CHAT WITH SUZY HENDERSON

Suzy Henderson was born in the North of England and initially pursued a career in healthcare, specialising as a midwife. Years later she embarked upon a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. That was the beginning of a new life journey, rekindling her love of writing and her passion for history. With an obsession for military and aviation history, she began to write.

Suzy is a member of The Alliance of Independent Authors and the Historical Novel Society and her debut novel, The Beauty Shop, was released in November 2016.

Time to chat with Suzy!

What is your latest book?

Having released my debut novel in November 2016, The Beauty Shop, I’m now writing the next book that I hope to release early 2018. Once again, it’s historical fiction, set mainly in France and covers the mid-1930s to 1944. I’m frantically in the middle of rewrites and edits, and as usual, my main character is shaping the story her way.

How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?

Great question. I think it’s fair to say that the historical fiction genre chose me. It all began with my passion for history, mainly military history. Of course, like so many people, there is also a family connection to both world wars, with grandparents, great grandparents and great uncles who served in both conflicts. It’s such a fascinating period, rich in undiscovered and little-known stories and with such remarkable people. I’d like to think that those of us who create within this genre are helping to keep history alive as well as providing exceptional stories for readers.

When I first encountered the story of the Guinea Pig Club – a club for severely burned airmen, and the plastic surgeon who cared for them, I knew I had to write it. I find that I’m drawn to such real people in history – what drives them to do what they do. I’m intrigued by their choices in life and going in search of the answers often uncovers many intriguing facts. For me, I wanted to know what led Archibald McIndoe to do what he did for the burned and injured airmen in his care. Why did he engage pretty girls for his ward, encourage relationships between nurse and patient, allow beer to be freely available and so many other things? His methods were unorthodox, raised many eyebrows and caused many problems within the hospital establishment.

He battled many people to get his own way, which in his mind was the only way. His objective was simple. The men in his care faced a lifetime of ridicule, discrimination and the loss of a previous way of life. He had to change people, society, and attitudes to disability and disfigurement and of course, this is an ongoing issue although times are improving gradually, thanks to people like Archie McIndoe. For a young, handsome pilot to have his whole life ahead of him one day and to feel almost finished the next when his entire face has been burned away, is simply unimaginable and so I found myself compelled to delve into the archives in search of a story. Hence The Beauty Shop was born. The title was the nickname for Archie’s ward at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. As the men used to say, “it’s where they send you to make you up again.”

How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?

It happens all the time, irrespective of how well I’ve planned each chapter. Just when I think I know where I’m heading, a character takes me on a little detour and it’s always interesting and often useful, becoming an integral part of the story. Usually, it’s my main characters who quite literally take over and re- shape the story, as has happened with my current book, and I found myself having to do further research, covering an area I hadn’t envisaged at all, although I’m so glad of it.

What part of writing a novel do you enjoy the most? The least?

I think I prefer the editing stage, which may seem odd. Planning and writing the first draft is enjoyable but equally frustrating, especially when the writing is not flowing. Things don’t always go to plan as characters have a way of evolving during the written stage, and sometimes more research is required, which hinders my writing. Once I have the complete draft, the real work begins, and that’s the greatest stage for me. I enjoy the shaping and fine polishing phase, but I must admit I’m not so keen on proofreading.

Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?

The title is not important right at the beginning just as long as I have one in time for the design of the book cover. As for endings, well I do like to have the beginning, the middle and some idea of the end at the planning stage, but like everything, it’s always open to change. Right now, I have three alternative endings for my current book.

We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?

The cover is vital – it’s the first thing people will notice in the book store or the Kindle store on Amazon. It must fit your story, look fantastic, and it should stand out. It’s all part of grabbing the reader’s attention. Often, it’s the cover you spot before you read the title, author’s name and certainly any blurb. I’m not a graphic designer or an artist and certainly not competent enough to design my own covers, so I have a professional to do that.

Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?

I know many writers who edit as they go, but I simply can’t do it. For me, having tried this, I found it broke my flow and hindered my writing. I prefer to draft and then rewrite and edit afterwards. The first draft is like a free write in a sense – like turning on a tap and going with the flow. I feel it’s where the true story emerges from, and I have no wish to interrupt that.

