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INTERVIEW: Lisa Chaplin, author of The Tide Watchers

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Today, on the blog, I welcome Lisa Chaplin, a friend of mine who has written an incredible historical novel inspired by the true story of British spies who sought to prevent Napoleon's forces from invading Great Britain in 1803. Here's my review of her novel THE TIDE WATCHERS if you'd like to know more about her book, but today we're exploring Lisa's dreams and inspirations. Please give her a warm welcome!   

Are you a daydreamer too?

I always have been, always will be. It was the reason I got in trouble at school – but by year 3, teachers and school counselors were telling me to aim at becoming a writer. I still dream on walks, on trains and in cars, working my fictional characters into real-life situations. A lot of my best work comes from those daydreams!


Have you always wanted to be a writer?

No, not at all. Though I loved to dream and make up stories as a child, I was completely focused on becoming a nurse. Nothing anyone said changed my mind. I did nursing until I got pregnant with our first child. I only began writing after our second child, when my husband came home with an article about writing and said I should try it. I did, and was soon wondering why I’d never listened to anyone before!


Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?

I was born in Darlinghurst, Sydney. After a childhood in Sydney, both east and west, we moved to the Central Coast five years after I married. We’ve owned a house there ever since, raised our three children there. I’m afraid I’m a complete history nerd – I love to research, to find out more about “hidden history” that the victors never tell. Apart from that, I love to read, and walking the dog and jogging on the local beach. I do a swim class that I really like, as well.


How did you get the first flash of inspiration for THE TIDE WATCHERS?

That’s a story! Short version: I took an American friend and her family around Sydney in 2006, and at the Sydney Maritime Museum, picked up a book that completely ignited my dormant love of history. I stood there so long, reading the book, my friend had to remind me that her family were hungry! So I bought the book, and 9 years later, it’s still with me on my travels. I found an untold story in that book, one I had to tell…but because it was a hidden history, I had to piece it together over time. 24 books, 3 DVDs and a trip to France and the UK later, The Tide Watchers finally grew from a story kernel to a full-blown story.


How extensively do you plan your novels?

Before I began historical writing, not nearly so much as now. As Melissa James (my contemporary romance pseudonym), I could make up stories and let my imagination play. However, I always did plan the deeper story beneath the romance. I wrote about issues: PTSD, anorexia, bulimia, missing family members, etc; so that part was always plotted, as were my three espionage books, the Nighthawks series; but the rest was my imagination basically running free. Now it’s a different story, because so many of my characters were real people. I need to know where they were at any given time, what they wrote, said, or did, so I can weave my fictional characters in without jarring the well-read historical fiction reader with any inaccuracy. I have currently in front of me more than 50 pages of timelines, plot points, and information about every living character I use. I’m on a research trip now so have folders full, and books filling my suitcase! They’re my “American Express card”: I never leave home without them!


Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

In a strange way. My dreams are usually vivid, frightening things that tell me when I haven’t used my imagination enough lately. Quite often I’ll wake very early with a dream, get up and write, and quite often on a similar subject to my nightmares. I wish I did dream about my characters, but alas, I don’t. I think it’d be much easier if I did!


Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

Oh, definitely! The book I mentioned earlier talked about a fleet of French ships that sank eight miles out to sea, and that Britain, who had been conciliating France until then, declared war ten weeks later; but there was nothing more. Researching that led to amazing discoveries, some that fellow history lovers said never happened – but they did. The realization that “history is told by the victors” led me to France, to a small town and some villages that held a history few know about. Discovering the part Lord Camelford, (“The Mad Baron”) played in world events of the time, really changed the book. Then a friend from my writers’ group gave me a book (an out-of-print book worth far more than I knew when she gave it to me) that had the real-life code-names of British spies, and the French spies working for and against Britain. That book changed everything! Without those serendipitous discoveries, THE TIDE WATCHERS wouldn’t be what it is.


Where do you write, and when?

I still have two grown children at home, and their friends often drop in, so I tend to write whenever I can. My family is really understanding of my work, including my nieces where I’m staying right now. When I’m at home, if the house is too noisy (there are dogs galore in our street, and few owners at home) I go to my favorite café, an eclectic little place with kitschy furniture and great food, and set myself up there for hours. They look after me beautifully there!


What is your favourite part of writing?

I think for me it’s the whole finding out astonishing facts, and dreaming up ways to work it into the story and characters. Often it means changing whole chapters and even more to make it work. Lucky for me I have a very patient agent, and a fabulous editor who not only goes along with my changes, but she gets excited when I tell her why. She’ll call me to discuss it if she doesn’t understand, and we work out storylines together sometimes. So I’m one of those annoying writers that love revisions. I take every chance to improve the book, to do more research to make the book bigger, faster-paced, more exciting.


