WITH SHARON BRADSHAW
Tell me your story.
My Grandmother’s books were too heavy for a child’s small hands, but I loved their age and the stories she told me about the people who had owned them. I discovered faerytales inside the illustrated books at school: knights, princesses, and dragons who breathed fire. My mother bought Enid Blyton paperbacks once I learned to read, and as an only child, I could join The Famous Five in their adventures. History came later with its wealth of tradition, and legend. An A level in the Early Medieval period, and the discovery of archaeology in the sixth form, led onto a lifetime passion for these.
I studied law at University, and trained afterwards to be a Solicitor. I worked in a variety of legal practises across the years, but it wasn’t until 2009 when I attended a course at the UK writers’ summer school in Swanwick, that I realised I could become a historical fiction author. Sadly, as soon as I returned to work as a lawyer, I found it too difficult to continue writing my own stories. The professional books in the office were heavy tomes, and pursuing personal injury claims definitely wasn’t fiction. I discovered then that I enjoyed writing poetry. I could use free verse, to get onto paper all those words which continued to fire my imagination, and refused to accept that I was ignoring them.
I ran a writing competition in 2011 and published an Anthology of selected entries, raising funds to buy bread for children in Tanzania; before taking what was intended to be a short career break in 2012, to help my youngest son start his first business. I ceased practising law, and finally gave myself permission to write my debut novel. I am now a full time novelist, poet, and storyteller.
My collection of love poetry, From Now ‘til Then, is available on Amazon. The revised edition of my novel, Durstan The Monk who Cast a Spell, will be released shortly. The earlier version was traditionally published in 2015, but once the Monk’s story became a trilogy and I had also written the 1st draft of a 4th book and three novellas, I decided to buy back the rights and follow a self publishing path.
I have a newsletter, in which I enjoy sharing one of my short stories every month with subscribers, and I run Warwick Writers’ Group.
Tell me about your latest book.
It’s the first book in the Durstan trilogy, and is called, The Monk who Cast a Spell.
Durstan, a seventeen year old monk living at the monastery on Iona, falls in love with Ailan in 794AD. She disappears after their sexual awakening at Beltane, and he is left shocked and confused when he meets her again several months later on Mull. He is drawn to Beth who believes that she can obtain the protection of the Christian Church by manipulating his emotions, and he is injured then in the Viking raids.
The characters cross the sea from Iona in coracles. They walk through ancient forest to Lord Duncan’s Hall inside its timber enclosure on Mull. The seasons change from Spring to midwinter when the Old Gods are in the magic of the firelight, and the shadows at Yule. It is a time when the early Christian Church continues to be challenged by tradition, and the Druids. Charms, amulets and spells are prevalent. The Monks use these too, and the books which Brother Andrew writes have their own magical element. When Durstan celebrates Beltane with Ailan, Abbot Faisal is obliged to ignore the ancient fertility rite because the Old Gods are at their most powerful when it’s a solstice.
The society in which Durstan lives is dominated by fear of being outcast; slavery; famine, and disease. Men and women in the eighth century are seeking protection from the most powerful God; husband; Lord, or Abbot.
And Durstan’s quest… to regain Ailan’s love.
Where do you get your information and ideas for your books?
Historical research is at the heart of all my books. It gives me the setting, and plot. I have for many years read books about the “Dark Ages,” and followed developments in archaeology, so I already had a pool of knowledge on which I could draw when I began to write my debut novel. I continued to delve deeper into history, as Durstan’s story developed.
The short stories which I share monthly with subscribers to my newsletter are written in different genres. They allow my imagination to run free, and the initial ideas for these can come from anywhere. I enjoy reading fiction and people watching, both of which help me create characters. Photographs and images of the places I am writing about can be developed as settings. A snippet of conversation, or a feeling about something. Perhaps the look on someone’s face; a place which attracts, or repels me? When I come across something which interests me a lot I ask myself questions about it, to see how far the idea can be developed, and if I want to write the story.
Do you have a specific process when writing a book?
Archaeologists like to give their finds a context. Are there any grave goods lying next to a skeleton, to date the bones? Or shards of pottery and coins in a trench which could be proof of human habitation? …It’s much the same when I write a story. I have to discover the context or setting once I have an initial idea for the plot, or a character who fascinates me sufficiently to want to explore his or her persona.
When I went to Swanwick, I imagined a young man sitting on a low stone wall gazing out to sea, and he stayed with me. I asked myself a series of questions about him, and Durstan’s story began once I knew that he was a Monk. He was watching for the arrival of the Vikings. Their first recorded raid on Iona was in 794AD, and he had been told by the Abbot to raise the alarm if he saw long ships on the horizon.
When I am ready now to start writing a novel, I look through my collection of books and make sure that all those in the relevant historical period are on the same shelf. I browse the pages, to help me feel that I am walking in that time, and I begin to organise my research. I make handwritten notes on what is likely to be important to the story or background. I look on Amazon, academic and online sites, to see if there are any research papers or other books I need to buy. I download what I can straightaway onto my laptop or kindle. I consider whether I shall need to visit the places I am writing about. Perhaps a local museum, a castle or ruins, and so on?
More comes to mind, about the plot and characters, the deeper I dig into the history. There is a lot of “thinking time” involved in writing a book, especially at the outset, so I keep a notebook and pen nearby. I jot down more about the story as it occurs to me, even if this is in the middle of the night, since it will be gone by morning. I work on these extracts until I have the bare bones from which I can create chapter outlines. I continue to develop the areas of the novel where I know what happens to the characters. This gives my imagination more again to work on, and the remaining chapters come to life.
