and Polly had seen their books go out into the world with the wrong covers, the wrong marketing approach – how much better, then, to be in charge of your own creative destiny? Orna and Rachel said we need to define our terms of ‘success’ – do we mean financial/commercial success? Do we mean creative success? Do we mean connecting with the minds of readers? Orna’s final piece of advice was to write two sentences defining your idea of success.

The HarperCollins stand at LBF
After that seminar, I had a lovely chat with Helen Hart of Silverwood Books, then it was time to leave. (There was another day of the Fair left but I wasn't attending). Ironically, just when I’ve got the hang of the layout of Earl’s Court they've decided to move the Fair to Olympia next year! 

Celebration at the King's Head
The day wasn’t over yet, though, for Amazon was celebrating the launch of ACX audio publishing in Britain with a party at the King’s Head pub nearby (though I still got lost trying to get there – sorry, Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn, who had to toil along with me!). The joint was jumping – not only food, drink and great fellowship, but a special showcase table for ALLi authors and rousing speeches from Orna and from Joanna Penn. Also, an incredibly diverse range of readings from ALLi members – Dan Holloway, Jessica Bell, Jill Marsh, Paul Murphy and others.

Gillian Hamer and Jane Dixon-Smith
I was delighted to meet the lovely Triskele authors again – Catriona Troth, Gilly Hamer, Jill Marsh and Jane Dixon-Smith, who has just published her second novel, The Rise of Zenobia. The Triskele writers have produced an excellent guide to self-publishing, The Triskele Trailand Jane is also the brilliant cover designer for The Chase and the collection of short stories I'm publishing next, Informed with Other Passions.
Jill Marsh, Rohan Quine and Gilly Hamer

Around nine, though, in the immortal words of Wallace and Gromit, the bounce had gone out of my bungee. Time to say goodbye all round and totter off to the train back to Oxford. LBF14 in some ways wasn’t as exciting as LBF13, and maybe this is because the self-publishing community is consolidating its position, surveying its tract of hard-won ground, looking ahead to further struggles and further triumphs. The main thing – and the uplifting thing – is that we are all in this together and we are all giving each other a helping hand. Which is brilliant.
The authors' showcase table

Fictionfire upcoming Focus Workshops: Parents and Children April 26th; Share and Support May 17th 

For details of all of these and how to book, visit the website at 

Previous London Book Fair reports: plus and

Friday, 11 April 2014

London Book Fair 2014: It's What You Choose to Make It, Really - Part 1

So, my third year of attending the London Book Fair. How did it go? Well, it was great. Although the conventional view for years was that this was not the place for authors to visit, the author presence is strong these days. And I don’t just mean those authors whose agents and publishers bring them along to display like show ponies. I mean ‘indie’ authors, for Orna Ross’s Alliance of Independent Authors was once more championing our interests at the Fair and acting as a channel for information and dialogue between writers and the industry.

Amazon Createspace was there again, and Kobo – and this time Nook was making a big showing, now that British authors can self-publish through Nook Press. There were seminars on aspects of publishing, reaching readers, contracts …

For me, this year differed from previous years for two reasons. The first was that I have just lost one of my dearest friends (her funeral is next week) so there was a part of me not fully engaged with what was going on. The balance of priorities, in the face of sudden loss and grief, shifts.

The second reason for a degree of disengagement was that the topics or approaches in some of the seminars offered no new information or took an approach which was basic (or even, I’ve been told, in some instances, misguided).

Orna Ross points the way to our publishing futures!
So why did I go, then? Community, that’s why. Every year I’ve gone I’ve had the chance to meet people I’ve never met or have only met online. It’s an absolute joy to make these connections and the kind of guidance you’re given in conversation with your peer group is much more useful that seminars, because the advice is born out of real, get-on-with-it experience. Much of this post, therefore, is going to be a checklist of names of wonderful people. Plus piccies, of course!

