FEBRUARY'S WINNER OF
THE REVIEW'S BOOK OF THE MONTH
After many years in public relations, advertising, and marketing, Blythe Gifford started writing seriously after a corporate layoff. Ten years and one layoff later, she became an overnight success when she sold her Romance Writiers of America Golden Heart Finalist (unpublished) manuscript to the Harlequin Historical line.
She has since published historical romances set in medieval England, Flanders, and on the Scottish Borders, most incorporating real historical events and characters. The Chicago Tribune has called her work "the perfect balance between history and romance." Her eleventh book, Whispers at Court, will be released in June 2015.
Thank you for joining me today, Blythe, and for agreeing to be interviewed about your indie published book, The Witch Finder, which I have chosen as February's winner of The Review's Book of the Month.
You have written many books, Blythe, so could you tell our readers what the hook was that made you want to write about the fascinating subject of witch finders, especially as The Witch Finder is quite different from your other books?
There are several answers embedded in this question. First, yes, this book is darker, more intense, and includes more of the “gritty” side of history than my other books. But all my work is rooted in real historical events and people and this book remains an historical romance, as my other books are.
As to what drew me, when I looked at my original notes on this project, I discovered I first noodled on this idea before I was even published, originally thinking to set it during the Inquisition. That means it was in my subconscious for ten years before I started writing.
There’s a famous maxim on the importance of conflict in romance, attributed to multi-million selling author Sandra Brown: “If your heroine is an arsonist, your hero better be a fire fighter.” I could think of no conflict stronger than that of a suspected witch and a witch finder. For me as a writer, the story combines several elements that intrigue me and turn up in much of my work: women and sexuality (that’s one!), religion, and politics. Although the last two are traditionally taboo, in an historical context, you can’t reflect the world as it was if you ignore them. One reason I write romance is that it makes the woman central to the story. In other genres, that is sometimes difficult to do.
Reading your book re-awakened an interest in the history of witch hunts in both the UK and in the USA, so could you let our readers know how you went about your own research for The Witch Finder?
Sometimes I think research is my favourite part of the process! I started broadly, originally thinking the story would be set in England, where the “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins reigned for more than three years, ostensibly responsible for the deaths of 300 “witches.” But I discovered that some of the most virulent witch hunting episodes occurred in Scotland, specifically in the Scottish Lowlands, where I had already set a book. In fact, the number of witches tried in Scotland far exceeded the number tried in England, so I gravitated to that era and location, though I kept England in my sights during the process.
|Sinclair - Satan's World 1685|
The Scottish witch hunts have attracted quite a bit of scholarship, and my shelves now overflow. Particularly helpful were Enemies of God by Christina Larner and The Scottish Witch Hunts in Context by Julian Goodare. There is also an extensive archive/database online via the University of Edinburgh, here. To give Google Books credit, they have now digitized many original sources that used to require travel to distant libraries to access. My Google bookshelf on this issue alone tops 200 items.
But witch hunting is a subject that seems to attract sensationalist and speculative commentary, so I had to be cautious about my sources, both in print and online.
One of the trickiest parts of the research, interestingly, was not the witch hunts themselves. It was the political situation. The story is set in the immediate aftermath of the transition from the Cromwellian government to the restoration of the monarchy in England and Scotland. It’s a brief and specific moment in time and trying to nail down certain political and religious realities of those months caused me many months of frustration. These could not be glossed over because they were crucial to accurately portray who conducted the investigations and how they proceeded.
|The Witch Trials|
In addition, as always, trying to get enough of a handle on clothes, food, and housing so that you can walk around in the characters’ world is a challenge. Yet this is crucial if I am to immerse the reader in the world. I always write with a map and a calendar close at hand. The calendar was particularly important for this story, for it is paced more like a thriller, with the key action taking place over about ten days.
By the way, the Salem, Massachusetts (US) witch hunt took place about 30 years after this. I did not extend my research to the US except to re-read The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s amazing play.
Your characters are extremely interesting, and complex: Margret, for example, comes across as a very independent woman whose character is driven to protect her mother. It is Margret’s character that, for me, drives the story. How did you go about developing her?
One of the things I always say is that all my books are autobiographical, but not necessarily in the way you imagine. This one was a bit more direct. My mother died the year before I started the manuscript and the last couple of years of her life, our roles were reversed, much as Margret’s and her mother’s. My mother was not as impaired as Margret’s, my road certainly not as hard. But during those years, I had a constant sense of worry and frustration and helplessness that I translated to the page. I’m glad it brought her alive for you.
The character of Alexander Kincaid, on the other hand, is an enigma. What was your process for developing his complexities, which I found quite absorbing?