The first draft of my novel is simply about getting the story onto the laptop. I finish any research which I still have to do when I start work on the second draft, and fill any gaps which I might have left earlier because they were halting the flow of the narrative. I also add more detail at this point. The Monk who Cast a Spell has a magical element so I made sure that there were plenty of references to the Old Gods, superstition, and spells.
I check that the word count will be sufficient for a novel. If so, and I am satisfied that I have finished telling the story, I am ready to begin editing. I write the main plot in consecutive chapters, and the subplot in a similar way, so I do a constructional edit next. I weave the stories together by changing the order of the chapters, writing any further paragraphs which are necessary to merge them, and deleting those which no longer work. The third draft is for rewriting unwieldy sentences, checking grammar and punctuation. The fourth and fifth drafts involve a lot less editing, and are to get the book ready for publication.
Do you have a writing/reading quirk or ritual?
I usually have a number of books open at the same time for research purposes, and I read a lot of fiction. As I don’t like turning down the edge of a page to mark the place I have reached, I have a large collection of bookmarks, some of which belonged to my mother.
I also can’t leave home without checking that I have a notebook and pen in my bag. Long gone are the days of trying to scribble my thoughts onto flimsy coffee shop napkins with a borrowed pen, or anything else I could find!
What is something you have learned about yourself through the process of writing?
I am passionate about being a storyteller, and author. I have discovered how much I want to share my work with others, and that I enjoy spending a lot of time in the “Dark Ages.” Giving up my career as a lawyer taught me about the power of change, the importance of doing what makes us truly happy, and how we can hold onto something which no longer serves us. I begin my day now, looking forward to doing what I love.
What do you think makes a good story?
If the author has followed an unusual plot, has given the reader enough detail to be able to imagine an interesting setting, and the story touches all of our senses so that we can fully immerse ourselves in the protagonist’s world. We need to feel a strong empathy with the characters. The unexpected is essential, a great twist at the end from clues planted earlier, and a hero with whom we can fall in love or at least happily spend time. The reader needs to be taken on a journey where he or she will forget everything except this story, because it is so compelling.
If you could only read one book over and over, which one would you pick, and why?
There are so many books to love, and which I would like to read again, and again. If I was stranded on a desert island and had a single book, I would like a manual which would teach me to live off the land. If however my choice was a matter of luxury rather than necessity, I would prefer a hardback book of beautiful illustrations, and photographs. I could use these to dream of other worlds, and write stories about them. I can’t imagine now, not being able to write every day.
What books are currently on your nightstand?
The pile includes Harbour Lights, a crime novel by Anne Cleeves; One Step Behind by Henning Mankel; and The Anglo Saxon World, an Anthology from Oxford University Press. I don’t enjoy reading horror stories unless it’s in bright daylight, and I have to be feeling strong for a ghost story at night. My silvered Celtic cross which I bought at Swanwick is also on my nightstand. It has a strong connection to Durstan, and his beliefs. It has become my writer’s amulet, one of the first things I see every day.
How do you organise your books?
I live in an apartment, so space is limited. Nevertheless I have two floor to ceiling bookcases in the lounge opposite my favourite armchair, and three more in the hall. I tend to keep research books close to me, so that I can pick one up whenever I get the urge to do so, since they “feed” my stories. Those in the hall are a mixture of fiction books which I have read, or are waiting to be read; more history, and general interest books.
And my guilty secret? The collection has crept into the empty spaces. My library books live on the coffee table in the lounge, and 2 stacks of books are piled high on the floor, next to the shelves in the hall. If I made a promise not to buy any more, I know that I wouldn’t be able to keep it! An important part of my daily housework routine is to return all of the books to their rightful places, and which the faeries had strewn everywhere.
My purple coated kindle looks after more. It’s less troublesome to care for, but sadly I find, not quite so enjoyable to read. It tends to live quietly on the chair in my bedroom.
You are organising a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
JK Rowling, for her magic, and wonderful characters. Also, because I can get two for one here, since Robert Galbraith will come too. What’s not to love about Harry Potter whilst Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin, have such wonderful adventures?
I shall also invite William Butler Yeats for his beautiful poetry. I would love to hear him read The Cloths of Gold after dinner. Writing comes alive when it’s read by the author, or poet.
I would have liked to ask Boudica to join us, to talk about being Queen of the Iceni in the first century, during the Roman occupation of Britain. I am thinking a lot about her at the moment, but I can’t say that she wrote anything. Similarly, one of the ancient Druids famed for their storytelling, but whose traditions were again mostly verbal. The writers of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle are unknown, and the venerable Bede reputedly didn’t leave the monastery in Jarrow, so I’m guessing that he wouldn’t be able to join us.
I shall invite Dan Jones instead. I saw him speak in October last year at Warwick History Festival, about his book on The Templars. I would love to hear him talk more about the Crusades, and the Knights of old.
But there are so many more potential guests. Lee Child could bring Jack Reacher. There’s Byron too, for his poetry. Neil Oliver, another historical writer, and archaeologist. Frances Pryor who would talk about the Iron Age. He took part in the Time Team TV series, alongside Mick Aston and Phil Harding. His after dinner conversation would be fascinating.
Alexander McCall Smith could tell us more about The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Africa. Alison Weir, another writer with whom I talked at the history festival last year, has a wealth of knowledge about prominent women through the ages. She has written about Boudica. We could have a good gossip about her.
The list is endless, so many wonderful writers, and I can’t leave out Val McDermid or Philippa Gregory… Let’s make it a party!
A Final Thought…
I love talking to my readers, and sharing the stories I have written, so please visit my website.
You’ll find out more about me, and be able to subscribe to my Storyteller’s Newsletter. There are links on the newsletter page to five of the earlier stories, which you can read straightaway.
Thank you for joining me on OF QUILLS & VELLUM today, Sharon! It was a pleasure talking with you.