Episode 8

Creating compelling characters in historical fiction, with Katherine Clements

9 February, 2024

Join bestselling novelist and writing coach Katherine Clements as she discusses the deep, human connection between reader and characters that distinguishes historical fiction from history. This episode also takes in topics including how to remain teachable as a writer, following your gut, and what a meaningful and bold writing career looks like.

Those wanting more detail on this crucial topic or to learn directly from Katherine in an interactive setting can also join her upcoming masterclass of the same name. Taking place on Friday 1 March 2024 and exclusive to The History Quill members, the Creating compelling characters masterclass will give you practical tools for developing major and minor characters and then transferring them to the page. For more information, visit our masterclasses page. Members can join live or access the recording after the event.

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[00:00:00] Theo Brun: Hello, welcome to The History Quill Podcast, brought to you by The History Quill, the home of historical fiction writers. My name is Theodore Brunn, and I am here with my co host Julia Kelly. Julia, how are you today?

[00:00:26] Julia Kelly: I’m very well, I am, I am doing very well. Actually, I’m in the happy situation of having just sent off developmental edits on a book and heard that they’re going into production, which means that I’m going to be able to start thinking about some new things. It’s this novel idea of starting something.

New and fresh, and I don’t even know what that looks like yet. So I’m really enjoying all of the, the look ahead and the planning and, yeah, just figuring out what my next move might be. How about you?

[00:00:59] Theo Brun: Yeah, I’ve, I’ve had, an interesting month. I actually had my first attempt at a self published book, which came out, I think, since we last spoke. and that’s been quite fun, actually, because it’s kind of short and sweet. it’s a seasonal book. It’s a Christmas book. and it’s been fun sort of gauging people’s reaction, not feeling too invested in the whole thing.

Like, Is this going to work or not? It was more a value to me because I just wanted to understand what it took to, to go through that self publishing route. We’ve done it so many, talked about it so many times with a lot of different, authors, haven’t we? And other than that, yeah, my, my kind of next, magnum opus if it comes to that is, is is quite, does feel quite ambitious.

So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking of that, started the research for that, trying to, it’s like a patchwork quilt, which is all well and good, but I need to figure out, you know, something of a flow of a story as well with all the great ideas that are going to make up this novel. So, a bit like you, I’m kind of in a, in, in that kind of ingredient stage of the, of the next big thing.

[00:02:07] Julia Kelly: It’s a, it’s a great stage, but also there’s a lot of thinking and a lot of research usually involved with that.

[00:02:13] Theo Brun: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, we’ve learned so much about how much research it takes. So I’m not scared to like go a bit deeper. But that’s fun as well.

[00:02:22] Julia Kelly: Wonderful. Well, today we are going to be talking to, an author, Katherine Clements, who also, does some work as a coach of other authors. And I think that this conversation is going to be quite relevant to a lot of the stuff that we’ve been talking about recently with our own books, kind of figuring out why we’re writing the things that we want to write, what it is that we are focusing on, and then also some practical craft questions around character as well.

So that should be a really great conversation.

[00:02:52] Theo Brun: Yeah, I can’t wait. Well, let’s meet Katherine.

[00:03:02] Julia Kelly: We are very excited to welcome Katherine Clements to the podcast today. Katherine is going to talk to us a bit about her writing career and then also some work that she does, with other authors. and a little bit about a masterclass that she’s going to be teaching in the month of March.

Katherine, welcome.

[00:03:20] Katherine Clements: Hi, I’m very glad to be here.

[00:03:23] Julia Kelly: Well, thank you so much for joining us. And perhaps you can start out by telling us a little bit about you as an author and your books.

[00:03:32] Katherine Clements: Sure. So, I’m, of course, I’m a writer of historical fiction. and I have three novels published currently, all published with a headline. The first of which is called The Crimson Ribbon, that came out in 2014. Second, The Silvered Heart, the following year. And then the third novel, The Coffin Path, came out in 2018.

All three of those books are set in the 17th century. either during or related to the English Civil Wars. So that’s, that was my, sort of period of history, for all three novels.

[00:04:14] Theo Brun: That’s brilliant. I’m deep in the in the in the heart of the second one, the silvered chair.

[00:04:19] Katherine Clements: Silvered Heart

[00:04:20] Theo Brun: Sorry, Silvered Heart. I’ve got it written. I’m confusing C. S. Lewis there, aren’t I? Silvered Heart. yeah. No, it’s wonderful. I love the, it’s sort of incredibly sort of rich way of writing, like the sensory Way in which you describe your pros kind of really draws you in and then you kind of hit us with what the characters are doing.

but before we kind of get into like more about the writing or other thing, other aspects of of what you do, I just wanted because I know Around your own writing, you’re a great encourager of other authors and other writers, aren’t you? And, you know, you make a sort of powerful case of just keep going, or like, trying to get people over that barrier into either beginning or launching into their dreams, I suppose, of writing.

historical fiction or else just keep going. If you’re already in it, you know, was that moment where you kind of came to the entry point? Was that a big moment in your story? And if so, how did you overcome it?

