Catherine Meyrick writes historical fiction with a touch of romance. Her stories weave fictional characters into the gaps within the historical record – tales of ordinary people who are very much men and women of their time, yet in so many ways are like us today.
Catherine grew up in regional Victoria, but has lived all her adult life in Melbourne, Australia. Until recently she worked as a customer service librarian at her local library. She has a Master of Arts in history and is also an obsessive genealogist.
Time to chat with Catherine!
What is your latest book?
My latest book is The Bridled Tongue. It is a standalone novel published in 2020. It is set in England in the 1580s and tells the story of Alyce Bradley, a young woman who agrees to an arranged marriage with a privateer, not because she particularly wishes for it but because she has no other options. It shows the way she grows into her role of manor wife and faces dangers not only from her husband’s enemies but her own past when jealousies stir up long buried resentments and old slanders concerning her relationship with her grandmother who was thought by some to be a witch.
The novel is set a time when these sorts of slanders, combined with the beliefs of the time, could result in an accusation of witchcraft. In a witchcraft case normal evidential rules were set aside and the most dubious hearsay accepted which could be enough to bring a person to the gallows. The backdrop is the threat of immanent invasion by the Spanish in 1588 – the Spanish Armada. It also touches on issues such as sibling rivalry and jealousy and the corrosive effect on women’s relationships when they are valued mainly for their ability to produce healthy children.
Do you write under a pen name? If so, can you tell us why?
I intended to write under my own name, Catherine Merrick, but found that there was another author who had written many, many books on curtain making already using that name. I thought my books would just get lost in amongst all those curtains so I decided to use a variant of Merrick. Some of my forebears used the form Meyrick in the 18th century and there is a branch of the family in the US that still use that. It sounds the same and I think the spelling makes it a little bit more memorable.
How did you choose the genre you write in? Or did it choose you?
I grew up in a family where history was important, in a town that was conscious of its past – Ballarat. Ballarat has fine 19th century buildings, statues of long dead notables along the main street which is wide enough to turn a bullock team. It was one of the first places where gold was discovered in the early 1850s in Australia and is the site of the Eureka Stockade, an armed rebellion by gold miners objecting to the cost of a miner’s licence (taxation without representation) which ultimately resulted in the Victorian Electoral Act 1856 which mandated suffrage for adult male colonists.
My father read a lot of historical fiction and my mother biographies of historical figures. Mum would often read out interesting or amusing snippets from the books she was reading. She was also a meticulous family researcher and her stories about her forbears brought these long dead people to life. And then I went to university and took a double major in history. I never considered writing about the present and think I would struggle to write something contemporary – I feel that I understand the people of the past far better than many today.
After working for a very long time on a novel, many authors get to a point where they lose their objectivity and feel unable to judge their own work. Has this ever happened to you? If so, what have you done about it?
I am not a very good judge of my own work though I do not worry much about that until have a respectable draft. I then get a small number of beta readers to look at it. I don’t automatically accept what they say but if a number say the same thing I do pay attention. After revising the draft taking their suggestions and criticisms into account, I then send it to a professional structural editor. I have used Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial both for The Bridled Tongue and for my current work in progress. Her advice is excellent regarding the structure of the novel, characterization and what, perhaps, is missing from the story – those things I haven’t written about that a reader would want to know. I think The Bridled Tongue has far more depth because of Jenny’s advice.
Do you ever act out your scenes while writing to help you gauge how authentic it feels?
I do sometimes. Usually, it involves getting up from the desk and pacing around the room to see if what I have written feels natural. I also read dialogue aloud to see if it sounds plausible and is not stilted. Occasionally, though, when I am out walking and thinking out a problem with a character, I find I am actually in character – striding along the street, my rapier heavy on my hip. Fortunately, I generally walk in the early morning when few people are about.
Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?
By the time I sit down to write I know the general shape of the story and I do know how it will end. Early on I tried writing by the seat of my pants but found that it doesn’t work for me, I run out of steam and don’t know where to go.
The title isn’t as important to me and with both published books, and the one I am working on at present, the name has changed several times. I have been told I come up with ridiculous titles at times. At one stage The Bridled Tongue was called ‘The Turtles Cannot Sing’ to reflect something of Alyce’s relationship with her husband. This is a line from a poem quoted in the novel, ‘A Modest Love’ by Sir Edward Dyer (1543-1607), an Elizabethan courtier. (The turtles referred to are turtle doves, the symbol of true love and fidelity to the Elizabethans.) In the end, I changed it to ‘The Bridled Tongue’ to reflect Alyce as she is at the beginning of the novel, but it is also a recognition of those in the story whose tongues should definitely be bridled.
My work in progress is called ‘Unspoken Promises’ at present but it will definitely have to change because any promises made are definitely spoken.
What else have you written?
Apart from short stories and poetry early on, I have one other novel, Forsaking All Other. This novel is also set in the 1580s – it begins in 1585 and follows the struggles of a young widow and waiting woman, Bess Stoughton, who discovers that her father is arranging for her to marry an elderly neighbour. Normally obedient Bess rebels and manages to convince her father to allow her a year to find a husband with whom she has some hope of happiness. Bess’s domestic concerns are set against the background of simmering Catholic plots to unseat Queen Elizabeth, and the involvement of English forces under the Earl of Leicester in the Netherlands in support of Dutch resistance to Spanish rule.
