Please welcome Charlotte Betts, the author of The Chateau on the Lake, a brilliant historical romance set during the French Revolution. I had previously read Charlotte's book, The Apothecary's Daughter, which I really enjoyed too, and so I'm looking forward to more of her books.
Are you a daydreamer too?
I am definitely a daydreamer and I’m not sure it would be possible for me to write novels if I wasn’t. My writing doesn’t flow until I’ve daydreamed a scene. I need to ‘see’ it in my mind and then it’s like watching a film and I simply record what happens in front of me. This sounds easy but it’s taken a while to learn how to do this. The best time for me to daydream is when walking the dog or last thing at night just before I fall asleep.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
It seems extraordinary to me now that I didn’t start to write until fifteen years ago. I loved to read and always had to be creating something or other: painting, drawing, decorating, sewing, making puppets or a garden. Most of my working life has been as a designer, first fashion but then interior design for hotels and private residences. Colour and texture are important to me and I use these a great deal in my writing. The skills used for architectural drawings and detailed specification lists aren’t so very different from those required when planning a novel. I don’t have time to paint now but like to think that I paint with words.
Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in London, though I only have a few memories of that time as my family moved to Berkshire when I was seven. I’ve lived in the Thames Valley most of my life but eleven years ago moved to a seventeenth century cottage on the Berkshire/Hampshire border, close to a market town.
This year I gave up the day job to write full time and I am so happy discovering the wildlife and the flowers in the woods that surround the cottage. There’s something new to see everyday. I’ve been busy finishing my next novel and a short story for Christmas but I’m looking forward to having a little more time to travel, read, make jam, meet friends and generally potter about at the end of my writing day. What luxury!
Tell me about your book, The Chateau on the Lake.
The Chateau on the Lake opens in 1792. After her English mother and French father are brutally murdered, bluestocking Madeleine Moreau travels to France in search of relatives she hadn’t known existed. When France declares war on England it becomes unsafe to return and Comte Etienne d’Aubery offers her shelter in his chateau. Impulsive and sometimes self-opinionated, Madeleine favours the people’s revolution in France but her views are shaken after she witnesses Louis XVI’s death by the guillotine. The revolution gathers momentum and as passions of the populace are inflamed, Madeleine sets off on a dangerous race against time to save the man she loves.
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
My first three published novels were all set in the mid-seventeenth century and I decided I’d take a jump ahead in time. As usual when beginning a new novel, I researched the period, looking for a suitable historical event to use as a backdrop to my story. When I read about the French Revolution it struck me as the perfect framework for a novel because it was a dramatic, life-changing event for so many, crammed with intrigue and adventure.
What was the greatest challenge in the writing of it?
I had two major challenges when writing The Chateau on the Lake. Firstly, I’d never studied the French Revolution but everyone knows that the starving poor rebelled against the greedy aristocrats and beheaded Louis XVI, don’t they? Except that, once I started my research, I quickly discovered that it was nothing like as straightforward as that.
It’s often perceived that most of the victims trundling their way to the guillotine in a tumbril were powdered and patched aristocrats but this wasn’t the case. The great majority were of working class background and had taken up arms against the Revolution, most notably in the Vendée. Those nobles who had chosen to emigrate and then returned to France were also executed as they were assumed to be spies. Priests who had refused to take an oath of loyalty to the constitution were also seen as enemies of the Revolution and guillotined. Many ordinary people were denounced for very little reason and a terrible atmosphere suspicion and fear prevailed.
My second challenge was that whilst writing the novel I was still working long hours in a demanding day job. I place high importance on the accuracy of the historical events I portray and it was extra hard to find the time to do all the research required to enable me to meet the deadline. Everything else in my life had to go on hold!
How extensively do you plan your novels?
I do plan my novels in immense detail all fitted around the historical facts as, for me, this is the best way to avoid writer’s block. Of course, the best-laid plans always go awry! My characters develop a personality I hadn’t expected and secondary characters try to muscle in for a bigger role in the story. I find that an historical fact actually occurred two months after I wanted it to so it’s back to the drawing board for the plot. All this is normal and I don’t upset myself about it. A novel plan is like a road map but there is often another way, maybe a better way, to reach your destination.
Where do you write, and when?
Now that I’m not working in an office I tend to start writing at 9am after household chores with a break in the middle of the day to walk Hattie, my Border Collie, mid morning. Sometimes I’ll start at 5am, as ideas are usually fresh then. I generally keep ‘office hours’ but if I’m nearing a deadline I’ll work very late. Now, I’m able to take time off at weekends to spend time with family. I have my trusty Mac Air on all the time, though, and will write whenever inspiration strikes.
I have a lovely garden studio where I can watch the birds while I write but if it’s very cold outside I set up camp in our orangerie or in my little study, which has a woodburning stove for the depths of winter.
What is your favourite part of writing?
I love all of it, the planning, the research, the certainty that this book will be the best ever! I suppose the middle part of the book is my least favourite because, when the initial excitement has worn off, you begin to wonder if you’ve made a terrible mistake and everyone will hate it. It’s wonderful when it all comes together at the end.
What do you do when you get blocked?
Nearly always this happens because I know in my heart of hearts that something isn’t working. It’s usually in the middle section of the novel. In this case I question my characters’ motivation and have ‘conversations’ with them. Or I’ll do a little more research to see if I can find a new and interesting fact to add a twist to the story. Sometimes I’ll even kill a character – that usually livens things up!
How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
If I’m not inspired it’s generally because I’m trying too hard. I am fairly obsessive about my writing and sometimes it’s better to stop and take a walk, bake a cake or meet some friends. I think reading more or watching a film can also be very helpful.
Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Tea. Chocolate. Both dark and strong like my heroes. Need I say more?
Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Tracy Chevalier, Philippa Gregory, Nicci French, Sarah Dunant, Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Clare Francis, Dick Francis, Jane Austen and Deborah Swift.
What do you consider to be good writing?
Good writing immediately lifts me into the world of that book, the minds of the characters and into the locations so that I feel I’m really there. I also like writing to be clear and concise. Good writing shines, whatever the genre.
What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
- • Write every day
- • Read all you can
- • Keep a notebook
- • Never give up
What are you working on now?
I’m currently checking the proofs of The House in Quill Court, which will be published on 7th January 2016. The novel is set in 1814 and the plot is perhaps best summed up as Jane Austen meets Whitechapel!
After Venetia Lovell’s father is murdered, she’s shocked to discover that he had another family. Since both families have been left without means of support they must combine forces to take over his interior decorating business.
Venetia discovers that her neighbouring shopkeepers have been paying protection money to a vicious gangland boss and, after he threatens their livelihood too, she is determined to end his terrifying tyranny. However, when a street war breaks out Venetia soon begins to regret interfering.