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 

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