On LBF Day 1, I arrived in time for ALLi’s launch, in association with Kobo, of the Opening Up to Indie Authors guide, with passionate and inspiring speeches from Dan Holloway and Debbie Young who wrote it. The message of the Open Up to Indies campaign – and there is a petition, please sign it! – is that ‘everybody benefits when author-published work is included.’ Dan reminded us that everyone in the business of books has a duty, just one duty – and that’s to readers. Debbie described how self-publishing had changed her life, how this is the most exciting time to be an author and how ‘every self-publishing author is an ambassador for the campaign.’

Dan, Orna and Debbie
It was a delight to meet for the first time, Jessica Bell, Alison Morton and Debbie Young herself – she was handing out the new ALLi lapel pins which we wore with pride! It was also a chance to meet with old friends – Orna, Dan, Catriona Troth of the Triskele books co-operative, Eliza Green, Rohan Quine, Ben Galley, Karen Inglis – all hugely dynamic and warm members of ALLi. (More photos at the end of this post!)

Louise Voss and Mark Edwards
Outside of ALLi, I had a chat with Louise Voss and Mark Edwards, the writing duo I first interviewed on this blog at the start of their phenomenal Kindle publishing success. Since then they’ve had a conventional print deal, Mark has published The Magpies himself and has done incredibly well with it and they are now going to be published by the Amazon imprint Thomas and Mercer. I also ran into Stephanie Zia of Blackbird Books – she recently published my friend Jacqui Lofthouse’s How to be a Literary Genius – an irresistible title if ever there was one!

The Hachette stand,
 featuring one of my favourite writers,
David Mitchell
It wasn’t all about self-publishing though. That’s what I love about the current situation – as writers we’re free to choose whether to aim for trade publishing or not, or select a different path per book, per project. I had a chat with a small publisher about my unpublished children’s book, Hinterland, and we’ll see what, if anything, comes of that. Meanwhile, in the background, the big guys of publishing with their glossy stands and cohorts of glossy people (drinks party after the meetings, dahling? Mwah!) trumpeted upcoming books and current big sellers, from David Mitchell to Anthony Horovitz. In the middle of the hall, more glossy people (how do those women walk the acreage of Earl’s Court in heels like that??) glide up the escalator to the International Rights Centre where deals are thrashed out.

In Earl’s Court 2, the hub is Author HQ which, as last year, was just too damn small for the sheer number of people wanting to attend presentations and seminars. There were a couple of seminars I just gave up on because I couldn’t hear a thing. I finished the day at the Nook party where the drink à la mode was the Nookerberry Glory, a blue-tinted delight that went a long way towards diverting one's attention from the pain of standing and trekking about all afternoon (seen here mischievously modelled by Rohan Quine, with Ben Galley on his left).

Tomorrow’s post will be all about Day 2 of LBF 2014.

Now, more photos ...

Orna Ross and Joanna Penn

Eliza Green and Karen Inglis

Selfie with Jessica Bell!

Julie Day and Jessica Bell

Catriona Troth and the multi-faceted Dan Holloway

A Batch of Benedicts

Fictionfire upcoming Focus Workshops: Parents and Children April 26th; Share and Support May 17th 

Fictionfire Simply Write Retreat: April 12th (yes, that's tomorrow - you can still book! See

For details of all of these and how to book, visit the website at 

Previous London Book Fair reports: and

My post reviewing last year's LBF and the state of publishing:

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Interview with Katherine Clements, author of The Crimson Ribbon

I first met Katherine Clements at a one-to-one consultation at the Winchester Writers’ Conference (now the Winchester Writers’ Festival) three years ago. She showed me the opening chapter of her novel and I was immediately struck by how powerful it was – it drew me in immediately and, more importantly, it made me want to know what would happen next! Katherine had an instinct for scene-structure and pace, she didn’t overload the opening with back story and her writing was strong and emotionally compelling.

Later, I helped her work on that opening and her synopsis for the whole story, which I thought had great commercial appeal. Imagine my delight when, after being longlisted in the Mslexia novel competition, she went on to find an agent and land a three book deal with Headline! The Crimson Ribbon was published last week. It’s a tale set during the English Civil War, exploring the developing roles of women in an era of turmoil and change. The novel deals with superstitious fear, injustice and persecution. Her central character, Ruth Flowers, is torn between her desire for liberty and the need for utter secrecy, for if people find out about the events of her past she is in mortal danger. Her struggle is symbolised by her torn feelings for the two people she is most drawn to. Bereft and hunted, Ruth finds it hard to trust. She must be cautious in all she does – yet love demands risk. Love demands payment. The Crimson Ribbon is eminently readable, beautifully realised and totally involving.