Do you have any secrets for effective time management?

I wish I did and I’ve concluded that I need to know how to freeze time – that would be incredibly useful but alas I have no superpowers. I think that social media can so easily become a huge drain on your time, especially while you’re at the initial writing stage. I’ve found that I must be strict and limit my time there. I write when I’m most productive which is early mornings and in the evenings. I generally find myself multi-tasking, and I try to keep up with social media during non-writing periods, perhaps when cooking dinner or watching TV. I’ve also begun taking regular breaks away from social media that not only frees up more time but allows you to ‘recharge your batteries’ so to speak. Living in social media can become quite stressful and we all need an occasional rest. You must do what’s right and what works for you at the end of the day.

Were you “born to write” or did you discover your passion for writing later in life?

Oh, for me it most definitely came later in life. I can recall being in English class and having to write stories about our summer holidays or suchlike and I hated it. The problem for me was that I loved reading, and enjoyed stories, but when it came to English studies, my imagination took a vacation! Maybe I’m one of life’s ‘late bloomers’. One benefit of this happens to be life experience. I have so much more now in my fourth decade than I did in my second for instance and it’s a useful tool that influences and shapes my writing.

Do you dread writing a synopsis for your novel as much as most writers do? Do you think writing a synopsis is inherently evil? Why?

I absolutely dread writing the synopsis, which is so ridiculous! The synopsis is essential if you’re pitching your book to agents and publishers. That said, even if you’re self-publishing it’s useful and assists with writing your book blurb for one thing. It sums up your entire book, so if you know what you’re writing about, it shouldn’t be a problem. One benefit of writing the synopsis, I’ve found, is that it identifies any ambiguity and helps you to iron out any niggles with your story and plot.

Have you been involved with the Kindle Direct Program? If yes, do you believe it’s worthwhile?

I’m currently enrolled in KDP, and I believe it is worthwhile even though it means I can’t sell my e-book anywhere else for the duration. However, the benefit of the higher royalty rate and the Kindle lending library perhaps makes up for this. Like many writers I’ve discovered that I get many Kindle reads via the library which is fantastic to see my book being widely read around the world.

Are your characters ever based on people you know?

Sometimes, maybe just a little. I’m probably like many writers in that I observe and listen to people. It’s impossible not to overhear conversations at times, and it’s fascinating to do so. So, the bottom line is that as a writer I’m always collecting information to use later. Sometimes a character may be based on an actor even – I do find movies to be a rich resource and a great writing tool and even the actors themselves, after all, they’re people. There is also a little of myself in my books, which happens to be unavoidable.

If you could add a room onto your current home, what would you put in it?

I would make it a writing room specifically for me so I would have it furnished like a library, with shelves from floor to ceiling filled with books. I’d have my desk, a comfy armchair and a treadmill in the corner – keep fit while I’m creating – I’m a multi-tasker! Perhaps I’d have a coffee-maker too and a lovely wood-burning stove for winter.

What music soothes your soul?

I love music, and I particularly enjoy jazz and classical which I find to be very soothing. Also, different songs or classical pieces fit different pieces of writing and often help set the mood and even aid creativity. It’s amazing how that works and I must say it’s not often that I write without music.

If you are a TV watcher, would you share the names of your favorite shows with us?

Well, here in the UK I’m a long-time fan of a show called Emmerdale. I also love Only Fools and Horses that finished ages ago, so I watch the re-runs. Just recently I discovered the hype over Outlander and became hooked. I watched all the available episodes and am now right up to date and about to begin watching Season 3 – can’t wait!

If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be?

I always longed to play the piano but never had the opportunity to learn. Now my youngest son is taking lessons and is becoming quite accomplished. I keep asking him to teach me, and he does try, but I seem to be a slow learner! I used to play the flute, and I can read music, write music even, but learning to play the piano seems to be out of my grasp. It’s going to take time and perseverance.

Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?

