Hi, this is Jo, thrilled to welcome Elizabeth Chadwick to the Word Wenches. Those of us who love medieval novels will be familiar with Elizabeth's detailed, exciting stories.
Jo: Welcome, Elizabeth. Living in England is a huge advantage to a writerof historicals set there. (One reason I'm heading back there.) Do you live in a very medieval area, or will you disappoint us and confess to a modern flat?
Elizabeth: I live in a 1930's detached house in a village a few miles outside of Nottingham.
Jo: We lived in Nottingham for a few years once. Enjoyed it.
Elizabeth: Nottingham is on the map for its famous medieval outlaw RobinHood, but due to aggressive rebuilding programmes in the middle of the last century, the city itself doesn't have very much that's medieval. The castle is mostly Georgian (the Medieval one burned down) and only the
gatehouse remains and a few artistic bits of rubble.
Jo: Yes, that does disappoint tourists.
E: The city is built on sandstone and does have an extensive underground cave system, which I featured in Shields of Pride. Visitors can still see a medieval tannery cave as part of a tour of the underground system.
Nottingham is also supposed to have the oldest pub in England – The Trip to Jerusalem which purports to go back to crusader times, although the claim is disputed. We have the remains of Sherwood Forest on the doorstep too in the north of the county. Not so far from where I live is the historic town of Newark where King John died. I do my weekly shop there and always pass under the shadow of the castle on my way. Newark has a much older feel than Nottingham and is more picturesque.
Jo: That sounds lovely. (Picture of Newark Castle on the left.)When did you first get the idea of writing historical fiction, and how difficult was it to get from there to your first published book?
E: The seeds were sown when I was around eight years old and we were taught history at school by a particularly enlightened teacher. She would put the lesson on the blackboard for us to copy out, but once that was done, the dressing up box would come out and we would make up little plays to reinforce what we'd just written down with pupils being chosen to take the parts. I really loved this aspect of the lesson. It put me there in the moment.
Jo: That sounds wonderful.
E: The year she taught us, we'd just reached Scottish medieval history, so the plays made the resonances particularly strong. The next year, we had a different teacher and a different era, and the history didn't quite stick the same.
Jo: What a shame. To show that Elizabeth keeps up the good work, here's a picture of her, her son, and a friend at a Robin Hood pageant. She says on her web page "
E: Then, as a teenager, I fell in love with a guy on an adventure TV programme about the crusades and I so wanted more of him that I began writing and researching my own story. I'd never written anything down before, but I had been telling stories verbally to myself from being three years old, so I was familiar with the structure and pattern of the craft of tale telling. I was also a voracious reader, so I'd absorbed a lot of the 'how to' that way also. enjoyed my first attempt at novel writing so much that I decided, aged 15, that this was what I wanted to do for a career if I could ever manage it. The full story is here on my blog. See what you think of my teenage crush!
Jo: What a wonderful story. I was still living in England then. I wonder how I missed that program. So how did the writing career go?
E: My first book was published 17 years later.
Jo: Faster than me. My first attempt at about 15 was a fairly short medieval romance and I wasn't driven to such intense research. Then I was published 25 years later.
E: Given that I was only 15 when I wrote the first one, I guess part of that time I was becoming an adult. My perspectives weren't mature when I started out. I received my share of rejection letters in my teens and twenties, but I was never going to stop writing. It was part of who I was.
Jo: How did you handle rejections?
E: I always saw them as a stepping stone, not a stumbling block. So what if this one wasn't good enough. The next one would knock their socks off. Finally, at 32, I got the call from a leading UK literary agent. It had been a long apprenticeship, but that first novel won an award and is still in print now, so I guess it was worth the distance.
Jo: You fell in love with the middle ages. Have you every wanted to write in some other time or place?
E: If I ever changed historical periods, I would probably go earlier. Arthurian times from a purely Saxon perspective would be interesting. I read a lot of Regency novels when I was younger. I devoured everything that Jane Aiken Hodge wrote, but the research I would need to do to bring myself up to scratch would be daunting. I've been writing medieval since I was fifteen, so that's a few decades of study under the belt. Occasionally I write contemporary stories for magazines, but they are very much a sideline.
Jo: Is there any other type of fiction you might consider if you absolutely couldn't write the above?
E: I would probably head into fantasy, timeslip or paranormal. I feel quite at home reading these genres and they frequently have historical elements. If you banned those as well, I would write erotica.
Jo: It seems to me that though you write medieval women extremely well, you are drawn to tell stories about the medieval warrior. Would you agree? And if so, why?
E: I have to say that it's been part of my chemistry since birth. I may be a happily married woman but I empathise well with men. As a child I was the typical tomboy. I hated playing with dollies and doing the nurturing thing. My Christmas present when I was six, was a cowboy outfit and a pairof pistols. My favourite toys were Lego building bricks and cars. My Cindy doll was loved, but she was always having exciting adventures. No shopping and boyfriend stuff for her! My heroes were the Lone Ranger, William Tell, and Champion the Wonder Horse. When I played pretend, I usually took a male role. This wasn't because I thought boys had more fun as opposed to girls, it was that I just felt easy in the role and it suited my interests.
So, when it comes to writing men, I am comfortable. It's second nature. And since I write the kind of guys I'm interested in – but trying to stay true to their life and times – it generally translates into the kind of guys my readers are interested in too.
Jo: Your first American publication will be out on September 1st. This is great news for all your fans over here. This is The Greatest Knight, a novel about William Marshal. (I'm glad they've used the British cover, because it's lovely.) I share your admiration for him. When did you first become aware of him? Did you always want to tell his story?
