Stealing the limelight – or how a secondary character grew into a central one

Writing historical novels very often leads to discovering new favourites. When I started writing my The King’s Greatest Enemy series, I was very much into Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella, only occasionally sparing a thought for Isabella’s son, the very young Edward III who became an unwilling participant in the events that led up to his father’s deposition and subsequent (purported) death.

As my writing progressed, Edward grew on me. The idea of a young boy torn in two by his love for both his parents had a lot of potential for emotional tension. And I imagine it was tense—and difficult—for Edward to watch the rift between his parents widening. Even more so when he ended up as the official figurehead for Isabella’s invasion of England: she came, she said, to deliver the English from that foul snake Despenser, and to protect the throne for the rightful heir, her handsome son.

What her handsome son thought about being paraded at the head of an army intent on ousting his father was neither here nor there according to Isabella. Edward likely did not agree, and these early experiences made him all that more determined to become a king so perfect no one would ever dream of attempting to oust him.

Eduard3
Edward the boy king

It also made him determined to rule his own roost. I imagine living under mama’s thumb for a number of years only reinforced that feeling. It is strange that a woman as intelligent as Isabella did not realise just how much her young son resented her attempts to order all things in his kingdom, even more so when the Isabella & Roger duo showed little inclination to step aside as Edward grew older.

Edward had few opportunities to rebel. The royal administration was in the hands of Mortimer’s capable officers, Isabella and Mortimer held the Great Seal, and Edward spent his days surrounded by people who served his regents rather than him. A difficult situation for a young king who aspired to power.

What Edward did have were friends. Having learnt from his father’s fate just how dangerous it was to play favourites, Edward cultivated a varied selection of young men, some substantially older than him, some as young as he was. What all these young men had in common was that they were the heirs to important lordships in England, i.e. Edward was forging strong relationships with the men that would in the future be his barons. Along the way, this group of companions would also help Edward reclaim his royal power.

In my recently released book, any reclaiming of power is still in the future. Edward III is as yet an untried youth, chafing under the rule of his mother and her favourite baron. He is confused by what is happening around him, he is afflicted by guilt for his part in his father’s deposition, and he is quickly learning to be very selective as to who he trusts. He is also an adolescent, a lanky teenager thrust into a position of eminence which requires adherence to protocol when he’d prefer running wild with his companions. Plus, at the age of fifteen he also becomes a husband, a role he intends to take very seriously. After all, Edward has seen first-hand just what a failed marriage can lead to, and is therefore determined to ensure his Philippa is content.

A larger-than-life lad is my Edward, and where initially he was more of a supporting character, he has become one of the protagonists, a young puppet fighting his puppeteers for control over his own strings. I admire this boy-king. I am impressed by how quickly he learns to play the political game, I smile fondly at his more boisterous moods and am not sure whether to groan out loud or pat him encouragingly on the back when he rides north at the head of his army to teach the pesky Scots a lesson. At the time, he was fourteen…

As all those familiar with history will know, some years later Edward wrested control away from his mother and her lover. At eighteen, Edward III began his own personal rule, forty plus years in which he was the undisputed king, his authority never questioned.

Edward_III_counting_the_dead_on_the_battlefield_of_CrécyWas he a perfect king? I suspect the French would have replied with a resounding NO. After all, Edward III unleashed the Hundred Years’ War on France, resulting in far too much death, too much loss. He was ruthless in war—whether in France or Scotland—but he was also a man determined to act honourably towards his vanquished foes. Well…if it suited him politically.

Whether perfect or not, Edward III is definitely one of the more impressive English kings. But he tends to be overlooked, squashed as he is by the tumultuous reign of his father, and the equally volatile reign of his grandson. Both the king that preceded him and the one that came after were destined to lose their crowns, obliged to abdicate. Heady stuff, that, and in comparison, Edward’s reign can seem a bit staid. Here was a successful king, happily married and with the reins of government held firmly in his hands. No scandal (except for Alice Perrers when Edward was already slipping into his dotage), no rebellions.

