EXCLUSIVE: Anne O’Brien & The Forbidden Queen

Anne was born in Yorkshire, and now resides in the beautiful Welsh Marches of Herefordshire. After teaching for a number of years, Anne decided to leave the profession and chose to pursue her love of writing. Her first historical romance, A Regency, was published in 2005. 

Her latest work, ‘The Forbidden Queen’ centres on Katherine de Valois, the young French princess who married King Henry V of England. Anne kindly agreed to speak to Historical Honey; read on to see her top tips for aspiring writers, and find out just which historical event she would most like to have witnessed…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnne at a book signing for ‘The Forbidden Queen’, 2013.

Source: Picture courtesy of Anne O’Brien 

History Honey: You used to be history teacher; do you feel young people’s attitude towards history has changed?

Anne: I think that it has changed.  Students seem to be well-grounded in the reign of Henry VIII and his wives and the Second World War, and little else.  More worryingly, History no longer plays a vital role in education, so that students do not see the essential value of it.  I would argue that it is of primary importance, to give us an understanding of the people who created us and our country.  If I can bring readers some knowledge of medieval wheelers and dealers who left their mark on society, then so much the better.  I would be sorry if the sheer dynamism of history was lost for so many of our young people.  History can be very exciting.  There are so many great stories to be retold.

HH: You were encouraged to write after success with your short stories…were these historically based too?

A: Surprisingly, not at all.  One was a romance in a garden centre, one was a comedy based on an unwanted present of a pair of geese, the third was a travelogue inspired by living in Beverley in East Yorkshire.  I had no thought of writing about history – that came later when I was faced with the urge to write a full length novel.  If I had to write 100,000 thousand words, it had to be about something I knew well, and would give me scope for a lot of drama.  And that’s when it all began …

HH: If you weren’t writing novels for a living, what do you think you’d be doing?

A:I think I would be doing all the things I ought to be doing now, that get put on one side so that my plot can make progress.  Such as painting my house, keeping up with the housework and chasing spiders, attacking the never-ending weeds in the garden.  Writing is so much more fulfilling.  And although I enjoyed teaching, the freedom to chose the events I wish to write about is much more fulfilling for me.  After ten years of writing, I can’t see myself with a different lifestyle.

HH: I believe you grow your own vegetables, fruit and herbs…do you ever attempt to recreate historical dishes? If so, have they been successful?

A:I have tried some plum and damson dishes, and I am interested in the historical use of herbs and spices, both medicinal and culinary but on the whole I have not ventured into more exciting projects.  As a vegetarian I have to accept my limitations because the great platters of food served at medieval feasts were heavy on the meat and fish.  And even if I was tempted to cook these, I would certainly draw the line at the Roman stuffed dormice.  (I discovered a hibernating dormouse in one of my bird nest boxes this winter, and I could not contemplate it.)

HH: Having been born in Yorkshire and now living in Herefordshire…do you draw inspiration from the beauty of your surroundings?

A:I love living in this beautiful part of England but I am not big on writing scenery into my novels.  Just enough to set the scene, and nothing more.  What did inspire me when I came to live here in the Welsh Marches twelve years ago, was the evidence of medieval history wherever I turned.  It was this that inspired me to start writing about the medieval period:  battlefields, churches, black and white villages, ruined abbeys.  It was standing on the battlefield of Mortimer’s Cross that really woke up my senses to vibes from the past – and I started writing …

HH: What is your writing process? How long do you spend researching your topics?

A:First I undertake basic research to create a time line, a structure from which to write.  From there I make note of the really dramatic scenes which I think must be in the novel to push the plot along.  Next I look at characters – the ‘must haves’ and those who are irrelevant to the heart of the story.  Then I start writing.  I may not start at the beginning, but I write a scene that begins the process of putting my characters in context.

From there I usually return to the beginning, and I continue my research as I write.  I prefer to do it like this because to spend months on pure research makes me impatient and I itch to begin writing.  I like to get to know my characters quickly.

I write one draft, in a fairly rough and ready fashion, to make it clear to me the direction of the plot.  There are always surprises!  I usually complete four drafts, then a final fast read-through to get a sense of the pace of the whole novel.

Overall it takes me about a year to complete from first research to handing it over to my agent for her response.  It really is a labour of love.

HH: Do you try to stay as historically accurate as possible to the period you are writing about, or is there room to use a little poetic licence?

A:Yes.  Most definitely.  The facts, the dates, the characters, if they are known and the evidence is there, must remain unchanged in my writing.  The role of the novelist to use imagination – or poetic licence – is to ‘fill in the dots’ between the events to make the novel and the people in it come alive.  In my recent novel of Katherine de Valois, I could list all we actually know about her on two sides of A4.  The novelist must put flesh on this skeleton, writing scenes that fit with the story, fleshing out the scant facts that we have.  Because they were real people who laughed and cried, told jokes and swore, loved and hated, wallowed in misery or rejoiced, they need this authentic ‘fleshing out’ to make them come alive for the reader.  They must be true to the period and to the actual historical characters, but, because it is fiction, a writer is justified in using the facts to create a good read.

HH: Is there a period of history which really fascinates you which you haven’t written about yet? And do you think there is a novel about it up your sleeve?

A:I am very tempted to look into the pre-Raphaelite painters and their wives and lovers.   What a colourful bunch they were, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais, Effie Grey, Lizzie Siddal and Janey Morris.  I enjoyed the BBC fictional series last year and it inspired me to look at them with a novel in mind.  But not for a year or two yet.

HH: What advice would you give to aspiring historical-fiction writers?

A:Chose an event that really interests you, or a set of characters that you can’t wait to unwrap.  Put your characters into the scene.  Let them talk to each other, argue, swear, laugh or cry, even throw a punch if it fits, so that it pulls you into the drama and emotion of the event.  Enjoy the experience of seeing this scene in your mind’s eye as you write.   Keep in mind all the time the different characteristics of your people – they will react differently to what is happening. If you can get under the skin of your characters and the lives they lead, you can go on and write a vivid novel.

One word of warning (it was given to me, and I think it was some of the best advice I was ever given).  Don’t let the weight of the history get in the way of a good story.  When using historical facts you need a light hand, so that the people you have created shine through, and their actions and words draw the reader in.  Too many facts can hide the magic of the story – so beware.  You may be interested in the Battle of Trafalgar, but a five page description of who did what to whom will hide the important revelations of what your hero or heroine is thinking and doing.  Keep your characters in the foreground of the event that’s taking place.  It is all a matter of balance – and practice.

HH: And lastly, if you could go back in time to one historical event, what would it be and why?

A: At the moment this would be the fateful meeting of Katherine de Valois and Owen Tudor.  It is shrouded in myth and legend but is one of those vital moments in history since their grandson was to become the first monarch of the great Tudor dynasty, King Henry VII.  Owen was a servant, as Master of the Queen’s Household, so they must have been well acquainted, but when did they fall in love, to such a degree that they were willing to flout the authority Parliament and the Royal Council?  One legend says that Owen fell into Katherine’s lap at a court ball.  Another that it was a true wet shirt moment when Katherine saw Owen bathing in the Thames at Windsor on a hot day.  I would love to know the truth of it (although I might be disappointed, of course – the wet shirt myth might be by far the best!).

Catherine De ValoisKatherine de Valois

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Anne would like to go back to the fateful meeting of Katherine and Owen Tudor…which historical event would YOU like to go back too and why? Answer below…

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