An Interview With Barbara Taylor Bradford

Cavendon HallAs the executive editor of The Copperfield Review, a journal of historical fiction, I’ve been able to interview such literary legends as John Jakes and Jean M. Auel. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview another legend, Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Barbara Taylor Bradford has written the notable New York Times Best Sellers A Woman of Substance, The Ravenscar Dynasty, and The Women in His Life, among many others. Her newest novel is Cavendon Hall, set to be released April 1, 2014. Cavendon Hall will be available from Amazon and other book retailers.

Meredith Allard: I admit, when I read the synopsis of your newest novel, Cavendon Hall, I jumped at the chance to read it because it reminded me of Downton Abbey, which is one of my all time favorite shows. Was Downton an inspiration for Cavendon Hall? Were there other inspirations for Cavendon Hall as well?

Barbara Taylor Bradford: No, Downton Abbey was not my inspiration for Cavendon Hall. In fact, the outline for this book and the sequel I’m now writing (The Cavendon Women), was created six years ago. I did not present it to my publisher at that time because they were looking for books set in the present from me. I wrote Cavendon Hall in 2013.

FYI, I have been writing family sagas since A Woman of Substance, including six sequels to AWOS, making it a seven book series, set at Pennistone Royal (the stately home in Yorkshire), and at Harte’s Emma’s department store in London.  A Woman of Substance was a six-hour mini-series for television, and was followed by two more series, Hold the Dream, and To Be the Best, made from my books. Stars in these shows were Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Mills, Liam Neeson, James Brolin, Nigel Havers, Deborah Kerr, Jenny Seagrove, Lindsey Wagner, Victoria Tennant, Fiona Fullerton, and many renowned actors.

Altogether, ten of my books have been made for television, nine by my husband, Robert Bradford, who is a movie and television producer, as well as the manager of my career.

I wrote another family saga, The Ravenscar Dynasty, about the Deravenel family, also set in Yorkshire, London and other parts of the world. The UK newspapers say I re-invented the family saga for this generation, and created the first department store dramas with the Emma Harte series, long before all those recent television shows. They call me the “undisputed queen of the family saga” in the UK newspapers and magazines.

The idea for Cavendon Hall and The Cavendon Women came to me when I was thinking about the long friendships I personally have had with my women friends, some over thirty years. I was suddenly taken with the idea of writing about two girls who grow up together and remain lifelong friends. . .Cecily Swann and Delacy Ingham, and I took it from there. It begins in 1913.

M.A.: Tell us about Cavendon Hall. How would you describe it to potential readers? How is it similar/different from what readers have come to love about your novels?

B.T.B.: Cavendon Hall is a family saga about two families, the aristocratic Inghams, and the Swanns, their retainers, who have stood by the family for 160 years. It is not actually an upstairs-downstairs novel, but an upstairs-in-the-middle novel, with the downstairs servants taking a smaller role in the story. As the First World War looms, a devastating event threatens the Inghams, one of which could bring the family down. Certainly it changes the future for them all. It is a blend of history and drama, romance, betrayal and loss. It ends in 1920. The sequel, The Cavendon Women, starts in 1926, and picks up the previous story of the Inghams and the Swanns.

M.A.: Do you enjoy writing historical fiction? What are the particular joys/challenges of writing historical fiction?

B.T.B.: I love writing fiction. It is a great challenge, but also it’s like starting out on an adventure, especially historical fiction. Going back into the past is intriguing and full of possibilities.

M.A.: For me, researching historical fiction is always the most challenging part of writing historical fiction. What is your research process? Do you travel for research? How do you incorporate the facts of the era with your fictional story?

B.T.B.: I do most of my own research because I know exactly what I’m looking for. In this instance, I already knew a lot about the Edwardian era, partially because I researched it for The Ravenscar Dynasty series, and also because being English I am well-versed in the history of England. In fact, it was always my favorite subject at school. When I am researching I prefer to use books by well-known historians, which I trust the most. I sometimes go back to places in England, which I need to refresh myself about. For instance, I went back to Ravenscar in Yorkshire, before I started that entire series. I wanted to get a sense of that place. I hadn’t visited it since I was a teenager. I weave in the true facts of history, and very carefully, because I don’t want the research to jump out at the reader. It is always subtle but correct, and therefore, adds authenticity to the drama unfolding. Research shouldn’t be obvious.

M.A.: You’ve written some of the most beloved novels of all time. I certainly count A Woman of Substance as among my favorite novels. When did you begin writing, and what were your earliest inspirations? Why did you decide to start writing novels?