Making Alexander believable and relatable for the modern reader was one of my hardest tasks. Though it is true that “good people” in various times past believe things we now see as heinous, I felt I could not have an educated hero committed to destroying witches without giving him a very good motivation. That meant having a “witch” destroy someone he loved, at once proof and emotional justification.
That setup was the writer’s craft brain at work. But the unfolding of his deeper motivations and inner doubts came from the magic of writing the story itself. I thought of him as a man in search of justice, almost like a knight fighting a dragon. That allowed him to be believably open to change.
When writing, do you have a particular routine? For example, do you always write at a certain time of day, in a certain place?
I am a creature of habit because habit will keep you at the keyboard more effectively than willpower. After morning coffee and routine, I put on a playlist of music I develop for each book. This includes something rousing and atmospheric to start, followed by appropriate period music and/or soundtracks. Like Pavlov’s dog, when I hear it, my hands automatically go to the keyboard. (I’m listening to my soundtrack for this book as I write these answers.) I’ve also had a signature candle scent, for this book, a dark cedar/bergamot/amber mix.
When I began, I was strictly a morning writer, but I’ve trained myself to work morning and afternoon. Usually, a writing stretch is one and a half to two hours. While I have forced myself to write when I travel on (non-writing) business, I’m most productive in my office, at my desktop, surrounded by my research books and all my files.
Some authors write longhand and then transcribe their manuscript to the laptop. How do you write your novels, Blythe?
I’m a draft writer, but for the most part, wedded to the keyboard. The first draft is about 100 pages of the “good stuff,” that is, the scenes that form the core of the story. Sometimes, here and further along, I’ll scribble on a large drawing pad some of the themes or images and the drawing can unlock some connections the conscious mind has missed. There’s been research before this, but the research continues throughout the process. Interestingly, my opening scene rarely changes substantively.
|How I write|
The second draft creates more of a beginning, middle, and end. Well, that sounds more organized than it is. The point here is to create more words. Eventually, I discover the story. All the way along, I’ll print out and edit with scribbles in the margin. I even cut and paste entire scenes into different places. I write short, so even at the end of this stage, I’m 40-50 pages shy of where I need to be.
The third draft is where it becomes a book. I mean that literally. Suddenly, the thing snaps into place. Everything tightens. (Which means I lose words and have to expand again.) Now each word matters. (Before, it was just get something down!) I have ‘aha’ moments about the characters. The plot. Everything. And while I say “Draft Three,” the fact is that by the time the manuscript is ready for the editor, I’ve reviewed each page at least ten times. Draft Three can actually be Four or Five. Or Six…
Editing and proof reading are the two most important tasks after the manuscript has been completed. Would you like to share how you go about these tasks?
Traditionally, I’ve been able to rely on my wonderful editor at Harlequin for these things, but when Harlequin passed on this book, I had to assemble my own team. I used a total of four editors--two for overview of the story and two for copy/proof work. It was very important to me to do it right, since indie publishing sometimes has a reputation for skipping those steps. That said, I probably don’t need four the next time! Part of it is finding people you gel with. There are online communities of self-published authors who are happy to recommend good people. Two of my four editors formerly worked at traditional publishing houses and such professionals are now available for freelance work.
As you are an indie author, Blythe, would you recommend it to other authors, and would-be authors, and could you tell our readers why you decided to be an indie author?
I decided to publish The Witch Finder myself after Harlequin rejected the book because I think it’s some of the best work I’ve done. I also thought it would be a learning experience in the brave new publishing world we live in. The reviews, like yours, and being a finalist in last year’s Bookseller’s Best competition, have validated my belief that the book was worth sending into the world.
Technically, I’m still a “hybrid,” publishing in both camps. Secrets at Court was released by Harlequin last year and Whispers at Court will be out from them in June. Both of those are set in the court of Edward III of England and take place around the weddings of Edward’s son and daughter, respectively.
My advice? Be sure you understand the time and the breadth of skills demanded, many of which are entrepreneurial, not creative. I had to set up accounts with the retailers, find a cover artist, develop a cover, hire a formatter to translate the computer file properly for e-and print versions. And now there is a need to adjust pricing for VAT [value added tax] changes. Not to mention your own accounting for taxes! It is like starting a small business.
More, in my experience, indie publishing favors the “predictably prolific.” Those who are making a good living as indies are releasing five to nine “projects” a year, usually in a genre fiction series. I would also caution that the landscape, even the royalty rates, can be expected to change. Change is inevitable throughout the publishing world these days.
One of the biggest challenges for any writer, particularly an indie one, is getting the word out. How can people ever find your book among the millions now published every year? So I am so grateful to you for shining this spotlight on The Witch Finder. Thanks so much for your enthusiasm and support!Thank you so much for a most interesting interview Blythe, and congratulations on winning February's Book of the Month Award. So well deserved.