Crafty Skills and Writing Thrills

Joanna here with this month's question for the Wenches:

Do you have a hobby or handicraft that's important to you? Does it ever find its way into your writing?


Mary Jo sWench MaryJoPutney_RiverofFire_200pxays:

Alas, I am not crafty, except perhaps in my plotting.  I learned basic sewing as a girl and made some of my own clothes because that's what girls did in that time and place, but I wasn't enthusiastic about it, and I was a complete loss at handcrafts.  I botched cross-stitch and never mastered crochet and had zero interest in embroidery.  I did learn to knit in college because it was a way to keep hands busy when we sat around and talked, and I even managed a few large needle sweaters.  But they weren't very good except for basic warmth, and I haven't knit since I got out of college. 


 With the exception of young Bree, the hero's daughter in Sometimes a Rogue, my female characters aren't very interested Wench NotQuiteAWifeMMin handwork, though they can mend things as required. And now that I think of it, Laurel, the heroine of Not Quite a Wife, crocheted baby blanket squares while on a long carriage ride, but that was more because poor babies needed warm blankets.  I don't think she was much interested in crocheting for crochet's sake.  <G>  So I guess you could say that my lack of handicraft interest has made its way into my writing!


  On the other hand, while I don't have much gift for crafts, I have my share of interests.  As an art school graduate and a professional designer, art and design creep into stories, most strongly in River of Fire, where all the major characters are artists and don't know how they feel unless they have a paint brush in hand.  <G>  And I love music, though again I have no particular talent other than being able to do some research, but it's fun finding a four hand piano version of Vivaldi quartets on youtube, then telling my characters to take it from there.  <G>  A nice thing about writing is all the elements we can weave into our stories!


Nicola offers us music:

It’s interesting how many writers are also creative in other artistic fields. I have absolutely no talent for painting or drawing, or sewing, Wench Unmasked - US publishedknitting or making anything with my hands. As a child I did make patchwork cushions in my sewing classes at school and I was also passably good at cookery, which I think is another creative talent. However it was music that I loved and singing was a hobby of mine from childhood.


 I studied music at school and learned the piano and wrote some (bad) songs. I joined my school, college and church choirs and was also a member of a local choral society that toured Europe one summer. That was very exciting. My first love was always church music but I have tackled just about everything except opera! My singing tutor was a very fierce Scots lady called Mrs Buchan who had been a professional singer and was a very inspiring teacher.


 A number of characters in my books are musical and have good signing voices. Some of my heroines are talented at the piano or other musical instruments. When I am researching a book I do enjoy seeing which pieces of music were popular in the period and choosing something that my heroine might be singing or playing in the drawing room after dinner to entertain the other guests. In Unmasked, the heroine Mari gives away the secret of her ancestry by singing a Russian folk song.  When I write musical characters I am always reminded of Mary in Pride and Prejudice who loved playing the piano even though she had little aptitude for it, and her father saying: “You have entertained us long enough!”


Susan is musical as well as craftsy:



Writers and some kind of creative handiwork are a natural fit — the creativity often spills off the page and Wench susan 1into some other expression like arts, crafts, gardening and so on. And if we're not craftsy otherwise, we can scribble and type a mile a minute, and that's a talent of the hands if there ever was one! 



I went to art school, so for years I did paintings, drawing, prints and so on, even while I thought about stories. I haven't made art for years (though I do want to return to it), but I always have some kind of handiwork going. I try different things rather than stick with one, so I am master of none and explorer of many. I've done lots of crochet and knitting, and usually have a knitting project going; I've churned out throws and scarves and such, and keep it simple (I love big circular needles and soft yarns, and have no patience for small-stitch projects). I've done beading, basket weaving, needlework, sewing, collage, murals, scrapbooking — it often comes down to my degree of patience for the thing. I especially love to refinish furniture and paint rooms. My routine after completing a book usually involves painting walls or redoing furniture. Give me a ladder, a can of paint, some music and I'm happy.