B.T.B.: I started writing when I was seven years old. My mother had taught me to read at four, and I was addicted to reading. Then I started to tell my own stories in school exercise books. When I was ten my mother sent a story of mine to a children’s magazine. They not only accepted it but paid me ten-shillings-and-sixpence for it. The day I saw my byline my destiny was sealed. I was going to be a writer. Actually I became a journalist. I started on the Yorkshire Evening Post as a reporter, became women’s page editor, and then went on to work in London on various newspapers and magazines. I consider myself to be journalist today and still write for British newspapers and magazines on a regular basis. However, I had always wanted to be a novelist, and I started but did not finish four novels before I had the idea for A Woman of Substance.

M.A.: Your first novel, A Woman of Substance, became a best seller, which is incredible. What was your journey to publication like?

B.T.B.: Having discarded four ideas for novels, at around 100 pages, I asked myself a lot of questions one day: What sort of book did I want to write, where did I want to set and what year would the story start. I came up with these answers: A traditional family saga, set at the turn of the 20th century, and in England, or rather, Yorkshire. I wanted to tell a story about an ordinary woman who becomes a tycoon, a great success…a woman of substance. This thought became the title. I wrote an outline, showed it to a friend in England who was an agent. He told an editor at Doubleday about my outline and gave her my phone number. After reading it overnight, she told me it was the best outline she had ever read, and that it if I wrote it I would have a big bestseller. She was correct. To date the book has sold 35 million copies worldwide, and is now a huge success as an e-book for the first time, published by Rosetta Books.

M.A.: How have you seen the publishing industry change since A Woman of Substance was published?

B.T.B.: Publishing has changed throughout the world. The changes have come about because of the internet and digital publishing. But I always welcome change and my books sell very well as e-books. I have noticed there are “trends” that last for a while, such as the Dracula books, and other. But trends do seem to come and go. One trend that has lasted is the crime novel. It goes on forever.

M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?

B.T.B.: I was always influenced by the classics, which I grew up with. My favorite writers have always been Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, in particular; Thomas Hardy, and Colette, the French writer. I also have drawn inspiration from their work, and learned a lot about life and writing about life’s experiences.

M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write and publish fiction?

B.T.B.: My advice to those who want to write is to actually sit down and do it. However, I think they come to that chair well prepared. I always think out a story to the very end, and I believe that is the only way to go. Once I have thought out the characters and the plot, I write an outline for myself. It’s my blueprint. Once I’m satisfied I have covered everything, I start telling the story. I always do it very systematically, from page one until the end. I don’t jump around, writing bits and pieces and then fitting them. I divide my books into different parts: Part One, Part Two, and so on. I have always done this, and I find it helped me to organize the characters and their lives.

M.A.: Is there anything else you would like readers to know?

B.T.B.: I plan to keep on writing for the rest of my life.

An Interview With Ruth Hull Chatlien

amb-frontRuth Hull Chatlien is the author of the historical novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. Here’s her take on writing historical fiction.

When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?

I started my first novel when I was ten years old—so long ago that I don’t remember why I did it beyond a love of stories. That first novel was historical fiction about forbidden romance and patriotic spies during the American Revolution. I finally finished the 120-page manuscript when I was in high school. In college, I majored in literature, and influenced by that experience, I spent the next 30 years writing literary fiction. I managed to get a few poems and short stories published. Finally, a few years ago, I decided to go back to my first love: historical fiction.

What inspired you to write The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte?

My husband and I were great fans of the Horatio Hornblower television series in the late 1990s. Then in the 2000s, we discovered an additional four episodes that we had never seen because they were produced much later. The last of those featured Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte. Despite my familiarity with world history, I didn’t know that Napoleon’s brother had married an American. When I looked up the facts on the Internet, I discovered that Betsy’s real life was far more interesting than the snippet shown (and distorted) in the television show.

Tell us about The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. How would you describe it to potential readers?

The book combines romance, action adventure, and a tale of family dysfunction. Betsy Bonaparte was a heroine as beautiful and headstrong as Scarlett O’Hara, but unlike Scarlett, she was a real woman. She led a tumultuous life because of her belief that a woman had as much right to exercise her talents as any man.

All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like? 

Originally, I sought traditional publication for the novel. I spent about six months shopping it around to agents without success. The original version of the book had two problems; it was longer than what publishers wanted to see from a first-time author, and because I had tried to keep it short, it wasn’t descriptive enough. Then in February 2013, through a mutual friend I met the man who had founded Amika Press in Chicago. He was excited about the concept of my book, so after taking some time to consider whether I was ready to give up on New York publication, I submitted the manuscript. The publisher and editor at Amika both read it, liked it, and agreed to take it on. My editor was fantastic and really helped me make it the book I dreamed it would be. To my surprise, he wanted me to make it even longer by adding the descriptive details I had left out. We went through one major revision and one copy edit, and then the novel came out in December 2013.