[00:05:24] Katherine Clements: Fantastic question, and thank you for asking that. I, I really like that term, encourager, an encourager of, of writing and of writers. Yes, basically I do this work, the work that I, that I’m now really focused on working with other writers as a coach and mentor because of my own story. and you know, the, the biggest barrier that I.

faced, when thinking about writing, you know, kind of back in the mists of time, was fear and self doubt. you know, I wanted to be a writer for a really long time, but didn’t do any writing, didn’t do anything about it. And That was because it felt like such a impossible thing, you know, I, I wanted, I knew I wanted to write a novel, I knew I wanted to be a novelist, but I didn’t know how to start and it felt like such an impossible task, such a huge task, but I didn’t know where to begin and I was too afraid to even try because it felt so impossible, who was I to think that I could possibly do this thing?

that started to change for me in my late twenties when I, went through a few changes in my life and. I began what you might call a, a journey, of sort of coming, coming to be more myself. If you like, you know, I, I went through a sort of period of, reflection and, Internal work, sounds all very Californian and, you know,

[00:07:28] Julia Kelly: As the resident Californian I completely agree. You are very accurate on that. I’m just sitting here being like, yeah, that’s what LA feels like sometimes.

[00:07:41] Katherine Clements: so, you know, a journey of self discovery, shall we say, let’s just go for it. which made me. question all of those unhelpful stories that I had been telling myself. And, I began to take baby steps towards writing and, you know, in terms of how I. Overcame that fear and self doubt. I’ll be honest, I don’t think that writers ever really completely overcome that fear and self doubt.

I believe it’s often part of our process. But, in terms of how I overcame that fear that was holding me back and getting in the way, it was through taking small baby steps. That were scary, but not too scary. So I did things like, attending an evening class, you know, starting to try to write short stories, doing writing exercises, exploring the world of, of writing and writers and all of the stuff that’s out there to support aspiring writers yeah, so, so those small steps were, were my kind of first way forward.

[00:09:01] Julia Kelly: Coming off of that, you know, those small steps, I was really struck by What, what I saw is sort of a mission statement on right on the front of your website, which I’m going to read to you, which is always a bit awkward. So I apologize. but it says, hi, I’m Katherine and I help people start writing, stay writing and build bold, meaningful writing careers.

So I wanted to know, what does a bold and meaningful writing career look like to you? And how did you make that transition from that fear and those baby steps to where you are now? Of

[00:09:33] Katherine Clements: great question. I mean, time is, is one short answer, you know, sort of continuing to build on those baby steps. There was a moment where I decided to take my writing seriously. And what I mean by that was I really committed. To writing a novel, to trying to write a novel and did several things, you know, including, going on writing Residential Weeks with the Arvon Foundation.

I was lucky to meet, a mentor quite early on. a fellow writer who was some way ahead of me on the path who could encourage me. And, but also help me to understand that some of the things I was experiencing were, normal, you know, the fear, the doubt, the things that come up along the way that, you know, she really, really helped me to understand that actually this, this was normal.

This is part of the process. And so having, having somebody else there was a big, big help. and. I think just really prioritizing my writing as well and, and, and committing to it, which is difficult, you know, I mean, I think most people start out when they’re doing other things. And I certainly was working in a full time job, a very busy and demanding full time job at the time.

And. Writing around that, you know, finding time, prioritizing writing, which means saying no to other things and sometimes to other things that you want to do, you know, it’s so sort of learning to put my writing at the center of my life and. build my life around it rather than the other way around. And that links to what I mean by a bold, meaningful writing career, because what I do a lot is work with people to help them really identify what I call their why, you know, why they’re writing in the first place, what writing gives to them what it brings to their life, the part of writing that is for the writer alone. So rather than all of the, you know, we all have these motivations. We all want to get published. We all want to be read. We all want to tell stories. We all want to communicate with other people. And all of those things are fantastic motivators. But what will keep you going over the long term is understanding deep down.

What it gives you and what it brings to you, regardless of all that external stuff. And that’s what I mean by a meaningful career. Hmm.

[00:12:54] Theo Brun: like there’s this sort of, I mean, it’s so Interesting listening to you in so much depth in there from like you say, like you haven’t, what are your sales looking like to like, why am I, you know, who am I, what, what is what if I’m not a writer, then what am I? And it’s so I don’t know if you can put some flesh on the bones.

There’s the fear on the one side, but often, you know, what is it that often you find people are actually afraid or the fear of failure, the fear of like imposter syndrome, the fear of I don’t know, they’re readers or looking at, I mean, there’s always that challenge I find as a writer of like staying in your lane and it’s very easy to go, hang on, you know, what’s going on in that guy’s career or this woman’s career and comparing yourself vis a vis, as you said, the other side of the coin, like, why do you do it?

Yes. It’s nice when someone says, Oh, I loved your book. And that lasts for about, Well, actually, if it was it, Mark Twain said that I can live for six months on a good compliment. I, there’s a lot of truth in that, isn’t there? So we’re all like looking for attention to some extent and to be noticed. And we want our.