I live in Cumbria, right near the top, so I’m within easy reach of the Scottish borders. We have lakes, mountains, literary connections such as Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter and many fabulous walks. Add to that the rich Roman heritage, Roman Forts and Hadrian’s Wall – it’s an inspiring landscape for many an artist.

If I had to move, I’d hope to relocate to either Lincolnshire or Cambridge in the UK simply because it’s ‘bomber county’ where many of the RAF and USAAF bomber bases were during WW2. There are also many old airfields and aviation museums to visit. Aside from there, I’d probably choose somewhere in the south of France. I love the French language, something I excelled in during my school years – I did far better in French than in English!

Thank you so much for inviting me here today, Lisette. I had fun answering the questions, and it has been an honour. I’d also like to say a massive thank you to all who have read my book. Lest we forget.

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CHAT WITH MICHAEL JECKS

MIchaelJeck
Michael Jecks is the author of the best-selling Templar Series, as well as other titles. As well as writing thirty four novels, he has been chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, the founder of Medieval Murderers, helped set up the Historical Writers’ Association, and is a keen supporter of new writers and writing. He is a regular speaker and panelist at festivals and other events worldwide.

 

What is your latest book?

My most recent book is also the first.

I’ve been writing my Templar Series for the last twenty years, and there are over thirty titles in the series. But this latest book is a prequel, because I wanted to show how my leading character came to be the man he grew into. So I wrote Templar’s Acre, which is a book about a boy growing into a man in medieval times – it’s a story of love and loss, battle and defeat, and shows how a siege and the catastrophe of war affects the people of a major town.

TemplarsAcre

What are the special challenges in writing a series?

Some time ago I formed the performance group Medieval Murderers. The great thing is, we are five professional writers who love history, but who conduct our research, our writing and every other aspect of our work in very different ways. I love having a series because it takes away reinvention, while friends like Karen Maitland detest the very idea. The thought of being tied to the same characters for a series drives her to distraction. Personally, I love the fact that I can start a book already knowing my characters and their families. I can get straight into the plot.

In the last year I’ve written two books out of series – Fields of Glory, out in 2014 about the Hundred Years War, and Act of Vengeance, a modern day spy thriller, so both books that are out of series, and I found them enormously challenging. The task of finding new people is not  so easy, I find. It’s rather like trying to find new friends. So I reckon I will stick to writing series novels. It’s easier.

What part of writing a novel you enjoy the most?

The real pleasure for me is when I’m well into the book. I love the process of sitting back and imagining other people, other times, other lives. For me, it’s as good as a holiday. I am getting into the mindsets of people I could never usually meet, and learning how they behave and react. It’s the most wonderful feeling to live three or four different lives in a week.

Please, tell us about your experiences with social media. What are your favorite and least-favorite parts of it?

I am no youngster, but I am lucky to have been involved with computers really since before the appearance of PCs. I was a computer salesman for thirteen years before starting to write. But social media is, I think, frankly terrifying.

People are getting more and more used to communicating purely in short bursts, either in texts or Twitter messages. That’s fine, but it is decreasing the attention span of some people. There has been research that shows people are less able to cope with holding concepts and thoughts over a longer period, which is due to receiving brief articles and shorter lumps of information.

Personally I see all social media as simple marketing tools. I do not contact friends and family on them, because I prefer to phone them! I like hearing someone’s voice. However, social media have given me a great way of communicating with my readers, with booksellers, and with other people who may not otherwise have bothered to read my books.

My biggest problem with it is, that it takes up so much time. In the past I could write a book for hours a day, and be totally immersed in my story. I’m getting there again, but only because I work very hard to be focused.

Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?

Never! Never! My book is my book. To my mind, the only people who should see my work before it’s finished and ready to print are my editor and my agent: no one else at all. Putting a book out for comments before that, to me, is an abrogation of the author’s responsibility to tell the story the best he or she can. It’s not collaborative, with a committee deciding how my characters should behave or speak. That’s my job, and mine alone. No, I would never let someone see rough drafts or work in progress. The thought fills me with horror.

We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?