For me, researching historical fiction is always the most challenging part. What is your research process? Do you travel for research? How do you incorporate the facts of the era with your fictional story?

I researched the novel by reading several biographies of Betsy as well as books about Jerome, Napoleon, Dolley Madison, the War of 1812, Baltimore architecture, period clothing, and an early excursion to Niagara Falls. I also took a research trip to Baltimore to visit historic homes, Fort McHenry, a 19th century warship, and the Maryland Historical Society.

Even after gathering all those facts, I still had to deal with areas where details have been lost to the historical record. One of my favorite analogies for writing historical fiction is “hanging the swags.” I think of the known factual events as brackets extending at irregular intervals along a wall. As a novelist, I had to make up scenes and bits of dialogue to connect those known events—like draping material to connect the brackets.

Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?

I owe a tremendous debt to Graham Greene for showing me that it’s ok to write about deeply flawed characters. I very much admire historical novelists such as Tracy Chevalier, Hilary Mantel, and Sarah Dunant for the way they have made the past come alive in their work.

What advice do you have for those who want to write and publish historical fiction?

Tell a good story, but don’t neglect the history. I recently read a historical novel set in the same period as mine and dealing with some of the same people. The plot was fast-paced, and the characterization of the heroine was well conceived, but the book was riddled with anachronisms and inaccuracies. I had a very hard time remaining in the world of the book because the mistakes kept jarring me out of the story.

What else would you like readers to know?

I love hearing from readers. People can contact me at the following sites:

my blog: ruthhullchatlienbooks.com

my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ruthhullchatlien

Read Tracey Skeine’s review of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte on The Copperfield Review here.

 

Guest Post–Seven Tips to Create Memorable Historical Fiction Characters

Goodbye EmilyHere’s a great guest post from Michael Murphy with tips for creating memorable characters in historical fiction. Michael is the author of the novel Goodbye Emily. His piece also appears in the Winter 2014 edition of The Copperfield Review.

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In historical fiction, creating realistic and memorable characters can present challenges not faced in other genres. Characters, like real people, are shaped by many factors, culture, heritage, religion, physical characteristics, birth order and life events. Memorable characters rebel at some of these influences. A classic example is Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Her rebellion from southern culture, Irish heritage and what is expected from a proper southern belle makes her one of the most memorable historical fiction characters ever.

I often turn to other writers for help and guidance. Therefore, with two historical mysteries that will be released by Random House Alibi later this year, I’ve come up with seven tips to create realistic and memorable characters.

  1. Character study. Get to know your characters before you begin your manuscript. Drafting a detailed character study is a valuable tool in any genre. Write one for each primary and key secondary character, addressing the character’s culture, family, physical characteristics and what has led to that character rebelling against them. Another important area to address is the change your character will go through during the story.
  2. Conflict. Enhance your character through physical, personal and professional obstacles to overcome. Let the era you’re writing about provide the conflict.
  3. Nobody’s perfect. Authors often hesitate to give their favorite characters flaws, or despicable characters redeeming traits. No one is one hundred percent good or bad. If your protagonist is ninety percent heroic, it’s the ten percent that will give him or her depth and leave lasting impressions with your readers.
  4. Historical figures. Historical fiction provides opportunities lacking in other genres. Consider ways for your characters to interact with readily identifiable historical figures. Their interaction with those larger than life characters will enhance your story and their characterization. In my historical mystery set in 1933 New York, my characters encounter Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Cole Porter, Babe Ruth, Joseph Kennedy and more.
  5. Attention to detail. Historical fiction writers are excellent at creating vivid settings with attention to detail. Make sure your characters benefit from the same detailed research that make your scenes so clear to the reader. And avoid clichés. How do your characters feel and react to the choking smoke of a locomotive, or the salty spray of an ocean voyage? What do your characters wear and more importantly, why do they wear them?
  6. Behavioral traits. As you would in writing any genre, give your characters memorable, if not quirky behavior and traits.  Show them displaying mannerisms that make them unique. One might chew tobacco, or comb their hair at inopportune times. Give your characters identifiable quirks and mannerisms, just like real people.
  7. Humor. Historical fiction devoid of humor can result in a novel appearing dull and listless. Life is full of humor, embrace it and utilize your sense of humor in your characters. If you’re not experienced at writing humor remember, like drama, humor is driven by conflict. Drama or humor often comes from a character’s reaction to a scene’s conflict. A suspected haunted house, for example can be chilling or hysterical depending on your character’s reaction.

