Karen Heenan | Songbird at The Tudor Court

I’m delighted to welcome Karen Heenan to Author Chats today. We both watched BBC’s Six Wives of Henry VIII as little girls with our mothers, and got hooked on historical fiction! I so enjoy finding these neat facts about my author friends. Didn’t we all love Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R, too?
First, a little about Karen’s book, Songbird.
She has the voice of an angel…
But one false note could send her back to her old life of poverty.
After her father sells her to Henry VIII, ten-year-old Bess builds a new life as a royal minstrel, and earns the nickname “the king’s songbird.”
She comes of age in the dangerous Tudor court, where the stakes are always high, and where politics, heartbreak, and disease threaten everyone from the king to the lowliest musician.
Her world has only one constant: Tom, her first and dearest friend. But when Bess intrigues with Anne Boleyn and strains against the restrictions of life at court, will she discover that the biggest risk of all is listening to her own stubborn heart?
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Narrated by Jennifer Summerfield
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Karen, lovely to have you here. Let’s start with that classic question (and for me, “it depends” is the answer!). Does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down / recharge?
It can be a little bit of both. There’s nothing more energizing than a good writing session, where the words come and the ideas don’t trip over themselves on their way to my fingers. That, alas, does not describe every session at my computer. Sometimes, even when it’s going well, I’m limp and exhausted by the end – especially if I’ve put my characters through something especially traumatic. No exhaustion in the writer, no exhaustion in the character.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Many aspiring writers have an expectation that if their first draft isn’t good, their idea or their book might not be any good. But it’s just a draft! Until you’ve actually thrashed your way through several drafts, it’s hard to comprehend how different an early version can be from the finished product. A draft will never (okay, rarely) look like the beautiful, shining idea in your head. Even the finished product won’t look exactly like the idea it sprung from, but it will be beautiful, and it will have been polished to a shine. Learn to be as patient with yourself as you would be with a friend in the same situation.
What does literary success look like to you?
It’s a moving target, honestly. At first, it was just publication – validation – but then, of course, you want readers. And more readers. And readers who leave reviews. Money is a part of it, as well, but for an indie or small press author, that can be inconsistent for a long time, so keeping in mind that it won’t come unless I work for it is also part of my idea of success. I have to build it before the readers will come.
What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Realizing that they’re people, just like me, and deep down there really aren’t that many differences beyond the obvious physical and cultural ones. My second book, A Wider World, features a male main character (who was a secondary character in Songbird). I really enjoyed writing from Robin’s perspective, and he’s actually become my favorite character to date.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I used to, but I found that was a good excuse to step away, and like any other habit, when you stop for a while, it’s difficult to pick up again. When I hit a block, I go back and try to figure out where the writing last worked well for me, because there might be a clue that says “you’ve headed off in the wrong direction” or “this character wouldn’t actually do that.” If I don’t have any bright ideas after reviewing my work, I’ll tinker with edits, or work on a blog post or my newsletter – I’ll still write, just something different.
And I never stop reading. A good book can jumpstart me when I’m stuck. I’ll hit on a brilliant sentence that I wish I’d written, and I’ll type it into my manuscript, then I’ll change the names and the facts, and rearrange the words, trying to make it my own. By that time, I’m so bored with that sentence that I’m ready to keep going. The “inspiration” paragraph no longer looks like the original, and more often than not, it gets cut in edits because it stands out as a marker for where I had a problem.
Tell us more about Lady, in Waiting, your latest book:
What did you edit out of this book?
My latest book is called Lady, in Waiting, and it will be the third in my Tudor series. I cut a single 6,000 word scene from the center of the book. It was double the length of a standard chapter, and I suspected even as I wrote it that it was writerly self-indulgence. I was correct, but the book is a lot stronger for what I learned about my characters in that scene, and it will end up being published in my newsletter eventually, because it’s a gathering that includes the characters from all three books.
What was your work schedule like when writing this book?
Unlike Songbird, both A Wider World and Lady, in Waiting came together relatively quickly. I say “relatively,” because I’m not the fastest writer. Seeing authors publish a few quality books per year makes me envious, but not enough to change my methods, because they work for me, and I don’t think I could produce the same quality on a faster schedule.
I write daily, if by “write” you include researching, thinking about my plot, having imaginary conversations with my characters, and walking around my small town dictating scenes into my phone. I’m not consistently at my desk writing until the editing process begins – my brain seems to work better when I’m on my feet, or curled on the loveseat with a big cup of coffee and my tablet.
How do you select the names of your characters?
I try to stick with period appropriate names, because I grew up reading (and enjoying) my mom’s historical bodice rippers, even though I would point out inaccuracies and that medieval heroines shouldn’t be named Amethyst or Jasmine or Tiffany.
It makes for a lot of people named Elizabeth, Thomas, Henry, Anne, etc., but thankfully sixteenth century people still used nicknames and diminutives, so I have Tom, Bess, Hal, Nan, etc. I try not to have too many similarly-named characters in a story, and if they must be there (being unable to get around history), at least many of them had titles and surnames which could be used instead.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I read them. I can’t help myself. I do a happy dance for the good ones, and I respectfully disagree with those that are less positive, knowing that not every book is for every reader. If I feel bad, I look up a favorite classic book and read its bad reviews. That always perks me up.
How long did it take you to research and write Songbird? Were there any “wrong turns” along the way?
Songbird was a long time coming. I had an interest in Tudor history from a very young age, having watched the BBC’s Six Wives of Henry VIII with my mother when I was seven. I read historical fiction and non-fiction interchangeably, so when I actually decided to start writing a novel, I had a lot of the historical framework in mind already.
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but Songbird was begun in the pre-internet days. I was truly writing for myself at that point, with no thought of publication, so it didn’t bother me how long it took to find the books I wanted, but with the arrival of the internet, and online resources – not to mention online book-shopping resources – I picked up speed.
One “wrong turn” that stands out wasn’t really wrong, it was just a fact I hadn’t run across yet. William Cornysh, composer/musician and royal choirmaster, played a large part in the life of Bess, my main character. He continued to play a part until I saw a mention of his death, and realized that I’d kept him alive far longer than nature intended. So I rewrote that part of the story to include his death, and it was actually better for the storyline, if painful for my characters.

Karen Heenan was born and raised in Philadelphia, PA. She fell in love with books and stories before she could read, and has wanted to write for nearly as long. After far too many years in a cubicle, she set herself free to follow her dreams—which include gardening, sewing, traveling and, of course, lots of writing.
She lives in Lansdowne, PA, not far from Philadelphia, with two cats and a very patient husband, and is always hard at work on her next book.
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