Our words and our writing and stories to be noticed, but at the same time, it can’t be contingent upon someone else. It’s got a like flow from within. So are you, I mean, maybe you’ve answered this to some extent already, but are you able to sort of be a bit more specific about what was your fear when you were like holding you back?

And, and, and how did you sort of rationalize your way around it? And then what is the real joy and real motor that kind of keeps you going? even now? Yeah.

[00:14:31] Katherine Clements: That is a huge, huge question. and yes, I. Agree with everything you said there. so for me, I think the fear initially was definitely fear of failure. we really want something and I really wanted it, I, you know, I knew deep down and I’d always known since being a kid that I wanted to write. To be a novelist.

I used to say that when I was a kid. it’s sometimes easier to not try and not risk failure than to try and fail. So, I think that was the thing that really held me back. While I could have this dream, this fantasy of how. Well, one day I’m going to write this book and it’s going to get published and I’m going to be a writer and, you know, I’m going to live in a beautiful house in the countryside with my cat and have this lovely writerly life.

while it’s a dream and a fantasy, you know, I can, I can still imagine that that’s going to happen. Whereas if I try and I don’t get there, what does that mean? It’s my dream is taken away from me. So, that got in the way for me a lot. pure self confidence as well and, and just sort of, self belief really, any, you know, belief that, that I might be able to, to do this thing that I had no idea how to do.

as I said before, you know, I eventually. the kind of desire to try became more uncomfortable than the not trying.

[00:16:40] Theo Brun: I mean, it’s like, it’s like a classic, it’s like a sort of classic act one to any story, isn’t it? It’s like the character has to change to something unstable

[00:16:50] Katherine Clements: Yeah, totally. and as I said before, you know, I started kind of making small steps towards it. I mean, I can’t pretend that that was an easy journey. but I kept trying, I kept showing up. In the end, I wrote the book and, you know, I, I was fortunate that my first novel got published and that was my debut novel, The Crimson Ribbon.

I did rewrite that book probably about seven times. So that’s how I learned to write a book. And I’m always saying to people, you know, the only way to learn how to write a book. Is to write a book and what then happened, I mean, I’m sure that, you and your listeners have heard of the kind of second book syndrome before the, the, the difficulty that people can have approaching their second novel, because you’ve done it once, but you don’t know if you can do it again.

[00:17:58] Theo Brun: and have you got those seven drafts in you again?

[00:18:01] Katherine Clements: Yeah, exactly.

[00:18:02] Theo Brun: Now you, now, now you’ve done it once. You’re like, oh my gosh.

[00:18:06] Katherine Clements: yeah, you’ve got to do it again. And my first book did okay. But you know, you mentioned earlier, Theo, about, sales and the pressures that authors find themselves under when it comes to that side of things. it didn’t exactly set the world on fire. So, and you know, in commercial terms, I, I considered it a failure actually.

I don’t see it that way now at all, but at the time I did, and those feelings coupled with the pressures associated with the second book, I found really, really difficult. And the year or two after that first publication were very hard indeed for me. But that experience was the one that really forced me.

To dig a lot deeper into the kind of stuff that we’ve already talked about. So figuring out my why, figuring out why I was doing this, why I wanted to do this, you know, why I felt compelled to write and finding a way to separate my definition of success from the sort of. Vagaries and, and commercial side of the publishing world.

You know, that led me in turn to doing the work that I do now and working with other people on helping them through those similar journeys and those similar processes.

[00:19:55] Julia Kelly: You’re, you’re talking about sort of supporting other authors and helping people understand that this, this whole thing is a journey and this whole thing is a process. And I want to be sure to leave some time to talk about your masterclass that you’ll be teaching because of course, it’s not just, you know, the, the internal journey.

It’s also how, how to go about writing a book. As you said, you do it. You do it once and you wonder, can you ever do it again? But before you complete that first novel, it is so, it can be so intimidating, figuring out how, how to actually write a book. So your master class is called Creating Compelling Characters in Historical Fiction, and I want to, talk a little bit about what your approach is and what you’ll be highlighting.

for students who take this, this class, this, class that I should say is exclusive to History Quill members. what can people expect when they, when they sign up and join you?

[00:20:51] Katherine Clements: Hmm. Well, yes, the other side of, of, you know, the work that I do and also obviously my own practice, but I do quite a lot of teaching and. Mentoring on writing craft. and. Character is one of my favourite subjects to talk about. I believe very much that we come to fiction for the people. you know, character and plot are so intertwined, you can’t have one without the other really, you know, some books focus more on, kind of character driven narratives and some focus more on plot driven narratives and obviously with historical fiction, often we’re dealing with real history, real events, things happening.

that, that really happened. But when we come to fiction, historical fiction, we are seeing those events through the eyes of characters. So, you know, and how those characters, how those characters influence events or how events influence those characters. So I am very passionate about character being the real driver when you’re writing a novel and when you’re writing fiction and that all Characters.

need to be developed in some way. Even minor characters need a little bit of something to make them feel real. You know, when I work with authors on their books, one of the things that comes up the most, one of the problems that I see the most is that characters. lack that depth that makes them feel like fully formed humans, that, that kind of makes them feel like real people, real people that we, that we, that we care about, real people that we feel compelled to follow.

and so my class is going to focus basically on ways to develop character make them, you know, very compelling and very gripping. in, in your novel and focused on the protagonist and your, your kind of main characters, but also we’ll dip in a little bit to minor characters and how to make sure that they’re not like cardboard cutouts as well.

