Award winning author, Janet Woods, was born in Dorset but now lives near Fremantle in Western Australia. She often returns to her Dorset roots as a setting for her historical novels. Janet won the Australian Romantic Book of the Year Award, for her novel, Daughter of Darkness.
Tell us how you sold your first book, and if you had any rejections before getting that exciting call?
Rejections? Yes, quite a few . . . and now I look back, well-deserved ones! I didn’t feel entirely rejected though, because short story publications kept me going. My first book was sold in 1991 through the RNA New Writers Scheme (then called the Netta Muskett Award) to Robert Hale’s Rainbow Romance line. Thread of Destiny was written under the pen name of Bryanna Fox. The novel was published in 1992. Shortly afterwards the line folded.
Where is your favourite place to work?
We have a house with open plan living areas. The only internal doors are on the four bedrooms. I turned one into my office and hideaway. I have a big desk I bought from a charity shop for £25 over twenty years ago, as well as a smaller desk, two bookcases, three cupboards and a filing cabinet. I’ve recently had one of the walls fitted out with shelves and a bench top, so have plenty of room for research books. However, I’m not very tidy and every empty space soon gets covered in books or papers. Now and again I file them. Usually it’s a case of out-of-sight-out-of-mind, because I can rarely find them again. My window looks over the patio and back garden, and the birds visit often, along with the occasional mouse. The shrikes enjoy them for dinner if they can catch them, and the smaller lizards. We also have a stumpy tailed lizard in the summer, about 18 inches long. We only see him now and again, when he comes out to sunbake or shed his skin, and he hibernates in the winter.
Do you have to juggle writing with the day job? What is your work schedule?
Outside of writing, I don’t have a day job. My husband is retired, and he does most of the cooking, shopping and housework. I usually start work early, about 4.30am. Including trips to the kitchen to make lashings of tea, by 7.30 I’ve read all my emails, answered reader mail, finished any group critiquing that needs doing, and have done a bit of research, or writing. I then get in half an hour on the treadmill, shower, have breakfast, and go back to work. Usually I have a snooze in front of the TV after lunch, and then back to the desk until 5pm. I don’t work in the evenings, because by that time my eyes and brain are too fatigued.
To plot or not to plot? Are you a planner or do you just dive in?
To stick to a preconceived plot is alien to me, but I don’t just dive in either. I hate it when I’m asked to provide a full story synopsis, because I know my characters will ignore it, and take the story where they want it to go. I like them to have the freedom to do that without restriction, though sometimes I’ll do a mini-plot or story progression of one or two chapters if I get stuck. Usually I’ll have a general story idea at the beginning, one that’s entirely fluid and depends on the characters, or a scene. If I come up with a good idea for a scene I’ll jot it down. But it won’t go in the book unless it’s meaningful to it, and feels just right. Something I learned from doing a course in script writing is to visualize a scene and expand on it.
For instance, last year I was flicking through a book about railway stations when a photograph caught my eye. It was a country station in early morning, with a train waiting to depart from a platform fashioned from wooden sleepers. Shrouded in mist, the rails disappeared into the near distance.
The scene appeared symbolic, like a train waiting to pick up passenger going to nowhere. It wasn’t long before I thought I heard the whistle blow. Next came the sound of running feet . . . a soldier trying to catch the train, which had just begun to leave the station. It could be taking him to his death. The carriage door opens. The soldier throws his kitbag in then scrambles after it. Inside, is the heroine. She’s flat on her back with the kitbag on top of her . . . oops!
And that was the only planning I needed for my now completed manuscript, Tall Poppies.
What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?
Keeping the timelines accurate. I have absolutely no sense of dates, times or direction, and I often get numbers back to front, and get into a real pickle with them.
How do you develop your characters? In historicals, how do you keep them in period yet sympathetic to readers?