How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?
Historical novels require a lot of research. As both Forsaking All Other and The Bridled Tongue are set in the 1580s, it’s necessary to understand and recreate a period that was different from ours in so many ways. It is not only a matter of ensuring that the story fits into the historical timeline and that the details of clothing, housing and the minutiae of daily life are correct; it is as important that the characters are presented as people of their time, not modern people in period dress. While we cannot ignore the wonderful development of the English language over the intervening centuries, I do try to avoid terms coined in the twentieth century. This means, in the later stages of development of a novel, l go through the text highlighting and checking words that feel modern to make sure that I’m not using thoroughly modern terms.
I studied this period in detail when I was at university and have kept up my interest through reading newly released books and journal articles so I had a solid understanding of the period when I sat down to write.
‘Unspoken Promises’ is set in Hobart, Tasmania between 1878 and 1883 and because it is based on family history, I already had a deal of knowledge of the social conditions of the time but there are also so many things I don’t know such as the way the court and prison system worked then. So, I continue to research through contemporary newspapers, monographs and articles, and archival research. I am limited at present to the archival material that has been digitized but I am hoping to get to Hobart early next year to check a few things and to take a walk on Mount Wellington, the impressive mountain that stands guard over Hobart.
How often do your characters surprise you by doing or saying something totally unexpected?
Because I plan before I write, my characters don’t often surprise me. What has happened in both Forsaking All Other and The Bridled Tongue is that unplanned characters have sprung to life fully formed and made themselves essential to the plot, taking over what I had intended to have other secondary characters do. It hasn’t happened yet with ‘Unspoken Promises’ but there is still plenty of time.
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?
I think that good cover design is essential. The cover gives the reader the first impression, and is the thing that will make the reader pick the book up. If the cover doesn’t engage the reader, he or she is unlikely to get as far as reading the blurb.
I have no skill in this area so I have used a professional cover designer, the talented Jenny Quinlan again. Professional cover design can be expensive, but I would say that it is well worth the cost. I see it as a form of advertising, particularly when the book is new.
Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?
I currently live in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. I have lived in this part of Melbourne since I first came down here from Ballarat, aged seventeen. House blocks are smaller than in the leafy east of Melbourne but we still have trees and birds visiting our backyards every day, and I can wake up to magpies carolling just like people living in the country. We have a wonderful lake made around 1915 by blocking a local creek. It is surrounded by a nature reserve which is a haven to a wide range of native birds. The population is drawn from nearly everywhere on earth and we all seem to rub along quite well.
Hobart is a place I wouldn’t mind moving to. It is where my father was born and grew up. We didn’t visit there while Dad was alive but over the last twelve years, I have visited Hobart regularly, partly undertaking family research. Tasmania is the southernmost state of Australia and is stunningly beautiful. It is brisk in winter as it does snow sometimes. There is nothing between the south of Tasmania and Antarctica and you can see the Aurora Australis from the south of the island. Apart from the physical beauty of the place, the pace of life seems slower plus there are many wonderful galleries and restaurants. Hobart was first settled by Europeans in 1804 and many of the old Georgian buildings remain, so history is never far away.
If you could have one skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be?
I would love the ability to sing. I cannot hold a note and never have been able to. I was the girl in the school choir always singing off-key who the teacher could never find. I would mouth the words when she walked along the row and, somehow, she was never able to work it out who it was.
What music soothes your soul?
It depends on my mood. I like a wide range of music from classical and early music through to folk and country & western but I think Baroque music is the most calming. I particularly like Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen and Dido and Aeneas. It is wonderfully calming music and has cured headaches for me.
If you could add a room onto your current home, what would you put in it?
I would add a room in the roof with windows with a view of the horizon so I could catch both the sunrise and sunset. I would also have a ladder I could pull up so no one could disturb me. I would have a desk under one of the windows, my collection of non-fiction and reference books, a comfortable armchair to sit and read in and tea and coffee making bits and pieces. I am really describing my ideal ‘room of one’s own’.
And while we are renovating, perhaps I can add a lap pool along one side of the yard.
What simple pleasure makes you smile?
I love watching our cat. My desk is beneath a window that looks out into the backyard and I can see her out there sunning herself, stretched out sleeping on the garden seat, stalking invisible creatures or sitting still like an Egyptian statue. I love the elegance of form and the aloofness of cats.
CONNECT WITH CATHERINE
This is a lovely interview, I enjoyed reading it. Sounds like Catherine’s writing process is similar to mine.
As for Tasmania, it’s somewhere I long to visit and probably never will, alas. Always wanted to go; I love books and films set there, but there aren’t many.
I have cousins in Melbourne 🙂
Lisette, don’t forget to put it on #TuesdayBookBlog tomorrow!!!
Great interview with Catherine. Interesting question about the cover. It was Catherine’s cover for The Bridled Tongue that caught my eye and led me to buy the book. I loved the story and read Forsaking All Other as well. Both terrific stories and well researched. I highly recommend her novels.