26 September 2012

Today's HNS ConferenceGuest: Elizabeth Chadwick

Directing the Passion

or how I became 
a historical novelist for a day job

I am a born storyteller. I can clearly remember being put to bed at three years old on a warm, light summer evening. I wasn't ready to go to sleep and I can distinctly recall taking a folded cotton handkerchief from under my pillow and opening it out on the bed spread. It was a little girl’s hankie, printed in each corner and the middle with pictures of fairies.  I remember making up a tale around these fairies until I grew tired.  I could neither read nor write at this stage, but I already had the art of story.

Throughout my childhood I continued to entertain myself in this way, always verbally, never writing down the words. The subjects of my stories although wide-ranging, often involved horses or mythical elements. I would take exciting moments from books I was currently reading and change the story.

I would invent new episodes - I guess it was a form of fan fiction but not labelled thus back then.  I would often revisit the same story but change something about it, a little tweak at the beginning, a different character or chapter ending. The stories themselves never had complete endings but were always left open ready for the next episode.  I didn't realise it at the time, but I was conducting my own apprenticeship in the art and craft that was going to become a huge part of my career later on.

I had no idea as a child that I would end up writing historical fiction for a living. The idea of being a writer did not occur to me in my childhood at all, but that changed when I was fifteen and for the first time put my ideas on paper.  Suddenly I had a visual record of the stories that until then had been talked into thin air and it was an epiphany moment. The spur to writing it down came from the mundane.  I was bored in the school holidays and set myself a project.  It was only after I embarked on that project that the full spark ignited.  I wrote the novel in a spare Geography note book!

Why historical fiction? I suppose it's one of those moments of fate where you arrive at a fork in the road and something happens to direct you down one path rather than another. I had always been a voracious reader and my favourite books were myths, legends and ghost stories. With that sort of background I may well have drifted into fantasy writing, but my road was directed not by the written word but by the visual experience.  I had become glued to a historical drama put on by the BBC. It was called the six wives of Henry VIII and starred a handsome actor called Keith Michelle.  Of course there is nothing new under the sun and we now have The Tudors and Jonathan Rhys Meyers!

Inspired by the programme and for the first time, I wrote my story down - a Tudor tale of a young woman coming to attend at court. It was a false start in that I didn't continue with the story beyond the school holidays, but it is significant that I began to read historical fiction which I had never really done as a child. I picked up Jean Plaidy’s novels about the Tudors and thoroughly enjoyed them.

The Mediaeval hammer struck the following year when the BBC aired another historical programme aimed at older children and teenagers. It was called Desert Crusader and was dubbed from its original French. The series starred a handsome knight in flowing white robes having adventures in the holy land. I fell for him in a big way and began writing my own story based on his character.

 However, it quickly developed a life of its own. I didn't know anything about the 12th century crusader period and had to begin researching. The more I researched, the more interested I became and the more I wanted to write about the period.  It took me around a year to complete a 500 page handwritten novel and by the end of it, now aged 16, I knew what I wanted to do for a living was write historical fiction set in the Middle Ages filled with romance and adventure. My goal was set and everything else was peripheral. I worked in shops to earn a living. I filled shelves in the Asda superstore and the Co-op, not caring that the work was mundane - it was just a means to support myself while I got on with the real business of obtaining myself a career.

 It took me 17 years from penning the first words of that first full novel to achieving publication at the age of 33 with my 8th attempt.  It was a long learning curve, but the perseverance was worth it.  That first novel, The Wild Hunt, won a major award and is still in print 22 years later, having been joined by another 21 novels, with more prizewinners and bestsellers among them, including The Scarlet Lion which HNS founder Richard Lee nominated as one of his historical fiction choices of the decade, and To Defy A King, which won last year’s Romantic Novelist’s Association Award for the best historical novel of the year.

