Recently retired from library management, Jen lives in Northumberland. She writes almost every day – sometimes contemporary ghost stories, but more often historical adventures. So tell us how you sold your first book, and if you had any rejections before getting that exciting call?
I had more rejections than I wanted from agents in this country, so I thought I’d follow Dorothy Dunnett’s example and try America. Because I baulked at paying postage on a paper ms across the Atlantic, I tried epublishers, and the first one accepted me. Perhaps this should have told me something, but I was so pleased I just went along for the ride. I learned a lot about editing, promotion and networking with Novelbooks, Inc and “met” my first authors there, including Lynne Connolly. My work was duly published and the same day, the publisher announced bankruptcy. Except that she didn’t exactly call it that, and she didn’t follow the rules about doing it. I learned a lot about how Americans handle themselves in tight spots over the next few months. I got my rights back for Banners of Alba, sold it again, and soon had another version of it available as both Print and ebook. It is still available today, along with the sequel: Dark Pool.
Where is your favourite place to work?
My study-bedroom, all my own! Peace and silence and the click of computer keys. Heaven.
To plot or not to plot? Are you a planner or do you just dive in?
A bit of both, I think. There needs to be some general idea that catches my interest, usually an interesting character, either with a problem or about to acquire a problem. My first book began because I was fascinated by Shakespeare’s mauling of MacBeth when history says Scotland enjoyed seventeen years of benign rule under him. It wasn’t long before I had a fantasy running through my head of a young man who saw his right to the throne disappearing unless he chose to fight for it. So then I threw him every complication I could and let him fight his way through it all, sometimes literally.
I like watching my characters interact with danger and with each other, so the theme was simple enough in Dark Pool and Far After Gold – girl in danger in Viking times, must be rescued against all difficulties, preferably by luscious hero. With Til the Day Go Down, I moved forward a few hundred years into the sixteenth century, and settled in the Tyne valley in 1543. I visited Aydon Castle, near Corbridge, and heard about Jock’s Leap – a wily Scot who evaded death by leaping over the gorge before he was pushed. It wasn’t hard to fit that story into the turbulent times of the area, but I didn’t realise when I began Harry’s story that when the book was finished it would be his friend Matho who would become the protagonist of the next three books.
Which authors have most influenced your work? And which do you choose to read for pleasure?
Dorothy Dunnett influenced me and I still read her books for pleasure along with C J Sansom, Sarah Dunant, Jude Morgan and Nora Roberts.
What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?
Knowing when to stop fiddling and tweaking, when something is done!
How do you develop your characters? In historicals, how do you keep them in period yet sympathetic to readers?
In Till the Day Go Down, I wanted a foil for Harry’s cheerful charm, and came up with Matho. By using deep third point of view, I can filter the events of the day through him, and let readers know how he feels about maybe having to kill someone, if he misses the ritual of mass, or how the Borderers feel about armies tramping through their crops and thieving their cattle and sheep as provisions. Matho’s real adventures begin in a book as yet unpublished, Treason, and there I’ve used several point of view characters in order to give a wider perspective on what is a complex political time.
What do you think an editor is looking for in a good novel?
First of all, a story they can sell that will make back what they spend on producing it, and hopefully a little more, possibly a lot more! I expect they want something new and different, something that will capture the imagination of the reading public, but find it hard to define exactly what that might be. They definitely don’t want the same old historical novel, unless it is written by a mega-star of the writing world and guaranteed successful sales to a faithful band of readers.
How do you relax? What interests do you have other than writing?
Gardening, for one. Walking in the glorious Northumberland countryside, taking photographs and putting them on my blog. Reading, when I can find something that interests me. Meeting like-minded friends for chats and meals. Skiing once or twice a year, spending part of the summer in France, and at the moment, acting as general apprentice-cum-dogsbody to all the DIY work going on chez Black.
What draws you to your particular genre? Are you a specialist or do you have another identity?
I love writing historical novels, but I have made one venture into contemporary with my book Shadows. For this story, it was a place that gave me the initial spark of an idea. We go to France in the summer, and stay in an old water mill belonging to friends. It is in a valley, in the middle of green fields and trees with not another house in view, and it is wonderfully relaxing. There’s nothing about the mill that is the least bit threatening, but I found myself writing a story about a young couple who stay there and discover ghosts. I’m too lazy to invent a whole world of shapeshifters and innocent vampires, but I love poking into old buildings, and the odd ghostly happening intrigues me, so I may do more of that kind in the future. Science fiction involves too much other world invention to draw me, though I adored the original Dragons of Pern series and used to be a Star Trek fan.
Do you enjoy writing sequels or series? If so, what is the special appeal for you?
Mostly it’s the idea of not letting go of characters I like. And it means their story can be told in far greater depth than would be possible with a single book. I’ve never been a great fan of the historical that covers an entire life in one volume. I’d much rather cover a few years in six volumes and then leave the characters to a hopefully happy ever after as Dorothy Dunnett did with her Lymond series.
How do you promote your books, and what tips can you offer other writers?
I’m still working this one out by trial and error as I go along. I’ve never been lucky enough to have a publisher willing and able to promote me, so it’s all about using blogs, yahoo groups, Facebook and Twitter and actually telling people that you have a book available. Recently I’ve discovered I can make trailers and readers might like to check this one out:
Is there a particular period of history that you enjoy writing about? Why is that?
The eleventh and sixteenth centuries are favourites of mine and I have set stories in both of them. They share a similar energy, the sense that a man of strength and integrity could go far. There is little written documentation for the far north of Scotland of the eleventh century and the appeal lies in the Viking connection, the poetic sagas, Beowulf, a court of harps and swords and stirring tales. Paganism was giving way to Christianity, and nationhood was but a dream in the minds of a few men. Scot and Angle, Pict and Viking had to learn to live together, and it took time.
The sixteenth century, on the other hand, has Scotland staring south at her enemy England, so much larger and stronger. Women stand strong, both as rulers and consorts, and offer a different look at life, and a different sort of story. Documentation is abundant for the England of Henry VIII, though dates are tricky, and one writer’s view often collides or contradicts with that of another. Religion is changing, and a man’s beliefs can kill him. So much room for drama!
Thank you for sharing your writing life with us Jen. To find out more about Jen Black visit her blog:
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Interviews on the RNA Blog are conducted by Freda Lightfoot and Kate Jackson. If you would like an interview, please contact me at: mailto:email@example.com