Today 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: 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: 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?
Elizabeth: Ocean or mountain?
Elizabeth: Hiking or shopping?
Elizabeth: Violin or piano?
Elizabeth: Mystery or fantasy?
Elizabeth: Darcy or Heathcliff?
Elizabeth: Love scene or death scene?
Annie: Love Scene
To learn more about Annie and her books, visit:
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