Writer Mother Interview: Katharine Edgar

Part of me believes I’d be a far more brilliant writer if only I didn’t have children! …But I also know that in reality, if I didn’t have children I would be a terrible procrastinator, and I’m much better now at not doing that.”
Katharine Edgar‘s first young adult novel, Five Wounds was released by Greengate Books on March 2, 2015, and became an immediate bestseller in its category on amazon.co.uk.  Set in 1536, when the men of Yorkshire rose up against Henry VIII to try and reclaim England for the Catholic Church,  it follows the transformation of 15-year-old Nan Ellerton from docile  aspiring noviciate to arms-runner for the rebel’s cause.


What prompted you to start writing Five Wounds?

 It was an unholy union between visiting a lot of ruined abbeys, and reading one too many Young Adult dystopians! The abbeys prompted me to ask questions about how people felt when something that was so massive and so central to their everyday lives was taken away by their rulers. Didn’t they resist? That led to me finding out about the Pilgrimage of Grace, the rebellion in which many thousands of ordinary Tudor people did try to resist the confiscation of their abbeys, with tragic consequences. I had been reading a lot of dystopian fiction at the time – The Hunger Games, Uglies, The Knife of Never Letting Go, and it seemed to me that the themes of darkness against light, people struggling against an oppressive regime, and the idealistic teenager who is forced into situations beyond their previous experience while trying to resist, would fit very well into that historical picture.

Why historical fiction — and why this story, specifically?
Historical fiction because according to my mathematical physicist husband, actual time travel is impossible, but I’ve always wanted to go back in time. This story because nobody else is telling it. There’s a lot of interest in the reign of Henry VIII at the moment, the dissolution of the monasteries in particular. But it’s usually seen from the perspective of the religious reformers, the rational Protestants who wanted to wipe out corruption and didn’t believe in all those crazy superstitions about relics. That’s how they teach it at school, and Wolf Hall is brilliant, but it’s another example of that. Identifying with the reformers is too easy – I wanted to know how it felt to be on the other side


A novel is such a different beast from a short story – there is so much craft involved in structuring the plot, and developing characters who change across time. How did you learn to do it?
Embarrassingly, I spent a long time thinking books just came out right the first time round, because I’d published a couple of short stories and that’s what happened with them. When my books didn’t work I assumed it was just because I wasn’t enough of a genius. It was only after a decent critique from someone who had been formally taught creative writing that I started to understand the ways you could take a terrible draft and make it better, and at that point I finally began to realise the value of thinking consciously about the craft of writing.
Over the course of Five Wounds, my process was to write a draft, then while that was resting in a drawer or being read by beta readers, I would read some more books on craft. The process of writing each successive draft would take me to a place where I understood more of what the craft books were talking about, and the craft books would give me skills to fix the problems that either I or someone else had noticed in my text.
How did you carry out your research?
It’s mostly done the old fashioned way, through books! But I have a background in re-enactment so I have what you might call a sensory memory of some of the aspects of Tudor life – what the food tastes like, how it feels to wear a Tudor dress or shoot a longbow (or even, shoot a longbow whilst wearing a Tudor dress). I hope this has helped my writing become more vivid.
I wasn’t just looking at history books – I’m very conscious of the importance of nature to a pre-Industrial era, so I spent a long time looking at what flowers or wildlife would be about at different times of year, or what food would be in season. I have a few secret weapons like the Ladybird ‘What to look for in…’ books for each season of the year.
There were one or two things where I found YouTube videos invaluable – I was able to watch a number of different hawks make their first kill before writing the scene with Nan’s merlin. Also, you’d be amazed how many difficult sheep births have been filmed close-up!
 I was lucky enough to be able to make a lot of visits to the places I was writing about – York, the Dales, and those ruined abbeys I mentioned.


Can you describe your writing routine?
First I sit down at my computer and attempt to read the entire internet….
Seriously: my routine has changed since I first wrote Five Wounds, because I was writing it at a time when my youngest child was in preschool for only three hours a day, so I had to make the best use possible of that three hours. He’s at school now so things are slacker, but unfortunately that means I’ve got slacker too. I’ve therefore instituted a system of not moving from my desk until I’ve written 1000 words, which works very well because through the course of that 1000 words I get focused again and don’t want to stop. School holidays are more of a challenge, and once again it becomes a case of not wasting a moment while the children are occupied. Knowing you’re on borrowed time is a very effective spur.
I once went to a creative writing course where the tutor advised us to find the time of day when we write our best. He meant ‘are you a morning person or an evening person?’ but actually, once you have kids, there are two sorts of time, child-free time and time with children where you could get interrupted at any moment. I use the child-free time for actual writing; research happens during more interruptible times like evenings or car journeys.