Ironically, Edward’s happy and fruitful marriage would indirectly cause one of the more violent periods in English history. For a medieval king to have so many accomplished sons was almost as bad as not having any, and while the brothers seem to have worked well enough together, the same could not be said of their children. And so, within decades of Edward III’s death, one of his grandsons had usurped the throne from another of his grandsons, thereby laying the foundations for the extended civil war that would plague England for most of the 15th century.

Fortunately, I am not writing about that era. No, I am writing about the years that shaped Edward into the man and king he would one day become. I am writing about a queen and her baron who became addicted to power, about a very young king who could do nothing but bear it—at first. I am writing about a son plagued with guilt over his father’s fate, about a half-grown royal lion finding his claws and teeth. I am writing about a boy who dreamed of valour and glory on the battlefield, a lad who rode to was under the flag of St George, determined to forge his kingdom into something bigger and better than it was!

To write or not to write

I must admit straight off that the title to this post is a tad misleading, as it is not so much about writing as it is about everything that comes with it – at least if you’re writing for publication. And seriously, there are days when I want to chuck it all in. Not the writing as such – I don’t think I can chuck it in – but the sheer slog of spreading the word about my books is, at times, borderline exhausting. Plus, I am way out of my comfort zone here, having little idea what will work and what won’t. Even worse, sometimes what works one day falls flat on its face the next time you try it. Very disheartening, putting it mildly.

I believe most writers experience some sort of passion over their writing. Okay, so some crank out like three books a year that are formulaic and a tad repetitive, but even these authors probably experience moments of passion for their craft. I also believe very few authors enjoy the promotional side of things. First of all, it steals time from writing. Secondly, few authors are entirely at home discussing targeted ads and punchy one-liners. Thirdly, many of us writers are uncomfortable with the commercial aspects of writing.

Now, if the writing is done purely as a hobby, marketing your book is not a must. Maybe it suffices seeing it up there on Amazon, maybe holding a couple of copies of the book is enough. But for most writers, it isn’t. We want sales & reviews, some sort of recognition as to the merits of our work. Pretty silly, really, as what one person thinks is a great read, another may very well throw at a wall.

If you want to sell, you have to promote.
“Ah,” someone may say, “that only applies if you’re self-published.”
Nope. It applies to ALL authors. Publishing companies don’t exactly spend tons of money on all of their releases—they can’t afford to. Instead, they’ll concentrate their marketing efforts to the books they expect will sell really well, while their mid-list authors and downwards are expected to contribute to their own promotion.

Ironically, this means a lot of promo money is poured into books that don’t need it. Take Diana Gabaldon as an example: She publishes a new book and it takes on life of its own, snowballing through the sales ranks. (Having said that, Ms Gabaldon is an active tweeter, thereby maintaining a strong & growing platform. See? She too invests time in promotion!)

If, like many writers, you’re the ambitious sort, the one who wants to see your sales ranking improve and the reviews coming in, there’s no way around it: you MUST promote. But how? Ah, therein lies the question, does it not?

Blog tours help to create a certain buzz—a short-lived burst of interest that the savvy writer can milk for some months afterwards by reposting guest posts and reviews. Or you can do ads. Yup, write your own “copy” and put up FB ads or Amazon ads or BookBub ads. Not as easy as it sounds, but, I believe, relatively effective—assuming you’ve analysed your targeted audience, your targeted markets, your comparable authors. I.e. successful ads require a lot of work—yet another time thief, eating into precious writing time.

Mind you, all promotional activities take time. But there is no such thing as a free ride in a marketplace which sees millions and millions of new releases on a yearly basis, so either you promote or you drown in the deluge of books. Now and then, drowning seems the better option…

Alternatively, the happy writer concentrates on just that: the writing. Forget about publication, ignore the call of the market. No need to promote, no need to worry about pleasing anyone but yourself with your writing. I’m not sure I’d be able to do that. I need that ephemeral recognition, some sort of verification that what I write has the capacity to touch my readers. And so, dear peeps, I must bow to the inevitable: I write, therefore I promote.

