Welcome to the five hundred and twenty-seventh of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with historical novelist Jenny Barden. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Jenny. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Jenny: Hi Morgen. I’m Jenny Barden, and, yes, I write under my own name. I’m a newly-published author of epic Elizabethan adventures, and my debut, Mistress of the Sea, has just been released in hardback, trade paperback and ebook by Ebury Press, Random House. The book will be available in standard paperback in June next year. I live in Hertfordshire not far from St Albans.
Morgen: The other end of the county to my family. 🙂 You’ve described yourself as an author of “epic Elizabethan adventures”, is that what you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Jenny: I write historical romantic adventures. I’ve never written or considered writing contemporary fiction; it just doesn’t have the same appeal for me – I like to escape when I write ‒ I feel I see quite enough of the modern world in my day-to-day life! As for other genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime or you name it – I can imagine some elements of these one day gaining a foothold in my writing, but I doubt that I will ever move away from writing historical fiction first and foremost; it’s where I began and I’m sure it’s where I’ll end.
Morgen: You have to write what you love, and I’m sure doing so would show through in your writing. If your book was made into a film, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Jenny: I think Ellyn, my heroine in Mistress of the Sea, could be portrayed very well by Helena Bonham Carter or Kate Beckinsale, and a young-looking Sean Bean exactly fits my image of Will Doonan, my hero.
Morgen: A great cast. Which authors would you compare your writing to?
Jenny: The writer I’ve been compared with most often by readers so far has been Philippa Gregory, though I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to say that myself. In terms of convincingly portraying strong women in historical fiction I’m delighted if my work is credited in that way, just as I’d consider it an honour to be compared with CW Gortner or Elizabeth Chadwick, and if the quality of my writing is felt to come anywhere near writers like these or Karen Maitland or Barbara Ewing, for example (though I can think of many more I could mention!), then I’d be very happy indeed. Bernard Cornwell has been a great inspiration to me in the development of my writing and I would be absolutely delighted if readers saw some similarity there too in terms of capturing the essence of a gripping adventure.
Morgen: If I wrote historical (which I don’t, it was my worst subject at school), I’d be happy to be compared to any of those. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Jenny: Yes, my publishers have been very good about involving me in key decisions regarding title and jacket design. Fortunately they didn’t run with the title I had originally chosen for Mistress of the Sea which was To The Ends Of The World. I now agree with them that this was a bit of a mouthful and would have been more difficult to sell. The two titles I was presented with as alternatives were the one eventually chosen and Mistress of the Swan. After doing my own market research amongst my writers circle, the magnificent Verulam Writers, and trying out the two titles on anyone willing to be quizzed, I said I preferred Mistress of the Sea, and happily my editor, Gillian Green, went along with this. Much the same thing happened with the jacket design. Ebury came up with two choices and I liked them both very much. One was quieter in terms of colour and tone and featured a very English-looking shore in the background (my editor described it as ‘Plymouth grey’), the other was vivid, bright and more striking, with exotic palms and rich verdure in evidence (‘Caribbean blue’, as Gillian called it). I tried this out in similar fashion and the almost unanimous vote was for the more eye-catching cover (probably no surprise there!). I’m very pleased with the end result.
Morgen: It’s a great cover, and I’d be inclined to agree with the title choice too. You mentioned Verulam Writers Circle and I’d like to mention their great yearly (February) ‘Get Writing’ one-day conference. It’s the one event of the year I never miss (well, in the two years I’ve known about it). What are you working on at the moment / next?
Jenny: My work-in-progress is a loose sequel centred on the first Elizabethan ‘lost colony’ of early Virginia. The working title for this novel is The Lost Duchess and the principal characters will be Emme Fifield: a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth I, and Kit Doonan: Will’s brother in the first book. Together they get caught up in this great adventure and the enduring mystery surrounding Sir Walter Raleigh’s attempt to found a permanent English settlement on American soil.
Morgen: That sounds like fun. Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Jenny: I wish I could write creatively each day, but alas I often find that other demands intrude, not least those of promoting my book just released. If I’m away giving a talk, or doing something such as co-ordinating the Historical Novel Society’s UK Conference which took place last month, then it can be impossible to disengage from the ‘need to do’ list enough to write. But when I am able to get down to my writing without distraction then I never suffer from writer’s block – I’m too busy making the most of my opportunity! I might find the writing is slow to begin with, and I might end up putting a line through it in later editing, but I always write something!
