It is my very great pleasure to welcome Christopher Gortner, one of my favourite historical novelists, to the blog today:
Christopher, are you a daydreamer too?
Yes, absolutely. I think most writers must be; inspiration always strikes in day-dreams.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Not initially; I wanted to be a fashion designer. I worked in fashion for over ten years, in fact, in various capacities, but writing eventually chose me. Since childhood, I’d always written stories, and made several serious attempts at writing a novel, but it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I decided to try my hand at an historical novel. Once I began, I was hooked. Still, it took over 13 years until I was eventually published.
Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do?
I was born in the US and raised in southern Spain; my mom is Spanish and my family moved there when I was six. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, and spend several weeks of the year in Guatemala, where my partner and I have a home. I love to read, do yoga, write, of course, and I am passionate about helping to rescue dogs at danger of being euthanized in high-kill shelters.
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY is the second book in a trilogy based on a fictional man with a secret link to the Tudors who becomes Elizabeth I’s private spy.
The concept for the trilogy was inspired by the extensive spy network that William Cecil and Francis Walsingham developed to protect Elizabeth, and by the many anonymous men and women who dedicated themselves, and sometimes lost their lives, to safeguard her. I wanted to set the first two books in the tumultuous time before Elizabeth takes the throne, as I’ve always been intrigued by the so-called “forgotten Tudors” who came after Henry VIII.
It’s a time of great instability and change in England, especially after Edward VI dies and Mary assumes the throne. Mary herself is a tragic figure, who fell prey to her own circumstances and initiated a terrible reign of persecution. She’s a challenging, complex character for a novelist: a woman who was courageous and steadfast in her right to claim the throne, yet became a paranoid ruler determined to wrest her subjects back to the Catholic faith even as she suffered to fulfill her duty to bear an heir.
I thought that setting this second book during the time when she and Elizabeth—half-sisters yet antithetical in their personalities and beliefs—became foes would offer some fascinating material to work with, as my lead character struggles to protect Elizabeth without betraying Mary, whom he has met before and respects.
How extensively do you plan your novels?
I research intensively for all my novels. I usually read everything I can find about my characters, the era in which they lived, and the world as they knew it. I also take trips to see extant sites associated with them. However, I am mindful that research can, in of itself, become an obsession, and at some point the actual writing has to start. Usually, I write once I feel I've a strong enough handle not only of the time and events surrounding my characters, but more importantly, who they are.
Developing an emotional blueprint for each of my characters is key for me; I don't necessarily need to agree with the people I write about, but I must understand them. I have to know them intimately in order to inhabit them. I also develop a brief outline of major events I want to cover, though I tend to refer to it loosely. I like to have an idea of where I want to start and where I want to end up, yet let the writing itself guide me on the journey. I'm superstitious about too much planning; I fear it will drain the joy of discovering the story, of letting it unfold in its own way.
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Dreams do inspire me, in that I sometimes find myself recreating imagery and scenery from my book and can overcome blocks I encounter while writing by, literally, "sleeping on it." But I don't keep a formal dream journal or anything like that. I think my dream life informs my waking state, like a faint dye permeates cloth.
Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
The characters always surprise me, particularly when they behave in ways that I did not anticipate. In this book, a major loss befalls my main character, Brendan, but it was unplanned. It just happened as I was writing it, and after I was done, I was a bit stunned by it. I even considered re-writing it to change the outcome, until I realized the loss fit the story I wanted to tell. In truth, it had to occur. I love it when that happens, even if it means I must say goodbye to a beloved character. As a writer, I feel I must be careful to always “hear” my story as it unfolds and not force it in directions it doesn’t want to go. For me, the unexpected is often the sign that I’m on the right path.
Where do you write, and when?
I write in my study at home, usually from early afternoon to around 6 or 7 pm at night. I used to be a night-owl, staying up till the wee hours to write, but I had a full-time day job and writing was a luxury that I was willing to forsake sleep for. I was also younger and could thrive on far less sleep. Now, I'm older, and finally, after many years, I can write full-time, so I try to stick to a schedule. I do find that scheduling writing every day is important for me. Nowadays, writers face so many distractions, as well as obligations: engaging on social media has become a must for marketing yet presents a challenge in terms of time management. I've discovered that I can easily spend an entire day online and not write a single word of my current work-in-progress. If I'm not disciplined, my writing suffers.
What is your favourite part of writing?
When I reach that magical midway point. The research is over for the most part, and I've developed a keen understanding of who my characters are, and where they’re headed. All of a sudden, everything aligns. It ceases to feel like writing and more like I’m simply relating the story as it happens before me. I relish that apparent loss of control; the way time ceases to exist, and I become submerged in the world I’ve created. It's truly a marvelous gift.
What do you do when you get blocked?
Get anxious, get frustrated, call my friends. Worry. Pace. But for the most part, I step away from the work and do something else. I let the book “steep” for a while. Sometimes, that’s all that needed - a bit of time away to let the story settle. I don’t often get blocked but when it happens, it can be alarming. It can happen at any time, too, so now I just try to breathe and remind myself, it has happened before and I get through it. The important thing, I’ve learned, is not to force it, because that is when I can veer wildly off course.
How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read a lot, more than 30 novels a year, in addition to my research. I fill myself with stories which I could never tell, that inspire and confound and make me envious. Reading other authors does for writers what attending a symphony played by other musicians does for a musician; you have to hear what others have to say and let it all seep in, to stir and refresh those areas where you’ve become too set in your ways. I’ve also learned that my well must be replenished on its own. I can't simply leap from one book to the next. It takes time for me to ease out of the book I’ve just finished, to let those characters fade and re-discover the neutral space I require to start the process all over again.
Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
Lots of strong black tea, patience, and the willingness to make mistakes. I don’t let everything be perfect at first; I stumble around like a stranger in a foreign land and let myself find my bearings as I go. The first draft is rarely the best, but once I have it, it’s the launching ground for the story waiting just underneath it. I just have to chisel away the excess, polish and refine. Rewriting is what I love best. It’s all there - a mess, certainly, but there.
Who are ten of your favourite writers?
I have more than ten, but here goes: Daphne Du Maurier, Nikos Kazantakis, Isabel Allende, Pauline Gedge, Robin Maxwell, Jude Morgan, Patricia Finney, Colin Falconer, Judith Merkle Riley, Cecelia Holland – and you.
(Bless you & thank you, Christopher!)
What do you consider to be good writing?
When you cease to "see" it. Good writing disappears, so that all the reader hears is the story. I also consider good writing to be something that moves me. It doesn’t matter what I feel, as long as I feel something other than indifference.
What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Write every day. Be persistent. Persevere. Be willing to let it fall apart and to do it all again. Never imitate. Accept criticism and let it teach you. Always remember that of all the art forms, writing is the most fluid. It can always be improved.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing the third book in the Spymaster Chronicles, titled THE TUDOR VENDETTA, and beginning to draft a new project about a character whom I’ve always wanted to write about. Earlier in the year, I delivered my revised manuscript about Lucrezia Borgia to my editors for US and UK publication in 2015.