I’m a published author. That in itself is an ultimate goal for many a ‘wannabe’, but seeing my books in print – after twenty-six years ‘in the business’ still gives me a thrill. Writing is a solitary occupation – and I do sometimes wonder why on earth I do this darn silly job! The work is hard; I am at my desk every day seven days a week, and most of it, since the blossoming of Social Networks, involves promotion of some sort or another on Facebook, Twitter and the like. The fact is, to be regarded as a good writer you have to sell books. To sell books you have to market them, which means exchanging pleasant chat on the Internet, (you don’t sell books by saying “buy my book – I wish it were that easy!) The plus side; I have made many wonderful friends worldwide, and I hear, first hand, from readers who enjoy my books.
I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to receive an e-mail from someone who has just finished – and loved – one of my books. Even after all these years, I am not confident about my writing. “Who is going to want to read my nonsense?” I think to myself as I struggle to get the next book written and edited. Then I discover an unpleasant review. (Tip to authors: don’t read the Amazon or Goodreads reviews unless you have a skin as tough as an elephant’s hide.) Constructive criticism we all welcome – trashing in public we don’t. But it happens, it’s part of the job, and fortunately the ‘loved this book’ comments outweigh the ‘hate this book’, so the gloomy feelings do not surface that often. And even when they do I have an army of friends out there who soon cheer me up.
I also have my books and characters.
The Kingmaking – the first of the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy is very special to me. Obviously, because it was my first full-length novel, but there is more to it than that, so many memories are connected to it.
I met and became friends with Sharon Kay Penman for one. I had been scribbling with writing my version of the Arthurian story – stripped of medieval trappings: no knights in armour, no holy grail – no Merlin, no Lancelot – just the struggle for survival by a man who became one of the most famous warlord legends of all time: Arthur. I never thought I was good enough to get published. I spotted a book with a sword on its spine at the local library. It wasn’t about Arthur, but it looked good: Here Be Dragons is probably one of the greatest historical novels ever written! I was blown away by it, and although I had never written to an author before, I felt I had to write to Sharon to thank her for writing such a fantastic novel. This was in the pre-email days, one of those old fashioned written by hand letters. Some weeks later I received a reply. “Helen, if you can write such an interesting four-page letter, I can’t wait to read the book!” A short while later Sharon came to London and suggested we meet for coffee. I can’t express how thrilling it was to sit with a real author chatting about history and writing. Truly one of the best days of my life. Sharon gave me some writer’s tips and recommended me to her agent.
I had to rewrite most of what I had written – tidy it up, cut down on the run-on sentences, see to a few more technical novice errors, but I had what amounted to one-and-a-half novels. You could have knocked me down with a feather when the agent said I had a trilogy on my hands, I had not thought beyond one novel, let alone three!
William Heinemann snapped me up. I was in print. An author.
|Launching Kingmaking May 1994|
The first buzz of excitement was awesome. A national newspaper took me and my family out for the day to ensure they got an exclusive scoop. I was on the radio, TV – my career was launched.
And then sank.
The Kingmaking did well, but not well enough. Book Two, Pendragon’s Banner came out, none of the previous media hype came with it. ‘We’ll do a big marketing push for the paperback version,’ I was told. It didn’t happen.
‘We’ll do a big push for the third.’ That didn’t happen either.
An American publishing company, St Martins, took the Trilogy and printed from an uncorrected proof. I gave up counting after 360 errors – including ‘bread stubbled chin’ (beard stubbled) and Anglican instead of Anglian. I wept.
I received a really nasty e-mail some years later from a US student condemning me for my dreadful writing, my ignorance of English and accusing me of how dare I call myself an author. Did I go to school? this person ranted, did I learn to read and write – the rubbish in this book did not indicate that I did. I received that hateful mail on Boxing Day. The hatred it conveyed still shocks me.
I wrote two more books (Harold the King UK /I am the Chosen King USA and A Hollow Crown UK /Forever Queen USA) Harold did well, Crown didn’t. Historical Fiction had gone out of fashion, no one was interested anymore . Heinemann decided not to print my backlist, my agent decided I was not worth the effort, we parted company. I was out of a job, but I picked myself up, indie published here in the UK – and then was picked up by a different US publisher (Sourcebooks Inc).
I also found freelance graphic designer Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics. She designs my indie covers and all my marketing material. Yes, the graphics in this article are all hers. We are now best friends. I met Cathy because of Arthur – another thank you I owe the books.
|Me and Cathy|
I have fond memories of researching Shadow of the King – an epic family vacation in Northern France and Brittany undertaken one summer. We travelled with very dear friends who organised the whole trip. Hazel, one of those friends, was very dear to me. She passed away unexpectedly on October 31st 2001. I clearly recall sitting on a low wall high up the hill of Vezelay, looking down at the walnut trees and seeing a lizard scuttle away. Walking through the old, narrow streets of Avalon (yes there is actually a place called Avalon in France!) Exploring the amazing standing stones at Carnac – and all the shared laughter in between. Much of that holiday is reflected in Shadow, and therefore my memories.
The tragic scene in Pendragon’s Banner (no spoilers) where Arthur is fishing is also based on real experience. Another family holiday, camping beside the River Wye in Wales. My daughter was quite young, we went to see the river which was in flood after heavy rain. I held her hand so tight in case she should slip - and the whole scene played out in my mind. I cried as I wrote it. I have no doubt that what I saw was an echo of a past tragedy, the detail was too clear for it not to have been.
Like Gwenhwyfar and Morgaine I have heard the wind sing through the grass on top of Glastonbury Tor – and I’ve known horses as bloody-minded as Arthur’s bad-tempered chestnut, Onager!
I look upon my characters as real people, real friends – they drive me mad at times because what I want to write is not what they want to happen in their adventures – Arthur was very annoying at times. Frequently I would discover I’d written a scene that had come from nowhere – usually ending up with Arthur in some scrape or another. Once I distinctly heard a voice say, “Now get me out of that!”
My pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne, does the same as I write my Sea Witch Voyages. The two characters are very alike, both difficult to deal with, both absolutely maddening, and I love them both very much. To me, they are as real as you are…
Every so often I think that I can’t go on, that writing is getting too onerous, the marketing too difficult, especially now that my eyesight is becoming ‘wobbly’ (I have Glaucoma) But I could never walk away from Jesamiah, and Arthur will always, always, remain my first love.
All I need now is for people to get out there and buy the books….