Wench susan 2Some of the art has worked into my novels – I've written about a painter, an illuminator, a sculptor, an art historian and so on. I also wrote about harp playing after taking lessons in Celtic harp years ago. I loved it, and better understood long-ago harpers and harp music. That definitely helped when I wrote The Angel Knight, Lady Macbeth and Queen Hereafter, and if I write about a harper again, I'll dust off my Irish harp and tune it up!  
Cara/Andrea brings us:
I have an art background, so I’ve featured a both a heroine and a hero who was an accomplished Wenches A Diamond In The Rough-medwatercolor artist. But I’m also the Wench “jock”, as I enjoy sports as a way of relaxing. A while back, I took up golf—I’m pretty athletic, but it was one of the hardest endeavors I’ve ever tried— the swing may look easy, and the ball is not moving, but trust me, getting the timing right takes practice and patience! However I really enjoyed both the cerebral challenge and walking the course. After a day of writing, I love going out in early evening and playing a few holes. I can’t tell you how many plot tangles I have unraveled on the fairways. There’s something about switching gears and doing something physical that clears the brain synapses!
On a trip to Scotland, I visited the Old Course at St. Andrews, where golf was popular during Rgency times, and then was lucky enough to play a round with the Duke of Roxburghe, who is a passionate golfer . . .which got me to thinking! I decided it would be great fun incorporate my new hobby into a Regency romance. I did a little research on clubmaking (there are some wonderfully quirky clubs, like clerks and mashies fron that era) and then penned A Diamond in the Rough.The heroine is a great golfer but must disguise herself as a boy and work as a caddie to be allowed to play at St. Andrews. She’s assigned to teach an English lord how to play the game in order for him to play a match to win back his ancestral home, which his wastrel father has gambled away. And well . . . the game is on, in more ways than one.
Jo comes back with a very down-to-earth hobby:
Wench josgarden2Gardening. I'm not sure I've ever written a garden-obsessed character, but my books often have garden scenes and named plants with significance. My
characters are going to have gardens as most people in the past did until the
worst town developments of the 19th century, which led to the allotment
movement — an awareness that people, especially the poor, need a place to grow
food and also to have touch with the land and growing things.

Most of my characters are wealthy enough to have estates and gardeners, but they still take an interest. Interestingly, my book-in-progress, The Viscount Needs a Wife, has a hero and heroine who don't. They're both London people, not fond of the countryside, and know nothing about how to grow anything. I like to be different!

Anne says (and this is so cool. I had no idea about the dolls):
Wenches myWrapBraceletsI nearly always have some craft activity on the go, whether it's hand-made Christmas decorations, small things for dolls houses, or various kinds of jewellery. I'm more slapdash than meticulous, but I do enjoy making small things.
I used to babysit a friend's daughter on a regular basis and as a result I developed dolls house disease. I made lots of tiny things for a dolls house that one of my adult students had given me when she'd learned I was looking after a little girl and had No Dolls!!
It was a weekly ritual — my little friend would arrive, we'd get out the dolls house and the box of contents and set the house up from scratch — different every time. At the end of the day she'd tell me what new thing the dolls house needed, in that very cute imperious way three and four year olds have. "I think the dolls house needs. . . a dolls house." Or "I think next week the dolls will go . . . to the races. They'll need hats." This was after Melbourne Cup day and someone had been watching "Fashions on the Field" on TV. So I made hats for tiny dolls.
Currently I'm playing with jewelry. Fiddling with small things helps me concentrate and you'd be surprised Wwenches DollHathow often, while apparently concentrating wholly on a necklace or bracelet, I solve a plot problem. I go through stages with the jewelry, too. Not so long ago I was making things using natural crystals, which I love, but was sidetracked recently when a friend suggested I make a beaded leather wrap bracelet — and I was off and playing.
Few of these things ever find their way into my writing. I wrote one story, The Virtuous Widow, a Christmas novella that included a dolls house, and that was inspired by my little friend and our dolls house games — she's mentioned in the dedication. Nothing since then, but you never know . . .
Wenches pat rice wickedPat rounds us off with some wonderfully practical hobbies:
I garden and I fix up old houses, so I’m going to guess those aspects of my life creep into my books on a regular basis. I believe readers have upon occasion remarked that they know they’re going to get houses and kids when they read my books. Apparently I’ve disguised the gardening fever better. Even in Formidable Lord Quentin, when the characters have plenty of fancy London houses that need no work, my protagonists end up in a neglected rural mansion battling rodents and bird nests. We have the kids and horses in that one, but no garden.
I outdid myself in Wicked Wyckerly, though—the heroine owns a farm and gardens, the hero owns a truly neglected mansion AND townhouse, and we have kids galore. But I’m thinking children probably aren’t a hobby!
So. What about you? What hobby brings you joy and makes you more creative? If you were to write a book, which of your avocations would sneak into the text?
Some lucky commenter will win a copy of any of my books they choose.









