Today it is my very great pleasure to introduce as our Word Wench guest historical author Elizabeth Hawksley. I discovered Elizabeth's books a while ago and they have become firm favourites of mine. Their combination of romance, adventure and history has been described as "suspenseful and satifying" by one happy reviewer and as "a real old-fashioned page-turner" by another.
Elizabeth describes herself as having a "portfolio career." She has had a dozen novels published together with Getting The Point, a punctuation guide for adults co-authored with Jenny Haddon. She also gives talks and workshops in creative writing, is a member of the UK Romantic Novelists' Association and reviews for the Historical Novel Society.
Elizabeth, welcome to the Word Wenches! First of all, I found the biography on your website riveting and was fascinated to discover that you were brought up in a Georgian manor house (Hall Garth, in the photograph below), an experience I am sure many of us envy you! Please could you tell us a little about what that was like?
I don’t think you’d like it, Nicola! Very much an Upstairs/Downstairs world. We children were banished to the nursery wing with Nanny and a nursery maid and saw our mother for an hour each day from 5-6 pm downstairs in the morning-room – on our best behaviour.
I didn’t eat downstairs in the dining-room until I was twelve, when, under my mother’s stern eye, I had to re-learn my table manners e.g. how to hold a soup spoon correctly (no lower-class nursery manners downstairs, thank you!), and that the butler always offered food from the left and so on.
My brothers, meanwhile, learnt to stand up when a lady entered the room and to remain standing until she was seated, and, of course, open doors for her when she left. Not to mention walking on the outside of the pavement (to shield her from any muddy splashes).
Then there was dinner party etiquette – complicated – including the business of ladies leaving the room at the end so that the gentlemen could enjoy their port and dirty stories. We, meanwhile, powdered our noses and then the butler brought us coffee.
I wouldn’t wish my childhood on anyone. But I admit that it has come in useful with my novels; at least I know what that world was like from the inside.
I must admit that this does sound very quelling for a child. The idea of old-fashioned manners in gentlemen is very appealing though!
The picture on the left is of you being "finished" in Paris. I'm wondering whether your background led you into your career? What were the influences that led you to become a historical novelist?
With all the above – what else could I write but historical novels?! My childhood knowledge of the outside world was very limited. We had no television and no radio. Fortunately, we had access to my grandfather’s splendid Victorian library. I wrote my first novel at ten, set in the English Civil War – I’d been reading Margaret Irwin’s The Stranger Prince about Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Jane Lane’s The Escape of the King about Charles II’s escape after the battle of Worcester.
I think you'll find plenty of other fans of those books here on Word Wenches! What do you consider to be the qualities that make a good historical novel?
The same as for any novel: a good story, believable characters and a cracking pace. Do your research but digest it – no information dumps.
Your novels have been described as a wonderful combination of history, adventure and romance. What is it about that combination of elements that appeals to you as a writer?
I write the sort of books I like to read: heroes and heroines need their mettles tested – hence the adventure. The historical bit adds social and sexual constraints to what they can do and how they behave – I find that useful. 19th century ladies and gentlemen led pretty separate lives and met only in certain socially restricted settings. Result – increased sexual tension.
For example, some years ago, I learnt to dance quadrilles – a dance with four couples. I quickly realized that, though you might be dancing with the dull but eligible Mr A., there were ample opportunities for eyeing the more attractive Mr B opposite. And, if your hand were squeezed discreetly by Mr B during the ‘chain’, nobody else knew – and certainly not Mama. I’m sure you can see the possibilities for yourself! My first thought was, I could use this!
You include real historical events in your books, such as the 1814 Frost Fair on the Thames. How do you decide which events to include? Is a result of your research – do some events simply shout out for inclusion?
Usually, as you say, something shouts out for inclusion. The 1814 Frost Fair is very well documented, which helps. I had a sudden picture of my villain, Balquidder, meeting a spectacularly nasty end on an unstable ice floe as the ice began to crack up …
In A Desperate Remedy, I used the arrival of four giraffes at London docks in 1836. They walked several miles to the new London Zoo and caused a sensation – again, it’s well documented. I thought: what if my heroine, Decima, sneaks out to see them and, in the crush, is coshed by two criminals who steal her clothes, purse and hair. She is dumped, unconscious, outside Drury Lane theatre, where Alexander (rich, but illegitimate) finds her. Her autocratic father promptly disowns her …
That description alone has made me want to re-read the book! Do you have a favourite amongst your books?