[00:23:31] Julia Kelly: Of course.

[00:23:33] Theo Brun: Is there a balance? I mean, I’m sure there is, but, but I wonder how you would answer like what, where the balance lies between, you know, characters where their depth is in a way to examine the within the novel, like, but it’s putting too much of that on the page or just kind of knowing it yourself as the author and just then writing versus, you know, doing too little as it were, and like, you know, You know, it definitely, it corresponds a little bit to the genre of book, even within historical fiction, doesn’t it?

Like some things are just more action adventurey with, or rompy, as it were, within historical fiction, and others are like, you know, slower, it’s more you want to hear all that internal conflict, because that’s, you know, in essence what the story is about. How do you strike a balance between those?

[00:24:26] Katherine Clements: You’re absolutely right. you know, there are definitely some books where we want more. Kind of internal character stuff and, and somewhere we’re happy to be kind of, you know, kind of swept up with, with the plot and the, and the events that are happening, but even, even at that end, I still will hold firm to the argument that that’s why we’re reading fiction and not history is because.

We want the human story, the human element. So, we need something, we need something to make us care about those characters in order to. I do agree that a lot of character development work is for us as the writer, we need to know a lot more than we’ll ever go into the book. And I think especially with historical fiction that applies to historical research as well, right?

We, we need to know an awful lot more than, than ever makes it to the page. And I think that is the same with characters, but we need to understand their internal. Thinking their, you know, their motivations, what they, all that stuff, like what they want, what they need. but also how they see themselves, you know, what do they believe about themselves and their lives and, what’s their take on, on, on what’s going on around them, you know, we, we need a little bit of that for them to.

To feel for us to connect for us to get that human connection, I think. So there’s definitely a balance. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I would say, I mean a point that I will definitely be making quite strongly during the course is we need to do character development work as writers, but the only way that you really get to know your characters is by writing them.

So, you know, I find that quite often I do a lot of character work at the beginning, but it’s not until about a third to a half the way through my first draft that those characters really start to come to life. So, if you don’t know everything at the beginning, that’s okay. It will, you know, characters will reveal themselves.

[00:26:51] Theo Brun: Yeah, I guess don’t, don’t let it be a block again. You know, to you starting out.

[00:26:57] Julia Kelly: It’s funny you mentioned that. I was going to ask because I am also one of those authors who I do, I think I do quite a bit of character work before I start writing, although I think there’s always room for more and sort of different techniques. So I’m very curious about, about how you approach that.

But I’m also one of those authors who finds usually about a third to half of the way through the book. if something isn’t working, it often has to do with character. And it’s often because characters are behaving in a way. I hadn’t predicted, which is a strange thing to say. And I thought I was never going to be one of those authors who says, Oh, you know, they take over and suddenly, you know, they’re running all over my book and I’m just, I’m just trying to follow them and write as quickly as possible.

But it’s been absolutely true in my career that, you know, Characters have taken vastly different paths than I anticipated for them. do you have advice to authors who find themselves in that situation where they have a significant amount of work done and they’re having to make the decision, I’m either going to go with what this character is telling me, or I’m going to have to figure out something else.

And I don’t know what that something else is, but it might mean scrapping quite a bit of this book.

[00:28:07] Katherine Clements: I’m a big believer in trusting your gut with this stuff, so trusting your instinct. and I think what you’re describing is certainly something I’ve experienced as well, Julia, which is that moment where the character, you know, does something or says something and you think, oh, oh, no, I wasn’t expecting this. Yeah. for me, you know, I think this is something that we each as an author have to kind of come to our own decision about and it comes down to really to that, how character driven are we as a writer, how plot driven are we, but something that I see quite a bit is when, when people have plotted something out and then, but then the character is a little bit at odds and you can tell that they’ve kind of shoehorned it.

The character into certain situations, that don’t feel right for the character that don’t necessarily feel convincing, you know, like the character, the character wouldn’t do that or wouldn’t say that or something. And you can tell that the, the, the writer is just sticking with, you know, clinging on to that plot, and not following.

I don’t know that I have advice as such as a kind of, you know, a sort of a magical fix for that. I personally would always tend to follow the character and what my gut is telling me about the character. And if something feels very right or very wrong, I will usually go with that. Even if it means.

Stuff, but I think that’s got to come down to an individual decision, I think, and how you approach writing in the first place. But I will, just to speak for a moment on, on what you said about how characters come alive for you. I never really understood what people meant when they said my characters come to life.

Never understood that at all. and then when I was writing my first novel, the protagonist, Ruth, is a young woman who grows up in the household of Oliver Cromwell in Ely. And as part of my research, I went. to visit Oliver Cromwell’s house in Ely. This was some years into working on this book, so I’d been writing about Ruth for some time.