This is very hard question to answer. I think there’s an element of intuition and instinct attached to the interplay between author and characters. Often I can see the characters in my mind, and I just know them, right from the beginning, as I did with the train scene. It’s as though I live inside their heads, think their thoughts and feel their emotions. Other times I’ll try and get to know them before I start, and they uncover themselves gradually. I like the interaction between them to be as authentic as I can make it.
Outside of the intuitive connection I’ll research slang words to give characters flavor of the era, but I don’t overdo it. I keep in mind that readers are of this time and books are often read on the run, now. Without being an expert, I do think the English language is supple enough for the sentence structure to be fashioned into several different and beautiful shapes with the same meaning.
There are many things that go towards sympathetic characterization, and that should start right at the beginning of the book and develop as you go. If the hero kicks a dog out of his path, the reader will immediately give him a black mark. Ditto to the heroine if she throws the cat out on a freezing night. Motivation should be firmly in place, and fully understood. Characters don’t have to be syrupy and nice all the time but they do need a reason for kicking the dog and throwing the cat out – one the readers can relate to.
Thoughts, deeds and body language are better off being kept consistent and positive. Emotions should be shown instead of told. Avoid self-pity, petulance and sarcasm. I don’t think people are all that different now to what they were last century. We just know more about ourselves, and should be able to use that to advantage in our writing.
What do you think an editor is looking for in a good novel?
I’ve never been an editor, but publishers are a business. I imagine editors would look for a great story with interesting characters, preferably presented in a professional manner – and one that would attract good sales and make a profit.
What advice would you give a new writer?
Only the old chestnut of persistence! Persistence! Persistence! Writing is hard work. Nobody can prepare you for the crushed dreams when you open a rejection. You really do have to grow a tough hide and roll with the punches, remain optimistic against all odds, and work to improve.
Do you enjoy research, and how do you set about it?
Yes, I do enjoy research, though it sometimes has a habit of taking me away from where I want to go. I try and observe the customs of setting and introduce the historical detail.
First I read a quick overview of the period and look up the timelines. I’ll read an autobiography if it relates to my book theme, and I can get hold of one. I especially like books written by local historians about their towns.
I also find postcards to be useful. I found one of roller-skaters on Bournemouth pier in 1900. It was a small, authentic detail of the time and place that I’d never have thought to use by myself.
I’ve emailed churches to find out the names of clerics who performed weddings in the period I’m writing. Some churches have historical societies and all have been helpful. First hand accounts on anything are excellent for research. Were there any wars or epidemics – domestic turmoil? All three can affect the mood of the book, or change the family structure.
I send off for maps of the period, and they often contain a wealth of information on businesses, position of public building. If there is a plague, epidemic, or surgery to be done, I research it, as related to its time, and try and keep it authentic. Generally, I don’t assume anything, since I have a bad memory. I have made the occasional mistake, like adding Big Ben’s clock face eleven years before it existed!
Tell us about your latest book, and how you got the idea for it.
I got the idea for LADY LIGHTFINGERS from an illustration in a book called London’s Pleasures, which was written by David Kerr Cameron. It was the scene of a rat fight. I dramatized it with my own text for the opening scene in the book. From there I expanded it, adding the heroine, a young pickpocket called Celia Laws. I also added a victim, a man who goes on to become the hero.
Later in the chapter, I introduce an old man, a reverend and reformer, who became Celia’s mentor. He features throughout the book. That’s his watch on the cover.
Those three are my principle characters. Most of my books are character layered in this manner, mostly because I use many characters, and it’s hard for readers to attach when they’re thrown into the story all at once.
Until I saw that illustration I had no idea what this book was going to be about. Once I’d written the first chapter it all clicked into place. Usually, before I start to write I like to have a title. I could find one that sat comfortably with this book. Towards the end, one of my critique group suggested Lady Lightfingers, which suited it perfectly.
Thank you, Janet, for sharing with us how you work. We wish you every luck with ‘Lady Lightfingers’.
To find out more about Janet and her work visit her website at http://www.janet-woods.com or her blog at http://www.janwoods.blogspot.com.