Queen Margaret’s Video

Queen_hereafter_trade_pbkThe trade paperback of Queen Hereafter is available in bookstores and online today from Random House and Broadway Books! There's a beautiful book trailer to accompany the book's release — and I'm delighted to bring you a conversation with Jim Lefter, who created the video.

A few months ago I was talking to Jim, a friend and video producer, about books and ways to promote a new release. He asked if I had ever tried a book trailer. I hadn’t, but I love them–I'm very visual and they can quickly draw me into a story and catch my interest.

JimlefterJim offered to do a video for Queen Hereafter, and I was ready to try something new — so we set out on a creative adventure. Jim Lefter is a video producer with twenty years’ experience doing video and television work for Discovery Network and A & E among other production houses. He now does freelance projects through his own company, Cosmic Stuff Media. Recently we chatted about the experience of creating Queen Margaret's video (this medieval lady has a gospel, a chapel, a reliquary, a loch, a bay, a book – and now her own video!).

Final shot susan-editBut first – click here to watch it on YouTube: Queen Hereafter Book Trailer!

Susan: Hi Jim, welcome to Word Wenches! Can you tell us about the starting point for a book trailer?

Jim: The book! I like to have a good knowledge of the book and a feel for the story, so first I read the book. I love reading, so no hardship there.

Susan: Do you prefer to collaborate, or do you produce what you think works best and then run it past the client?

Jim: It’s a collaborative process if the author wants that. I certainly enjoy that. The outcome is better if the author takes part in the process.

Susan: Could you tell us about the steps involved in creating a book trailer?

Jim: We start with a script — the foundation. I prefer that the author write it for an authentic voice, though I’m open to writing it myself. The script needs to capture the essence of a story in a few sentences — and no one can get inside the story like the author can. And I like to work with a narrator. A voice reading the script carries the viewer into the story more than text onscreen can do. Video is a visual medium, and I want to paint the story in multimedia to evoke mood and tone.

Susan: Do you sometimes use text onscreen instead of narrative?

Jim: Text is appropriate sometimes. It depends on how it works with the story, whether it distracts or enhances, and what the author and I both think works best.

Susan: And after the script comes the image search.

Jim: Right. We discuss what images might work, and then scour the best stock photo houses, tailoring our ideas to what’s available. Great stock photos can be found at reasonable fees, and an image search might inspire new ideas for the trailer.

JThighlanderrnc_bhjt9348hl-wmSusan: For the Queen Hereafter video, we both searched, emailing images back and forth and choosing. For example, Jim found photos of a guy in medieval armor who to me looked like a thug, but Jim liked his toughness for King Malcolm. Good point — but then we found Jimmy Thomas. He’s more a romance hero sort than the real Malcolm Canmore — but what a great stand-in for a medieval Scottish king!