This is true – but now, in the world of ebooks, you can’t judge a book without a cover, I think. I’ve recently tested the water with ebooks. I’ve had collections of short stories put out by me, with a cover I designed, and one designed by a professional. I’ve also written my own modern spy story, Act of Vengeance, which I put out through a publisher to make sure it was edited. The books have done really well, but I’m sure that the professional covers make a vast difference, especially for people looking at thumbnails on Amazon. You need something striking, simple, intriguing and attractive. With so many hundreds of thousands of self-published books on sale now, you have to make your own stand out as being professional in appearance. Otherwise people won’t look inside the cover.

How would you define your style of writing?

I’d say my writing is fluid. It’s not ‘literary” because I think of literary writers as pretentious. Real literary quality is not defined by an author, but by those who read it. Dickens was a hack journalist, and looked down on at first (I’ll bet many authors who saw his success remained sniffy about his writing). I write modern thrillers, effectively, which happen to be based in the past. But I very deliberately do not make the books hard going. I am thrilled and delighted by history, and most of my readers grow to be after reading my works, but a lot come to me without any interest in Medieval English history at first. That, to me, is proof of the merit of my work. If I can entertain and provide a feel for how things were, that’s good enough for me.

A lot of authors are frustrated by readers who don’t understand how important reviews are? What would you say to a reader who doesn’t think his or her review matters?

People who read books and put reviews up have a HUGE responsibility. Let me explain. When my first book came out, the first fan letter opened by my editor listed 21 factual inaccuracies in the novel. She, having commissioned me for three books, was not surprisingly very upset to think that I could wreck her career.

When I saw the inaccuracies listed, they ranged from details – how far could a horse ride in a set period – to aspects of history – the siege of Acre wasn’t 1291 but 1191, with Saracens besieged by Christians, rather than the other way around. Well, the writer was correct about 1191 – but 100 years later, the roles were reversed. The great siege of Acre is accepted generally as being 1291 when a small body of Christians were wiped out by a massive army of Mameluks.

Now that person could easily have destroyed my career, and possibly damaged my editor’s, by his thoughtless comments. Or were they thoughtless? Now we are used to the problem of trolls on the Internet. Some people write disparagingly about novels partly, it seems, because they are frustrated writers themselves. It is more jealousy than valid commentary.

Be that as it may, when people write reviews, they are potentially harming another human’s future. Some may give up writing completely as a result of a poor review.

That case was a salutary lesson for me. On Amazon and other sites you will often see dreadful comments about other people’s work. I don’t think they are ever justified. A bad book in one person’s eyes could well be thought brilliant by someone else. I distinctly recall published authors being sniffy about, in succession, Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code and Shades of Grey. Just because it’s not your cup of tea, there is no need to go and destroy someone else’s career. So, if in doubt, if you really dislike a work, don’t give it a miserable score – just don’t review it.

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

I do not suffer from it. There is a theory that writer’s block is the inevitable consequence of thinking up new plots, characters and stories, and if the ‘muse’ departs on holiday, the author’s left bereft.

Twaddle.

I was for a while the Chairman of the Crime Writer’s Association. I know all the really good writers from that organisation – and I do not know a single one who has suffered from the block. All of us, if we’re professional writers, just sit down and get on with it. We have to. If you don’t write, you don’t deserve to call yourself a writer.

However, I do believe that two things are crucial. First, if you are financially solvent, writer’s block is easier to accommodate. It’s noticeable that those who complain of it are usually amongst the wealthier people. The second is, if you work to a routine, the block is far less likely.

I tend to write in one-hour segments. The first forty-five to fifty is actual writing, the rest is off getting coffee, tea, or disposing of the last drink, while thinking through the next scene I have to write. That way, I can put down 1,000 words per hour. After the first work, which is editing the previous day’s work, I can count on 5,000 words a day. There isn’t time for writer’s block with a schedule like that!

Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?