Morgen: That’s the key, you can’t edit a blank page. Your stories sound very detailed, do you plot or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Jenny: I plot. I have to be careful with my time – I can’t afford to waste it on writing which might end up going off at a tangent or on a frolic of its own! Though, of course, there’s scope for that within the overall framework of my plan. Although Mistress of the Sea is my first published book, I have written other novels, and I’ve found that, as I’ve progressed as a writer, my plotting has become more exact. For The Lost Duchess I have a detailed 5300 word outline already approved by my agent and editor. That gives me confidence, and it’s a wonderful support for the hard graft of getting the whole book written.
Morgen: That’s great because then they have something to look forward to and you must feel less nervous about taking them the book when it’s finished. Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Jenny: Gosh – that’s quite a difficult one to answer. I guess my characters emerge from the circumstances in which I imagine them, and if I’m honest, they begin with me: If I inhabited this other body at this given age, what would I do in this particular situation? What are the admirable traits I’d most like to show? How might I fail? What are the weaknesses that might be revealed? Is this going to test me? How might I grow, change and improve as a result? From answering these and other questions I build up a profile, though I’ll skew everything toward a certain overall concept of persona, depending on that character’s significance in the book and in particular the extent to which I want my readers to empathise with him or her. But the name comes first, and it’s strange how a name can be so crucial to this process. It’s extraordinarily difficult to change a character’s name after a story is begun, so I choose names very carefully.
A little tip I’ll throw out for any new writers who might read this is not to have any repetition of initial letters between characters if at all possible, certainly not to have names that sound at all similar. This may seem obvious, but it’s amazing how the tendency to pick on names that are alike will surface unless consciously checked. Readers, of course, prefer names that are easily remembered and very different! Because I’m writing historical fiction, my names have to be right for the period, and right for the locality in which my characters were born, but they must also sound right to modern ears, and the ubiquity of certain (rather boring!) first names in Elizabethan England (such as ‘John’ and ‘Anne’) can make the whole process somewhat difficult. I use the archives for picking names, and sources relevant to the historical episode about which I’m writing. In The Lost Duchess, for example, I’ve chosen Emmelyne ‘Emme’ Fifield as my lead character who adopts the name ‘Emme Murimuth’ when she joins the expedition to Virginia – this is then mis-recorded as ‘Emme Merrymoth’ in the manifest. I’ve chosen this name because there really was an ‘Emme Merrymoth’ listed among the Lost Colonists, and there is a parish of Fifield-Merrymouth in Oxfordshire deriving, via ‘Merymowthe’, from the thirteenth century name of ‘Murimuth’. The remains of the manor still exist today. Thus I have a name that fits the historical record and which gives me a wonderful backstory for the character as well.
Morgen: One of my Monday night critique group writers had been reading chapters of her historical novel for several weeks when I noticed she has a Will Burns and a Wilbur. No-one else had noticed (myself included) and it wasn’t until they appeared in the same chapter that it leapt out at me. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Jenny: I edit quite extensively as I go along; I’m constantly reading over my work and refining it. Then I’ll edit again once the work is finished, again in response to feedback from my writer-reader friends, again once my agent has given me his comments, and again as a result of what my editor says. My work probably doesn’t need quite as much editing now as it did when I first began writing, but it certainly doesn’t emerge as perfect first draft (if only!).
Morgen: Wouldn’t that be great, but then I find when I’m editing that I come up with things I’d not thought of the first time round, and much prefer. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Jenny: I write in third person because that gives me the most freedom. I like to tell a story from both the male and female point of view, and it’s difficult (but not impossible) to do that effectively writing in first person. Writing in second person is not something that I would dare attempt for a full-length novel that I hoped to sell!
Morgen: Very wise. I love second person but I’ve not written at length in it. Few people have and I bought Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City as soon as I found out it was second person but have found it a hard slog (despite being small) and haven’t finished it, although to be fair I have a lot of distractions. From what I’ve heard few editors would touch it. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Jenny: Oh, yes – I’m sure most writers do! My bottom drawer overflowed some time ago! I think that’s as it should be. There’s absolutely no reason why the public should be afflicted with my early attempts while I was learning the craft of writing.
Morgen: Although you have the experience now to work out where you’ve gone ‘wrong’. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Jenny: Masses – but I just read something nice that someone of good standing has said as an antidote! I’d encourage all writers to build files of the compliments they’ve received from agents and editors, and to dwell on those rather than the rejections. (But if someone says something useful in a rejection then act on it – I secured representation by my first agent after he’d rejected me, by picking up on the suggestions he made and calling him to say I’d take them!)