Blond girl horseJim: When a group of stock photos popped up showing a long-haired blond woman in a medieval gown in outdoor settings, we had our Queen Margaret. A variety of images of the same model is very useful. And finding images involves going back and forth, being particular. We looked for naturalness and authenticity, and for visually interesting images. We also used some of Susan’s own photos of Scotland.

Susan: What’s the next step after the images are selected?

Jim: Recording the narration is next. I often work with my wife, Anne, who is a great narrator. The right voice and a nuanced read is essential—the narrator is an artist who portrays what we envision.

Susan: We auditioned a few narrators, but I loved Anne’s warm, rich voice and her natural reading the best! After selecting the images and recording the script with a narrator, what do you work on next?

Dougie in charlottesvilleJim: Music – and that can be the most difficult part of the process. I want to find a sound to match the story and tone. Searching stock music clips – much of which are quite good – takes longer than image searches. Music by the original artists is not always available, but it can be a great element in a video. Susan was able to get permission from Scottish singer/songerwriter Dougie MacLean for his song “The Search," which adds a richness and elegance to the Queen Hereafter trailer.

Once the music is decided, I edit the images to fit the rhythms and pace of the song. The mood of the whole video really comes together at this point. As a producer, I do the editing and production, and I mostly act as a guide, helping to find and blend the elements to create a story. It’s important to communicate and to help the author discover what they want. Using various software, I create a rough cut and run that past the author.

Sue6 001Susan: The Queen Hereafter video took only a couple of weeks or so. Jim worked so efficiently and with real artistry, and has an infallible sense of what works. I was thrilled the first time I saw the rough cut!

Jim: This has been a wonderful collaborative process, with give and take and great communication. My goal as a producer is to create a visual production that is high quality and really enjoyable. And I want the client to be happy with the process as well as the result.

Susan: Even though I changed my mind a lot, you were patient, amiable, and always creative throughout. Thank you!

We had so much fun making this video that Jim and I are now collaborating on a book trailer for Lady Macbeth, and I can tell you that his work in this one is stunning. We'll debut it soon on Word Wenches!

Meanwhile, I hope you all enjoy the Queen Hereafter video -– please share, like, tweet and send to your friends! (If you are interested in talking to Jim about a book trailer of your own, you can contact him at

Be sure to look for Queen Hereafter in trade paperback and ebook as well.

And speaking of multimedia … Queen Hereafter is now available in audiobook from! Click here to listen to an audio sample.

What do you think of book trailers? Leave a comment below to be entered in a giveaway: an autographed set of paperback copies of Lady Macbeth and Queen Hereafter!


Queen Hereafter: A Conversation With Susan Fraser King

Susan Bookmark Hello, Nicola here, and today I am very pleased to share with you a conversation I recently had with Word Wench Susan about her new release, Queen Hereafter, A Novel of Margaret of Scotland. There is nothing that I enjoy more than a good historical novel and as soon as I picked up Queen Hereafter I was hooked. I stopped writing, there were no walks for the dog and no one was fed until I had turned the final page. Not only does Susan create the most vivid setting for the book, making 11th century Scotland come alive for the reader (more on that later) but the love story of Margaret and Malcolm had me riveted from the start.

Here are some of my questions to Susan; I hope that you will have plenty of your own and join in the conversation!

NC: Susan, Queen Hereafter focuses on the life of Margaret of Scotland. What was it that made you want to tell her story? Why did you choose her?

SFK: The contrasts in Margaret’s life were so interesting—piety and power, gentleness and temper, obedience and mischief, saintliness and worldliness, all that was part of her, as I discovered in the research. We know a fair amount about the 11th century, though little about individuals, let alone the women, and yet Margaret emerges as a real person thanks to a rare biography written by her friend and confessor. He idealized her, but left tantalizing hints of a vital, fascinating young woman.

