Jean, I'm delighted to welcome you as the first author to be interviewed for the RNA blog. I know you grew up in the East End of London, which explains your convincing sense of place but I'd love to know how you got into writing about it.
I am a District Nurse and eight years ago I was a manager in the NHS in charge of six community clinics when my boss sent me on a stress management course. In order to unwind at the end of the working day the tutor advised us to take up a hobby. A good friend of mine had just signed up for a creative writing course and as a life-long reader of all types of historical fiction I thought I’d have a bash at writing a story- just for fun. You know. Nothing serious! Anyhow, I sketched out a rough plot on a sheet of A 4 and opened my lap top on the kitchen table and typed Chapter One. After just a dozen or so pages the story just seemed to pour out as if someone had shaken up a bottle of cola and undone the top.
I finished that book in about four months – it takes me considerably longer now I can tell you- then I started another. Again the story flowed. Of course, I had no idea about technique or formatting, I learnt that later, I was just telling the story.After I’d written three books my hero-at-home encouraged me to send one off to see if they were any good, which I did. With trembling hands and naive dreams of agents and editors fighting over my brilliant book, I would post a handful of submission out on Monday morning only to have them fall back through my letter box on Thursday with a photo copied rejection letter shoved inside.
Then in 2003 I joined the RNA via the New Writers Scheme and sent in my second novel. Thank goodness it landed on the mat of Rachel Summerson who in her reader’s report opened by saying ‘before I say anything else you have what it takes to be a novelist because you create believable characters and put them in gripping plots that makes the reader want to turn the page but…’ I still cherish that report.
But, I suddenly realised I knew nothing about the craft of writing, formatting or any of the other skills that are essential to produce a publishable novel. So I spent the next 5 years learning them which wasn’t easy as I’m dyslexic. I had to work a night shift in a local nursing home every other week to afford to have my manuscripts copy edited in full before I could submit them.
After writing 10 books, submitting to umpteen agents and editors I finally wrote No Cure for Love which won the Harry Bowling Prize in 2006. That got me my first two-book deal with Orion and when A Glimpse at Happiness was shortlisted for the 2010 Romantic Novel of the Year, I got my second two-book contract. Winning the Harry Bowling was my big-break but the hard work goes on. In fact, it never stops.
How much of a planner are you?
Because I have so many points of view in my book and my publishers require a detailed synopsis from me, I plot and often sketch out the whole story scene by scene before I start. However it’s not written in stone and the plot very often changes as I go along.
What do you think an editor is looking for in a good novel?
It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing romance, sci-fi or a political thriller what all editors of popular fiction are looking for is a riveting, page-turning story.
Where is your favourite place to work?
As long as I’m by myself I can work anywhere, train, plane or café but my favourite place is my office, which is the fourth bedroom. I have all my research books to hand and no one else uses my computer. As well as the desk, bookcases and filing cabinet I have an easy chair where I sit and think.
Do you write every day? What is your work schedule?
I try to write every day and aim for 1500 words which is about the length of most of my scenes. My day job is teaching nursing studies at a London university so I dash in from work at 4.30 and have to do the domestic goddess thing, which I’m appalling at. Have dinner at 6-ish then I disappear into my office for 2 hours to write. I usually surface about 9.00 to 9.30 and watch a bit of TV then when the Hero-at-Home goes to bed I’m back on my computer until 1am.
I also work most Saturday’s but try to limit it on Sunday to a few hours in the afternoon.
Which authors have most influenced your work?
Anya Seton in the first instance as it was her book Katherine, which is almost a seminal work for women, as it sent me off on my lifelong love of historical fiction. I like Bernard Cornwell, Elizabeth Chadwick and C J Sanson but I have to confess working full time and writing a book a year doesn’t leave much time for reading and most of the books I read now are for research.
What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?
There are two actually. The first is sitting down and starting a new scene. It’s not that I don’t know what I’m going to write it’s just getting into the swing of it and I can usually do that after a paragraph or two. But the worse part of writing for me, as it must be for many writers, is the edits where you have to sometimes deconstruct you plot or rework characters. Mentally I’ve done with the story and my head is already in the next book, but the editing has to be done.
How do you promote your books?
Although I do have a publicity person at Orion I spend a lot of time promoting my books. As a new author you can’t expect much of your publisher’s promotion budget so you have to do everything you can to get your name out there. As my books are based in East London I put a great deal of time and effort into pushing my books in Essex where many East Enders migrated to after the Second World War. I am an official speaker for the Essex WI and have done numerous talks to libraries, women’s and writers groups throughout the area—30 + last year. It’s paid off because recently when I’ve arrived to give a talk, people in the audience have already read one of my books, often because someone recommended it to them. I also try to get onto local radio when I can. I have had some real fun and I love meeting readers but it cuts into writing time so I try not to do more than two a week.
Do you find time to have interests other than writing?
I’m interested in history, as is the Hero-at-Home so we often have days out visiting an art gallery or museum. I also have three grown-up daughters and three grandchildren and another arriving soon so the family keeps me busy as does Molly our Bernese Mountain dog.
What advice would you give a new writer?
Believe in yourself. Don’t try to chase bandwagons. Listen to constructive criticism. Work hard and never give up.
Tell us about your latest book, and how you got the idea for it.
The heroine is Mattie Maguire and life has not been easy for her since her husband died three years ago. She has struggled to keep the family’s East End coal business solvent, as well as raise her young son and take care of her troubled mother-in-law by herself. And now everything that Mattie has worked for is under threat. Maguire’s is in the path of the proposed Wapping to Mile End railway extension and the coal yard deeds are firmly in the sights of corrupt local benefactor Amos Stebbins.
Fugitive Nathaniel Tate is a man who knows just how ruthless Amos can be: he was wrongfully imprisoned for embezzling money that Amos stole. After learning of his family’s tragic death, Nathaniel escapes and returns to London to bring down the man he holds responsible for his family’s destruction. Tracking Amos down to Maguire’s, it is there that Nathaniel meets Mattie, who offers him work.
As Nathaniel begins to help Mattie turn around the fortunes of the business, and the pair grow ever closer, he starts to think less of revenge and more of the possibility of a new future with Mattie. But then his true identity is revealed. On the run from the police, Nathaniel has to prove his innocence, expose Amos, and win back the heart of Mattie. But a furious Amos has other plans…
It’s released on the 3rd February as a trade and hardback. The mass market paperback is out in October 2011.
Can you tell us something of your work in progress?
I am finished the edits to book four, Hard Lessons, which is also set in Wapping and Shadwell, and after a month or so of planning and research I’ll be starting on my fifth novel at the beginning of March.
Thank you Jean, that was fascinating and your work schedule makes me tired just thinking about it. But what an inspiration your determination is to any aspiring writer. The hard work has most certainly paid off and I wish you every success for the future. Hopefully you'll come back another time and tell us how you're getting along.
If you want to know more about Jean and her writing, visit her website at http://www.jeanfullerton.com/
Thanks again, Freda