So many aspiring writers ask me questions about how to write novels and get published. There are reams of information about this on the web. I can only tell you what I did.
If there is anything you want me to include, email me. A few years ago, I also gave a workshop at a literary festival on How to Write Historical Fiction. It’s for beginners, and it was only a one-day workshop, but it covers most of the basics. Click here to see the whole text. There are also links to various writing and historical fiction sites here.
For more information about the history behind the books, including research and links, the mythology, spiritual themes, and the landscape, go to my inspiration page.
- Why did you start writing?
- How did you decide on a story?
- How did you manage to write a whole novel?
- What about research?
- How did you get published?
- Publishing advice for aspiring writers?
- Can you read my manuscript / introduce me to your agent?
- How do you write each book?
- What is a typical writing day?
Why did you start writing?
For years, I kept waiting for someone to write a novel that had the same mix of romance, action, sword fights, Celtic priestesses and spiritual explorations as in my favourite book, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. At that time, no one had, so I decided to write my own. That’s how my first novel, The White Mare, came into being. I wrote what I wanted to read.
How did you decide on a story?
My archaeology degree meant I knew quite a bit about the Celts. From an early age I was also obsessed with their myths, landscapes, lifestyle and religion. I don’t know why! It just felt right. So when it came time to decide on a story, I knew it would be about the Celts, but set earlier than The Mists of Avalon.
I started by thinking about major historical events. The tribes that share common "Celtic" features (there is great debate about using the term “Celt”, as they were not one people) came from the heartlands of Europe. They, or at least their art and language, spread to the UK and Ireland. They enter written history via the Greeks, but their great enemy was the Romans. Celtic tribes even sacked Rome around 400 BC. Later, they were on the retreat, with Julius Caesar defeating their tribes in Gaul, and Emperor Claudius conquering Britain in AD 43.
The time when the Romans, entrenched in England, set out to push north into Scotland caught my eye. I had always loved Scotland, and few people set prehistoric books there.
More importantly, for any good story, you need lots of conflict. The Romans invaded Scotland a number of times, so this background plot gave me inherent conflict, and the opportunity for lots of drama. I could play around with the themes of freedom, and defending one's land and family at all costs. Wars make good drama, and I think any book that uses the conflict between different cultures is interesting. There is more information about choosing when and where to set historical fiction in my Historical Fiction Workshop.
How did you manage to write a whole novel?
I just started! First, as I was reading novels, I took notice of how writers wrote them. That gave me an idea of the style and language of “real” novelists. Then, images started coming into my head, as if I was watching a movie, so I wrote them down as scenes. I often hear my characters talking, so the dialogue comes first and I build the action around it. I never studied writing or did writing courses, though I highly recommend it. After that – it takes immense amounts of discipline, commitment and time to see a novel through; and it involves lots of doubt and fear, wavering and insecurity. Easy, really.
What about research?
I already knew a lot about the Celts from studying archaeology. The rest of my research has been conducted through reading academic books. I have a huge bookshelf. Although my novels are historical / fantasy / romances, withvisions, dreams, and second sight, the archaeologist in me wants to get as much of the history right as possible in terms of the background and lifestyle. Fortunately, we don’t know a lot about the ancient Celts, so that leaves gaps for me to fill as a novelist. For more information on the history behind the books, go to the history page. There is a link to Celtic and Roman research books to get you started. My Historical Fiction Workshop covers a lot about research, too.
How did you get published?
After two years of tinkering, I had finished about fifty percent of my manuscript as a good second draft. I didn’t want to wait any more, so I sent a synopsis and sample chapters to 21 agents in the UK, where I was based. Note that this goes against all (sensible) advice from agents, but this is the truth. Seven were interested, one asked to see the rest of what I had, and she signed me soon after. I then spent three months finishing the whole MS to good second or third draft stage. The story had by now grown to two books. I added a third to make a trilogy, and my agent touted it around UK publishers. I signed a three-book deal with Orion soon after that.
A few years ago, I switched agents and am now represented by Russell Galen in the US. He was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s agent, and sold The Mists of Avalon (exciting for me, as you can imagine). He also represents Diana Gabaldon, my other writing heroine. My new series, based on ancient Irish myths, was sold to Bantam / Random House in 2006.
Publishing advice for aspiring writers?
There is a lot of information on the web that deals with how to contact agents, write synopses, query letters and the like. One of the best about querying agents is a blog by the agent Nathan Brandsford: http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/ That has a lot of the initial information you need.