Cracking the whip

writer“No inspiration,” I sometimes sigh, while staring at the screen which remains enervatingly blank. And yes, inspiration is a must when it comes to writing—if nothing else as the igniting spark—but there’s another component which is just as important: discipline.
“Of course,” my very own muse, Ms Inspiration says. For the day, she’s wearing a rather scary outfit—all black & red leather—and out of nowhere a whip materialises. She smiles—one of those smiles that is all teeth no warmth. When she’s in this mode, Ms Inspiration is frankly quite frightening, and I have to suppress the urge to stand up and run, reminding myself repeatedly that Ms Inspiration is not real. She’s a figment of my imagination.

“Ouch!” I jump like half a metre when she cracks the whip over my back. For a figment, she sure has quite the hand on her.
“You have work to do,” Ms Inspiration tells me. She nods at my very long to-do list. “Get cracking.” She chuckles and cracks the whip in the air a couple of times before fading away. I have no doubt she’ll be back to plague me if I don’t comply.

That to-do list of mine is full of stuff that requires discipline rather than inspiration. Things I do once I have a first draft to work with – once that initial conflagration of inspiration has burned down a bit. After all, the first phase of any writing project IS creative, inspirational. I dive right into my escapist bubble and end up so caught up in my developing story I often forget to cook and shop, surviving on copious amounts of tea and too much chocolate. This stage is exhausting – productivity is at an all-time high and I am burning energy as if there is no tomorrow, especially as I also have a pretty demanding day-job.

Some writers love this part of the process. I do and I don’t, torn between the exhilaration of seeing my story, my characters come alive, and being uncomfortable with the way I am engulfed by my creative side. You see, in all other aspects of my life I am VERY disciplined. I write lists. I plan dinners a week at the time. I am a structural fascist. Having my brain taken over by my characters—and a loud and opinionated lot they are—is way out of my comfort zone, however exciting.

Fortunately, once the first draft is in place, I can resort to structure—which in my case results in the to-do lists. Lists with things like “double-check how many blows to the head it took before XX died” or “MANTEL, not MANTLE!!!!!” or “time from Northampton to Leicester by horse?” or “top speed for a Tesla?” (and yes, obviously these are examples from different books). This is when I rewrite and revise, when I go back to my research notes to verify my facts.

Now, historical fiction authors come in all sizes. For some, the human-interest angle overshadows everything else, and a couple of historical errors is neither here nor there. For others, the historical facts must be as correct as they can be. I belong to the latter category, and my penchant for lists and structure—discipline—comes in handy when I chase up little details such as on what day exactly was there a full moon in April of 1328. Or spend hours studying what medieval maps I can find of the various towns in which my story takes place.

metsu_writerI think this is my favourite phase of the writing process, lovely hours spent polishing my work. This is also when I discover that perfect scene in which my heroine is staring out towards the setting sun has to go as the location she’s at would not offer all that much of a view to the west. I sigh mightily at having to cut the scene—but pat myself on the back for having the fortitude to do so. After all, facts are facts.

All of this requires discipline—and an eye for details. Fact-checking, tick, plot-structure, tick, grammar & spelling (MANTEL, remember?), tick, All those ticks build the foundation of the final story. Ultimately, though, it is the inspirational bursts, the characters and their lives and loves, which add the icing to the story-telling cake. And who wants cake without an icing, hey? Not me!
“Done yet?” Ms Inspiration reappears in a swirl of red and black leather. I proudly hold up my list. Write post is now neatly ticked.
“Well done.” She peers at the list (she’s seriously myopic but is too vain to admit it). “Only nineteen items to go.”
I groan. She cracks her whip. Here we go again…