I am thrilled to be part of Carol McGrath’s new release blog tour for her beautiful new historical fiction novel The Damask Rose. Carol and I have enjoyed each other’s company online and at the Historical Novel Society conferences for several years, and I absolutely love the detailed historical research she brings to her captivating storytelling. Here’s my review on Goodreads; and please join us for a lovely catch-up and Author Chat. Carol, thanks for coming on my website!
Let me start by asking, does writing energise or exhaust you and how do you wind down?
Writing does both. I am excited as I am writing and become lost in the composition but by the end of a session, usually after four hours solid work, I am exhausted. I am a tad dazed. My remedy is to do something completely different and often mundane such as shopping for groceries, housework, cooking, or walking. This helps me re energise. These ordinary tasks do the trick providing my downtime. I watch films in the evenings, generally avoid news bulletins and read instead. Occasionally, I take a whole day off to collect my thoughts.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
They do exist but don’t be discouraged. They can, with patience, be circumnavigated and heeded.
Not knowing your direction can be a trap. Remember The Wonder Boys and Professor Tripp’s manuscript that is unending. You do need a plan no matter how vague and a strong sense of your characters before you begin but even so let them surprise you as you write. Have an ending in mind even if that changes.
I feel a writer, especially starting out, needs to know that no matter how meticulous you have been the first draft is just that. After you finish a first drafdt the work of crafting a manuscript really begins. Set it aside for a couple of weeks if you can. Absolutely do not call an agent or publisher thinking you are ready or that its good enough to send and they’ll help you work it up. Once an agent has taken you on they may be keen to provide advice and input but I prefer to work through it several times first.
Keep a note of character traits with such things as eye colour because it is easy to forget though you can always correct whilst redrafting.
Never send to an agent or publisher until the manuscript is as good as you can make it. If self-publishing research the process first. Many writers have done this well but they enlist editors and book cover specialists. You will need a good structural editor. You will need to learn about marketing if your book is to be a success.
If you had a mascot what would it be?
I favour the blackbird for its song and character. I love watching these birds.
How important is working with your editor or/and beta readers?
My relationship with my agent is excellent and she would help me if I was stuck. I think I am lucky to have an agent who really likes my work. It is so, so important to choose the right agent for you. I waited years and years for the right agent. I have her on my side and she will manage the business side too. She is a gatekeeper, friend and help. I have had the same editor at Headline Accent for years which really is helpful. I also have had various, wonderful Beta readers over the years. I am involved in a writing group and we can send each other pieces we want comment on. We zoom fortnightly. We are all published writers but we were not published to begin with. It’s been a fifteen year friendship at least with one of these ladies. I trust them implicitly. I have another friendship group, again published authors that I can talk to about writing. Finally, I am ever grateful to Sara Cockerill and Elizabeth Chadwick who have both beta read whole manuscripts for me this year. Elizabeth has read my book, non- fiction, Tudor Sex and Sexuality which is to be published next January and Sara beta read The Damask Rose.
What kind of research do you do?
As a writer of Historical Fiction I research before planning a novel. I investigate a number of primary sources and ask questions of experts in my field. Many sources are now on line but I can still be found in the Bodleian in Oxford researching. Pictures, manuscript illustrations and when possible access to manuscripts can inspire a writer. It is essential to know the background for your story before you begin writing, to know little details about the place and time you write; to create the otherness of your world and immerse a reader in a different experience so they are lost in your book. As I write I am still researching, visiting locations such as castles, museums, towns and other locations my characters will have experienced, albeit long ago. One of the woods where Eleanor of Castile hunted is close to my Oxfordshire home, Boarstall Wood. I can experience the seasons there almost as she may have. However, a novel is not a History lesson. I do my best not to display research but to integrate it into the fabric of my story, into dialogue and to colour the background. I wear it lightly. A reader wants to follow a character’s journey. They want emotions. I always say know the societal rules of your characters’ world before they break them. That can provide jeopardy. Know the consequences and ways to avoid them. Give women freedom to be proactive, for instance, by sending the men to wars or on a Crusade. It is also challenging to work out what makes a particular real historical character tick. The most challenging character I have written to date is Edward II and his relationship with Isabella in my current WIP. Sources do vary. They have their own agenda. I always think deeply about their provenance before making up my mind how to write a real historical person. Eleanor of Castile was allegedly aloof with a temper and often not hands on as a mother. I did find her, I believe, and I worked out a plausible reason as to why she preferred her children when they were older. Read The Damask Rose to find this out. Eleanor was considered a she-wolf because she collected properties and was accused of avarice by some contemporaries. Actually when you really study her, from a distance, you discover a possible motivation for this other than pure greed. I began to understand her and empathise with her thanks to research.
