Today I’m delighted to welcome historical novelist Emma Lombard to chat about her debut historical adventure romance Discerning Grace. It’s a pleasure to chat, Emma! (And anytime you’d like to find me an apartment in Paris, please be my guest!). Firstly, does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down / recharge?
Both! When I’m in the zone, I can block out the whole world and power ahead like it’s nobody’s business. And then, just like that moment in Forrest Gump where he’s running and running and then just stops because he’s had enough, I do the same. My brain just says, “Uh uh, no more today.” That’s that. I wind up and shut down my laptop. And then I collapse on the couch like I’ve just run the London Marathon, because although my legs might not have moved, my brain has been racing at a million miles an hour for several hours. The mental drain is real! But like any job well done, it’s hugely satisfying, and so it’s a happy exhaustion.
After a big day writing (or editing), I don’t have anything left in me to look at any more words, so reading is out of the question. I usually re-watch some of my favourite TV series because it is familiar and comforting and not taxing. I also dive into my secret shame: Candy Crush. I feel the bits of my brain (problem-solving, memory, and spatial recognition) that have lain dormant all day, while my creative juices have been flowing, suddenly spark. Killing coloured bits of candy on a screen is the ultimate brain cleanser for me. And no, I’ve never spent a cent on buying extra lives or bowed to the pressure of beating world scores. I play it just for little ol’ me.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
For me personally—I was a chronic over-writer. Too many words, too much description, too much world building, too much back story, too much exposition. When this was first pointed out to me, I thought it was a problem, until I realised that my overwriting helped me to understand my characters and their motivations so much better, even if in the end I didn’t spell out their entire family history in the final draft of my manuscript.
I’ve preferred having too much writing that needed culling rather than facing a tiny manuscript that needed deeper layering and description adding. Though, now that I know how to do that better, it’s not as daunting as I first believed.
If you could go anywhere for a year to be inspired for your next book, what setting would you choose and what would you write?
I actually gave this dream a shot a couple of years ago when I left sunny Australia to stay in Paris. My plans were to be there for a year to write and study French, but unfortunately life circumstances didn’t let me have a whole year. I got a solid four months in and the Parisian summer of 2017 was the best summer of my life. I worked on my books in The White Sails Series while using Paris as my home base to jet-set (or train it or bus it) around Europe. So handy (and so cheap, compared to flying from Australia). I made the most of my short stay there and visited many parts of France as well as Oxford, London, and the beautiful Amalfi Coast in Italy.
I had the most exquisite apartment in the 17th arrondissement. This was the view out of my apartment window looking up Avenue Mac-Mahon (I took this photo on my iPhone).
How important is working with your editor or beta readers, and how would you describe your relationship?
With the nurturing and guidance of my fantastic editors at The History Quill, I’ve learned to recognise my writing faults—if, not as they happen, then certainly in the first few rounds of revisions. My editors’ advice over the years has taught me the ability to mostly self-correct my inherent writing flaws, as well as write better stories. I believe editors are an essential piece of equipment in any author’s arsenal. The experienced and knowledgeable brain of a developmental editor can help shape a good novel into a great one; and the fresh eyes and unemotional attachment of a copy editor can slice and dice clunky sentences into something that doesn’t trip up my poor audiobook narrator with its pompous over-writing.
As for my beta readers: they are more valuable than unicorn dust. I have been blessed with abundant eager eyes to read my early drafts. I have several beta readers who have been around since my first, giant, door-step of a tome that I proudly presented four years ago. Bless their little cotton socks for their enthusiastic encouragement that made me feel like the next Diana Gabaldon. It was an incredible feeling to finally present them the edited (and much refined) paperback last week at our book launch celebratory dinner (I say ‘our’ because this first book, Discerning Grace, is as much theirs as it is mine for all the hours of feedback they gave me).
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I swore I wouldn’t read my book reviews because they are for readers, not for authors. But what was I supposed to do when a reviewer enthusiastically emailed me to let me know their review of Discerning Grace was up on Goodreads, and they’d even included a link? Bless! (This has happened so many times now). So of course I went and took a look (and much to my surprise, found a few other reviews already there). Wow! What a rush. I now understand all those authors who gushed about the first heady months of stalking their reviews online.
