I was so excited when Frances accepted my invitation to come and chat about The Smallest Man. Not only is the book a fascinating and compelling read, it’s meticulously researched, lyrically written…and set in 17th Century England. What’s not to love!
The Smallest Man
My name is Nat Davy. Perhaps you’ve heard of me? There was a time when people up and down the land knew my name, though they only ever knew half the story.
The year of 1625, it was, when a single shilling changed my life. That shilling got me taken off to London, where they hid me in a pie, of all things, so I could be given as a gift to the new queen of England.
They called me the queen’s dwarf, but I was more than that. I was her friend, when she had no one else, and later on, when the people of England turned against their king, it was me who saved her life. When they turned the world upside down, I was there, right at the heart of it, and this is my story.
Inspired by a true story, and spanning two decades that changed England for ever, The Smallest Man is a heartwarming tale about being different, but not letting it hold you back. About being brave enough to take a chance, even if the odds aren’t good. And about how, when everything else is falling apart, true friendship holds people together.
Frances, thanks for sharing some of your writing thoughts and inspiration.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Trying to write a bestseller. I’ve fallen into that trap myself, trying to spot what the next big thing might be, or looking at a successful book and trying to pinpoint the magic ingredients. What tends to happen is you get part of the way through a book, realise it’s not bestseller material and abandon it for that reason, and then end up with five years later with half a dozen bits of book that have taken the same amount of time you could have used to actually finish one that might just have got published.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal and why?
A limpet. Not the most glamorous spirit animal, but it illustrates a quality that I think is very underrated: stickability. To get a book published, you have to have a certain amount of writing talent, of course, but you also have to have the ability to keep going after the initial burst of enthusiasm has faded, when your characters won’t come alive, and your plot isn’t working out the way you planned it, and you’d really rather be doing almost anything else than sitting at your desk and making stuff up. You have to be able to see that you can get through that, and if you do, eventually you’ll be in the nice place where the story comes alive in front of your eyes. And then the even nicer place where other people tell you it’s come alive in front of theirs.
What does literary success look like to you?
If we’re honest, I think we all dream of bestseller lists and prizes, but they’re not going to happen for more than a handful of writers. If I can get to the point of feeling fairly confident that, when I finish a book, my publishers will want another one, and readers will buy it, I’d be very happy with that.
Tell us more about The Smallest Man:
What did you edit out of this book?
Almost the whole last section – 30,000 words! The real historical character The Smallest Man is inspired by, Jeffrey Hudson, was captured by pirates and taken to be a slave in Morocco, and that seemed such an exciting part of the story that initially, I had it happening to his fictional counterpart too. But after the book was bought by the publisher, my editor pointed out – quite rightly – that it gave the story quite an unsatisfying shape, because all the characters the reader had spent time with up till then, apart from Nat, had to disappear, new ones came in and the section in Morocco felt like it was a self-contained story rather than part of the book. So I had to write a completely new last section.
How do you select the names of your characters?
If it’s a minor character, I often look at my bookshelves and pick an author’s surname. Major characters take a bit more thought, because names are important to how we view a character. In fact, I initially intended The Smallest Man to be about Jeffrey Hudson himself, but I just couldn’t get on with his name – it sounded like an accountant from Guildford, and no offence to accountants or people from Guildford, but I couldn’t imagine him having adventures with that name! It was when I decided to go with a fictional counterpart, and gave him the name Nathaniel Davy that he started to come alive for me – I found the name just by Googling common English boy’s names and surnames in the 17th century.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I do read them, but not obsessively. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve mostly had lovely reviews – one reader said she was rationing her reading because she didn’t want the book to end, for example, and if I didn’t read them, I’d have missed out on hearing that. But of course, everyone has some bad ones. It’s not nice to read those, but you have to tell yourself that no book is everyone’s cup of tea.
Are your characters in this book based on real people you know?
One of them, Arabella Denham, is very much based on a friend of mine. I didn’t mean her to be, but as I was writing her, I suddenly thought ‘I know who you are!’ That made it very easy to write her scenes. Luckily Arabella’s a very likeable character!
Were there days you had to “kick-start” yourself to write? How did you overcome the dreaded “blank screen?”
So many days were like that! I’m not one of those writers who sits at the keyboard and has words pour out of them; for quite a lot of the time I find it a struggle. In fact I’m working on my second book now, and I’ve literally just said to my husband ‘I remember now how much I hate writing!’ But at the same time, I’ve learned that I am happier in general when I’m working on a book, even if I’m not always ecstatic when I’m actually sitting at my desk doing it.
I made myself a motivation board which sits beside my desk, with clippings of interviews with authors who’ve been honest about how hard it can be to write a book – Anthony Doerr, for example, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, said that he cried a lot, and had several times when he couldn’t see a way out of problems with the story, but he told himself that if he kept going, tomorrow might be a better writing day. Another writer I love, the Swedish crime novelist Camilla Lackberg, said her secret was simply ‘Bum on seat’. And that’s the answer really: you just have to keep going, because the single most important thing you can do to raise your chances of getting a novel published is to write one!
Give a shout out to a writing buddy or fellow author; how did they help you with this book?
There are two: Kate Crockett and Lucy Smallwood Barker. I met them on the Curtis Brown writing course in 2014, and we’ve been writing buddies ever since. We happened to be on a writing weekend together when I heard that my editor wanted me to scrap the Morocco part of the book and write 30,000 new words to replace it; despite the fact that they both have small children and jobs and that weekend was very precious writing time for them, they abandoned their plans to brainstorm a new ending with me, and I’ll always be grateful to them for that. I have to say that, in general, I’ve found authors to be very supportive of each other – it’s been one of the nicest surprises about having a book published.
Frances Quinn is the author of The Smallest Man, the story of Nat Davy, who becomes a ‘court dwarf’ to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles 1, just as England is beginning to descend into the civil war that will end with the trial and execution of the king. It’s inspired by a real historical character, Jeffrey Hudson.
She grew up in Forest Gate, East London, and studied English Literature at King’s College Cambridge, then worked as a journalist, writing for magazines including Woman’s Weekly, Prima, Good Housekeeping and Ideal home. Frances now divides her time between novels and copywriting, having produced words for everything from Waitrose pizza packaging to the London Business School’s website and the Easyjet in-flight brochure. She lives in Brighton with her husband and three very badly behaved Tonkinese cats.
Find Frances online at