I was born and raised in Surrey here in England, but from before I was born, every Easter my family would bring me to Devon and I’ve had a feeling of huge affinity for the county all my life. When I was selling computers in the 80s, it was impossible to move to the south-west, but as soon as my sixth book was published, I could move, and my wife and I bought a small house in the north of Dartmoor, where the Hound of the Baskervilles was set. It is extraordinarily atmospheric, with a character all of its own, and I adore it. I don’t think I’d ever be able to move away (unless I was told there was a house for me in the Rockies or in Alaska).

Have you ever played a practical joke on a friend? Ever had one played on you?

Many times. I tend to be a rather amiable buffoon, and it’s easy to make me look a complete twerp. When I was very young, in my last year at school, I used to have a Mini. They were great little cars, but they were designed for simplicity, so, if you needed to pop the bonnet (the hood to Americans), there was a release catch outside the car. Not a release inside. That meant anyone could break into the engine compartment.

Well, I have a great friend, now a very wealthy businessman, who always had an eye for a joke. He used to pop the bonnet every so often, and take off the spark plug caps. I would hop inside, turn the key, and hear the engine whizz round, but not start. After this happened a few times, I got a little irritable. I think it’s because one day it was raining, and I had to get my hands mucky trying to get the plug caps back on while getting soaked. So that weekend, I cut a little tube of plastic, put a cork in one end with two pins sticking into the tube itself, and put in a bubble of mercury from a broken thermometer. I covered the other end and wired this to the airhorns. Next time Nick opened the bonnet, the switch fixed to the bonnet itself tipped the mercury to the two connectors, and the horns blared very loudly in his ears.

He never tried that trick again!

What was your favourite year at school?

It was my last before the O-levels. These were the exams taken by sixteen year olds, and I remember that as a time of real peace. We were left for the first time to study pretty much on our own, revising our work. For once that summer was glorious, and I have memories of sitting out in the garden, with a lovely view across a valley, at the hillside opposite. In those days we had a Bernese Mountain Dog and a Rhodesian Ridgeback, and the two used to sit beside me as I worked. I remember reading Albert Camus’ book The Plague, and discovering Light Cavalry Action by John Harris, still one of my favourite books of all time. So for me that year was one of academic achievement (I did well in the exams), but also one of peace. Life is easy when you don’t have to earn a living.

What makes you angry?

Injustice. I despise Tony Blair for his deplorable behaviour towards any section unable to defend themselves, for example. He removed the House of Lords as an independent system by accusing them of blocking his laws in parliament (they didn’t). He blamed pistol shooters because of police failings which led to a man illegally being granted a pistol licence at Dunblane, and blamed the shooting community, depriving a hundred thousand people of their property and sports. And worst of all, he took the case of a terrorist attack in a foreign country to implement the most draconian laws imposed on the English since the Norman invasion. Like the Templars, arrested without explanation, people were arrested and held in prison without the right to a fair trial in which they could be told why they were arrested, what they were supposed to have done or who had accused them.

He reversed centuries of justice because of what happened in New York in 9/11, when for the previous twenty or thirty years, Irish terrorism causing billions of pounds of damage and killing hundreds, had not justified such extreme measures.

I detest injustice. I don’t care whether it is the injustice of a dog being put down because someone felt threatened by it, or the injustice of Police officers shooting an unarmed man and getting away with it.

I am now kicking away that soapbox …

What music soothes your soul?

All music appeals to me. For different moods, different music works better.

From my youth, Pink Floyd and Neil Young still exert a strong pull. I can be put in mind of Lord of the Rings or Elliot O’Donnell’s Casebook of Ghosts by ‘After the Goldrush’, for example. But although I love rock and (some) pop, I am really a classical music lover, I think, first and foremost. I adore the Russian composers, particularly Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and French such as Ravel and Debussy. Then again, I am very keen on English composers: Walton, Delius, Elgar – and Americans like Barber. Basically, I find all music has something of value.

Except Rap. Sorry, I don’t like the violence and crudeness inherent in the music and the culture.

What simple pleasures make you smile?

Walking my dogs over the moors in bright sunshine, or in the cool, or in the snow. Just walking, really.

Sitting outside a pub on a warm summer’s afternoon with a pint of good ale.

A roast meal with my family and a good bottle of wine.

Reading a book or to sit and paint a view.

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