I’m very excited to interview Emily Organ, who talks here about researching historical fiction, the importance of pacing, and the inspiration behind her strong female characters.
Me: I’m loving Runaway Girl – it reminds me of historical mysteries by writers such as CJ Sansom, but from a woman’s point of view. This is your first foray into historical fiction – what inspired you to switch genres?
Emily: Thank you Becky! I’ve always been fascinated by the time periods throughout history and they provide writers with endless inspiration for stories. I have wanted to write historical fiction for a long time and it was a matter of convincing myself that I could do a good job of it. I dabbled a bit with it in my first book The Last Day which is set in the 1980s. Although it’s not technically historical I loved researching and writing about the detail to evoke that time period. With Runaway Girl I really enjoyed the research and it helped me understand that time period better too.
Me: I’m rooting for your protagonist, the widow Alice. She reminds me of one of those tough-cop-with-a-past characters beloved of crime fiction, driven and unconventional, slightly outside the mainstream, motivated by a desire to right wrongs. But unlike some of those characters she’s also warm, non-judgemental, and loving to the children in her care. What inspired her character?
Emily: I set out to create a strong female protagonist, I felt it was important because I haven’t come across too many of them in the historical fiction I’ve read. I wanted her to be brave enough to question and challenge the male dominated world around her but I also wanted to show her tender, mothering side too. I felt this would make Alice a relatable character with depth and that she would be someone readers could identify with. And I think I was trying to create the type of woman I would have liked to have been had I lived in those times!
Me: I’ve been occupied recently checking all the science in my speculative novel Baby X, and that’s on top of all the research I did before I wrote the book. I’ve often thought historical fiction would be even more challenging in this respect. Runaway Girl is set in London in 1352. How much research did you do to get all the historical details right? Where do you stand on the question of how ‘accurate’ a novel needs to be – are you pedantic about the details? Or do you refuse to let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Emily: Yes the research was quite challenging because I did a huge amount of it in about two months. The result was I felt I had immersed myself in the period and this gave me the ability to write about it confidently. Medieval times have always interested me and I have read, and continue to read, lots about them. I made it easier for myself by not including any actual historical figures – that would have required more meticulous research. What I encountered during my research is that academics aren’t always unanimous about how things happened back then so this allowed me to use my own instinct to fill in the detail of things I couldn’t find information on. None of us can create a truly accurate depiction of the past but historical fiction has to be authentic and readers have to believe in your setting and characters otherwise the story flops. And after doing a lot of research it’s tempting to put lots of facts in too, but I have avoided that and just included the necessary detail to make the story work.
Me: In addition to a cast of strong female characters, the book contains several examples violence and injustice against women. For example, when 14 year old Constance is abducted, everyone (except Alice, of course) assumes she’s eloped with her abductor – for me this resonates with a victim blaming culture still in existence today. And without giving too much away, part of the plot hinges on some shockingly sexist laws regarding women’s ownership of property. Are these themes important to you personally?
Emily: Yes these themes are hugely important to me. I did a lot of research about medieval women because I feel they are overlooked in the history books (just as they are in other time periods of history too). It reinforced the idea for me of how ingrained inequality is in our society – it goes back more years than we care to count. Readers will be able to draw many parallels between then and now as you say. There are themes which are familiar and which make me think how can this sort of thing still be happening? Like all of us I hope it will end during my children’s lifetime.
Me: One of the great strengths of Runaway Girl is the pacing and tension – so essential to successful commercial fiction and so difficult to master. I’m not surprised one of your reviewers read the book in 24 hours! For writers learning their craft and struggling with pace and tension, what are you top tips for keeping the reader hooked?
Emily: First of all read a lot of well paced books! I’ve read quite a bit by the masters of it such as James Patterson and Lee Child. There is no better way to learn than to find out how other authors do it. And I think it’s important to keep your reading broad so you can learn lots of different techniques from different writers and genres. It’s also essential to look at story structure: e.g. what should be happening at what point of your book. Although storytelling is a natural skill, commercial storytelling fits a certain structure and you can learn that by watching successful films and TV series as well as reading about it.
Me: This is your third novel, and you’ve blogged about writing it quickly. Has your writing changed much since your first novel? What about your writing process? What will you do differently next time (if anything)?
Emily: Yes my writing has changed a lot since I wrote my first book. It’s much more disciplined now and that’s probably because I treat it as my job. Well it is my job! I’m learning to plan my work better and to write more effectively and also to relax and enjoy it more too. Once you have published a few books and had reviews on them it gives you the confidence to know what’s working and what still needs work. My plan each time is fewer rewrites (thorough editing is essential obviously), Runaway Girl went through six rewrites and I hope to cut down on that work by knowing exactly what I’m writing about from the outset. I didn’t think I was much of a planner, but it turns out I am!
Me: As writers we first learn our craft by reading. Which writers, and which books, have had the greatest influence on your own writing?
Emily: My earliest influence was Roald Dahl, I’m old enough to remember when he was publishing his books in the 1980s and I remember being so excited each time he published a new one – I couldn’t wait to buy it. He made me want to write and after that I loved Daphne du Maurier and the Brontë sisters. I remember visiting their home – the parsonage in Haworth – and being fascinated by their lives. I read a lot of Agatha Christie in my teens and loved her clever plots and I read a lot of Charles Dickens while doing A Level English Lit and I am in awe of his characters. I’ve always read a wide range of books so there aren’t many authors I would single out now as being an influence on me. I am inspired by all authors who make me look forward to sitting down and picking up their book. At the moment I’m reading Me Before You by Jo Jo Moyes, before that I read Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. Two very different books and yet I’m inspired by both of them.
Me: I’m interested to understand how self-publishing compares to traditional publishing – in my case, by a small press. For example, I’ve been working with my editor on Baby X, which has been a real learning experience for me as she’s very meticulous – an important characteristic in an editor! How did you select your editor? What’s your working relationship like?
Emily: Self publishing involves some trial and error in the early days and there are many things which didn’t go smoothly to start with. I found my current editor, Joy Tibbs, by finding out which editor other self published authors used. Having had a negative experience with a previous editor, I knew immediately that Joy would be perfect. She gives me lots of feedback on my plot and characters and has many useful suggestions and ideas too. She’s invaluable and it’s important to find people like her when you’re working for yourself It’s easy to feel a bit lonely at times!
Me: Another facet of self-publishing is that you have to be in charge of every element of the process – finalising the manuscript, financing, commissioning cover art, typesetting, marketing, and so on. Which of these stages do you find most challenging? And which do you enjoy the most?
Emily: Initially the book marketing was challenging because I’ve always found it hard to promote myself. Like many writers I’m an introvert and would rather hide under the duvet than ask people to buy my book. However I’ve learnt that skilled book marketing is more subtle than that and it’s about gradually building a relationship with your readers. When approached in that way I find book marketing much easier and I’ve done a few courses about it too. So now I enjoy everything about the process. Formatting a book for print is probably the most frustrating of all and when I’m earning enough I can pay someone else to do that for me!
Me: I think there’s a sequel to Runaway Girl planned? Can you tell us anything about it yet?
Emily: Yes I’m halfway through it. I have a title in my mind but I’m not sure if it’s going to be the final one. As you know, the lead character in Runaway Girl, Alice Wescott, is a widow and in the sequel she will find out a secret which her husband kept from her. It’s a secret with deadly consequences and she has to act quickly. The love story plot line will continue and may progress in a troubled way – as all good love stories do!
Find out more about Emily and her other novels on her blog, a rich source of information and advice for all writers, and essential reading for anyone considering self-publishing.