A delicious time-slip adventure bristling with intrigue, spies, apothecaries, and Tudors. I invite you to enjoy my Author Chat with Clare Marchant today, as we talk about her historical fiction novel, The Queen’s Spy.
The Queen’s Spy
By Clare Marchant
1584: Elizabeth I rules England. But a dangerous plot is brewing in court, and Mary Queen of Scots will stop at nothing to take her cousin’s throne.
There’s only one thing standing in her way: Tom, the queen’s trusted apothecary, who makes the perfect silent spy…
2021: Travelling the globe in her campervan, Mathilde has never belonged anywhere. So when she receives news of an inheritance, she is shocked to discover she has a family in England.
Just like Mathilde, the medieval hall she inherits conceals secrets, and she quickly makes a haunting discovery. Can she unravel the truth about what happened there all those years ago? And will she finally find a place to call home?
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Thanks for coming, Clare. I always enjoy talking to writers who have had other careers…tell us what you found as you began writing full time. What are the common traps for aspiring writers?
I think the trap that we all fall into when we first start writing a book is that it is all too easy to re-read what we have already written and go back and polish it. For a first draft, which can be (and mine always are!) very patchy and just a telling of the actual story, it is more important to get the words down on the paper. You can always go back later and fill in any gaps, you don’t need to remember which type of shoes your protagonist wears if you’ve forgotten, just put a question mark, or like I do, ‘XXX’ and then I know I need to fill that in later when I am editing. In my case I can never remember all the herbal remedies used in the sixteenth century but I look them up later or that evening and then insert them later. There is an old adage that ‘you can’t edit a blank page’ and it really is so true. Once you ploughed on and written it then you can start adding layers in the editing. And that is the point when you realise that some scenes need to be removed and others need to be written to help with the flow of the book.
Another snare that is easy to get caught up in getting to about 20,000 words and then thinking of another bright shiny new idea which suddenly seems so much better than the book you are writing which by that point is starting to feel sluggish. When we start out, we all have lots of half-started books in a drawer, the real difficulty is pushing on through that point and just making a note of the new idea to be used later. When you are an author and have a publishing contract you have no option but to keep writing the book, and it really is worth it in the end, and you already have an idea for the next book!
How important is working with your editor or beta readers and how would you describe your relationship?
For me, working with my beta reader and later my editor is hugely important. My beta reader who is a fabulous author in her own right will spot glaring structural edits before I have got too far down the line with editing, so she probably sees the book when I am up to draft two. I usually go through four (at least!) drafts, my first is really patchy, then I have tried to capture any silly structural edits (eg 12 month pregnancies, 8 day weeks etc) and that is the point my beta reader gets to see it. After her amazing input I then do a line edit where I quite literally go through the manuscript line by line seeing where I can remove words, add words or just move the sentence around a bit. Then a final proof read for punctuation before it goes to my editor (actually it goes to my agent first who also reads it through for edits).
My editor has a super keen eye, and most importantly she knows how to polish up a manuscript so that it will sell well so her input is incredibly useful. The whole manuscript will go through the same round of edits as I give it, but with the eyes of an industry professional so that it is really as polished as it can be.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I spend two or three months researching a new book. It is really so easy to fall down a rabbit hole with historical research as you follow name after name across plots, locations, family connections until you are completely removed from where you originally started. And no doubt from where you should actually be. I read a lot of books around subjects all the time so I often find interesting little snippets which I write down because I know that I won’t be able to find them again later – and my own historical textbooks have many, many sticky markers in to remind me of important pieces of information!
I also like to visit museums and old buildings for research but sadly a lot of these have of course been closed for the past year which has prevented some of the research I would usually do in person – here’s hoping that we can all get back to normal very soon, I have a long list of places I want to visit!
Tell us more about The Queen’s Spy.
What was your work schedule like when writing this book?
I am very regimented when I write. It is now my job so I treat it as such and always make sure that I am at my desk by 9.00am at the latest. Then if I am writing, I will spend at least four hours working with an occasional break for a cup of tea or to let the dog out. I give myself the target of 2000 words a day so I sit and write until I have at least done that and then I may continue if I want to finish a scene. I am very focussed and I plan my books in quite a lot of detail.
When I am editing then I spend a little less time at my desk as I find it more intensive and I need a break after a morning of concentrating. But my afternoons are no less busy with social media and promotion to get on with, extra research to be done and sometimes making notes ready for the next book.
What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
For authors of historical fiction I think this is a question for which you will get divided answers. Some authors will say that ‘the truth shouldn’t get in the way of a good story’ and I am happy to read historical books which stretch the truth if needed. But for me, I always stick to the historical facts and then weave my own protagonists into the story. For instance in The Queen’s Spy, all of the facts of the Babington plot are correct, only Tom’s part in them has been made up. I enjoy using actual events because I think it makes everything more real and readers are transported to that era.
How do you select the names of the characters?
I don’t have a process for choosing names of characters, they just seem to come to me. Sometimes I have to start writing a book where I know that a protagonist’s name isn’t ‘right’ but I just carry on until their proper name comes to me, and it always does. The only rule I have about character names (apart from the fact that I never have two characters with names that begin with the same letter as that can be confusing to the reader, unless they were real historical characters in which case they have to stay) is that I never use one of my children’s names. This is to avoid any sibling rivalry (they are mostly now grown up but I still don’t doubt it would happen!) between them all.
Give a shout out to a writing buddy or fellow author; how did they help you with this book?
I have an amazing fellow author friend called Jenni Keer and she is also my writing buddy. We both work the same sort of hours so we share a ‘virtual office’ and check in with each other about once an hour – it is definitely conducive to writing more if I have to tell my writing buddy how many words I have written.
Sometimes I message her to bounce ideas off her or brainstorm, and sometimes when I am plodding through in the sluggish middle of a book when I think it will never be finished, she will always encourage me. And she is the first person who beta reads the manuscript so she spots any glaring structural edits and she is extremely good at it! I would be absolutely lost without her, whether we are chatting at the virtual watercooler while we have a well-deserved cup of coffee or just checking in she is the best writing buddy in the world!
Growing up in Surrey, Clare always dreamed of being a writer. Instead, she followed a career in IT, before moving to Norfolk for a quieter life and re-training as a jeweller.
Now writing full time, she lives with her husband and the youngest two of her six children. Weekends are spent exploring local castles and monastic ruins, or visiting the nearby coast.
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