Morgen: So you have an agent, do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Jenny: My current agent, Jonathan Pegg, has certainly been vital to my success. I’m sure I would never have secured a mainstream publishing deal without him. He’s supported me through thick and thin, never lost faith or let me down, always kept me fully informed and given me invaluable critique and advice. If any writer is lucky enough to have the chance of representation by an agent as good as Jonny then they should take it!
Morgen: I’ve not approached him myself but have heard good things. How much of the marketing do you do for your book, or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Jenny: As a new author I have to work hard at raising awareness of my work; I knew this would be tough before the ink was dry on my publishing contract, and I’ve done my best to get Mistress of the Sea off to a good start using all the means at my disposal, working hand in hand with Ebury, but conscious that I must do much of the hard graft myself, because what Ebury can’t do is pick up the ‘phone to The Book Show and expect Mariella Frostrup to want an interview – why should she when she’s not (yet!) heard of me. Building up an author platform is a slow process of incremental steps and it’s one I began with my eyes open before my book was even finished. I’ve written Mistress of the Sea, and Ebury have gift-wrapped it beautifully, provided me with publicity material, and opened bookstore doors for me – it’s up to me now to use Twitter, Facebook, my website, blogs, museum and library appearances, conferences, literary festivals, book club visits and signings, local radio and the press – all these and more to try and encourage interest in this book of which I’m very proud. But I must do this sensitively and cheerfully, in a way that makes people want to know more, and isn’t ‘look at me’ in a way that puts people off. I’d say that marketing is the hardest job of all.
Morgen: And usually the answer to my ‘What’s your least favourite aspect of writing’ to most of the writers I’ve spoken to. You’re right about the ‘look at me’. I’ve come across authors who have nothing else to say on Twitter but “buy my book” (many don’t say please) and have known authors to review their own books! What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Jenny: Always be receptive to good criticism and feedback. Read widely and assiduously in the genre in which you’ve chosen to write. Be aware of the importance of building a profile. Network among other writers and learn from their experience. Never lose heart. Never think you’re a genius. Remember that persistence pays.
Morgen: It certainly does. They do say that a successful writer is one who didn’t give up. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Jenny: I’d invite Francis Drake and offer him prime Aberdeen Angus steak very rare, I think he’d like that. I’d also invite Elizabeth I and offer her frozen lemon sorbet, just to see her reaction. Rembrandt would be my third guest, and he’d have to be given soused herrings, though I’d sit at a distance, since I can’t stand them, and I’d hope to draw him while he was eating.
Morgen: That’s funny. I’d like to show Elizabeth I the Black Adder second series as Miranda Richardson makes a brilliant Elizabeth I. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Jenny: Serendipity – if there’s one word that sums up what seeds a good story it’s that.
Morgen: And a great film, with Kate Beckinsale. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Jenny: I paint, mainly in watercolours, when I can; I love to travel to remote places; I enjoy all the research I do on the ground, piecing together the evidence from past ages and seeing stories emerge – visiting battle sites and ancient buildings, finding old maps and primary sources, exploring museums and galleries – treading the ground that I can imagine my characters once walked; that’s magic for me. The research that underpins my writing is just as enjoyable as the writing itself.
Morgen: That’s great to hear. Research and editing are my least favourite although I write contemporary fiction so my research usually only extends to Google and Wikipedia. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Jenny: A lot of uncertainty! I’ve heard editors say it’s never been easier to get published, especially if you take advantage of all the opportunities for self-publishing there are now, and yet it’s never been harder to get people to pay for your work. That will be the real difficulty for most career writers, I think – earning enough!
Morgen: Absolutely, which is why I’ve taken in two lodgers. Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Jenny: My own website: http://www.jennybarden.com, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, English Historical Fiction Authors where I blog, The Historical Novel Society’s site where I provide occasional features such as these: Jenny Barden in conversation with C W Gortner and Philippa Gregory on her new YA series. The Verulam Writers’ Circle blog If Shakespeare eg ‘Our Jenny Makes History’ and other sites where I guest blog such as Reading The Past and History in an Hour.
Pieces that other writers are good enough to put up about me, such as this about my book launch by Lorna Fergusson, and this about a talk I gave at the annual conference of the Romantic Novelists’ Association by Deborah Swift. The press e.g. St Albans Review, The Romantic Novelists’ Association blog. I should soon be featuring on the Historical Writers’ Association site as well (I’ve just joined).
