Author Interview: Annie Whitehead

annie whiteheadToday I’m welcoming Annie Whitehead to my series of author interviews. Annie is an author of historical fiction, including To Be a Queen, the story of Aethelflaed, the daughter of Alfred the Great and the only female leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Her most recent novel is Alvar the Kingmaker, a novel about the tenth century nobleman who helped King Edgar ascend to the English throne.

Elizabeth: Welcome, Annie.

Annie: Thank you, it’s lovely to be here.

Elizabeth: Can you tell us more about To Be a Queen?

annie whitehead queen bookAnnie: To Be A Queen is the true story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great. She spent her formative years in the Kingdom of Mercia (which roughly equates to the modern day Midlands of England) and was married off to the leader of Mercia as part of a political alliance against the Vikings who had overrun all the other kingdoms barring Mercia and Wessex in the south east. Her role became more than just that of a political pawn when her husband became incapacitated and she found herself ruling Mercia as a queen, in all but name. I was thrilled when the book was long-listed for the HNSIndie book of the Year 2016 and even more delighted when it was recently awarded an IndieBRAG Gold Medallion.

Elizabeth: Congratulations! What drew you to this character?

Annie: Initially, it was her husband. When I was an undergraduate student, my tutor spoke about Ethelred of Mercia and how ‘nobody knew who where he came from.’ I was fascinated by this man who seemingly rode onto the pages of history from nowhere, and I vowed one day to write his story. Of course, once I began researching, I realised that while he was an interesting and admirable person, the real story to be told was that of his wife. I was staggered to discover that no-one else had ever written her story and I needed to put that right.

Elizabeth: Can you tell us more about Alvar the Kingmaker?

annie whitehead alvar bookAnnie: This book is set in Mercia about fifty years later and features the descendants of some of the characters from the first book, although it is a stand-alone story. Aelfhere (Alvar) was a powerful noble who was instrumental in helping successive kings, but who paid a high personal price. Unusually, this was a period where there was no Viking threat, but this left a gap, and it was filled with in-fighting, treachery and murder… He spent a lifetime trying to prevent uprising, and anarchy, and often found the ‘Establishment’ was his greatest enemy.

Elizabeth: What drew you to this character?

Annie: Because he angered the Church, who wrote the histories, Aelfhere got a bad press, and was accused of colluding with the queen, who herself had something of a bad reputation, even being suspected of murdering her own stepson. Studying this period for my degree, I came across a footnote in an academic paper, which mentioned a widow who was deprived of her lands after Aelfhere’s death. It’s thought that she might have been his wife, and I knew I wanted to write their story and explain why it might have been that he had no sons to leave his earldom to. These characters really existed, but I was free to make up their love story.

Elizabeth: How much historical fact is woven into your stories?

Annie: I try not to alter known history, (although an exciting new project has seen me doing just that, for a very specific reason.) Obviously with this period it is rather difficult and sometimes the chronicles are pretty sketchy. But wherever there is a stated date, or fact, I try not to mess with it. Occasionally, for the sake of my narrative, it’s necessary, but I make that clear in my author notes. I want people to be able to feel that what they read could really have happened, so I only fill in the blanks and I try to do it logically and plausibly.

Elizabeth: So tell us about your project that has you altering history.

Annie: I’m part of a project with eight other others that has us re-telling the events of 1066 while imagining, What if?

Elizabeth: What are the challenges when writing about this time period?

Annie: The frustrations are, as mentioned above, the paucity of sources, although we are incredibly lucky to have as much of the surviving record as we do, particularly when the Vikings had a habit of burning down churches where a lot of this material was kept! The other thing is that the landscape has changed so much; coastlines have moved, forests have disappeared/sprung up. There are few buildings from this period, either, as the Anglo-Saxons tended to build in wood which does not survive the centuries in the same way as stone does.

Elizabeth: What fascinates you about this time period?

Annie: The fascination comes from knowing that these people didn’t live in some ‘dark’ place inhabited by dragons and elves, but were real, medieval folk who had sophisticated laws and government and where women had more rights than later on in the Middle Ages. I wanted to tell their stories and bring them out into the spotlight.

Elizabeth: What is your writing process?

