Two years ago, I was writing my first novel and struggling madly with a certain Scene of an Intimate Nature. This blasted scene was making me sweat, and not in a good way. The stress of making it read well and credibly without resorting to heaving bosoms and straining members had me pacing up and down the floor of my office and screeching at my husband if he attempted to come into the room. Eventually, as ever, I hyperventilated onto Twitter where one @chadwickauthor proceeded to calm me down and talk me through writing a love scene, addressing with me why I found it so hard (no sniggering there in the cheap seats!).
@chadwickauthor is none other than Elizabeth Chadwick, the award-winning, best-selling and prolific author of historical fiction. Not only was I stunned that she took half an hour out of her busy day to talk me down, I was also incredibly impressed by the calm common sense of her advice when it came to writing such scenes. Cut to two years later, and I was asked to interview Elizabeth Chadwick for writing.ie. My Impressometer went stratospheric when Elizabeth actually remembered our Twitter conversation and referred to some of the advice she gave me. But then, as I was soon to learn, Elizabeth has a phenomenal ability to recall conversations, research details and minutiae. Add to that a strong work ethic and a formidable degree of self-discipline, and it becomes easier to see how she is close to publishing her twenty-third novel.
I asked Elizabeth about her writing life and whether she tackles every novel in the same way.
‘I do tend to approach my novels in the same way. It’s changed, though, as my career has changed. In my first novel I began with an imaginary protagonist with a rough idea of where the story was going. The game plan was very loose. Now I write biographical fiction so I know the main turning points as I’m going, I can see it as though it’s a map and I just have to fill in the scenes.’
Elizabeth works very closely with her agent, Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann. Together they have their own style of working which doesn’t vary. Elizabeth writes the first three chapters and polishes them like mad before continuing with the rest of the novel. She passes these chapters to her agent, who uses them as a sales tool. Then Elizabeth finishes writing the first draft without looking back and re-reading.
If anyone has ever said to you, ‘Writing? Well it’s not like it’s real work, is it?’ send them Elizabeth Chadwick’s way. Her work ethic is formidable. She writes every single day of the week, every week of the year. On average she spends eight hours per day at her computer, about four to six of which are spent writing while the rest are spend on emails, social media, self-promotion and so on.
‘I always see myself as being the hub of a wheel. Each thing I do – writing, editing, social media, etc – is like a spoke that makes up the whole wheel, so that the whole thing moves forward.’
Chadwick is incredibly strict with herself when writing a new novel. Her daily word target is a minimum of 1,000 words and a maximum of 1,500. Doing more than that, she believes, leads to a level of incompetence.
‘I know myself that if I do 2,000 words then 500 of them will be worthless. If I hit my target and I’m still on a roll then I’ll do social media or respond to emails.’
Does she ever get stuck? Chadwick is grateful that she has a framework to work from in her historical characters, in that she knows how the story begins and ends, but sometimes she struggles with adding scenes or fleshing out events, and then she will occasionally use a technique she calls leapfrogging.
‘You take the gist of what you’re going to say and write a pale sketch of the actions and emotions, scene by scene in present tense so that then you’re not working from a blank page. Like in painting, where you do a rough sketch then fill it in on top. The whole process is like painting, adding layers of colour.’
When she has a first draft complete, her editing process is equally precise and structured. When she’s finished that first draft she will read it on the PC and make alterations, tightening the writing and pruning excess adverbs. Next, she prints it off like a book and reads through it, making biro marks as she goes. She explained, ‘Looking at a piece of paper is totally different, it’s a different layer of editing.’
Then she goes back to the screen and keys in the alterations she’s made. She reads it again, prints it again and now reads it aloud over the course of several days. She makes more notes, makes final changes and then sends it off. Chadwick believes that each layer of editing shows her a different side to her work, enabling her to filter the manuscript using different parts of her brain.
Fellow writers of historical fiction will no doubt envy Elizabeth Chadwick’s effortless ability to portray the events happening in her books from the point of view and mindset of the characters. As a professor of medieval history once told Elizabeth, ‘You’re no longer a tourist, you’re a native!’ I was intrigued to know in what way the medieval mindset differs most from that of the 21st century.
‘Sex and religion! We’re a lot more secular, while God was a great part of their belief system. You’ve got to be aware that characters were a lot more religious in their everyday life to really absorb the mindset of the period.’
Chadwick has tips for other writers of historical fiction, but she’s quick to point out that there are no shortcuts. Basically, she says, you’ve got to do your research. The more you do, the more you understand where your characters are coming from. Eventually your research sinks into your subconscious in an organic way and it gets easier. Chadwick is also heavily involved with the Regia Anglorum, a team of medieval re-enactors, which she feels gives great life to her research. She told me, ‘It’s like method acting, with Regia Anglorum it all feels more real.’
I had to get around to the subject of those Scenes of an Intimate Nature again. An editor once said of Chadwick’s novels that they are ‘erotic without being pornographic’. I was interested to know the particular challenges she faces in writing love scenes in historical fiction.
Once again, she says, you have to know the mindset of the time and work with that. Women on top, for example, was a medieval no-no and so such a love scene might have an extra frisson of the forbidden. She explained that ‘You have to work with what you’ve got, such as the clothes. They can be quite erotic with lacings up the side of the dress and so on, you can really do something with that; lacings being untied, a hand slipping inside…!’
‘Do you remember me telling you about that scene in Dirty Dancing?’ Elizabeth asks, referencing our Twitter chat of a couple of years ago. ‘There are scenes in Dirty Dancing between Johnny and Baby that are utterly erotic, even though not a stitch of clothing is removed. That’s a really good example of how to write a love scene.’
Elizabeth Chadwick’s best-selling novel is The Greatest Knight, about William Marshal. Marshal had quite an impact on Ireland, building a number of castles including Kilkenny castle and founding the town of New Ross as a money-making venture. Chadwick herself has yet to visit Kilkenny and other places, but they’re most definitely on her list.
Interestingly, until now, The Greatest Knight has been the only one of Chadwick’s novels to feature a man on the front cover; the others all feature women in medieval gowns. Now The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion and To Defy a King – the first three William Marshal novels – are being reissued with covers featuring men. I asked Elizabeth how she felt about the new covers.
‘I love them, the model on the new cover for The Greatest Knight is gorgeous! Interestingly that’s always been my biggest seller, and I think in part it’s because there is a man on the cover so men feel that they can buy it too. A woman in a frock on the cover is a book for women, men feel self-conscious buying it; but a cover with a man on it can be read by a man or a woman. It changes the demographic of the readership.’
Chadwick believes that women are far more adventurous in our reading than men, that it is easier for us to pick up any book. Personally I find it fascinating that not only do readers judge a book by its cover, but that other people seem to judge a reader by the cover of the book they are reading. As writers, this fact is very much worth bearing in mind, no matter what genre we’re writing in.
Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick came out in paperback in August. The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion and To Defy a King are also being re-released with gorgeous new covers around the same time. If you are planning to write great historical fiction, Elizabeth Chadwick is one author you need to read.