About your new release, The Damask Rose:
What did you edit out of The Damask Rose?
I edited out very little. I do always have a Director’s Cut folder though I tend to add to a novel in further drafts, usually those additions requested by my editor. My first drafts can be rather sparse. I did edit out some property visits and issues in The Damask Rose as they slowed the overall story. One or two made the point and were integrated into a wider plot. I trimmed a ‘hard to loose’ piece about the herbalist Olwen’s time at Langley because it did not really add enough to the story.
What is Your Work Schedule Like?
I tend to have a year to write a book. I was at the same time researching a non-fiction for Pen & Sword. Time has been tight this past year. I work best in the mornings and try not to write more than 1k in a session. I review this next session and move on. I am always using session time to plan ahead. I use mind-mapping to plan scenes in chapters as I write. It takes time. I number these scenes on my mind map and think about them.
What was the hardest scene to write in The Damask Rose?
This comes at the end so I won’t elaborate too much. How would I write Eleanor’s final days? How could I integrate the famous Eleanor Crosses into this story? I found it easier when I actually reached these scenes. By then I was in Eleanor’s head, but it was a very sad chapter to write. I could write the end on an upbeat because I had Olwen’s story as well to complete and of course the Herbalist lived on. I could use her to reflect on a positive future.
Which scene or chapter is your favourite?
I did a lot of research on Medieval Gardens. If you are following my Blog Tour there will be a blog on this area of research. I loved writing a romantic garden scene set in a monastery hospital garden in Chester. It’s a poignant scene between Olwen and Guillaume, the great love of Olwen’s life. Regarding Eleanor, I absolutely love the book’s first chapter. I enjoyed writing the dialogue between Eleanor and her arch-enemy for much of the book, Gilbert de Clare, known as the Red as he takes her prisoner at Windsor Castle. I felt it set the story’s plot lines in action.
Any special thanks?
I thank all those who read The Damask Rose and gave comment for it. Jane Johnson, Joanna Barnden, Karen Maitland, Nicola Cornick, Cryssa Bezos, Alexandra Walsh, Sara Cockerill and there are others, including the Vestas who critiqued scenes. So my thanks to you all.
And thank you, Liz , for having me on Author Chats. I have enjoyed the experience.
Carol McGrath is the author of the acclaimed She-Wolves Trilogy, which began with the hugely successful The Silken Rose and continues with the brand new The Damask Rose. She was born in Northern Ireland, and fell in love with historical fiction at a young age, reading children’s classics and loving historical novels especially Henry Treece, The Children’s Crusade, and, as a teenager, Anya Seton’s Katherine and everything by Jean Plaidy. Visiting the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace aged eleven was thrilling for her. Exploring Irish castles such as Carrickfergus introduced her to wonderful stories. At only nine years old an archaeological dig in Donegal was inspirational. Carol came away with a few ancient mammal teeth. While completing a degree in History, she became fascinated by the strong women who were silenced in records, and was inspired to start exploring their lives. Her first novel, The Handfasted Wife, was shortlisted for the Romantic Novelists’ Association Awards, and Mistress Cromwell was widely praised as a timely feminist retelling of Tudor court life. Her novels are known for their intricacy, depth of research and powerful stories.
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