Morgen: Wow. That’s some list. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Jenny: Anyone in or near London may like to know that I will be talking about Francis Drake’s first great adventure and the background to Mistress of the Sea in a series of presentations and book signings on Friday 2 November at 4.00, 5.00 and 6.00pm at the Golden Hinde, near London Bridge, 1-2 Pickfords Wharf, Clink St, London SE1 9DG. Actors will bring the story to life and a complementary glass of wine will be offered to each visitor. Admission Free. For more about the event please see the Golden Hinde website.
Morgen: That sounds like fun. I won’t be able to make it unfortunately but I hope it’s a storming success.
Jenny: Also, thanks for giving me the opportunity to answer your questions, Morgen. It’s been a pleasure.
Morgen: You’re so welcome. I’m delighted I could join me, and am even more so by your early success. Thank you, Jenny.
I then invited Jenny to provide an extract of her novel and this is from Mistress of the Sea…
‘Ellyn! It is I, Will!’
She wrestled to break free, beating at his chest, though the first glimpse of his shadowed face was enough to burst open her heart. And when he pressed his face next to hers, her tears would not stop. She shuddered as she leant against him, feeling his hand stroking her hair, his beard by her cheek, and his deep voice as if already within her, sounding in the core of her being.
‘I am here, and I am not leaving you.’
She buried her face against his shirt, surrendering to his strength, his body like a rock, conscious of the tang of leather and salt, and that his touch was tender, so tender she wept afresh.
She could barely see, but she heard sounds that alarmed her. Men were shouting in the distance. She shrank back, twisting round. They were coming nearer very fast.
Will ran his hands over her shoulders.
‘You are shivering like a lamb. What has happened to you? Why so frightened?’ He raised a hand to her face that was bandaged about the palm, and she flinched when he touched her, though his questioning was soft. ‘What is it?’
‘Bastidas . . .’
She clutched at Will and looked about. There were men with bows emerging like black phantoms from between the trees. Her eyes darted wildly from where they were massed to where they were not, searching for a gap, a place to flee. Their whole appearance was sinister, yet she guessed they were Cimaroons, and when Will addressed them like friends she let out her breath.
Will waved them away.
‘Go back and wait for me.’
He held her arms gently.
‘Bastidas. You mean the captain in charge of the garrison?’
‘Yes.’ She shook in remembering. ‘He is coming. You must get away . . .’
‘When is he coming? Tonight?’
‘Tomorrow. Perhaps at daybreak. Please . . .’
He embraced her again.
‘Hush. We will be gone before he gets here. The wind is westerly and that will help.’
He glanced up, and she followed, seeing the pale disc of a rising moon and the faint glimmer of stars. He seemed satisfied.
‘We will sail through the night. Are you ready to go?’
‘Yes.’ She began to move away and he kept close by her side.
Mistress of the Sea is an epic, swashbuckling romantic adventure set at the time of Drake, pirates and privateers.
Plymouth 1570; Ellyn Cooksley fears for her elderly father’s health when he declares his intention to sail with Drake on an expedition he has been backing. Already yearning for escape from the loveless marriage planned for her, Ellyn boards the expedition ship as a stowaway.
Also aboard the Swan is Will Doonan, Ellyn’s charming but socially inferior neighbour. Will has courted Ellyn playfully without any real hope of winning her, but when she is discovered aboard ship, dressed in the garb of a cabin boy, he is furious.
To Will’s mind, Drake’s secret plot to attack the Spanish bullion supply in the New World is a means to the kind of wealth with which he might win a girl like Ellyn, but first and foremost it is an opportunity to avenge his brother Kit, taken hostage and likely tortured to death by the Spanish. For the sake of the mission he supports Drake’s plan to abandon Ellyn and her father on an island in the Caribbean until their mission is completed. But will love prove more important than revenge or gold?…
Jenny Barden is an artist-turned-lawyer-turned-writer who has had a love of history and adventure ever since an encounter in infancy with a suit of armour at Tamworth Castle. A fascination with the Age of Discovery led to travels in South and Central America, and much of the inspiration for Mistress of the Sea came from retracing the footsteps of Francis Drake in Panama.
Jenny has four children and lives in Hertfordshire with her long suffering husband, a loving Labrador and a deadly Bengal cat.
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