I’m very fond of Tempting Fortune, which has a theatre setting. I’d just done a lot of research into 19th century theatre for my MA in Victorian Studies and it seemed a pity to waste it.
The story opens on an icy January day in 1826 when a foundling, the illegitimate daughter of Lord Fulmar, is discovered – and a curse is set in motion. Twenty-seven years later, Jack Midwinter, a rake and womanizer, sets out to find her. But Sarah, now a costume designer at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, has no intention of being temped either by Jack, or the ill-fated Fulmar fortune ….
It is one of my most romantic novels. I have a very soft spot for Jack and Sarah.
One of the things that I love about your books is the unusual settings and some of the heroes of your books are out of the common style as well and are not necessarily aristocrats. What draws you to writing “different” types of heroes?
I like setting myself technical challenges! In Crossing the Tamar, for example, my hero, Veryan Selwood, is a reclusive, priggish Oxford don with a very rigid notion of propriety. His sexual experience comprises a couple of embarrassingly inept episodes he prefers to forget. When he unexpectedly inherits old Sir Walter’s estate in Cornwall, he is horrified to find Sir Walter’s mistress, numerous bastards and a community up to its neck in smuggling. Veryan has a lot to learn – about life, women, and, in particular, his cousin Dorothea. Could I turn such unpromising material into a Hero?
I enjoy culture clashes, for example, between wealthy mill-owner Daniel Darke, intent on moving up in the world in The Belvedere Tower, and Cassandra Hampden, niece of the last Earl of Lavington. Daniel buys the Lavington estate – and finds Cassandra living in an Elizabethan belvedere tower in the middle of it. And he can’t get her out …
My interest here is probably inspired by my own family history. A great-grandfather on one side of the family was a railway navvy on the world’s first public railway, the Stockton and Darlington line. He ended up with his own iron and steel foundry. On the other side, a great-grandmother was the daughter of Lord Dunsany of Dunsany Castle, Ireland.
You have mentioned in some of your talks and workshops that you love creating villain characters. What do you think makes a strong villain and why do these characters appeal to you?
A strong villain needs to have his own aims and objectives.
I find a villain really useful. He can be a catalyst for change: exposing the heroine’s weakest point, for example, thus giving her the opportunity to learn things and move on. He can also challenge the hero – who can stand up to him and come good. Villains bring danger – invaluable for the dreaded mid-book sag. Let him chuck in a nasty problem and, instantly, the tension will rise.
But beware: villains can seduce the author and infiltrate any emotional vacuum. They can be dangerously attractive.
I noticed you mentioned a hero of mine, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, as one of your dream dinner party guests. Who else would you invite to join you?
I’ve always admired the Victorian traveller and explorer in Africa, Sir Samuel White Baker – handsome, strong, dashing, and blond with piercing blue eyes (sounds promising!). I think he’d be an interesting dinner guest. He bought his wife, Florence, in a slave auction in Bulgaria (she was the sole survivor of a massacre) and took her with him on his travels. He wrote that she possessed ‘a share of sang-froid admirably suited to African travel’ and, after a particularly nerve-wracking encounter in the jungle, commented admiringly, ‘Florence was not a screamer.’
I think I’ll invite Florence, too.
I’d love to meet the American Frederick Douglass, ex-slave and campaigner for the abolition of slavery. Interesting, charismatic and good-looking, I imagine him getting on well with Samuel and Florence.
Meanwhile, Rupert and I could enjoy a quiet tête-à-tête ….
Okay, I'd do anything to infiltrate that dinner party! What is the best part about being a writer for you?
When it’s working as it should, there’s an intoxicating balance – a sort of objective subjectivity – where one is playing with words and watching the characters to see what they do. It reminds me of creative juggling. I also enjoy the research and, again, if it’s working, serendipity usually comes into play.
Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?
You can almost always start a conversation later and end it earlier than you think.
If you’re stuck, fling in a problem.
I follow Julie Cohen’s excellent advice: always write a scene from the point of view of the most vulnerable person there.
Elizabeth, thank you very much for sharing with us not only those fascinating details about a country house childhood but also so many useful ideas for writers both published and aspiring. Elizabeth's website is at http://www.elizabethhawksley.com/index.htm If you have any questions for Elizabeth she would be delighted to answer them!