Anne O’Brien writes wonderful novels of Plantaganet England, and her latest, The Queen’s Rival, is a captivating insight into the redoubtable Cecily Neville. I’m thrilled to invite Anne to chat about her work, and in particular, why she chose to write much of her wonderful novel in the form of letters (a style which particularly appeals to me and guided my thinking in The Lady of the Tower). Before we begin our chat, here’s the blurb on The Queen’s Rival:
One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…
The Wars of the Roses storm through the country, and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, plots to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne.
But when the Yorkists are defeated at the battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.
Stripped of her lands and imprisoned in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit. One that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King Edward IV.
Anne, welcome, and delighted to have you here. Tell me, does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down / recharge?
Writing energizes me when it is going well, when ideas come quickly and conversations flow. Then writing is a delightful exercise. I wish that these days came frequently. It is exhausting when my characters are reluctant to speak or do what I wish them to do. I just have to put up with it, push along as best I can, and tomorrow will be another day. A first draft is better than no draft at all and at least I have a basis on which I can then improve.
How to wind down? A cup of tea, or if it is evening, a glass of wine. A read something completely different and listen to music. I am a lover of Baroque choral music for soothing my anxieties. It has to be said that even when I am supposed to be relaxing, often my characters will crop up again with a new idea! Always good to have a pen and paper to hand.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
When writing historical fiction the major trap is to write into the novel everything you know about the event/period in history/character of the main participants. This can be a deadly mistake, detrimental to the plot and the pace that will keep the reader turning the page, because their priority is the story behind the history. A novel must inform but not at the expense of the entertainment and the emotion. Sometimes it is necessary to jettison favourite characters and events. It can be heart-wrenching for the writer, to edit out what once seemed a valuable scene, but it has to be done in the interest of the book as a whole. An event, an occurrence, a meeting or a conversation has to be relevant to earn its place, particularly when an editor is whispering ‘beware word-count’ in your ear.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
I owe my historical characters everything. It is my pleasure to develop their characters, their likes and dislikes, their relationships, and give them a voice that is often lacking in history – particularly for medieval women who sometimes have no voice at all. I could not write without them.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I begin with a detailed timeline of the history during which my characters are living. Then I create a second timeline to run alongside, to dovetail my characters into this setting. Once this is in place, I collect together all I can about my characters: appearance, motives, involvement etc.
As soon as I have a basic understanding and I have made a decision of where in the story I will start to write, I begin writing, to get a sense of the people and what they are experiencing. This first draft may be very scrappy but it allows me to get to know the people who will live with me for well over a year. It may be that this first attempt will need rewriting as time goes on, but that’s OK. I find it essential to put words down and make a start. Then I continue to research as I write, hand in hand.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I rarely suffer from it. Perhaps because, writing about actual history, the events and the characters are there laid out in front of me. I do not have to ‘make them up’. Some days are more difficult than others, when my characters seem to have no imagination or interesting conversation, or when a scene seems to be particularly dull, but I do not suffer a block. If such a scene is not working for me then I give it some space – and the characters too – and write up something else with a new event and sometimes different characters.
I rarely start at the beginning of a book and write through to the end. I quite enjoy simply writing major scenes on their own which will be put into place later. Ideas come when I least expect them and I can go back to the problem spot when I have had a moment of illumination. It may not work for everyone, but it works for me.
I’m delighted to welcome you to Author Chats as part of your launch tour. Tell me more about The Queen’s Rival.
What did you edit out of this book?
This book is Cecily’s story. Some major figures would have to be short-changed because they did not develop the plot that is Cecily’s life, such as Margaret Beaufort, Anne Neville, Henry Tudor. Cecily and her family must take pre-eminence. This too presented a problem. Cecily was the youngest of an extremely large family. To include all her brothers and sisters in depth would be impossible and to make a casual reference to them would be of no value. I deliberately made a choice of those who would be most useful to me. Her brother Richard of Salisbury of course and his son the Earl Warwick. Two of her sisters, the eldest and the one closest to her in age. The rest would sadly have to remain anonymous.
What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
First and foremost. Accuracy. If the facts are not accurate, then it becomes merely fiction or romance or even fantasy. The dates, the events, the characters crucial to the plot must not be manipulated or changed merely for the sake of the plot or interesting reading. That is not to say that I will not add scenes of a ‘domestic’ nature for which we have no evidence. All my conversations are ‘made up’ in the sense that we have no record of them, but the characters must be true to what we know. I am free to make observations and assumptions on my character’s motives, as long as it is based in fact. Historical characters must also live by the tenets of their day. It is quite unacceptable to give them beliefs and ideas that were not acceptable or even thought of when they were living.
What was your hardest scene to write?
I think the hardest scene was probably the one where Cecily had to face her son the King, Edward IV, knowing that he would never forgive George of Clarence for his treason. Here she was forced to accept the permanent division between two of her sons in spite of all her efforts to unite them. She also had to accept that Clarence must die, however persuasive she might try to be to prevent it. There was no hope for him. A terrible situation for a mother who knew that she must remain loyal to the son who was the King, despite her disapproval of some of his actions.
Which scene or chapter in the book is your favourite? Why?
I enjoyed writing the scene at the beginning where Cecily Neville is abandoned by her family after the disaster of Ludford Bridge, leaving her to face the Lancastrian army running amok in Ludlow. We have a description of Cecily standing with her three younger children in the marketplace in Ludlow since she took it upon herself to show a Yorkist presence there instead of hiding in the castle. She and her children were unharmed but it must have been a terrifying experience when houses were looted and townsfolk killed by the drunken rabble. It shows her courage when alone, and her determination not to cower in defeat. Ludlow is close to where I live so I enjoyed a visit to imagine her striding out of the doorway and taking issue with the enemy. She lived to tell the tale, of course.
How long did it take you to research and write this book; were there any “wrong turns” along the way?
I started writing this book as soon as I had completed the previous one about Constance of York. I wrote about a quarter of it and then had to abandon it to complete some edits for Tapestry of Treason. When I returned to The Queen’s Rival I was not happy with it. Nothing exactly wrong, but it did not give the impression that I wished it to give. What to do? I decided to re-write from the beginning, using letters to develop the family aspect of the Wars of the Roses. These were real people who suffered and rejoiced within their families. I decided that letters would make this a very personal account for Cecily, and thus make the emotion of her losses and achievements even stronger.
The first completed draft was researched and written in just over one year. Then there were various tweaks and edits for my editor – so eighteen months altogether. This is the usual length for my books.
I am always sorry to say goodbye to my characters at the end.
I agree, Anne, that’s the hardest for me too. I don’t think they ever really leave us, do they? Thanks for the chat, it’s been delightful.
Sunday Times Bestselling author Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history.
Today she has sold over 700,000 copies of her books medieval history novels in the UK and internationally. She lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire. The area provides endless inspiration for her novels which breathe life into the forgotten women of medieval history.