Welcome back to my second Behind The Book post of the year – this time with author, Juliette Lawson.
Some of you may know her as Julie Cordiner but for her first work of historical fiction she has adopted a pen name to differentiate from her non-fiction work.
I was lucky enough to be a beta reader for A Borrowed Past and it is one of those books where there is never a good moment to put it down because I really needed to know what happened next.
Here’s the blurb:
What would you do if you discovered your whole life was built on a lie?
For Victorian teenager William Harper, it means running away to pursue his dream of being an artist and discover his real identity. He has to overcome hardship and despair, but at last a reunion and a new love give him the means to achieve his desires.
But the pull of the past is strong, and when tragedy strikes, he has to uncover the truth about those he loves and make a choice about where he truly belongs.
After reading her answers in this Q&A and discovering the journey she has been on to get this book written I think I love it even more now.
See what you think.
Let’s start at the beginning, when did you start writing creatively? How did you get into historical fiction?
I didn’t do any creative writing until the age of 52! In 2011, our church (built in 1831) needed funds to restore the stonework. I heard myself say ‘We could write a book about the history of the parish.’ Naturally, they said ‘Great – will you write it?’ Gulp… I suppose you could say my first attempt was a baptism of fire for me and a leap of faith for them.
I began to write and loved the experience. The day the books arrived, I did a happy dance, and readers’ reactions to the book were lovely. It made me realise I wanted to continue writing. I’d always wondered if I could write a novel, and historical fiction really appealed to me, mainly because it’s what I most love to read.
Can you tell us about your first work of fiction, A Borrowed Past? Where did the idea come from? How long did it take to write?
A Borrowed Past was inspired by the stories I uncovered in my parish history research, particularly diaries from my husband’s great-grandfather. Lifeboat rescues and shipwrecks were a regular occurrence, and his aunt used to keep a chest of old clothes ready for shipwrecked sailors. I started thinking ‘What if…’ and an idea came to me about a boy who discovered a family secret linked to a shipwreck and ran away.
How long did it take to write? Six years! Well, not really; I spent most of that time not writing. I drafted the first version in November 2013, but my all-consuming job as an Assistant Director of Education meant the manuscript languished for several years. In the meantime, I learned a lot more about writing. I picked it up again in 2018 and a manuscript assessment, a retreat and a mentor all helped with the rewrite. I developed a daily writing habit, had an intensive period of self-editing, and here we are.
I was struck by your attention to detail. How much research did you have to do? How important is it to get it right? Was the research element fun for you?
I used my existing research from the parish history book and my love of family history, so it was more a case of checking specific information as I wrote. It’s very important to get the details right to keep the reading experience smooth; it is there to serve the story. I love researching, but it’s very easy to go down a rabbit hole.
The best aspect has been days out in my book’s locations outside of Seaton Carew: York, Scarborough and Whitby, imagining the characters there. People were very helpful; I talked to the man operating the cliff lift at Scarborough, and the staff at the art gallery there showed me paintings from the period and helped me envisage which room would work best for William’s exhibition.
You’ve decided to self-publish, as many more people seem to be doing these days. It feels like an empowering choice. Can you tell us about why you went that route?
The real answer is that I’m a control freak. But in practical terms, I’ve already written and published three nonfiction books to help school leaders manage their finances, so I have all the skills to do the same for fiction; it’s hugely satisfying. There’s a brilliant community of indie authors online and I love meeting them at conferences.
I prefer the term indie publishing, as you don’t do everything yourself, but rather employ other freelancers to do specialist jobs like cover design and editing. My aim is for my book to look just as professional as if it was published via the traditional route.
A Borrowed Past is the first in a saga series, which I was very pleased to hear as I was very taken with several of your secondary characters. How much planning was involved for the rest of the books when writing this one?
I’m delighted you liked the characters. Grace has been nagging at me for ages to have a book of her own, so that decision was easy. I drafted 51,000 words of it in November 2019, a smuggling story with romantic elements, and I’m itching to get back to it once A Borrowed Past is published. I’m still deciding between stories for book three. Christina Bennett’s tearoom is going to be a centre of gossip, whatever happens.
I know you also write non-fiction, was it difficult to get into the habit of writing more creatively (this is something I struggle with).
Creative writing has been my biggest challenge; I’ve always regarded myself as a left-brained logical accountant, so aspects like character arcs and description don’t come easily to me. Writing craft books have helped; I’ve also trained myself to observe details, and to read as a writer, working out how others achieve the effect I’m striving for.
Lots of people have helped and inspired me, including many other writers. Creating a different mindset for fiction has been the key, using meditation and free writing, and an app called Brainwave, which trains the brain (e.g. for focus or creativity). I aim for a daily lunchtime walk to refresh my energy. My creativity has always been under the surface, in music and crafts; now I’ve learned to apply it to my writing, and I’m loving it.
How important has social media been in your writing journey?
Essential for motivation; it takes another writer to really understand what it’s like, doesn’t it? I’m a member of several Facebook groups where I can post a question and get an instant answer. I love Twitter too, for the community of writers which is so supportive.
Social media is also an essential part of my launch plan as an indie author. It’s about finding where your readers are and connecting with them, introducing them into your fictional world. Historical fiction is great for this, because there’s an endless supply of interesting topics to write about! My Juliette Lawson Facebook page, Twitter account and Pinterest boards will be the main signposts to my blog.
You have a day job outside of your books as well as a family, how do you make the time to write?
Organisation is the key. I’ve discovered the only way is to prioritise my writing, so last year I created a daily writing habit first thing each morning. For editing, I compile my manuscript into an eBook and put it on my iPad, so I can read it whenever I have a spare moment. I don’t watch much TV! As a freelance consultant, I can arrange my own schedule, but I do a lot of other things, so efficient planning is essential.
A monthly goals whiteboard helps me keep track of my tasks, and at the end of each month I take a photo and store it – in my moments of self doubt, it proves I can achieve things! I’ve just discovered Trello as a project planning tool, and productivity planners help me manage my time (https://www.productiveflourishing.com/free-planners/).
Who is your favourite author?
That’s the hardest question of all, because there are so many. Long-time favourites are Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, the Brontes, Kate Mosse, Tracy Chevalier, and Philippa Gregory’s Plantagenet and Tudor novels. For sagas, my more recent finds are Susanna Bavin/Polly Heron and Glenda Young. I love Clare Flynn’s books; the colour in her global settings makes them so immersive.
If you pushed me to pick a favourite recent book, it would probably be Rowan Coleman’s The Girl at the Window, a beautifully written mix of fact and (ghostly) fiction, which pays homage to Emily Bronte. Haworth and Ponden Hall are now on my list to see. I also enjoyed Patricia Wilson’s Secrets of Santorini, which I read while I was there last summer.
Do you have any tips for people writing historical fiction?
I suppose my number one tip would be to focus on telling a good story, because that’s what the reader wants above all else. The skill is in gently using the historical setting and culture in the background to add authenticity. Avoid the too-obvious ‘information dump’ at all costs, because that pulls the reader out of the experience.
At the start, limit your research to what’s needed for the basics of the story. As you write, if you come across a gap in information, put a marker in, with a unique word, so you can easily search for it later. Otherwise, you’ll waste precious writing time and lose your focus. Try and find someone knowledgeable about the period to test your draft. It’s so easy to slip up.
But above all, enjoy it, and that will come through in your writing.
Thank you very much to Juliette/Julie for taking the time to answer my questions. What an inspiration.
I’ll be back with another Behind The Book post next month.