Today we’re chatting with Annie Whitehead, whose brilliant new novel The Sins of the Father takes us back into the misty times of Anglo Saxon England. I am fascinated by how Annie blends her impeccable research with gorgeous prose, for these truly are the “dark ages” in record keeping, and yet the people and places in her books emerge fully alive and captivating. Read my review here: Amazon Review
Welcome, Annie. Let’s chat! Does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down / recharge?
Writing exhausts me, but in a physical way, simply because of the hours spent on the computer (I use a desktop PC for writing) and the toll it takes on my forearms, shoulders etc. The creative process invigorates me and I feel fantastic after a good day’s writing. I like to go for very long walks, which recharges my brain, and to counter the physical side-effects (and mainly because I love it) I work out – Yoga, Pilates, Weightlifting, Kickboxing. For a complete wind-down, there’s nothing better than picking up a good book and simply reading for pleasure.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal and why?
A couple of years ago, I commissioned a ‘Woolly Warrior’ from the very talented Giselle at Woolly Warriors. Now my Æthelflæd matches her image on the cover of my novel about her life, and she likes to come on holiday and research trips with me so I can take her photo in the places she’s associated with. She makes me smile, she reminds me that we can always find humour in the stories, and she puffs my pride a little to think that I have a little bit of ‘brand merchandise’ – even though she’s not for sale! – and makes me feel like a ‘proper’ author.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Everything, really. Up to now, all my writing has been about real people so without them, no stories. I write nonfiction too, and as my passion is history and what it can teach us, without the people who forged the way, I’d be nothing, as an author or a person!
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Since I’m writing about real characters and events, I start with the timeline and work out who was doing what, where and when. I always need to refresh what I know about how people during that period lived and worked, and try to add new detail with each book. It can take as long as a year to do the necessary research, especially with my nonfiction, as that involves looking at the primary sources in detail. My latest novel was slightly easier as I had recently had my history of Mercia published, which included a chapter on the novel’s main characters, so a lot was still pretty fresh in my mind.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I do, because a version of it happens to me. It’s not a ‘whole book’ block, it’s more that there are some days, weeks, even, when I just can’t write what I want to write and it can even apply to blog posts and articles. If it happens when I’m writing a book and can’t get a particular scene down, I’ll go for a walk and that tends to clear the blockage in the thought processes. If it’s an article or blog post and there’s a deadline looming, I let my brain take over the controls. It has a habit of ensuring that I have very little free time between finishing a project and the arrival of the deadline and it’s almost as if it won’t let me write/finish too early. So I relax and wait for my brain to let me write. It seems to know how long it will take and lets me know when it’s okay to start.
What did you edit out of this book?
The whole middle section! I had the plot all worked out in my head and everything was on track. I had a great plot twist, and a moment of pure pathos, and then when it came to it I realized that my character, as I’d written him, just simply wouldn’t have behaved in the way I was asking him to. I had to take out a lot of scenes and rework others, but I think he stayed true to himself and by digging his heels in he made the story stronger for me!
What was your work schedule like when writing this book?
In a word, tough! All the books and stories that I’ve written since the first book in this two-book series have had deadlines, imposed by publishers or the co-operatives that I’ve been working with (hence the gap between books 1 and 2 in this current series). I was free to write the sequel to my last novel, but I needed to impose my own deadline otherwise I’d have taken my foot off the gas. Trouble was, I made the deadline too tight, so there was a lot of frenzied activity and some very long days towards the end – not helped by that major rewrite.
How do you select the names of your characters?
That’s not an issue for me because I write about real people. The challenge though is that a lot of Old English names aren’t easy on the eye, so I do modernize a lot of them or give my characters nicknames, so that my books aren’t peppered with names beginning with Æthel or Ælf!
What was the most difficult part of your artistic process for this book?
I think one of the biggest challenges was working out why the characters acted as they did in real life during one particular episode. There is a fair bit of documentary evidence for the years covered by the book but also some huge mysteries. I mentioned earlier that I had to go back and rework the middle section but I still had to figure out a plausible way of explaining what happened. In the end I drew the conclusion that the chroniclers must have muddled their dates and transposed them. Once I’d worked that out, the plot line made sense again. The other, less time-consuming, challenge was continuity – making sure that characters from Book One didn’t change their eye or hair colour in Book Two!
Thanks for coming on my blog, Annie! Catch up with Annie online (and do follow her on Twitter – her regular funny posts make my day!)