What do you do when you get blocked?

Research! For me, a block means I’ve forgotten something important. I go back to my books or my timelines. I have 13 whiteboards in my study covered in facts, plus cork-boards with maps and pictures. I took pictures of everything, printed it up and brought it with me on my travels, or the next book wouldn’t be written. I also tend to make soundtracks and create signature scents that trigger imagination. I also go for long walks if those things don’t help.


How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

One thing I constantly do is new writing courses, in person if possible. I find learning a continuous source of inspiration, and really revs me up to keep writing. Also, I’m constantly on the lookout for things I didn’t know. It’s the real history hidden beneath the story of the victors that excites me. Telling the tale from the perspective of those who lived with the consequences of the great political decisions: the ordinary people and the spies. I’m in contact with several historians, specialists in their chosen subject or person, all of who have been wonderfully eager to share tidbits with me. A really big thing is travelling to the places I write about. I can’t do it all via books and the internet. For real stories that brim with life, that take the reader to the places and times you write about, I have to walk it, smell it, feel it, taste it. I was lucky to live in Europe for four years, which made all the difference to THE TIDE WATCHERS; now I have friends and family living only a few hours’ travel from the places in my books.


Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

Very much so. The aforementioned whiteboards and cork-boards surround me in reminders. I’m a very visual person; if I didn’t have the reminders I’d forget vital pieces of the story. Even now while travelling they’re beside me, and I have blue-tack to put it on walls around me. I create soundtracks for each book, usually a mix of classical, modern opera and acoustic versions of popular songs. I also find a signature scent for each book, one that transports me to a place or a person. For The Tide Watchers, I don’t know how many L’Occitane Winter Forest candles I bought! Now it’s lavender water, made to the 18th century recipe, and ocean scent. I walk the dog, jog or go to the gym or pool before I get into writing. I find, as I get older, that it’s hard to write if my body’s uncomfortable. I also stretch quite a few times through the day.


Who are ten of your favourite writers?

I tend to go through phases of loving different kinds of writing, but authors I keep returning to for inspiration and beautiful writing, or just plain enjoyment of story are: J.R.R Tolkien; Sharon Penman; Elizabeth Chadwick; Markus Zusak; Carlos Ruiz Zafon; Paulo Cuelho; Jane Austen; Georgette Heyer; Agatha Christie, and L. M. Montgomery. I read widely of other, newer authors as well. I’m currently enjoying Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily mystery series, and Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford mysteries. 


What do you consider to be good writing? 

I tend toward the lyrical and historical. Ever since reading Lord of the Rings at fifteen, I’ve loved the beauty amid danger, shimmering poetry in the frightening. The opening of The Shadow of the Wind by Zafon is amazing, as is the narrator of The Book Thief by Zusak. I’m not at that level, but would love to be one day. 


What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

To quote Rocky Horror, “don’t dream it, be it.”  My biggest advice, though, is respect the craft. Writing is an ongoing apprenticeship and should be treated with respect. Don’t indulge in “writer’s block” – fight your way through it. Taking writing courses refreshes creativity (I took your History, Mystery and Magic course after I sold The Tide Watchers to refill the well when I felt a bit blocked, and it really helped me get my revisions done!). Publisher-requested revisions are part of making your book the best it can possibly be for the shelves. Taking courses and doing revisions is part of an ongoing journey; I never want to be arrogant about my writing, and think I know enough. Just as you wouldn’t go to an unqualified doctor or lawyer because they’re cheap, don’t do cheap courses, or buy self-published books simply because they’re cheap (or free). You wouldn’t do so with university courses or an apprenticeship; don’t cheat your writing. One final thing: try not to let anyone, even your family, treat writing as your self-indulgent hobby. I made that mistake. Trust me, you’ll regret it when you sell and it becomes your job!


What are you working on now?

BLIND WINTER is the second book in the series following The Tide Watchers. The more I researched the time, the more it became a real-life, four-way ‘game of thrones’ between leaders and spymasters, between countries and power struggles inside governments. It was also a time of rapid change with inventions being used in warfare. For The Tide Watchers, it was the infancy of submarine-torpedo warfare. Blind Winter has quite a few new, surprising kinds of inventions that were used at the time. Robert Fulton, an American inventor I fell in love with during The Tide Watchers, returns in Blind Winter with new and exciting ideas, while the games of kings and spymasters complicate the lives of all my main characters.

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