Here then, Katherine answers questions about her novel and her path to publication:

You worked for some time for one of the examination boards – how did you balance this with writing the novel? Was there anything in particular about your work that helped or hindered your development as a writer?

When I first started The Crimson Ribbon I was very lucky to be able to take some time away from full time work. I got most of my initial research and first draft done during that time. Once I was working full time again I had to learn to prioritise my writing. That meant a lot of early mornings and weekends, and saying no to distracting invitations. My job at the exam board was demanding so it took a while to complete the book. But during that time I led the development of the new Creative Writing A Level, a project that meant a lot to me, both professionally and personally. I met a lot of great people through my work, people who are passionate about books, writing and education, and that was inspiring. I loved working with like-minded people and I think it helped me to stay focused on my own goals.

Did you always want to write historical fiction?

Historical fiction felt like the natural choice for me. I never really consciously made the decision. When the idea for The Crimson Ribbon came along, I didn’t question it. I studied History and Archaeology at university and my fascination with the past has been there since I was a child. I read a lot of historical fiction and watch a lot of costume drama. They say you should write what you love and that’s what I wanted to do.

The novel is set during the English Civil War – was that always a period that fascinated you?

Not at all actually. I owe my initial interest in the 17th century to Rose Tremain’s novel Restoration, which is one of my favourites. After reading it, some years ago, I became interested in the Restoration period, because I didn’t know much about it (17th century is mostly neglected in the history taught schools, or it certainly was in my day). Pretty quickly I wanted to know what came before and found myself totally fascinated by the Civil Wars. It’s such an important, exciting period in British history that doesn’t seem to get much attention.

The novel’s themes are bound to attract readers – you deal with women’s roles in the society of the time, political and military rebellion and superstition/witchcraft – which of these was most important/fascinating to you? What particularly triggered the writing of the novel?

The first spark was encountering the figure of Elizabeth Poole, a woman who gave evidence of providential visions to the Army Council in an attempt to influence the trial of Charles I. I came across mention of her in a biography of Oliver Cromwell. There are questions about exactly why this relatively unknown woman was given an audience with some of the most important men of the day. Further research into Elizabeth revealed a dark, seductive world of illegal printing presses, extreme spiritual obsession and a mysterious scandal. I knew she was the perfect vehicle to explore some of the themes you’ve identified. I can’t pick any one as most important as they are all intertwined. For example, I don’t think you can deal with the politics of the day without considering religion, and you can’t look at the witchcraft trials without thinking about the social context. One of the things I love about the period is the way that all these things came together to create this melting pot of ideas that triggered a revolution. Of course the history is more complicated than that, but that’s how I like to think of it.

Your central female characters embark on a forbidden relationship – and I like the way you contrast conventional male-female romantic love with a love which is against the rules of the day. What challenges were there in depicting the relationship of Ruth and Lizzie? Did you worry at any point that this might affect the commercial potential of the novel?

Without wanting to give too much away, I wanted to explore the different kinds of love that Ruth experiences. I wanted to look at the nature and consequences of obsessive love. Gender actually made little difference. I also came across some interesting historical references to close female friendships and idealised platonic love that got me thinking. I didn’t set out to write the relationships in the way they ended up – it just sort of happened and, in the end, seemed inevitable.
The most difficult part for me was showing how the relationship between Ruth and Lizzie changes over time, as Ruth asserts herself, and doing it all from Ruth’s point of view. This needed to be gradual and subtle and it took a while to get that right. Lizzie is a complex character, and sometimes contradictory. I really hope I’ve managed to convey this.
I didn’t worry about that central relationship from a commercial point of view because I thought perhaps it gave the novel an unusual point of interest, but I did think people might accuse me of trying to write like Sarah Waters, of whom I’m a massive fan. I can only tip my hat to her influence and hope that any comparison might be favourable!

