CHAT WITH ANNIE WHITEHEAD

Annie is a History graduate and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written four novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines and is on the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) Editorial team and is senior reviewer at Discovering Diamonds. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017 and is now a judge for that same competition. She has also been a judge for the HNS (Historical Novel Society) Short Story Competition. Her nonfiction books are published by Amberley Books and Pen & Sword Books.

Time to chat with Annie!

What is your latest book?

It’s called The Sins of the Father and it’s set in a time of feud in seventh-century England.

Is your recent book part of a series?

Yes, it’s the second in a two-book series which began with Cometh the Hour, the story of Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia and his struggles to keep his kingdom and his womenfolk safe. The new book tells the story of his sons and daughters and it’s a tale of love, loss, warfare, revenge and hope.

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

I think it chose me, actually. I’ve always wanted to write, and began writing stories around the age of eight, but my degree was in history, specializing in the early medieval period, so it was natural that at some point the two interests would merge. I had an amazingly inspirational tutor, and I began to fall in love with the pre-Conquest period. I suppose even then, ideas were brewing about these wonderful characters and the notion of bringing them to life in fiction. They spoke a different language and lived a long time ago, but their stories are incredible, and exciting, and I try to present them as real people, so there is no myth or magic in my books (though there is the odd Viking!)

Do your books begin with ideas for characters or plots? Something else?

My fiction until now has been based on real life people, so for me it’s a bit of both. A person I’ve researched from history will ‘speak’ to me and suggest that their story is ripe for a fiction treatment. Sometimes I listen, sometimes I don’t. There are some people who hide from me and I can’t really get a handle on what their personality might have been like, while others appear before me almost fully formed, like Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians. I say fully formed, but I actually started her story with her childhood. I often do that with my characters, because to me that’s where the character formation really happens.

Often, while I’m writing, I’m surprised when a word pops into my head that I never use in real life … and sometimes, it’s a word I didn’t even realize I knew. Yet there it is, wanting to become a part of my novel. Does this ever happen to you? If so, what do you make of it?

Yes! I haven’t really thought about this but it has happened to me. I suppose it must just be a case of dredging something up from the sub-conscious. Given that I’m writing about the early medieval period, I suppose it’s inevitable that I’ll need words that I wouldn’t necessarily use in everyday conversation, but at some point in my education (or more likely from my mother) I’ve picked up words and phrases and kept them stored somewhere at the back of my brain.

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 do an awful lot of editing as I go. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, I hate first drafts, so as soon as the opportunity arises to make that first draft into an edit, I’ll take it! Secondly, I like to keep the main structure of the book a good shape as I’m writing, otherwise I feel it will all be too messy to come back to in edits.

How many unwritten books are in your head? How do you decide which ones come to life now and which ones stay on the back burner?

I think I currently have about three novels, three novellas, five short stories and two nonfiction books in my head! Sometimes I attempt to work on more than one project at a time but it never works out; one always pushes past the others. I think that’s really how I choose what to work on – it’s the project that’s exciting me the most at the time.

How much of your own personality goes into your characters?

I don’t know that any of it really does. But certainly I find that, sub-consciously, a lot of my experiences go into them. There seems to be a theme of belonging/wanting to get home/stay home running through my books and this might be because I’ve moved around so much that I can never answer the question, “Where are you from?”

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

I do usually have an ending that I head towards and I never have a title until I’ve finished the book, where I then have to spend hours brainstorming as I find it hard to come up with titles. However, with my new book, The Sins of the Father, I had the title before I wrote a word, and I had to rewrite the ending, so things have gone a bit topsy-turvey this time around!

What else have you written?

I’ve written four novels: To Be A Queen is the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She was one of only two Anglo-Saxon women to lead a country and she did it in the face of Viking attacks. She was an incredible woman. Alvar the Kingmaker is a story of murder, love, and politics in the tenth century and features some descendants from characters in ‘Queen’.

As I mentioned earlier, Cometh the Hour is the story of Penda the last pagan king, and ‘Sins’ tells the story of the next generation.

I’ve also contributed stories to two anthologies: 1066 Turned Upside Down, and (Historical Stories of) Betrayal.

My nonfiction books are: Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, and Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England.

I’ve also written essays, magazine articles and short stories and my story A Poppy Against the Sky was the inaugural winner of the Historical Writers/Dorothy Dunnett Society Award.

Many of us get stuck in our stories at one point or the other? What helps you to break through in these frustrating times?

I take myself off for a walk. I’m lucky that I live in the countryside and even just a ten-minute walk usually clears my mind of all the debris and allows thoughts about writing to come flooding back in.

How important is the choosing of character names to you? Have you ever decided on a name and then changed it because it wasn’t right for the character?

Because I write about real-life people I can’t choose the names, but I do alter them, or give my characters nicknames, because the Old English names are not easy on the eye and so many begin with Æthel or Ælf!

How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?

I always do a lot of research, looking at the source documents, reading books about the history etc, but I suppose over time that’s got easier. For my latest novel I was able to rely heavily on the research I’d already done for my history of Mercia, which helped enormously. I also like to research any new information about recent archaeological discoveries, or new thoughts about how people lived and worked.

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

Not often, as I’ve pretty much got their lives and characters mapped out before I start writing. Again, though, with this new novel, things were different. I got about halfway through and tried to stick to the script and then I realized that my character, as I’d written him, simply would not have behaved in the way I was asking him to. This realization led to a complete rewrite of that section, which then led to a re-working of a previous section, but the character stayed true to himself, and I’m glad I ‘listened’ to him and changed it.

What would your dream writing space look like?

Honestly, and I know this makes for a boring answer, but I don’t need much. Just my (reference) books and my notebooks to hand, and something to type on – currently a desktop computer. Once I’m writing, my surroundings almost fade away and hours can go by without my noticing. I think a pretty view might actually be a distraction.

What are the most important traits you look for in a friend?

Loyalty, definitely. Mainly though, the thing my closest and most treasured friends have in common is that I always feel better having spent time with them.

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

I’d like to be better at Calligraphy. I try really hard, but I think being a left-hander and not an artist works against me.

What might we be surprised to know about you?

That I relax by lifting weights and doing kickboxing.

What makes you angry?

So many things… but I think they can all be summed up in one word: unkindness.

What music soothes your soul?

Pretty much anything from classical (though not opera) to folk, to rock. I used to sing professionally so a good singing session will also make me feel great. My favourite band of all time is The Who, but my ‘record’ collection is vast and varied.

What simple pleasure makes you smile?

Sunshine, wine, and spending time with my family (not necessarily in that order).

 

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Comments

CHAT WITH ANNIE WHITEHEAD — 2 Comments

  1. Congratulations to both Lisette and Annie for such a lovely and interesting interview. I’ve read a few of Annie’s books and still have some on my TBR list. One thing that surprised me (and for some reason, tickled me) was reading that Annie is a weightlifter and kickboxer! Those skills are obviously keeping your characters in shape, Annie, as well as yourself. You must have muscles like Popeye! I hope ‘Sins of the Father’is a great success.

  2. Great interview and it was nice to learn more about Annie.
    To Be A Queen was a very enjoyable read and I have Alvar The Kingmaker lined up to read shortly.
    The Who are one of my favourite bands too, but I have been delving into more folk music lately and have found several really good Eastern European bands.

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