We write and read historical fiction for the opportunity to join vivid characters in past cultures and historical events. I hope these seven tips help make your journey easier and your characters more memorable.

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Michael MurphyMichael Murphy is a full time writer in Arizona. He’s been writing novels for the past fifteen years. His most recent novel, Goodbye Emily, journeyed back to Woodstock. In August, Random House Alibi will release the historical mystery, The Yankee Club, Murphy’s ninth published novel. Coming next January is the second in the series, All That Glitters.

Murphy’s website www.mjmurphy.com

Goodbye Emily www.goodbyeemily.com

Murphy’s Mystery and History blog: http://blog.mjmurphy.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mmurfy68

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mmurfy86

Guest Post from Dennis Milam Bensie

Dennis Milam Bensie was born in the 1960s and raised with traditional values in Robinson, Illinois. Bensie desperately wanted romance, a beautiful wedding, and a baby to carry on the family name. He denied his sexuality and married a woman at nineteen years old, but fantasized of weddings where he could be the bride. The newlyweds “adopted” a Cabbage Patch Doll and ironically witnessed a Cabbage Patch Doll wedding (a successful fundraiser staged by a local women’s club) where the dolls were granted the type of grand ceremony off-limits to gay couples.

In search of his identity as a gay man, Bensie divorced his wife and stumbled through missteps and lessons that still sting his generation: defending against bullies, “disappointing” his parents, and looking for love in gay bars, bath houses and restrooms. He helped his straight friends plan their dream weddings and mourned his gay friends dying of AIDS.

Although true love has not yet come his way, Bensie has learned to love himself. Bensie is the author of the much-lauded memoir, Shorn: Toys to Men, which recounts his battle with paraphilia. One Gay American tells the rest of his story and draws parallels to gay history, decade by decade, with newspaper headlines and quotations. Bensie is the gay neighbor that you either love or hate. Either way, he’s got a lot to say and says it with no apologies.

Here is an excerpt from Bensie’s book One Gay American:

Ribbons: Commitment Ceremony (a.k.a Gay Wedding)

Once_Gay_American_coverBreaking the Code was a play about British mathematician Alan Turing, who was a key player in the breaking of the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park during World War II. The play thematically links Turing’s cryptographic activities with his attempts to grapple with his homosexuality.

I was doing hair and wigs for a production of the play at Alice B. Theater in Seattle when my friends Matt and Scot first met. Matt was the Assistant Stage Manager and Scot was playing a young street hustler. It was delightful to watch their relationship blossom over the next several months.

Gay activism got even more personal for me when the two of them announced that they were going to make their relationship official and have a commitment ceremony. This would be my first gay wedding, and I was thrilled.

Both sets of parents supported the union and planned to come to town for the event. I was jealous. I doubted that my parents would ever come to a commitment ceremony of mine. They had never even come to Seattle for a visit.

I realized as I watched the guys plan their wedding in detail that there were no established traditions for gay weddings. They could pick and choose what they wanted to do and make the event special for them. Their friends and guests were sure to be open minded enough to love anything they did.

The ceremony was to take place at Aha! Theater, a Seattle fringe theater the couple was involved with. Their invitations paid some homage to tradition, but with their own twist. A friend and aspiring baker agreed to make their wedding cake—a three tier pink triangle cake with two grooms on top. Care was given to make sure the grooms looked like Matt and Scot. They planned a festive reception in the same space with a rented karaoke machine and gay door prizes for the guests.

I was honored to be asked to help the boys select new outfits for ceremony. We had serious discussions about what would work best. Since the wedding wasn’t being held in a church and they wanted to be comfortable, they decided to go with dressy, casual looks. We spent a Saturday shopping downtown and came up with ensembles that looked sharp, but didn’t match or say “wedding.”

I still felt that the boys needed some element of a bride (or at least a bride doll) at the event: a wink at tradition. In 1977, Mattel created a Super Size Barbie that was eighteen inches tall rather than the tradition eleven and one half. In 1992, they introduced My Size Barbie, which stood three feet tall and was sold with a stretchy outfit that, ideally, the doll’s owner would be able to wear and share. Mattel hadn’t planned on a twenty-eight-year-old gay man buying the doll.

