Friday, November 4, 2011

Interview with Alex Beecroft

Alex Beecroft was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and grew up in the wild countryside of the Peak District. She studied English and Philosophy before accepting employment with the Crown Court where she worked for a number of years. Now a stay-at-home mum and full time author, Alex lives with her husband and two daughters in a little village near Cambridge and tries to avoid being mistaken for a tourist. Have you always been interested in writing? Tell us how you got started.

I started writing when I was eleven. I think it was about the time when all my friends suddenly became too old to want to play "let's pretend," so if I wanted to go on pretending to be spacemen or Knights Templar, I had to do it on my own. Writing stories down, instead of acting them out, was the solution.

Where is your favourite place to work? 

I've set up a desk with an old but still serviceable computer in the spare bedroom. The computer has no connection to the internet, so I can't email or twitter or whatever on it. All I can do is write. I wouldn't say the spare bedroom was my favourite place to work - it's actually fairly cheerless and full of all the lumber that we don't know where to put elsewhere, but it does provide a space where I can get away from everything else. When I'm there, I know I'm there for one purpose only - to write. That definitely helps.

To plot or not to plot? Are you a planner or do you just dive in?

I wouldn't say I was an extreme case of a planner, but I do like to have a plot plan available before I go in. I decide how many words I want the book to be (say 100,000) divide that number by 1000 (the amount of words I usually write in a scene) and figure out the number of scenes I'll need. Then I think of ideas for each scene and arrange them in an order that makes sense. That gives me a sort of synopsis, with no more than a paragraph of ideas and notes for each scene. Once I've got that, I'll start writing. I don't do all the business with character sheets and three-act structures and figuring out where the black moment is, so I consider myself a mild case. But I am plotting more before each book, so I may get there in the end.

What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?

Because I'm doing more and more plotting, actually deciding that now is a good point to start writing is hard. But I think the hardest part is still pushing through the inevitable slumps where I'm certain what I'm writing is rubbish and that I ought to give up and start something different instead. I've realized that this voice says the same thing in roughly the same places every single time, and that if I ignore it and carry on, I'll get past those places, look back and realize that what I've written is good after all. I know that if I listen to the voice, I will never finish anything. But even so, each time it happens it feels as though this time it's telling the truth. Editing is easy, but the first draft is a long struggle with my own monsters.

How do you develop your characters? In historicals, how do you keep them in period yet sympathetic to readers?

I have to admit that with characters I just start writing and let them come to me as they want to. It does mean that they are a bit nebulous in the first few chapters of the first draft. They begin to firm up as I get to chapter 4-5, and at that point I will browse stockphoto sites to find a face for them (I won't know what sort of face would fit them before that.) Once I've got the face that really consolidates things and I can begin to work out exactly how all this person's differing traits hang together in a single cohesive personality. Then when I've reached the end of the book the first thing I do is go back and fill out the missing detail at the beginning, now that I know what ought to be there.

One thing I've found in researching for my 18th Century books is that attitudes we would consider 'modern' are actually older than we would think. The key for creating historical characters, I think, is simply to immerse yourself in the primary sources of the era until you get a feel for the many different ways a person of that era could be. Then you can use that to create a character in exactly the same way you would create a modern character. I don't think personalities change much, though the way they express themselves might.

What do you think an editor is looking for in a good novel?

I think primarily it's good storytelling - does the story grip you and make you want to turn pages to find out what happens next? Do you care about the characters and want them to succeed against great odds? A nice writing style is good too, but I'm coming to believe that it isn't nearly as vital as a story that hooks you at once and doesn't let go.

How do you relax? What interests do you have other than writing?

I belong to a women's Border morris dancing team called Ely and Littleport Riot, and dance regularly on a Friday and most weekends through the summer. I'm also learning to play the tunes to the dances on my pennywhistle. Apart from that, I do a lot of reading and I'm a member of two reenactment societies - one 18th Century, one Saxon, for which I have to do a lot of sewing. I am only intermittently present in the real world. I have led a Saxon shield wall into battle, toiled as a Georgian kitchen maid, and recently taken up an 800 year old form of English folk dance, but she still have’t learned to operate a mobile phone.

What advice would you give a new writer? 

Don't give up. The only way to finish a book is to keep writing until you get to the end. The only way to get a book published is to keep writing and submitting one book after another until someone finally takes one. The only way not to be a one-hit wonder is to keep writing after that first published book until you've got a track record, and even then you're only as good as your latest. But still, the only way to fail is to give up - just keep going until you succeed.

What draws you to your particular genre? Are you a specialist or do you have another identity?

I accidentally became known for writing historical romance because my first two novels were historicals. But in fact I like to try out all sorts of genres. I suspect I did myself some damage by switching track suddenly to a contemporary and then to a Fantasy, but I think I'd get very stale if I did one genre exclusively. I hope that eventually people will know that my stuff falls somewhere within the overlap of historical, fantasy, mystery and romance (the contemporary was a fluke), but that will only come with more new releases. I think the thing all my genres have in common is that touch of exoticism or escapism - I like to write about worlds which are more interesting than our own mundane one.

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, how do you cope with it? 

I get it quite badly in between projects. Now that I do the planning thing before I start writing, I don't get it during the process of writing a book, but if I've finished one book and don't yet have a workable idea and plan for another, weeks can turn into months before I come up with one. That first idea/inspiration is so hard to come by. As it happens, I'm stuck with it at the moment, so I'm coping with it by doing lots of reading, hoping that eventually all the stuff I'm taking in will form a critical mass and explode into a new idea. As soon as I've finished writing this, though, I'm going to at least go and attempt to force myself to think up some characters and something for them to do.