 Is it important for a writer to have a community of fellow writers? How do you create that community, given the logistical demands of parenting?
It’s vital. I’ve learnt so much from my community, whether it’s basic writing skills or marketing, but also there’s nothing like having cheerleaders to keep you going when things get tough. My writing community is online. There are two aspects – the wider writing community you can find in forums like Absolute Write or Goodreads, and also my group of close friends. The close friends don’t all write fiction – they write everything from feminist blogs to legal history textbooks, but we’re there for each other when we need drafts reading or a bit of encouragement. Luckily, the way the internet works, it’s very easy to fit it in around children, because so little happens in real time so you don’t need to be in the same place or even the same time zone and can squeeze each other in around the edges.


Nan is such a believable and interesting young woman — does raising a daughter inform the creation of your heroine?
 Yes, it does! I love talking to my daughter and her friends about what they want to read, and it became very clear to me early on that girls want action just as much as boys do. I am fairly sure this is one reason why there have been so many big dystopian hits – Katniss, Shay and Tris (Hunger Games, Uglies, Divergent) are all very active, physically and in the way they take control of their destinies. Primary age girls at the moment seem to gravitate quite naturally to feminism, and I can’t imagine this will have changed by the time they’re teens.


Are there other ways in which parenting affects your writing –both positive and negative?
Part of me believes I’d be a far more brilliant writer if only I didn’t have children! Hilary Mantel once talked about the importance of ‘morning pages’, where you write the first thing that comes into your head as soon as possible after waking up, in order to access the interesting things going on in your subconscious. Well, if you have a wriggly child squeezing into your bed before you’ve even woken up, and then you have to do breakfasts and school run before you can even think about getting some time at a desk, morning pages aren’t really an option. It can be frustrating. But I also know that in reality, if I didn’t have children I would be a terrible procrastinator, and I’m much better now at not doing that.
As a children’s writer, it’s also nice to live with someone who can share my excitement about the new Jacqueline Wilson (and luckily thanks to Kindle we can both read it at once!) and someone else who thinks the Wimpy Kid books are hilarious.


Conversely, how does writing affect your parenting?
Umm…. I have to be very hands-off? My kids watch a lot of tv?  I have to sponge off their clothes before school because I’ve forgotten to do any laundry?
I cling to the belief that this is offset by the fact that I’m modelling passion, industry and determination to them, and showing them by example that you can beat the odds and do a career you love if you try hard enough.
Also, I’m happier, and hence less irritable, and have no temptation at all to live my life through them, since I can live out any unfulfilled fantasies in my books.


What is the hardest part about writing while raising children?…
It’s the obvious one: Not enough hours in the day.


…and what is the best?
The best is yet to come. It’s going to be when I have my copy of Five Wounds in my hand and my nine year old daughter reads what I’ve put about her in the acknowledgments.


What are your plans for your next book?
I’m currently on the second draft of a book about Mary Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk who appears as a minor character in Five Wounds. Although it’s also Young Adult histfic and set around the same time, it’s a very different kettle of fish to plan and research, because I’m working with a detailed set of pre-existing historical events and characters, and teasing the story out, rather than creating it from scratch. Lots more research! I also have half a first draft for the Five Wounds sequel, Black Fast, in which Nan and Will encounter plague, Katherine Parr (or Lady Latimer as she was then) and authentic Tudor witchcraft. I plan to self-publish Black Fast as soon as the revisions are complete, so there won’t be such a big gap between its completion and publishing as with Five Wounds.


What advice would you give other primary parents who want to write?
This goes back to advice given by Dorothea Brande in her book Becoming a Writer: If you want to write you need to organise your life in such a way that you can. For people with children, this usually means creating some dedicated time that is sacred to your writing. I often see mothers (it has to be said, I’ve never seen a father do this) setting themselves the goal of finishing a book but in circumstances where they have no actual time when they’re not on call for the children. Then they fail to do it and become discouraged. You do need to be demanding and carve out your space. If you can’t shut everyone away at home, you may need to go to a coffee shop to do it. Even if it’s only an hour a week, that sacred time is very valuable. If you really can’t do it, that’s understandable (not everyone has the luxury), but then please don’t beat yourself up for not achieving your goals – it doesn’t mean you’re short of talent or determination – and keep your writing ambitions safely, because the time will come when you can write again.


Five Woundsis available for Kindle on amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

Find out more about Katherine Edgar at www.katharineedgar.com.
Joanna Norland’s review of Five Wounds is posted on Good Reads.

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