 To follow your dream you have got to be tough and persevere. If novels are rejected, sometimes it is because the novel is not in the right place at the right time or there is too much competition, or the editor or agent doesn’t recognise enormous talent and potential.  And sometimes it's because a writer is just not ready and needs to be realistic about how much work still needs to be done.  I view my eight reject novels as my apprenticeship pieces. I still have them in my drawer, and I suspect that's where they are going to stay in my lifetime, but they were worth every moment, and gave me enormous satisfaction and enlightenment.  Perhaps that's the most important lesson I've learned. Above all, enjoy what you do, and do it with a whole and true heart.

Elizabeth's Banquet Guests

It would be a medieval feast of course!

John Marshal and his wife Sybilla, William Marshal and his wife Isabelle de Clare,
Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Joanna. I wouldn’t want to invite her husband Henry II or her sons because I’d want the conversation to be wide ranging but amicable. However,  I’d  invite his father Geoffrey le Bel Count of Anjou to see if he really was as handsome as his legend says. He was reckoned to be charming, extremely intelligent and well read, so I think he’d make a good dinner guest. Out of interest and curiosity

I’d have Roland the farter to provide the cabaret – it was his job to turn up at court every Christmas and perform a ‘leap, a whistle and a fart’ in front of the King. My mind boggles and I need to unboggle it and see if these were the general duties of a court jester. To recover from this, I would have troubadour Bernard de Ventadour sing us some of his songs.


  1. So interesting to see how Elizabeth got into writing novels. It's hard to imagine myself doing it, but love to read them. Would love to be at the medieval banquet!

    Marilyn Smith

  2. I love reading about personal writing journeys and it's so sweet to learn of Elizabeth's early start when she was barely out of the womb, as well as great career advice for writers. I've just finished reading Lady of the English, and I can't wait for the Queen trilogy to arrive.

    Eleanor's daughter Joan is a must as a banquet-guest for me too - her life is still a great write. However tempting it would be to retain him, I would have to get rid of the leaping farter and substitute Joan's brother and Eleanor's son, Richard I. He and Bernard will sing each-others' compositions and then Joan and Richard (in my imagination) will spout all about the madly interesting time when Richard wanted Joan to marry Salah Ad-Din's brother. What the??? Can't wait ...

    Ellie Richards

  3. Thank you Marilyn and Ellie for leaving comments - I so wish I had kept my early stories written in _my_ geography notebooks LOL - funny how both Elizabeth and I obviously thought geography was not as important as writing stories! I confess to also using my history notebook as well though. For me history was a boring subject given by a very boring history teacher :-/

    I'm so looking forward to Elizabeth's Eleanor novels for the pleasure of reading good writing and good history combined in one book!

  4. Helen, Sounds as if you had a names and numbers history teacher. I had a wonderful, quirky, funny genius of a history teacher, who I think competed on Brain of Britain. When I was inexplicably streamed to geography as a main subject, as the marks were identical, I made a great fuss to get it changed back. In retrospect, it was a life-changing event for little did I realise that history would become such a passion. I can't imagine that happening with geography. :) Perhaps it has to do with 'living the history', if I can borrow the phrase from Elizabeth's blog, and 'living the geography' just doesn't take you there, does it?

    I agree about good writing and good history. I liked what Elizabeth did with Adeliza of Louvain and Mathilda in Lady of the English, and I can't wait to read about Eleanor's life after king Louis and her later travels in the east with Joan and Richard, fingers-crossed in volume two. The extra thread of Akashic on top of brilliant historical research is a great way to go, and I'm so glad that quantum physics is slowly catching up. Hope you all have a wonderful HNS conference this weekend.

    Ellie Richards

  5. My history teacher was even worse than names and numbers! I recall one particular lesson because it was so boring - the Industrial Revolution. She spent the entire hour's lesson reading from a very dull book in a monotone drone. I think the only reason why I recall the lesson is because some little part of my barely conscious brain became intrigued by the words "spinning jenny". I had no idea what this was but went to the library to look it up. I guess I must have had some inkling that history could be interesting.... if only someone else was teaching it!

  6. what a great beginning to a prolific Career as a Writer! I think the guests at the Medieval Banquet fascinating and I would love to be a fly on the Wall hear the conversation and see if Geoffrey le Bel Count of Anjou turned out as charming as his description!
    Mariiyn Watson


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