Annie: I begin by researching the period, before, during and after the years in which my stories are set. I set up a time-line and then begin weaving my story around that. I always have an idea before I start about the nature of each character, and I try to find reasons for their actions so that they remain ‘in character’ throughout. I then write the story and research any additional detail I might need, such as which foods were available in certain areas in specific season, adding this in later so as not to interrupt the first draft ‘flow’.

Elizabeth: What are you working on now?

Annie: I’m editing the third in my Mercian ‘series’ and simultaneously working on a novel which won a prize in the Mail on Sunday competition. Judge Fay Weldon encouraged me to complete it, so I thought I probably should! It’s not historical, well, not strictly anyway, and it’s set in the Lake District.

Elizabeth: Congratulations again! What have you read recently that you feel passionate about?

Annie: I recently read The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman. Not only was the premise of the story unusual and interesting, but the historical detail was superb. The sense of time, place and atmosphere was brilliantly drawn. Every so often I would look up after having read a beautiful phrase and think, “I wish I had written that.”

Elizabeth: Can you tell us more about yourself?

Annie: I’m not ‘from’ anywhere, having moved around as a child because my father was in the forces. After graduating I lined up a job in publishing in Manchester, but took a train to the English Lake District one day, and stayed there! I have three children, all grown up, and when they were little I re-trained as an Early Years Music and Singing teacher, something I still do occasionally on a freelance basis, although my writing takes up most of my time these days.

Elizabeth: We’ve now reached the time in our interview for the let’s-get-to-know-the-author-better, nearly-pointless, sort-of-silly, rapid-fire questions:

Elizabeth: Coffee or tea?

Annie: Tea

Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?

Annie: Ocean

Elizabeth: Hiking or shopping?

Annie: Hiking

Elizabeth: Violin or piano?

Annie: Piano

Elizabeth: Mystery or fantasy?

Annie: Fantasy

Elizabeth: Darcy or Heathcliff?

Annie: Darcy

Elizabeth: Love scene or death scene?

Annie: Love Scene

To learn more about Annie and her books, visit:

Annie’s Website
Annie’s Blog

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A Bad Navigator

I’ve always loved maps. I’m good at reading maps. If you give me a standardized test that has map questions, I’ll get them all right. No problem.

I love studying maps. Fictional maps, real maps. Where I want to go. Where I’ve been. My husband loves maps too. We have maps all over our bedroom walls of the places we’ve been.

But give me a map while I’m going somewhere, and ask me questions, and I’ll get all messed up. Often, I mess up east and west. I’ve always thought this was because I’m a slow thinker (like molasses). I’m especially slow when under-pressure. Recently, on a trip to Minneapolis, I discovered that my real problem is something a little different.

I read too much.

I read more than 100 books a year. I probably read more than two or three hours every day. My eyes are used to traveling left to right. Moving through a page in a certain direction. The past, where I was, what just happened, is on the left. I’m moving toward the right. What is going to happen is on the right side of the page.
Maps only work this way if you are traveling from west to east. If you are traveling from east to west, you are “moving” across the map opposite of the way you read a book.

If I look at a map and I’m not in that place, I totally get the map. No confusion at all.

If I look at a map and I’m in that place or moving through that place, my brain wants the left side of the paper to be where I was and the right side of the paper to be where I’m going.

I only just figured this out. I haven’t tried to navigate anywhere since discovering this about myself. Perhaps I will become a better navigator now that I can fight my brain’s impulse to put myself on a map the way I put myself in a book. Perhaps not.

I’m curious if anyone else has this problem. You avid readers out there. Does this ring true for you?

Author Interview: A.M. Bostwick

bostwick 2I am pleased to be able to interview Abigail Bostwick for the second time. Abigail’s first middle grade novel, The Great Cat Nap, was published by Cornerstone Press in 2013. It is the story of Ace, a reporter and a cat, who solves the mystery of a missing show cat. Abigail, who publishes as A. M. Bostwick, talked about writing that novel in our first interview. The Clawed Monet is the sequel to The Great Cat Nap and was released in February of this year.