And I spent, you know, an hour walking around Oliver Cromwell’s house, going through all the rooms thinking to myself, well, this is just absolutely amazing. Like this is where Ruth lived. This is where, this is the kitchen where Ruth cooked food. This is the room where Ruth served Cromwell, you know, and honestly, I was in there for almost an hour before I suddenly remembered that Ruth wasn’t real. And, you know, and that moment for me was like. She was so real that I had been walking around this house thinking that she was, she had really been there, you know, so it is funny how that happens, but it only happens through the writing and through spending the time with them.

[00:31:34] Theo Brun: Yeah, it’s like, very, very developed imaginary friends that we all go around with. I had a similar experience in Istanbul, actually, but, Yeah, I mean, just to get dial back a little bit on what you’re saying, I would for our listeners point of view, I definitely add a cautionary tale of my own where I didn’t follow my gut.

I was sort of constantly overriding my gut in pursuing a synopsis that had already been agreed with an editor and just like I know that this is what’s supposed to happen. So sort of driving your characters through it. And of course, the first draft was, it just felt very mechanical of just sort of steering these people through a story of like building, I don’t know what the analogy I’ll put, writing by numbers or building a jigsaw, whatever.

And it was this Horror show of a moment where sort of confronted with this reality with my editor and it was like, Oh my gosh, I’ve written this enormously long. I need to basically rewrite the whole thing. But the solution, as you said, was just go back to the characters, you know, start same start starting point, but just, in a sense, follow where they lead.

And so, yeah, 100 percent get what you’re saying, like, in that. Your gut will will tell you when there’s a fork in the road of like, you’re trying to push them where they don’t want to go. Stop, think, you know, maybe just sort of step back for a bit and then see what comes next. So 100 percent that that, yeah, if anyone can avoid making those that sort of mistake and save themselves a lot of time, I would definitely encourage that.

I had I had my my last question because I know time’s running on. We’re going to lose you soon. You, you, you come across everything that you’ve done, your background, you’re obviously a natural teacher with a lot of sort of, you seem to have taken great joy in encouraging others, but also teaching others as well and giving others the benefit of your, your own understanding and experience.

How do you, you know, with a few books under your belt now, how do you keep yourself teachable and constantly improving when it comes to your own historical fiction?

[00:33:36] Katherine Clements: Hmm. yeah, I mean, constantly improving is something that I hope for. You know, I think, I think if you are. If you’re a writer and you care about the craft of writing and the art of writing, then constant striving to get better with each book is, is one of the things, certainly one of the things that drives me.

how do I keep myself teachable? reading. You know, finding books, reading books from authors that I really admire, finding those books that just blow me away in terms of storytelling, craft, beautiful writing, that kind of thing. and tackling. Tackling projects that scare me. So the book I’m writing at the moment, which I’ve been working on for a few years, is a little bit different from what I’ve done before.

It’s more complex. It’s kind of big, epic history. It’s got numerous points of view. So it’s technically More difficult, but also has some other sort of cultural challenges in there as well. and when I was trying to decide what book to write next after The Coffin Path, I had several ideas on the table.

That was the one that scared me the most. and that’s the one I decided to go with because again, it’s going back to that instinct thing, you know, it’s that kind of, that gut feeling of like, well, you know, what do you really want to do here, Katherine? And that was the one that was calling. even though that was the one that felt scariest and the hardest and actually has been the scariest and the hardest.

almost coming to the end of it now. yeah, but also just, you know, staying open, I think, and I continue to attend workshops and events and listen to other writers talking about their writing. especially in areas that I’m not so experienced in, you know, creative nonfiction is an area I’m really interested in.

And so just continuing to learn really and, and stay open to that development. I think it’s really important. It’s part, it’s all part of it. It’s part of the practice.

[00:36:14] Julia Kelly: Absolutely. Well, Katherine, thank you so much. This has been such an interesting discussion and I’m, I’m very excited for people who are going to be attending your master class because I think that that work on character and continuing to develop your writing. it’s just, it’s a lifelong practice and one that every writer continues to hopefully get better and better with as as they.

Continue to write. Before we go, I want to make sure that you have a chance to tell people where they can find you online if they want to continue following you, or your books, or of course your coaching, practice as well.

[00:36:51] Katherine Clements: Yes. So my website is. Simply, katherineclements.co.uk, and you can find me on Instagram, that’s my main social media at the moment, @katherineclementswriter. I also have a newsletter called the Inkwell, which people can sign up to via my website at the moment. and you know, I, I email about all, all things to do with writing, writing craft and the, and everything that we’ve been talking about today, really ultimately how to be a productive and happy writer for the long term. So those are the best places.

[00:37:40] Theo Brun: That sounds fantastic. Well, hopefully lots of our readers will be, sort of dropping in behind you and following you from, from this point on. We’re excited. When, when do you think, I hate to say it, but this enormous epic sort of multi multi POV, bestseller, future bestseller. When’s that? When do we see that appearing?

[00:38:01] Katherine Clements: like your positive thinking I’m not sure is the short answer of that. I’m hopeful. realistically maybe the year after next.

[00:38:14] Theo Brun: Excellent. Well, I hope it’s a productive and happy, whatever it is, year and a half. But from now till then. So thank you so much, Katherine. We’ve really enjoyed chatting with you.