I bought a My Size Barbie for myself when she came out on the market. I decided Matt and Scotʼs wedding was the perfect bride_dollopportunity to indulge my never-ending interest in wedding dresses. I made the My Size Barbie a beautiful wedding dress fit for a queen. The guys loved the doll and the dress and decided the enormous bride doll would look perfect presiding over their gift table at the reception. She was much bigger than my cousin Libbyʼs bride doll, who had presiding over the gift table of her wedding years before. I was touched beyond belief. I was, after all, making a white wedding dress for a gay wedding. Ladyman Dennis would have been proud.

As the big day grew closer, the grooms had plenty of jitters. Jitters turned to deep sadness when a fellow thespian friend named Vinny died of AIDS only a few days before the ceremony. It was a shock that such a sweet and vibrant man, only twenty-five years old, would vanish on the eve of such an uplifting celebration of life and love.

Emotions ran high as Matt and Scot’s wedding day finally dawned. The black box theater space was decorated with gay pride paraphernalia. They had decided to do a variation of the traditional European ritual called Handfasting, symbolizing “tying the knot.” Guests were all given a mysterious piece of ribbon about two feet long (in one of the six colors of a gay pride flag) as they entered and signed the guest book. They were all warned not to lose their piece of ribbon. A round platform about two feet tall had been erected in the middle of the space. People walked around the platform without realizing its purpose. All would be revealed later during the event.

There was a lot of hugging and tears: an odd mix of happiness and sadness. The day had become both a gay wedding and a memorial for our friend Vinny. The timing seemed unreal and unfair. However, as people filed into the theater, I saw that the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Vinny was with us; he was a reminder of how important gay people are. We would never forget Vinny.

I couldn’t help thinking about the play where Matt and Scot met. In Breaking the Code, Alan Turing’s homosexuality resulted in a criminal prosecution. He accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison. Turing allegedly committed suicide before his 42nd birthday. It seemed appropriate that Matt and Scot met working on a play inspired by his story. In many ways, their ceremony was breaking the code, too.

matt_and_scotThe handfasting ceremony began. Matt and Scot and their parents all got up on the platform in the middle of the room. Close to seventy-five of their friends and loved ones surrounded the platform in a complete circle. Each guest was told to tie his or her ribbon to another guest’s ribbons. The mothers of the grooms tied one end of their ribbons to the guests’ chain. Mattʼs mom then tied her ribbon to Scotʼs ribbon, while Scotʼs mom tied hers to Mattʼs. The men each held one end of the trail of ribbon not yet joined.

There was no one officiating the ceremony. My friend Ruth was in charge of sound. On cue, she put a cassette tape in a portable cassette player. A beautiful song, “Stay for the Ride,” underscored the ceremony. The song was by a local lesbian singer, Lisa Koch, from her album Colorblind Blues. Lisa’s song was the perfect accent to the occasion: hauntingly romantic and sincere. Matt spoke first of the difficult week that had begun with the death of Vinny. He began sobbing.

“Today is dedicated to Vinny,” Matt said as the two men tearfully exchanged vows they had written themselves. When the vows were completed, the two grooms tied their end of the ribbon to each other, uniting the room in gay pride colors. The gesture was special and I knew I would never forget the special day as long as I lived.

Finally I understood weddings. I had witnessed what I wanted to see my whole life—two men in love coming together in pride. The dress wasn’t important. Walking down the aisle wasn’t important. Matt and Scot indulged a tradition and no one could convince me they were wrong.

I wished there was a bouquet to toss, one that I could have caught. I loved Matt and Scot so much, but it was hard to contain my jealousy. Two distinct images of gay life: the happy couple and the boy dead of AIDS. I was very scared.

Was I going to die of AIDS that I had caught at a bathhouse while looking for true love?

Matt and Scot kept the yards and yards of tied ribbon from their ceremony in Seattle.

I gave them the My Size Barbie wedding dress to keep as a memento.

One Gay American

Paperback: 242 pages

Publisher: Coffeetown Press (September 1, 2012)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1603811532

ISBN-13: 978-1603811538

Price $13.95

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Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. Bensie’s first book, Shorn: Toys to Men, was nominated for the Stonewall Book Award, sponsored by the American Library Association. It was also a pick in the International gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011.″ The author’s short stories have been published by Bay LaurelEveryday Fiction, and This Zine Will Change Your Life, and he has also been a feature contributor for The Good Men Project. One Gay American is his second book with Coffeetown Press and it was chosen as a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Indie Excellence Book Awards. He was a presenter at the 2013 Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs. You can find out more about Dennis Milam Bensie, his memoirs and World of Ink Author/Book Tour at http://tinyurl.com/lhtvxyt. To learn more about the World of Ink Tours visit http://worldofinknetwork.com.