Was there any particular ‘Aha!’ moment when you were researching the story?

There were many small details I discovered that influenced the direction of the story but I can’t remember any big ones. For example, I tried to make sure that the real historical figures actually were where I said they were at the right times (or at least that they could have been). There were a few occasions when certain people conveniently turned up somewhere in the historical record, just where I needed them.

Were there any times when you faltered or lost your way or started to despair that you would ever finish?

There were many times when I was doubtful and despairing, but I’ve come to think of this as a natural part of the creative process. It always passes if I try to ignore the negative voice in my head and just keep going. There was a period of a few months when I didn’t write anything at all, due to other pressures in my life. That was scary, but it passed too.

What has been most satisfying/given you the happiest moment in the whole writing/publishing process?

The most satisfying thing for me is having a really good, productive writing day when I know what I’ve produced is good. That doesn’t happen very often but when it does it’s the best feeling. The happiest is probably when I got my publishing deal. It was an absolute dream come true. I was on a high for weeks.

How much revision/how many drafts did the novel go through? Did you have to change much to suit your publisher?

I wrote the first draft in a year and then spent almost three years revising it. It went through at least two major rewrites and several edits. I think I have about 8 versions on my computer!  As you know, Lorna, I also invested in working with you on refining and editing my first chapter, my synopsis and submission letter to agents. I do believe this made a big difference. It really helped to get an outside eye. I also got feedback from a couple of trusted readers and that was informative too. Soon afterwards, the opening chapter won a competition at Winchester Writers Conference, and I secured my agent. Once the deal was signed I worked with my editor on a final draft. There were some changes to be made, but not too many. I really enjoyed the process of working with someone else and I got a lot from it. I learned loads in the copy edit stage too.

How strongly do you believe a writer should have an agent? How important has having an agent been to you?

I think having an agent is important if you want to go down the traditional publishing route. For me it has been essential. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got a three-book deal without that knowledge, experience and negotiating power.

You’ve now given up your job to concentrate on writing full time. How easy/difficult a decision was that?

It was easy in some ways, it’s what I’ve wanted for years, but difficult in others. I’ve had to significantly alter my lifestyle and living arrangements to accommodate. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to do the one thing I’ve wanted for so long. Having the time to completely focus on writing is wonderful.

Can you say anything about what you’re working on now?

I’m working on my second novel – as yet untitled – which is a re-telling of the legend of The Wicked Lady. (You might know the 1945 film with Margaret Lockwood and James Mason that was based on the same story). The legend tells of a noble born highwaywoman who terrorized Hertfordshire in the 1650s. I’m bringing together research on the real life figure to whom the legend has traditionally been pinned, and the myths surrounding her, to create something entirely new.

What three tips would you give to anyone writing historical fiction?

I think the rules of good writing are the same whatever genre you’re working in, but here are three things I’ve learned:

Know your history. You need to know much, much more than will ever go into your book. I believe it’s fine to change historical fact when writing fiction (though I prefer it when authors are clear about exactly what they’ve changed) but you need to know the facts before you can play with them.

Don’t overdo the historical detail. Description and setting is important but readers only need a few details to get a flavour. Try and include the things that are relevant to your characters and the story.

Remember you’re writing for a modern reader. People can get tangled up worrying about authentic voices in historical fiction but I believe that’s impossible anyway. Anachronisms can jolt the reader out of their experience, (unless, of course, you’re employing them purposefully), but we’ll never know how people really spoke ‘back then’, so make choices that feel authentic to your characters.

Thank you so much, Katherine, for such full and fascinating replies! Good luck with The Crimson Ribbon and with the next novel!

Katherine Clements' The Crimson Ribbon is available in bookshops and here. On Goodreads here 
You can follow Katherine on Twitter at @KL_Clements

Fictionfire upcoming Focus Workshops: Life into Art April 5th; Parents and Children April 26th 
Fictionfire Simply Write Retreat: April 12th
Fictionfire Day Courses at Trinity College, Oxford: Get Inspired and Stay Inspired May 10th; How to Publish and Market your Book May 11th
For details of all of these and how to book, visit the website at