Leaving that aside, you need dedication above all other things. Writing novels takes a long time, it is a very isolated job, a lot of the time there is little outward reward or it’s a long time coming. People have to do it alongside day jobs, kids, school, etc. Therefore it must be a drive that comes from within, and makes you override all those other considerations. This is why, for all those who have a vague idea they would like to be an author, very few ever write a finished book.
That said, if like me you just have to, then you must follow your dream. You don’t need qualifications, or connections — you don’t need to be a certain age or look a certain way. You just need to be able to write a thundering good story!
I would advise getting an agent. Many publishers don’t even look at novels sent to them without an agent. Agents also negotiate better advances, and they negotiate all the other boring legal stuff, too. To find one, look at the novels being published that are like your own. Authors often thank their agents in them, or if not, that information is on their websites. Approach an agent who already has books in your genre. They will be on first-name basis with all the editors who buy work like yours.
Note that you are supposed to have a whole manuscript polished to a high standard before sending anything to an agent. That’s a good idea. I broke this rule because my first draft "came out" quite fully formed, and because I had a detailed synopsis that showed I knew exactly how the books would end. Lots of people have good ideas; many can even start a novel. Few can finish, giving readers an exciting story arc and satisfying conclusion. You have to prove you are one of those people from the outset, hence as an unpublished novelist you will probably need to write the entire thing.
Here’s the thing, though: while there are many “rules” about querying agents, the fact is, if you have an amazing idea and talent that truly jumps out, then you will get somewhere even if you bend some of those rules. But only if you are very good — most people need to write and polish and try different things before they land an agent.
One rule not to break is how agents like to be contacted. Stick to the letter of what they want – it’s usually on their websites. Be simple and direct. If what you have is good, they will see it. Quirky fonts and colors, photos of you with your dog, and flowery overenthusiasm puts them off.
Can you read my manuscript / introduce me to your agent?
Unfortunately, the answer to both is no. I simply don’t have time to read anyone else’s writing. Look for someone you know to do that, or use a professional editor.
My agent is Russ Galen at Scovil Galen Ghosh. He is a wonderful, but very busy, man. If you want to query him, contact him through his company’s website at http://www.sgglit.com/
If you are good, you don’t need an introduction from me. If you are not (sorry!) me passing it to him won’t make any difference, and I respect his time too much to do that.
How do you write each book?
Like CS Lewis, my books start as snapshots of images and snatches of dialog. But the writing of one's first book, without deadlines, is always different from later books. The first scene I wrote years ago did not fit into any of my books! With The White Mare, as more scenes came, characters and the finer points of story emerged. But the full narrative only solidified some way through, when I sorted out all these people talking to me in my head.
So in the beginning, I just kept letting these people speak, and waited until I had enough material for the holes between scenes to fill. Only then, when I knew the full story, did I start to write chronologically. I read once that Diana Gabaldon writes in a similar way.
However, for all my subsequent books, due to publisher deadlines I have only been given around 12 to 14 months to write them — and this is for novels of anywhere between 200,000 and 250,000 words long. It is tough to do that in the allotted timespan, since I was trying to give the richness, complexity and depth I loved from The Mists of Avalon, even though Marion Zimmer Bradley took many years to write her masterwork. I do set easy tasks for myself!
Since that first book, the only way to try and get them in on time (and I usually fail) is to plan them out better. So I do work out a detailed synopsis and from that, what scenes I will need. This still doesn't emerge right at the start, however, but comes some way in.
What is a typical writing day?
I’m most awake in the morning, so that’s when I write. I can do about five hours straight. That may not sound much, but as I can write 1000 words an hour, I get a lot done in a burst. Other authors say they do 12 hours a day, but I wonder how much time is spent staring out the window musing over a scene!
Later, I always try and get outside. For many years I walked in the countryside, which often gives me my best ideas. I take a little recorder with me. Since I’m writing about a pre-industrial world, being among the trees and plants, seeing the sky and seasons change, and smelling the air, are all vital to me. Of course, these senses infuse my books as well.
For fitness reasons I’ve now started running, however, and between splashing through mud puddles, leaping over cow dung, and trying not to twist my ankle on the lumpy Scottish hills, there is less time to let good ideas in. I have to wait until I am beside the fire for that...My Historical Fiction Workshop »