NC: It's interesting that her biographer also fell under Margaret's spell! That says something about her personality, I think, as well as the style of biography at the time. Margaret does indeed come across as a very real and fascinating character but there is also a lovely fairytale element to her story. Tell us a bit about that.

SFK: The fairy tale aspects of her true story are naturally romantic, and that attracted me too. A St Margaret's Hope  beautiful young princess in exile, a shipwreck, love at first sight, a brawny royal husband who adored her, eight healthy children, enough charm to win the affection of a resistant country, yet some inner torment kept her from being truly happy despite all she had – who could resist!

NC: Certainly not me! I loved that combination of history and fairytale romance, and I really enjoyed your blog about the fairytale element of the book here on Word Wenches. (The picture above is the site where Margaret is supposed to have landed in Scotland after the shipwreck). Getting back to the historical aspects, though (you can tell I’m a historian – I’m fascinated by this!) Margaret is a part of history at a critical moment, the period of the Norman Conquest of England. In what ways did the wider political background influence her young life?

SFK: She had a cosmopolitan upbringing between her early years in Hungary, a pious and Byzantine court, and the sophisticated Norman-influenced English court. Her Saxon father brought his family to England when Margaret was about ten, but her father, who would have been king of England, died within days of their arrival. Although a Saxon princess, Margaret was a foreigner in the English court, and when William of Normandy invaded England, she and her mother and siblings fled. She was royal and privileged, raised in a culture of warriors and saints—and she was a refugee in great danger until she and her family came under the wing of Malcolm Canmore of Scotland.

Margaret and Malcolm 16th c Seton Armorial NC: How much is really known about Margaret as a historical figure? You’ve already mentioned that there is a biography of her written by her personal priest, Turgot, but are there other contemporary sources to draw upon? (This picture is from a 16th century armorial book).

SFK: Bishop Turgot created an amazing document in his Vita S. Margaretae, written for Margaret’s daughter—it’s full of anecdotes, insights and verifiable facts. Other primary sources mention her and her family, such as in annals and charters, and information from the monk-chronicler Simeon of Durham. The rest of the picture is provided by historical events and the actions of her husband, Malcolm Canmore, her brother, Edgar the Aetheling, and others. And of course there are lots of historical gaps, and some extrapolating and leaping needs to be done by either a novelist or a historian to create a complete portrayal of Margaret’s life. 

NC: Queen Hereafter isn’t just Margaret’s story, of course. It is also told through the eyes of Eva,Lady Macbeth trade  kinswoman to Gruadh, Lady Macbeth (whose story you have also told). Can you tell us what sort of contrast Eva provides to Margaret and why you chose to narrate this story through these two women in particular?

SFK: Eva came about as a fictional character for two reasons: I wanted to highlight the contrasts and comparisons between Margaret’s more European upbringing and the Celtic nature of Scotland when she became queen – and I had to work around Margaret’s piety. I began writing the book as a first-person narrative by Margaret, but her deep faith and constant prayerfulness were not easy to portray that way. So I switched to third person and created Eva to give another perspective of a queen who, as gentle, kind and devout as she was, sometimes bordered on fanaticism and obsession in her personality. The story needed another viewpoint, so Eva was a good vehicle for that.

NC: Combining a narrative from a real and a fictional character is a very interesting thing to do. What do you think are the pitfalls about writing about real historical figures – and what are the advantages? In what way does writing a fictional account of a historical figure differ from writing non-fiction or biography?

SFK: We’re making stuff up about people who actually lived – essentially, that’s the advantage and the pitfall, all at once. History can be a guideline for novels such as these, giving us some landmarks, but the rest needs to be filled in and invented. As novelists writing about actual historical people, we are writing history from a different perspective. I think there’s a certain responsibility to create an authentic picture with touches of accuracy, while letting imagination have full rein too. Finding nuggets of logic and insight that help to fill in the story is a fascinating challenge too. And while sometimes there are journals and diaries and biographies available, sometimes there is very little to go on, and the author then creates within the parameters of what makes the most sense for that time, those events, those people. How did they get from A to B – well, maybe this way. Maybe they realized this, felt that, did that.