Is there a particular period of history that you enjoy writing about? Why is that?

I do love the 18th Century - it's such a wonderful blend of the ancient and the modern, when the farthest reaches of the world were being explored at the same time as new ideas about liberty and equality were setting the West on fire (literally sometimes.) There's a real feeling of discovery and excitement, progress and hope. Oh, and the clothes are great too!

Tell us about your latest book, and how you got the idea for it.

Having said that I love the 18th Century, I do sometimes like to take a break from it, so my latest book, UNDER THE HILL (for which I have an offer of publication but not yet a contract) is a contemporary fantasy, in which Ben Chaudhry comes to the attention of the Faerie Queen, who then attempts to kidnap him for unknown purposes of her own. Ben employs a very amateurish bunch of ghost-busters led by Chris Gatrell to protect him, but Ben and Chris’s romance is complicated by the reappearance, in visions, of Chris’s old flame, who he had thought was dead in a plane crash years ago.

I live in a small village in the middle of the countryside, and so I tend to get a bit fed up of paranormal romances which are set in the big city. I wanted to write a paranormal romance set in a sleepy little English town, where the Paranormal Investigators have to share the church hall with the Flower Club on alternate Tuesdays, and everything stops for the summer fete. I thought of it initially as a sort of Torchwood meets Wallace and Gromit, though it became rather more epic and serious than that before it was finished.

I'm not sure yet when that one is coming out, though I have BY HONOR BETRAYED out from Carina Press this month - that's a historical m/m romance in which Lt. Conroy Herriot has to choose between his career in the 18th Century Royal Navy and his love for his servant, Tom Cotton. He chooses love, of course, which leads both of them into some life-or-death scrapes.

You can find out more about Alex by visiting her website 

Interviews on the RNA Blog are conducted by Freda Lightfoot and Kate Jackson. If you would like an interview, please contact me at:


JO said...

Great interview - thanks.

And I'd have siad plotting each 1000 words of a novel is serious planning. But good for her - it works!

Veronica Scott said...

I really envy the fact that you get to spend so much time in the re-enactments and the dancing, which must both feed the creativity nicely! Liked the idea of using a small town setting for a paranormal vs. the big city. Enjoyed the post very much!

Alex Beecroft said...

Thanks, Veronica! Yes, there's a scene in Under the Hill that owes its life entirely to my morris dancing experience. And the reenactment is superb for helping you get the feel of the physicality of a historical setting (and fun on its own, of course :) )

It used to be that all Fantasy was 'rural' on the model of Tolkien, but these days I'm taking a gamble that 'Miss Marple meets Torchwood' is different enough to amuse.
Thank you!

Alex Beecroft said...

Thanks, Jo! Perhaps I've been reading too many 'how to plot' books, where people make charts of rising tension, plot threads and the percentage of attention each character gets. My process seems quite basic after all of that!

Charlie Cochrane said...

Smashing interview, Alex. It's been such fun following the history of Under the Hill from those first tentative beginnings...

More power to your creative elbow!

Becky Black said...

I like your planing process. Mine's definitely similar. I worked out my average scene length, so now I know if I've got X number of scenes I've got a story X thousands of words long.

I've read plenty about structure, but don't tend to build the plot up on a skeleton of that structure. I look at the character's emotional journey through the story and see what scenes fit best to illustrate where they are one that journey. The structure, three acts and so on just seems to come naturally when I'm doing that.

I think some people fear outlining too much, thinking it's mechanical and stifling. But I find it to be a very creative time, where everything is in flux and up for grabs. It's great fun,

Alex Beecroft said...

Thanks Charlie! I should have mentioned that I have a tendency to start with a plot plan for a novella and end up writing an epic. That's how it happened with UtH, and seems to be happening again with Pilgrims' Tale. My planning is greatly subject to change ;)

Alex Beecroft said...

Thanks Becky! Yes, I can't approach structure from the outside - it has to arise from whatever would be most likely to happen to the characters given what they've already done. It feels too artificial working from the structure inwards. I agree that things tend to naturally come to a climax anyway.

And yes, the thing about plans is that they can be changed any time you like. They're more of a guideline than a rule, and there's always space for everything to be swept away by a moment of inspiration. (Then you just re-write the plan and carry on.)

Jennifer Thorne said...

I'm looking forward to reading both 'By Honor Betrayed' and 'Under the Hill'. Torchwood meets Wallace and Grommit is so very appealing that it makes me smile. Although, you do say that it is more serious than that.

Yay for more books to read!

Alex Beecroft said...

*g* Thanks, Jennifer :) Yes, UtH is a bit more serious than Wallace and Gromit, but on the other hand it's a bit less serious than Torchwood: Children of Earth.

There should definitely be some bits where you laugh at the ridiculousness of my amateur ghostbusters (who share their 'offices' with the Matlock Ladies' Flower Arranging club.) But they're in over their heads in a quite serious Faerie related incident, so it can get a bit tense too, I hope.

Lesley Cookman said...

Totally off-piste, but as a member of the Ely and Littleport Riot, have you ever come across the Mepal Molly Men? Founded by my late DH in the 70s. Love the sound off the ghostbusters sharing the village hall with the flower arrangers.

Josephine Myles said...

Great interview, Alex. You're definitely much more of a plotter than I am. I feel I should take a leaf out of your book...