[00:38:25] Katherine Clements: thank you so much for having me.

[00:38:27] Julia Kelly: Thank you.

[00:38:34] Theo Brun: Well, that was great, wasn’t it? I loved that. It was great having Katherine on. So many great points, coming from her to just dissect in just a moment.

[00:38:44] Julia Kelly: Yeah, before we do that, we of course have to do a bit of housekeeping. so I wanted to let you know that we have a special bonus episode of the podcast available exclusively to our email subscribers. The episode is about how to succeed in historical fiction, and we’re joined by two incredibly accomplished authors in historical fiction, Gill Paul and David Penny.

They share with us the ingredients of success and how you can succeed in the genre as well. To get that episode, go to thehistoryquill.com/bonus. You can find the link in the description or you can enter it into your browser.

[00:39:19] Theo Brun: That’s right. There’s so much great advice and insight in that bonus episode. So if you’re a historical fiction writer, you really don’t want to miss it. So Julia, where do you want to start in talking about, everything that Katherine had to say?

[00:39:33] Julia Kelly: I mean, I think we have to start. So I thought I’d dig first and talk about, what she’s discussed about the why of writing and writing historical fiction. I thought that was such a great point that, sometimes amid all the conversation about, you know, craft and business and how you go about doing this, this job or this hobby, figuring out what it is that really drives you and motivates you outside of sort of all the external stuff is, is so important and maybe something that we don’t focus on as much and we should.

[00:40:04] Theo Brun: Yeah, I think so as well. I mean, her whole story at the beginning, I found really interesting because I could, I could relate the idea of, I mean, it sounds like she’d had dreams and pipe dreams of, of, of being an author for many years, but she wasn’t, she didn’t tell us anyway that she was kind of trying to do writing in those intervening years.

It just kind of sat there as this, you know, you. Yeah, pipe dream, I guess. And, and, and yet there’s that discomfort in her of like having to break through into, I mean, to be honest, like a more existential question, like who she actually was underneath. And when she came in alongside that, like you could, The way she told it sort of sounded like it, everything just started to feel better within herself.

That sort of being who you are thing, which sounds like such a cliche, but when you’re on the outside of that, it’s quite painful, isn’t it? And I wonder whether there’s a lot of people who have aspirations to kind of discover their why for writing, but There is that big barrier at the beginning to overcome and sort of swing into the stream of, yes, it’s hard to be a writer and yes, it’s hard to kind of, in a sense swim, you know, overcome the obstacles once you’re in it, but perhaps the hardest one of all is just believing that you are a writer at all.

And, and, and that’s such a big thing to overcome, isn’t it?

[00:41:29] Julia Kelly: It is. I think for me, part of it is tied into the fact that when I first started out writing, I thought, okay, I know I want to write, I love doing it. I do it in my free time without, you know, any prompting from anybody. So I really want to do this. And I, and I decided I was going to, I was going to build my writing career to the point that I could quit my day job and I could just focus on writing.

And that was the goal. And that was the goal for 10 years. And I was fortunate enough that I actually, achieved that goal. And then once I did that, I, I kind of have my little. Existential crisis. I didn’t have a thing. I was working towards anymore. You know, other than maintaining, obviously maintaining this very big task of staying full time as a writer without going back to my day job because that was always my fear that I would quit and then I’d have to go back because that’s not what I wanted.

And I think it took me a little bit of time to figure out what those other things. That surrounded my writing life were that satisfaction that I got from writing and what that looked like for me that had nothing to do with kind of external goals. It had nothing to do. Ironically, with supporting my career monetarily, even though that had been the goal for so long, but it really surprised me that 10 years into writing I had that.

That why moment and needed to kind of sit down and figure myself out and do that, do that work, which sounds like a very backwards way to do it. But I think sometimes it can sneak up on you and surprise you. I don’t know if you’ve had a similar experience where it sort of took you by surprise that you needed to, you needed to go through that analysis.

[00:43:08] Theo Brun: It’s the word that keeps coming to my mind is vision, like you can have in a way, you know, we’ve had that vision of like, Oh, wouldn’t it be amazing to be a published author? And like, there are probably different motives and what we think was good about that. But that is the sort of vision. That’s where we want to get to.

And then you are there. And it’s like you’ve kind of moved up onto a higher plateau or something, but the journey’s still not over. So then what’s our vision for going forward? And, and there are definitely moments it feels like where you have to re, either reimagine what that is like, what are you really aiming at?

Or else it sort of somehow materializes in front of you. But without that, you can kind of get quite stuck or, or, or at least lose the motivation. Like, I don’t really know why I’m doing this. And, and again, you come back to that, the idea of why the, why the vision for what lies ahead, even if you’re, you know, I don’t know, Katherine, whoever sound like fantastically successful author, you know.

You think, well, they’ve still got to have a vision for going forward. Otherwise, what do they do? They just sort of stagnate and stop. So, yeah, and that that that is something that I suppose over time you probably, get more practice that stopping, recognizing that moment where you’ve slightly got a bit hazy on that and you need to clarify what that vision is and then go again.