I actually queried my book with literary agents for two years before deciding that self-publishing was going to suit me better in the long run. So I’ve built a thicker skin against rejection over time. I also had some strong critique from my wider circle of beta readers. This was actually great for breaking the ice on how I would feel about a bad review. (For the record: it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be).
In preparation, I’ve tried to immunise myself by spending months reading my favourite authors’ one-and-two-star reviews. Even the greats don’t appeal to every reader out there, so to think that my books will be any different would be a little naïve and narrowminded.
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favourite? Why?
I don’t suppose it’s too much of a spoiler alert to mention this, since this scene is revealed in the blurb on the back of the book, but my favourite scene in Discerning Grace is when Grace’s gender is revealed aboard the tall ship. The crew’s shock, horror and fascination was irresistible to write, and our feisty Grace doesn’t go down without a fight, either. She might appear plucky and brave on the outside but the reader gets to explore all her internal vulnerability too. This is the one scene that I’ve always seen clearly in my mind’s eye from the second I knew this story was mine to tell.
How long did it take you to research and write this book; were there any “wrong turns” along the way?
I undertook a solid three months of research before I started writing. I wanted to gather as much information as I could about women at sea in the 1800s that came from women’s’ perspectives. But I soon realised how easy it was to be sucked down the rabbit holes of journals and old newspapers and historical records. I had to stop researching and just start writing Grace’s story. Then, when I needed specific information, it was more productive to stop writing and target my research to a specific era or event.
As for my writing style—I’m a pantser. Though, when I started my first draft (on 16 September 2016) I had no idea that I was a pantser—an author who writes by the seat of their pants and sees where the story goes. It was only once I got to the end of Book 4 (at the end of 2019) that I realised I probably needed to back to Book 1 and start getting it ready for publication. This entailed a huge amount of re-writing and structuring to ensure my story was commercially viable. The rambling nature of my first manuscript nearly killed me, but it was a valuable lesson for structuring my future writing.
Were there days you had to “kick-start” yourself to write? How did you overcome the dreaded “blank screen?”
Early on, I had days of desperation when nothing would come. I’d call up my beta readers lamenting that my writing days were over before I’d even begun. Then slowly I recognised that just because every ounce of creative juice in me had dried up one day, did not mean it would not return another day.
On the days where I struggled bringing new material to life, I learned to go back over my already written chapters. More often than not, this got me all excited again and I suddenly found myself happily plonking my writer’s cap back on. Or else, I’d poke around in research mode looking for inspiration and ideas. Many times, this delivered the stimulation that I needed to get back in front of the blinking cursor. And then there were some days where no matter what I tried, it was all in vain. But instead of melting in a puddle of self-defeat on the floor, I learned to close my laptop and walk away, trusting that I had it in me to try again the next day and that my muse would come back and play.
And she always did.
As the first full-length novel in The White Sails Series, Discerning Grace captures the spirit of an independent woman whose feminine lens blows the ordered patriarchal decks of a 19th century tall ship to smithereens.
Wilful Grace Baxter, will not marry old Lord Silverton with his salivary incontinence and dead-mouse stink. Discovering she is a pawn in an arrangement between slobbery Silverton and her calculating father, Grace is devastated when Silverton reveals his true callous nature.
Refusing this fate, Grace resolves to stow away. Heading to the docks, disguised as a lad to ease her escape, she encounters smooth-talking naval recruiter, Gilly, who lures her aboard HMS Discerning with promises of freedom and exploration in South America.
When Grace’s big mouth lands her bare-bottomed over a cannon for insubordination, her identity is exposed. The captain wants her back in London but his orders, to chart the icy archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, forbid it. Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam gallantly offers to take Grace off the fretting captain’s hands by placing her under his protection.
Grace must now win over the crew she betrayed with her secret, while managing her feelings towards her taciturn protector, whose obstinate chivalry stifles her new-found independence. But when Grace disregards Lieutenant Fitzwilliam’s warnings about the dangers of the unexplored archipelago, it costs a friend his life and she realises she is not as free as she believes.
Emma Lombard was born in Pontefract in the UK. She grew up in Africa—calling Zimbabwe and South Africa home for a few years—before finally settling in Brisbane Australia, and raising four boys. Before she started writing historical fiction, she was a freelance editor in the corporate world, which was definitely not half as exciting as writing rollicking romantic adventures. Her characters are fearless seafarers, even though in real life Emma gets disastrously sea sick. Discerning Grace, is the first book in The White Sails Series.