Today we’re featuring independent British writer Carolyn Hughes, who has kindly answered my questions – she challenged me to make them interesting – I’m new to this so hope I succeeded! I first discovered Carolyn’s writing on NetGalley with her first book, Fortune’s Wheel, and we somewhat accidentally struck up a correspondence which has led to me beta-reading her last three books. What I love the most is how different they are to typical Historical Fiction, and how brilliantly researched – her words transport you to a fascinating era not often featured in genre fiction – and make you appreciate how lucky we are not to live there permanently!
About the author
CAROLYN HUGHES has lived most of her life in Hampshire. With a first degree in Classics and English, she started working life as a computer programmer, then a very new profession. But it was technical authoring that later proved her vocation, as she wrote and edited material, some fascinating, some dull, for an array of different clients, including banks, an international hotel group and medical instruments manufacturers. Having written creatively for most of her adult life, it was not until her children flew the nest several years ago that writing historical fiction took centre stage, alongside gaining a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University and a PhD from the University of Southampton.
Interview with the author
Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?
No, I can’t say I did. After university (Classics and English), I took the usual route into paid employment: first as a computer programmer, at the time a very new profession; then as a careers officer in schools; and finally as a technical author, producing all sorts of business documentation for a wide variety of companies and enterprises. That job proved to be my vocation and became a thirty-year career!
But all the time I worked (and married and had children), I was writing – short stories, novels, children’s stories, ideas for non-fiction books. But it never occurred to me to try and have anything published – I wrote for pleasure, or perhaps because I couldn’t NOT write. At length, though, I did begin to think publication might be possible and tried submitting my contemporary women’s fiction to agents. But I got nowhere. Then, quite late in life, I decided to take a Masters in Creative Writing – to give a “focus” to my writing, as I told myself. And it worked. The result was Fortune’s Wheel, the first of my Meonbridge Chronicles, which I eventually self-published. I became “a writer”, which is what I now think I am.
What made you choose the fourteenth century as a time period in which to set your books?
To be honest, it was chance. When I was studying for my Masters, I had to produce a piece of creative work. I knew it would be a novel, but what about, and what genre? As I said, I’d been writing on and off all my adult life, so I looked for inspiration amongst my ancient scribblings. I came across a fading draft, hand-written in my twenties, of the start of a novel set in fourteenth century rural England, about the lives of peasant families. The novel’s plot wasn’t great, but I was really drawn to its period and setting. I had a light bulb moment and, a few days later, I was drafting an outline for the novel that became Fortune’s Wheel.
But, in fact, I’d long been intrigued by the medieval period, for its relative remoteness in time and in our understanding of it and also, I think, for the very dichotomy between the common present-day perception of the Middle Ages as “nasty, brutish and short” and the wonders of the period’s art, architecture and literature. The briefest of investigations quickly convinced me that I wanted to know more about the period, and I suppose I also realised that, by writing historical novels, I’d have the opportunity both to find out more about the medieval past and to interpret it, which seemed like a thrilling thing to do.
How do you go about researching your books?
Most of my “research” starts out online, or in one of the very many historical reference books I have acquired over the past few years. I’m mindful of the potential issues with online information, but tend to use what I read there as a starting point to finding authoritative works (books, articles, papers) that I can consult further. Where I can, I like to find several sources that say similar (or at least not contradictory) things about whatever it is I want to know, so I can feel reasonably confident it is “true”. Unlike many (most?) historical novelists, I rarely go to primary sources for my research. My characters and storylines are entirely fictional, and I haven’t so far found the need to consult such documents for the truth about real people’s lives. I am concerned, though, to ensure that the picture I paint is broadly “authentic”, and gives a convincing feel for the period in physical details, behaviour, and mind set, and that is what I am looking for in my research.
Who’s your favourite character in the book series, and why?
