I met Elaine at a crime writers’ conference a few years ago, where she kindly rescued me from being a wallflower and we’ve stayed in touch ever since.
About the Author
E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers and a Bild bestseller in Germany. Book #3 in the series, The Lord of Ireland, was published by Thomas & Mercer in April 2016. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She is also a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine, blogs for and edits English Historical Fiction Authors, reviews fiction & non-fiction for the Historical Novel Society and is part of the HNS Social Media Team.
The Exclusive Interview
Elaine has been notably generous with her support and encouragement, as well as being refreshingly witty and down to earth! I’m frankly amazed at the quantity and quality of the blog posts she produces; interesting historical pieces with incredible detail about medieval England, with great photos, too. That’s aside from writing her novels which have received considerable international recognition. How does she do it?! Well, I’ll let you meet her for yourself, to find out! She has kindly responded to a series of questions I put to her recently, about her work:
1. I understand you discovered a love of Anglo-Saxon and medieval English during your University studies in literature and geography, but how did you make the leap from that to writing novels?
Thank you for the lovely intro, Alison and for hosting me on your blog. For what it’s worth, I think that the only rescuing you needed at the conference was from me! I had a belter of a throat infection and was mildly delirious with a fever. The fact that I landed next to you and started raving on about medieval axes and chain mail, and yet you didn’t run away, is a real tribute to your professionalism and kind heart.
As for my leap to novel writing, here’s the long story short. I had won a number of writing prizes at school and had been encouraged by the career guidance nun to pursue a career in writing. (Note: this is not more delirium. I went to a convent school in Ireland and the sisters were very ahead of their time. Proper psychometric testing and everything.) Family didn’t agree. I was moaning about all this to long-suffering Spouse two decades later. He told me to go and write a novel. So I did. It was a 120,000 page contemporary thriller with romantic elements. And it was utter drivel. It got rejected by agents and publishers many, many times. It languishes in an electronic drawer to this day.
2. What drew you specifically to writing pacey historical thrillers?
|12th Century Chasse showing Becket murder|
I had entered The Drivel in many writing contests, thanks to my membership of the wonderful Romance Writers of America. It was apparent from the feedback that the one, the only, thing I was any good at, was pace. So I learned a lot of other stuff, like character and plot. And I shifted from contemporary to historical because I loved historical worlds and I could expand my creative horizons. Book #2 was a historical thriller with RE. Still quite drivelly, but not so much. I had a few near misses with agents/publishers. Book #3, The Fifth Knight, which centres on the infamous murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170, got me an agent and a publisher. It all looks seamless. But from the inception of The Drivel to debut publication day took ten years. I had had a ton of rejections for The Fifth Knight too, many on the basis that ‘no-one reads medieval.’ Three books and 120,000 copies later, I think we can agree that somebody does. Or else I have just the one Uberfan.
3. How much does a writer need to know in order to write a novel set in the 12th century? What level of research do you need to do to get started?
The research commitment for historical fiction of any sort is huge. Any historical writer of any period will tell you that. For anyone thinking of embarking on it, note I’m not mentioning any historical qualifications. You don’t have to have them. But you do have to find reputable sources of information and check and check and check. And even after all that checking, you will get 1* reviews calling you out on your lack of research. This is despite the stack of thumbed tomes at your elbow published by fly-by-nights such as Oxford University, Cambridge University, Yale University. I could go on. But the bottom line is that all that research is hugely enjoyable. If you don’t enjoy it, then you probably shouldn’t write historical. You can also get some great blog posts out of it. A final note of caution, however. If you’re writing historical fiction, you’re not writing as a historian. Another historical fiction writer I know reminds people that we’re ‘Not Historians, but Storians.’ I like that a lot. We are, for all our research, making stuff up. It’s fiction.
4. Do your story ideas come to you within the context of their time (ie do you ‘think’ within that era?) or do you have an idea and then transport it back in time to the medieval period?
A bit of both. In my second in the Fifth Knight series, The Blood of the Fifth Knight, there is a major plot theme around sorcery. With my 21st century head on, I find the idea of a devil breaking into a church and making off with a sorceress on the back of a barbed black horse quite fun and certainly very lively. But for medieval people, this was shocking, terrifying truth. I have some characters who doubt this kind of account, but they would in reality have been in a very small minority. I don’t particularly struggle with understanding that mindset of belief through fear. I was raised in Ireland, a Catholic country where for my entire childhood the word of the Church was law. Just as it was for the medievals, religion wasn’t a part of society- it was society. Even as a small child I was regularly informed about burning in hell for my sinfulness. The enterprising nuns even showed me and my classmates how to perform an emergency Baptism to prevent a soul going to hell.
5. How do you structure a new story, when almost every detail (apart from the weather and human emotions) has to belong to another time – transport, food, tools, clothes, language, for example? Do you research as you go along? How do you immerse yourself in that world when you’re living in this one!? (You will notice I’m in awe of what you do!)
|King John c1370 depiction. Great Charter Roll, Waterford|
That’s very kind of you to say so, but I enjoy it so much that I can hardly claim it as a chore! The approach I take (and everyone is different) is to do a great deal at the start to make sure the plot premise is sound. For my latest release, The Lord of Ireland, I had to make sure that I understood all the ins and outs of 12th century Irish history leading up to the point when Henry II sent his youngest son, John, there. (Yes: THAT John. As in Bad King John. As an eighteen year old, he got the gig of sorting Ireland out. John being John, he didn’t.) As anyone who knows anything about Irish history, the ins and outs are, shall we say, complex. But I got there. Once I had the politics straight, then came the detail. The Irish dressed differently, spoke differently, fought differently, ate differently. Put it this way: I have many, many folders.
It took me two solid days to find out what an Irish dart looked like. And yet I only spotted at the proof-reading stage that Sir Benedict was holding a fork in one sentence. He now holds a knife. But that fork could well have landed me another 1* review. As for immersion, there are so many amazing museums and re-enactment groups out there. I also like to go and jump around in castles and muddy fields. A lot.
6. Have you ever been tempted to write contemporary fiction?
I wrote The Drivel. That is all.
7. What are you working on at the moment?
Research for Book #4 of the Fifth Knight series and another medieval project about which I’m sworn to secrecy.
Huge thanks to Elaine for her insightful answers – I have to say, it all sounds fascinating…
Find out more by visiting www.empowell.com or Waterstones and find her on her Blog, Facebook and Twitter. Discover her books at Amazon.
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------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- AJ Waines’ novels are Standalones and can be read in any order:
- Over 180,000 books sold worldwide
- Girl on a Train a Number One Bestseller on Kindle in UK and Australia (2015)
- The Evil Beneath Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' (UK Kindle charts)
- Dark Place to Hide Number One in 'Vigilante Justice' (UK Kindle charts)
- No Longer Safe went straight to Number One 'Crime Noir' (US & UK Kindle charts)
- Awarded Kindle KDP Top 10 'most-read Author' in UK (2015)
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