[00:44:35] Julia Kelly: Absolutely. Yeah. It’s a tricky thing to do, but I think it’s, it’s really necessary and it’s necessary to go through that usually several times, I think over the course of your career because you change as an author, you evolve, the things you’re interested in are different and, and sort of going back to that why is, is really important.

[00:44:54] Theo Brun: No, a hundred percent. So what was one, the other, one of the other things that that, that she was talking about was the second book syndrome. I can’t remember whether we’ve talked about this on between ourselves, but I, I wondered whether you had a second book, book Horror

[00:45:08] Julia Kelly: Well, Theo, of course I do. So, so my background is that I wrote, I wrote seven romance novels or six, six romance novels before I wrote historical fiction. so I came into historical fiction with the very, arrogant idea that I knew what I was doing. that was not the case. It turns out, I wrote the light over London, wrote it fast.

It, it just really flowed. It was great. and then I went to write the whispers of war and that was really my second book. Ironically, it was my eighth book, but it was my second book in the historical fiction genre, and there are a few different reasons. I think that it was. It was a problematic book for me to write, but I really struggled.

I really, I struggled with everything. I struggled with story. I struggled with structure. I struggled with the characters. I had a change of editor in the middle of it. It was really a nightmare. And it was also, a much quieter book in terms of sales than the light over London when the book came to be published.

Now, since then, it’s one of those funny books that has real legs and I still get people. Emailing me and messaging me on Facebook and things about it today. And that makes me so immensely proud because I struggled for that book. It was so hard to get it right. And I, I remember the last edit, I went through edits.

I changed story structure. I rewrote the whole book several times and a new editor came in and she was great. Her name’s Kate Dresser and she. When we kind of had our initial, so you’re going to be my editor now mid, midway through this edit, conversation, I said, look, I’m pretty straightforward. I used to be a journalist.

There’s very little professionally you can say to me that will offend me. If I feel like it is constructive criticism and it is meant to make the book better. So we went through an edit together and she called me and she went, Julia. This book’s good. Do you want to do what it takes to make it great? And I was like, I hate you so much.

But she was absolutely right. And she said, you need to invert these sections of the book and completely rewrite the back third. And she was 100 percent right. And it was worth it, but it was a tough book. I don’t know if you have a similar second book story.

[00:47:23] Theo Brun: mine was a bit different, but I mean, just before I talk about my own, that sounds in some ways, it’s quite encouraging, isn’t it? Because you think that experience of pain, if you like, for that second book could have and the sales didn’t cut, you know, the sort of the payoff didn’t, it wasn’t immediately obvious.

And yet, you know, that could also be a moment where you’re like. You become discouraged and you, not that you give up because it’s too compelling for you, but I don’t know, something like you can take that the wrong way, can’t you? That, that, that sort of sequence of events. And yet you just keep going and you, and it just goes to show, you know, you never really know books once they’re written.

They don’t just, I mean, yes. So in a commercial sense, you’re told, oh, they sunk without a trace, but they don’t really, they still exist and people can find them.

[00:48:12] Julia Kelly: backlist is a really powerful thing. And I think it’s a good, for me, it was a, it was a good lesson that, you know, The initial reception of a book is not necessarily how that book is going to stand for the rest of your career and taking that very long, that long view of things and really, trying to remember that a career is a whole series of books.

It’s a whole series of events. It’s not just, you know, one snapshot in time was really important for me.

[00:48:42] Theo Brun: Yeah, no, well, I mean, to my, my experience was actually a third book syndrome because my first book was my first two books were really one massive book when I first drafted them. So when I submitted a first book, and then it was time to write the second, I kind of already had this quite sort of, I mean, it was extremely rough because it wasn’t really even a book.

It was like half a a book that was too long, but at least it existed. So it was more like reshaping that. And it was the third one where you’ve done that, got a new contract, totally blank page, don’t, you know, have a vague idea. And that was, that was the one that I alluded to in our chat about you know, not following your gut, trying to cut a corner by establishing a really, sort of plotted out synopsis, but actually that didn’t serve me in the end.

And so I’m, I’m in my own writing, I’m constantly Sort of trying to weigh the balance between giving myself the confidence of having thought the story through, but at the same time the freedom to then not fall into that pitfall again and just be sort of dry doing something by numbers rather than letting it actually live and and sort of, you know, as we as we’ve all discussed many times.

But yeah, that was painful. That was painful. You, you overcome it though. Yeah,

[00:50:04] Julia Kelly: You do. I think you have to go through it and you just have to, you know. Be reminded that there’s light at the end of the tunnel and it will, it will be okay. It’s going to be okay. Everything is going to, you know, work itself out in the end. And maybe it’s not quite the book that you thought you were going to have or the sales or the launch or whatever that is.

But, you know, it’s, it’s, again, it’s part of the process. Yeah.

