Friday 22 April 2011

Talking to Margaret James

I'm thrilled to be taking part in Margaret's blog tour for her latest book, The Golden Chain, which is out on 1st May. (I've been lucky enough to receive a copy and have sore eyes from staying awake reading it for too long. I'll be reviewing it over at Novelicious next Thursday).

Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions Margaret.

1. Can you tell us what the best/worst bits of writing are for you?

Let’s start with the best bits! These are finishing a first draft, reading it through, and realising the story makes some sort of sense. Of course, it’s going to need a lot more work. It’s still very rough around the edges, the minor characters are still in greyscale rather than colour, and there could well be loads of continuity mistakes which I’ll have to put right. But at least there’s a satisfying story line, and the characters end up where they want and deserve to be, at least in my opinion.

As for the worst bits – the big challenge for me is always pushing and shoving my way through a first draft. It’s like slogging through an alligator-infested swamp with a heavy rucksack on my back and concrete boots on my feet, with the sun beating down on my head and the cicadas laughing at me.

Whenever I start something new, I always try to make a plan, and I usually know how a story ends. But the middle of a first draft is always a hideous mess for weeks or even months, and that’s when the three o’clock in the morning panics often start getting to me.

When I was writing the middle part of The Silver Locket, I was also thinking about how I could develop the story in The Golden Chain and beyond. So I had to make sure I planted the seeds of future stories, which I did by spinning a thread in The Silver Locket that turned into Daisy’s story in The Golden Chain.

2. How important is it for you to get your characters names right before you start writing the book?

It’s very important indeed. In fact, it’s vital, because I don’t seem to be able to write about them until I’ve got their names right. I hate having to change a name because it always seems as if I’m changing the character, too. I don’t know why it should be, but lots of authentically Victorian and early twentieth century names just don’t sound right to twenty-first century readers. I write historical romance, but I definitely couldn’t call a hero Archibald or Albert or Wilfred or Percy. A heroine called Doris or Gertrude wouldn’t be right, either – although I did sneak an Elsie into The Silver Locket as a minor character, just for authenticity. I love flower names for women, and luckily these are popular right now. So Rose and Daisy are fine, and there’s a Lily in the next book of the trilogy, although she’s not the heroine.

3. Do you start with the characters or the plot?

I always start with my characters and ask them what they want, in the hope this will give me a story. What’s your dream, I ask them. If you could have anything, what would it be? If I talk to them for a while, they usually start to talk to me and suggest how their stories could be told. I sometimes wonder if this is certifiable behaviour on my part. A few days ago, I was on a train and realised I was actually talking to myself out loud, which was a bit worrying. I’m hoping the other passengers thought I was praying, which somehow seems more acceptable. But I expect I sounded more like Professor Snape muttering spells to protect Harry Potter in that Quidditch match in the first book of the series – do you know the one I mean?

So basically, the characters come first and they suggest a story. I don’t think I’ve ever done it the other way round, although I do sometimes have a vague what-if premise wandering around in my mind, looking for some characters to act in a story.

4. Could you describe a typical writing day for you?

I don’t tend to have typical writing days. I try to be organised, but I do so many different writing-related things that I can’t always work according to plan. I never know what might be waiting for me in my inbox. I work for the UK’s Writing Magazine, and column deadlines tend to sneak up on me. Or my creative writing students all decide to work very hard and send in lots of coursework. Or I come up with a short story outline which I have to write down before it goes out of my head.

An ideal day consists of starting work about ten – I’m not a morning person – answering emails, blogging and doing promotional stuff until twelve or so, then doing some creative writing of my own in the afternoon. I tend to set aside whole days for magazine work and tutoring. After dinner is usually my most productive part of the day. It’s when I tend to have sudden inspirations for story lines and plot developments. I sit on the sofa with my laptop, ignoring the television buzzing away in the background, and tapping away contentedly.

5. What is the best piece of advice you’d give to an unpublished writer?

It’s the advice which was given to me many years ago by someone who was (and remains) a very successful novelist – choose your rut carefully, because once you’re published you’ll probably be in it for a very long time.

My first published novel was a historical romance, which is a genre I’ve always loved, and am happy to go on writing forever. Although I have always made (and probably always will make) a few short forays into the modern world now and again, the past remains my adventure playground.

Many thanks, Margaret.

You’re very welcome – it was a pleasure to talk to you!

Margaret is a novelist, journalist working for the UK’s Writing Magazine, and she teaches creative writing for the London School of Journalism. She’s written a dozen published romantic novels and hopes to write many more. She’s on Facebook and Twitter – and you can visit her at her blog or on her website.


Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating interview. Well done! I was particularly intrigued by the first sentences in part 3 – very revealing.

Have a good weekend, Boonie

Kath said...

Fantastic interview, both! I love that Margaret caught herself talking aloud on the train - I'm glad I'm not the only one who wanders around muttering and has everyone else thinking I'm talking to myself, when I'm actually talking to my characters.

Look forward to reading your review on Thursday, Debs. I've just finished reading The Silver Locket which I really enjoyed, so I know I'll be reading The Golden Chain very soon.

HelenMWalters said...

Very interesting interview. Thanks to both of you.

Bluestocking Mum said...

Pushing and shoving through that 1st draft...Lordy, I know how that feels - exactly where I am now.

Super interview Debs

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

boonie - thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. I really enjoyed Margaret's answers too.

kath - me too. It's good to know that I'm not the only one to talk to imagined characters.

The Golden Chain is so good, I'm really enjoying it.

helen - many thanks.

bluestocking mum - I know that feeling only too well. I suppose it's good to know we're not alone with it :)

Unknown said...

Great post...loved the choose your rut:-)


Rosemary Gemmell said...

A lovely interview, and two more books on my TBR list! Always enjoy Margaret's column in WM.

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

liz - thanks. Yes, I thought that was clever too and a great piece of advice.

rosemary - many thanks. They're wonderful books.

Chris Stovell said...

what a terrific interview with Margaret; I especialy like her description of getting through that first draft... and the early morning panics!

So looking forwards to reading The Golden Chain.

Denise Covey said...

Was a lovely surprise to have you visit me Debs. Great interview with Margaret. I like the 'choose your rut carefully' part. So true.


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Margaret James said...

Thank you for all your comments, ladies - and good to know it's not just me with those first draft blues!

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

chris - thank you, I thought Margaret's answers were fascinating.

I'm half way through The Golden Chain and loving it.

L'Aussie - thanks for your comment and for visiting me. I thought that was so good and certainly something I'd never have considered before.

margaret - thanks once again for your fab answers, you're definitely not alone with the first draft blues!

Sherri said...

A very interesting interview.

I particularly liked the bit about the rut. My first (unpublished) novel would have been the wrong rut for me. Now I just have to get on and write the right one.

Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

bernadette - thank you. I like that too, and it's something I hadn't considered before.

Karen said...

Lovely interview.

Names are incredibly important and I spend far too long choosing them! I really like the idea of asking your characters what they want - great tip :o)

Pat Posner said...

Great interview. I really enjoyed it. Thank you, Debs and Margaret

Suzanne Ross Jones said...

Terrific post Debs and Margaret.

I know that first draft feeling very well indeed.


Deborah Carr (Debs) said...

karen - thanks.

I spend forever choosing names too, they matter very much to me.

pat - many thanks for saying so.

suzanne - thank you.

I'm working through a first draft at the moment!

Talli Roland said...

Fabulous interview ladies. I love that bit about 'choosing your rut'.

Thank you!

Casdok said...

Getting the names right is very important! Great interview :)