Elizabeth: Welcome Abigail! Tell us what new adventure Ace, the mystery-solving cat, is up to now.

bostwick monetAbigail: Thank you so much for hosting me, Elizabeth! In The Clawed Monet, we find Ace on the trail of a new mystery following the scandalous opening of a new art exhibit at the historic Rhys Art Museum. When opening night is lights out after a peculiar power failure and a priceless Monet reproduction is clawed beyond repair, all paws point to the new curator’s prim and proper feline – Miss Kitty. Hired by Miss Kitty, Ace and his feline and canine friends are out to find the criminal and restore the reputation of Miss Kitty and her companion before they are fired. Tailing the shadow of a “ghost cat” through the historic district and a cemetery, Ace finds himself interrogating museum guests, local residents and even a so-called psychic cat to try and solve the crime. He’ll have to fend off a pack of Dobermans and contend with a gang of raccoons– all under deadline.

Elizabeth: Sounds like fun! Do you have plans for more books about Ace?

Abigail: In my mind, Ace is always having one adventure or another! While I certainly have ideas for a third novel, I don’t have anything concrete in the works right now.

Elizabeth: You’ve also published a young-adult novel called Break the Spell. Can you tell us about it?

bostwick breakAbigail: When Allison Evans walks out of high school the last day of her senior year, she has no idea that her carefully guarded life is about to unravel. Her classmate, Ethan Knight is on the run. Accused of dealing drugs and armed with nothing but a bad reputation and his motorcycle, he takes refuge for the weekend inside the old high school. Thinking no one will find him and no one does. At least not at first. Allison tracks him down, hoping to get a newspaper story out of him. Panicked and left with no other choice, Ethan takes her captive. It should be a nightmare, but together, both of their lives take an unexpected turn. It’s time for them both to stop running from their problems, and in each other, they find common ground and someone they can trust.

When I wrote this novel, I think I most wanted to explore the secrets we sometimes keep, and how they can become toxic without someone to talk to. I found it especially hard when I was a young adult to confide in other people, especially about the things that scared me, or the things I could not fix or control.

Allison’s particular struggle with coping to accept the possibility of a debilitating, life-changing neurological disease – multiple sclerosis – was rooted in my own experience. While I couldn’t hide my early diagnosis from those around me the way Allison did, I certainly found myself wanting to do everything I possibly could to make it more bearable. Even if readers don’t have MS, I think they’ll be able to relate to Allison’s driven motivation to change her circumstances.

Elizabeth: It’s wonderful that you’ve shared your experiences and written about MS in a way accessible for young people. Do you approach writing for middle-grade readers (ages 8-13) differently than writing for young adult readers (ages 13-18) ?

Abigail: I do. When I’m writing Ace, I’m mostly having fun with the antics of felines and canines while also trying to entertain young readers (though I was reminded this week I have readers of all ages for this cat!) When I’m writing for young adults, I’m a little more candid and raw. Kids, especially teenagers, can see right through a façade or something that isn’t real. A book should be, most of all, fun. Engaging. Something people can see themselves in. If kids can see ordinary teens in literature rising to the occasion and figuring issues in their lives out, I think it’s easier for them to envision themselves doing it as well. And that’s empowering for them.

With both, I do my best to keep readers engaged with suspense and humor.

Elizabeth: What advice would you like to give to my readers who are also writers?

Abigail:I think many of us write because we have something to say, or something we want to be heard. Don’t write for trends, or the market, or what you think will sell. Write because you love it, because it’s your passion, and part of you. Write for you. Make friends who are writers, they’ll understand you better than anyone. Also, feed the cat before you start writing or he’ll lay across your keyboard.

Elizabeth: What have you read recently that you feel passionate about?

Abigail: I recently read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood, and I absolutely loved it. She writes with this beautiful clarity, and her characters are so well-drawn and heart-wrenching. In middle grade, I read Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo and I’m still smiling about the story. The poetry in it was lovely. I also have to say, two of my great writing friends had books release last week that are incredible – Running for Water and Sky by Sandra Kring and Devil and the Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black. These are don’t miss books, and make me want to go on a road trip.

Elizabeth: What do you do when you are not writing?

Abigail: I read – haha! I also enjoy spending time with my cat (who looks a lot like Ace), my husband, and my niece, who is turning 9 next week. I garden a little bit, love to paint and enjoy walking in the woods.

Elizabeth: Thanks so much for joining me today.

Abigail: Thank you for hosting me. Always a pleasure.

Elizabeth: If you’d like to learn more about Abigail Bostwick and her books, visit http://ambostwick.com

You can also follow her on Twitter: @bostwickAM.

She is on Goodreads under A.M. Bostwick and welcomes questions there from readers.

Anyone can email Abigail via her website.