[00:50:28] Theo Brun: 100%. So What was the other, I mean, she was talking about teachability and how she remains teachable, wasn’t she? And, and it’s something that we’ve talked about before with, I remember with Madeline Martin, I think we, we touched on that, didn’t we? And the importance of that. what do you think about what she had to say? that

[00:50:53] Julia Kelly: you know, I, I think teachability is one of those things that, is It sounds like it should be so obvious, but it’s so easy to get in the weeds and kind of not put your head above the line of your manuscript and remember that, you know, you, you should be hoping to improve with every draft you write, you should be hoping to, you know, be a different writer than the very first draft that you ever finished.

and I think that’s something that I it’s, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting because when we’re recording this, we’re sort of. Ending out 2023 and heading into 2024 and I’ve been doing a lot of looking ahead and a lot of planning and figuring out how am I going to incorporate that into my own writing life and my writing practice.

so, you know, I think things like this master class or kind of pitch perfect for me, because 1 of the big things I want to do is try to really go deeper with my characters, figure out how to. Do the planning and the prep work, before I even start writing a book that really sets me up, hopefully for success, or sets me up so that if my characters do go wandering across the page, it takes me less time to kind of figure out what it is that I’m.

what it is that I’m writing with these people and how, that could actually benefit and develop the story rather than resisting it, which has been something I’ve done in the past. so I don’t know about you with, with teachability. How are you kind of incorporating

[00:52:25] Theo Brun: yeah, I thought it was interesting what she said. She was talking about the reading that would, that would definitely be probably the beginning of my answer is like just reading books that you really respect and, and, and, and with a sort of intentionality and consciousness of, of. I mean, not to the point that you lose the joy of the story, but just you do that with a professional eye, don’t you, you kind of go, Oh, this, that was done really well.

And, and then you mentioned her masterclass. I mean, actually, a lot of the things that, you know, she was putting together, you can get. Can’t you from from the joining up the membership of The History Quill and, you know, things like the book recommendations like I know that there’s tons of resources on there on the history quill about, you know, the best historical fiction in different genres to read and.

You know, those they do have a lot of value. Those things I think being steered in directions and like having the benefit of other people’s experience of reading and you want to sort of cut to the chase, you can get to the gold a lot faster through other people’s recommendations. And then, you know, she was talking about sort of community, you know, actual learning of the craft as well.

I mean, I think that’s in, in a way, that’s kind of what we’re doing here, isn’t it? And that’s, that’s where the History Quill membership kind of can give you access to all of those in, in a sort of one stop shop, which is, which, you know, we all need to, to save a little bit of time when it, when it comes to getting to the answers and the things that actually are of value.

But yeah, I love all that. I love the idea of it’s never, it’s never over. There’s always room to improve. And it’s only really looking back, you can go, Oh, yeah, well, maybe there has been some improvement. Yeah,

[00:54:11] Julia Kelly: And I think it’s, you know, you, it’s not like you can sit down and say, this is exactly what I’m going to need for this version of my manuscript. Sometimes you need to stumble into it and then go searching for the resource. So, you know, whether it’s about something like, writing. characters in historical fiction, like her master class, or, you know, some of the blog posts that I’ve seen through the membership, around writing dual timelines, or, you know, writing historical battles, which is not something I’ve done before, but is something that, especially writing mystery novels, there are elements that I can certainly, imagine will be useful for me, that kind of thing, you know, having the resource, At your fingertips, rather than having to wait for conference season to come around or, having to, kind of cast about and try to find what you’re looking for, maybe in a book, that doesn’t necessarily address historical fiction specifically, I think that can be a real challenge and so, yes, I’m a big fan of,

[00:55:12] Theo Brun: yeah, it’s sort

[00:55:13] Julia Kelly: fan of having the access to everything.

[00:55:15] Theo Brun: I mean, it sort of circles back, doesn’t it, on the original point of the fear, like, this is a way of kind of diminishing the barriers to what your next thing is, and like, whether that’s entry into a writing career at all, or like, our sort of level where you’re like, what’s the next thing?

thing for me. And I love what she said about, you know, the most scary book. I’m sort of in that position now where it’s like, Oh, the one I really want to also feels like the hardest and most terrifying one to write. And then sometimes I think You know, maybe you can speak to this as well, like the, the, the signal, if you like a flare of fear, rather, is in some way says don’t go here.

But at the same time, it’s a signal that this is where you must go. And it’s that kind of push me pull you of, of where you feel that emotion that you act sometimes that those are the best places to go.

[00:56:11] Julia Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. It’s, it is, it is a wonderful, challenging, ever changing, world that we work in, you and I.

[00:56:18] Theo Brun: Yes, 100%. Well, I think it’s about time that we wrap up this episode. so thanks to Katherine Clements for that brilliant conversation and everything that we’ve managed to glean from it. that concludes this episode of The History Quill Podcast. But before we go, I wanted to remind you to head over to thehistoryquill.com/bonus to get our bonus episode on how to succeed in historical fiction featuring guest authors, Gill Paul and David Penny. It’s essential listening. for any historical fiction writer, so pay attention and make sure you check it out. You can find the link in the description and enter it into your browser.

[00:56:59] Julia Kelly: And of course, wherever you are listening to this podcast, make sure that you like, subscribe, and leave us a comment or review. Thank you so much for listening and we will see you next time.

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