E: I probably became aware of him properly when writing The Champion because he appeared in that novel and it was set in his period. My novels before that had slightly earlier timelines. Once I started writing in the later 12th century, he kept cropping up again and again and I began to become very interested in his tale. At the time I was still writing imaginary protagonists and not quite confident enough in myself to tackle something as ambitious as his amazing life story – that was what 'real' novelists did! I kept waiting for a big name to tackle him and in the meantime I dipped my toe in the water of biographical fiction with Lords of the White Castle. I discovered that the research wasn't as difficult as I thought, and I loved writing about people who had actually lived. There was still no sign of anyone writing a big William Marshal novel, so I came to the conclusion it just might have to be me. I got the go ahead to write two stand alone novels about William's life and embarked on one of the most fascinating journeys of my writing career.
Jo: For those not yet aware of William Marshal, tell us briefly why his story is so compelling.
E: He was the younger son of a court official and destined for the ranks of the ordinary household knights who fuelled greater men's retinues. But William Marshal was no ordinary hearth knight. Having narrowly escaped hanging when taken hostage as a little boy, he went on to save the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine and in reward she appointed him tutor in chivalry to her eldest son. William was a jousting champion par excellence and there was no one to touch his skills. When his lord died, William took the young man's cloak to Jerusalem to lay on the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre. On his return he served King Henry II faithfully and was the only man ever to unhorse Richard the Lionheart.
William married Isabelle de Clare, a great heiress twenty years younger than him. I won't go too far into spoilerdom for those who haven't read the novels, but William's career continued to scale great heights despite difficulties with King John, and eventually William ended up saving England from disaster, but at a price. It was a long way to travel from his minor Wiltshire birthplace to having the responsibility for an entire country on his shoulders. He is one of England's truly great heroes and his tomb can still be visited at the Temple Church in London.
Jo: Here's a photo of Elizabeth laying flowers at his tomb. I visited his tomb there a few years ago, and paused to pay homage. I gather it's roped off now because of the number of tourists visiting for the Temple Church's connection to The Da Vinci Code.
Of course you do meticulous research, Elizabeth, but you also have a psychic link to the past. Can you tell us a little about that?
E: I am not psychic myself beyond the occasional glimmer, but a close friend, Alison, is. She has the ability to tune into the people of the past and see their lives as you would see a movie, but with full sensory and emotional input. Thus she will get smells and tastes, sounds, feelings, motivations. She will see what the people looked like and their personal traits. Obviously we have to factor in margins of error in case her subconscious is interfering – although she does her best to avoid this. Also if she is tired or unwell the tuning is sometimes off kilter. I get the work checked out by someone with a degree in medieval cultural studies and she tells me that what is coming through is medieval mindset – not modern.
Jo: This is completely fascinating. I'd love to do this with some of my characters.
E: We have well over a thousand pages of notes now, going back about five years, and
digital recordings going back around three years. The sheer amount of data we have amassed builds up into something that speaks for itself. You can find out a bit more about Alison's skills at my web page here and also at Alison's blog.
Jo: How often do you do this?
E: About once a fortnight; normally for about two hours at a stretch. Alison never knows what I am going to ask her (unless of course she sees it in the future – joking!). The questions could be about anything. One week I might ask her about William Marshal's favourite horse or the best time he had in the year 1190. Another time I might ask her to take a look at an incident that illustrates the dynamics of the relationship between William and the Young King and I might ask her to see it from both
perspectives i.e. William's and the Young King's. That way I get a fully rounded view and can decide from which viewpoint to tell the story and know what the other person is thinking. It's a wonderful, wonderful resource.
Jo: Do you think many people have that ability? Is it perhaps something that draws a person to write historical fiction? By that I mean that this latent ability expresses itself in the desire to visit and envision one or more periods of the past.
E: I think a lot of people have a certain amount of ability but that often it isn't used and so it withers, or it is used but isn't trained, so it is haphazard. I think too that some people have more ability than others. I said on my website it's like being a runner. Everyone can be trained to run faster than they do now, but only those with the right kind of fast twitch muscle are going to find themselves in the final at the Olympic games.
So it is with this ability. Some are better developed to begin with. Alison has the necessary fast twitch muscle. I don't. Also there are different types of skills – in the same way that a high jumper is not necessarily a top class sprinter. Some psychics will be able to do a similar sort of thing to Alison, and some will work in other areas. As I say, I am not aware of having much ability myself, but who knows. I have an open mind.
Jo: This has been wonderful, Elizabeth, and I know our readers will have many questions. I understand you're offering a copy of The Greatest Knight to one of the people who posts a question. What do they have to do to win?
E: I thought it would be useful all round if I asked the World Wenches Blog readers to ask a question they'd like to see on my Living The History Blog – doesn't have to be about William Marshal specifically. I'll then post another Q and A session later this year.
Jo: What a great idea. But remember, everyone, The Greatest Knight will be on bookstore shelves any day. It is a wonderfully told novel about a fascinating man. Read what Roberta Gellis had to say about it. "
E: Many thanks to the Word Wenches for having me!
Jo: So, when this interview goes up I'll be on the road again, somewhere between Quebec City and St. John, New Brunswick, so I may not be able to check in as often as I'd like, but Elizabeth will be here to respond to questions. I'm sure you have many, especially about the middle ages.
Some readers don't want to read medieval books. If you're one, why is that? if medievals are your favorites, why is that? Do you have a question about medieval life you've always wanted to have answered? Try it here.
And it's not that long before the re-publication of my first novel, the classic Regency romance, Lord Wraybourne's Betrothed.