Edinburgh Castle NC: As I mentioned at the start, one of the hallmarks of Queen Hereafter is the fascinating 11th century Scottish background and setting, which you portray so vividly that they are almost another character in the story. How do you set about achieving that?

SFK: Thank you! It’s cumulative, I guess, from years spent studying Scottish history and culture, writing stories about Scotland, travelling there and just loving everything about it. What we love most we absorb in our heads and hearts, and it’s then easy to write – it’s almost second nature for me to write about historical Scotland now, like it’s second nature for you to write your wonderful stories about Regency England!

NC: Now I’m blushing! Thank you! I love that idea that what we love most we absorb in our heads and our hearts. I’m wondering what you find to be the most challenging and the most rewarding elements of writing historical fiction?

SFK: The research is the most challenging—and the most rewarding. I love doing research, I love following historical trails as I’m putting stories together, love solving historical puzzles. For Queen Hereafter and Lady Macbeth as well, I was able to make little historical leaps and insights here and there that were rewarding for me as a historian and as a novelist. But it’s tedious work, and takes up gobs of time to not only research it, but then to “world build” like a fantasy writer does, creating a historical world in which the reader feels comfortable as they move through the story. And you don’t want the research to show, which is tricky to pull off as well. 

NC: And what do you consider to be the qualities that make a good historical novel?

SFK: Personally I love novels that are so beautifully written and crafted that I’m just sucked into the book. I like books that make me toss away that red pencil I carry around in my head. I do enjoy historical novels that are accurate and authentic as well, evoking the whole bubble of the era—setting, atmosphere, true characters and so on. And I love a story that’s accessible. Most importantly, I love a cracking good story. I can easily forgive historical wobbles for a great story.

I'm going to turn the tables now… Nicola, I’d love to know what you, as a British reader, knew about Margaret and Malcolm 2 Margaret and Malcolm and the whole situation when you sat down to read Queen Hereafter. Did you have a basis of knowledge about her, being raised in England with an awareness of British history? Is she considered Scottish or English/Saxon?

NC: I knew very little about Malcolm Canmore although I have always enjoyed reading the history of the Kings and Queens of Scotland. In contrast, I remember reading about Margaret first when I was a child, though whether that was as part of my formal history lessons or purely out of interest, I am not sure now. Certainly I remember her identity being very firmly Scottish in the books that I read about her, which is very interesting now that I see her original background was quite different. To me as a British reader she was very much a Scottish heroine because Scotland has such a strong national identity and Margaret has become firmly associated with that identity.

SFK: And what do you consider the qualities of a good historical novel?

NC: For me, Queen Hereafter has all the hallmarks of the best historical novels – a story that grabs the reader, draws you in and doesn’t let you go; a book that creates a vivid and authentic world that you don’t want to leave. I love research too and I think that the best historical novels are beautifully written and researched but they wear that research lightly so that the reader barely notices that it is there. That is a real skill! 

Queen Hereafter That is the question we would like to ask everyone – What qualities do you enjoy in a good historical novel? Susan is giving away a signed copy of Queen Hereafter (which as you can see has a stunning cover and looks beautiful on the bookcase or teh TBR pile!) to one commenter who posts a comment by Sunday morning (12th December) EST.

There is also the chance to win a very special Wench Prize this month! The Word Wenches will be giving away a fantastic prize on January 1st 2011 – a Word Wenches Library containing a book by each of the Wenches! For a chance to win, all you have to do is comment on one or more of our December blog posts. We'll gather the list of names on January 1, 2011 and pick a winner! (If you've already posted in December, you're already entered — comment again for more chances to win!) Good luck to all and Happy Holidays!