Mmm, that’s really difficult. I love them all! But, if I must choose one, I think it will be Emma. She’s a peasant on the lowest rung of Meonbridge society: a cottar, essentially a labourer. I’ve written about her in several books. In Fortune’s Wheel, she is the hard-working wife of a lovable wastrel. In A Woman’s Lot, she has a much bigger role: struggling to make ends meet, resentful of the way women in medieval society are so often disparaged, but doggedly supporting her friends and neighbours, as well as trying to make life better for her family. She’s the principal character in Children’s Fate, where her resolve to keep her family safe from sin forces her to make difficult decisions. She’s a character for whom life is always tough, but her strength of purpose, helping her to keep going forward, making the best of what she has for the sake of her children, does, I feel, mean she’s a very engaging character. In the past year, I’ve written a novella about her too (not yet published), in which, through scenes from her childhood, I reveal how she grew up into the hard-working, spirited woman she’s shown to be in A Woman’s Lot, and, even more so, in Children’s Fate.
Unlike much historical fiction, your books don’t have a strong romance focus: was this a deliberate choice?
No, I don’t think it was deliberate, so much as just the way the books turned out! What I was interested in initially, with Fortune’s Wheel, was the aftermath of the Black Death! I wondered how people could possibly have coped with such a calamity, when nearly half of everyone in England died. I was interested in the social upheaval that must have ensued, the difficulties, both practical and emotional, that people would have faced. Such events as these would have meant (as they do in every century) huge changes to people’s lives, at all levels of society, though I was, and am, primarily interested in how events affected the lives of ordinary people.
I don’t really remember thinking about whether “love” would survive such calamity, though of course it did. In that first book, my character Eleanor is interested in finding love, and part of the story thread does involve her search for it. It’s the same with the other books. Love is in there somewhere, a romantic element of some kind, but, you’re right, it’s never really the focus. All my books have several plot threads, and the “love interest” is just one of them, though it might well be a trigger for events. So I do write about love, and sex, though the latter not in an explicit way. I prefer to concentrate on the emotions and psychology of my characters’ relationships rather the technical details! I think that my readers prefer it that way.
Do you base your characters on real people, either famous or that you know personally?
No, not at all. They honestly arise entirely from my imagination. When I visualise them, I don’t “see” anyone real, famous or otherwise, so I have to create them from scratch – and be sure I remember them clearly, both in appearance and character, from book to book!
What’s the hardest part about being a writer?
Everything!! I really wish I’d started “being a writer” a long time ago, when I was younger and had more energy, because I find managing all the elements of the process quite challenging. I’m an indie publisher, so that means I have to do everything myself: not only planning and writing the books, and managing the editing process, but also commissioning a cover, formatting the books, uploading them (to Amazon and a second print distributor), then managing the launch! Then, once the books are out there, I have to promote them, through social media and paid advertising. And the promotion is relentless if I want the books to sell! I’m currently thinking about producing audio versions – it will be a task for next year, but it’s not remotely trivial… Another thing to daunt me!
So why do I do it when it’s all so difficult? I alluded to it at the beginning: writing is something I HAVE to do. I simply can’t NOT write. But I do also want the books I’ve written to be read. Being an indie publisher means that everything is my responsibility but, despite the huge effort (and angst) required, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Being my own publisher means I am in full control, even though it’s jolly hard!
What’s next for the Meonbridge Chronicles?
I’m already writing book “4.5” of the Meonbridge Chronicles series, which is a companion novel to the main series. I decided to write a spin-off from book 4, Children’s Fate, when readers wanted to know what happened to the heroine at the end. The new book is called The Merchant’s Dilemma. Once that’s done, I will write the sixth Chronicle proper, for which I have a plan – its central characters will be Sister Rosa and John atte Wode – but not yet a detailed outline.
Facebook: CarolynHughesAuthor Twitter: @writingcalliope Website: www.carolynhughesauthor.com
Squire’s Hazard was published in eBook for Kindle on 10th October, and will be available in paperback in late October.