I decided I wanted to write for a career when I was 16. This was after I had spent a year hand writing my first novel. Prior to that I’d always told myself stories verbally as imaginative fun. It wasn’t until I was 15 I wrote anything down, but having done so, I decided that writing novels was what I wanted to do for a living. It took another 16 years for me to realise that dream. Part of that time was taken up by growing up, entering the world of employment, getting married and having a family. During that period I learned to touch type and as technology advanced, transferred from manual typewriter to computer – in those days the Amstrad green screen. I always hoped to get published, but I figured it didn’t matter if I didn’t because this was my hobby and storytelling had been a part of me since I first had language, so I wasn’t just doing it for the fame and fortune (!), I was doing it for me.
Your big break came when Carole Blake became your agent after reading The Wild Hunt. How quickly did your world change as a result of this?
Not immediately because it takes time for contracts to be arranged and for money to begin flowing through so I didn’t give up the part-time day job immediately. When I was first offered a publishing contract, my children were aged six and three, and I was staying at home looking after them during the day and going out to work the twilight shift in a local supermarket at night while my husband took over the childcare. So although I was offered a publishing contract in the summer of 1989, I didn’t give up the job until late autumn of the same year. While my first contract wasn’t exactly enough to move to Millionaire’s Row, it allowed me to be a stay at home mum and write in the spaces between the children. In those early days it was still very much a part time income, but enough to get by when added to my husband’s full-time wage.
Do you look back at your early work affectionately or critically?
Both. I think any writer worth their salt is always learning and seeking to improve. I know I have moved on since my early days, but my early novels were still strong enough to be published and short-listed for awards in a very competitive market. I have since had the great opportunity to overhaul those early novels in the light of experience gained and it was interesting to go back and look at the learning curve. But I am very fond of my early works because they are the foundation stones on which my career has been built.
I totally agree with you. What advice would you give to an author who is about to make the step into the world of an agent and publishing deals?
Be professional. If you don’t know something and it’s genuinely out of your range, then ask. But do some homework first and make sure that it’s not something you can’t answer for yourself. Talk to other writers and professionals who have knowledge of the publishing industry and get a range of opinions. Go to events and network. The more you know the better you will be able to make decisions. You might even decide to go the route of self publishing, but you need to know all the ins and outs of what this entails and be realistic about expectations.
Your love of the medieval period began when you watched your TV hero on screen in the 70’s adventure series Desert Crusader. Which of your heroes/heroines would you love to see televised to inspire a new generation?
Without a doubt it would have to be the great William Marshal and his family. They win hands down! He was a man who took the helm of the country in a time of great upheaval during the early 13th century. Without his political, military and people skills, the pages of England’s history would probably have looked very different.
I would love to see William on TV.
You are renowned for your detailed research and historical accuracy. How has this deepened or broadened over the years since you started writing?
When I began writing it was at the more romantic end of historical fiction and the research books I was using were often fairly general in their outlook although I did even at that time possess a core number of books from university presses. By the very nature of time I gained experience, adding layer upon layer as each successive novel came out. I bought more books; as my knowledge levels increased so did the complexity of my reading. These days I mostly buy my research books from specialist publishers and university presses and my research has become more academic. I am now sometimes asked to give talks at universities and heritage sites – something I couldn’t have envisaged 20 years ago. My research has also become multi-layered. The Internet is obviously a fabulous resource and primary source documents are now available online that couldn’t be obtained when I first began writing. Even so one has to be careful because there is an awful lot of mediocre rubbish out there and all writers need an inbuilt drivel alarm! As well as research reading, I also re-enact with a living history society called Regia Anglorum. This helps me to get a feel for the period by working with replica artefacts and not just reading about how things were done, but having a go – see the next question. I also visit sites mentioned in my novels where possible, and this helps to give a feel for the lie of the land, although Google Earth is also your friend.
Regia Anglorum has obviously been an important part of understanding life within medieval England. What is your favourite artefact/garment that you have had recreated, through knowing the experts associated with the group?
I have a dress. It’s made from woollen fabric especially commissioned and woven to an 11th century pattern using the same loom width that a person of that period would have used. I’m rubbish at needlework and a bit awkward when it comes to cutting out patterns, so I had someone I know make the dress for me. This particular person has degree level knowledge of textile archaeology and mediaeval costumes and was able to design the dress to an 11th/12th century spec. It was then all handsewn using mediaeval stitch techniques. It’s the nearest I’m ever going to get to fully authentic!
In all the places you have been and the artefacts you have studied during your research, do you have a particular favourite(s) that has inspired you or left a lasting memory?
I absolutely love trawling museums, and the London ones are fabulous if one is in the capital. I would say that one of my favourite places to go is the Museum of London which has some terrific exhibits in the mediaeval gallery many of which are ordinary everyday objects and not just the stuff of high aristocracy. There are things like 14th century spades, fish traps, a wonderful little tinned mirror case, a terrific money box that looks like something out of the 1970s! They have a codpiece too!
For a single one I’d have to say the effigy of William Marshal at the Temple Church in London. I always go and see him and honour him when I visit London. He gave me my first New York Times bestseller and he has touched so many people, myself included. He has a life beyond his mortal life, and it always makes my throat tighten with pride when I go to the Temple Church.
What appealed to you most about the character of Eleanor of Aquitaine, inspiring your critically acclaimed trilogy?
I think it’s not so much a case of appealing. It’s more a case of downright curiosity. I had written about her and several novels and at first had followed the usual path of the biographers when I needed to put her in a story. But that came to be not enough. I began to ask questions; I began to see anomalies in her story that didn’t agree with the biographies or what was being accepted as historical veracity. I began to think about Eleanor in a bit more detail. What was she really like? What could she tell me that she hadn’t told anyone else? And the more I researched the more I found out and the more biographical discrepancies came to light. For example you will find her biographers describing her variously as an olive skinned black eyed beauty with a curvaceous figure that never ran to fat in old age, as a saucy blue-eyed blonde, as a humorous redhead with green eyes. And the thing is there is not one single physical description of Eleanor recorded anywhere. Even the supposed mural of her in the chapel of St Radegone in Chinon, is now thought by a leading art historian who has examined the mural in detail, to be a man. A recent academic work on Eleanor titled “inventing Eleanor” by Professor Michael R. Evans, investigates these odd ideas about her appearance, and actually quotes my research into the biographers’ notions about Eleanor’s appearance.
Non-historians also have some strange ideas about Eleanor – that she was a feminist and way ahead of her time, both of which are false assumptions. So I felt I wanted to explore my own version of Eleanor and see if I could discover the 12th century personality behind the detritus of the centuries.
What is next for Elizabeth Chadwick?
First I have to finish and hand in THE AUTUMN THRONE, but when that’s done I strongly suspect that William Marshal is going to be riding again as there are aspects of his story still to be told.
Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to give us an insight into your fascinating career and love of history. Have a lovely Christmas and every good wish for further success in 2015!