Author of almost 20 novels spanning the speculative fiction genre, Freda's latest novel, Midsummer Night, is due out from Tor on 23 November - yep, that's NEXT TUESDAY. Midsummer Night is a modern fantasy tale of love, loss, betrayal and redemption, written with Freda's trademark sensuous style. I'm delighted to welcome Freda to my blog.
Hi Freda, could you start by telling us a little about yourself?
I was born and brought up the middle of England, where I still live. I was lucky to live near some very beautiful countryside, the Charnwood Forest, which played a big part in my developing a feel for magical atmospheres. I studied art at college and worked in graphic design for some years, but writing was always my first love. Over the past twenty-odd years I’ve published nineteen novels, starting with a sword-and sorcery novel, A Blackbird in Silver, and taking in vampire fiction (A Taste of Blood Wine and its sequels) and contemporary fantasy such as The Rainbow Gate and Dark Cathedral, and epic fantasy such as The Amber Citadel. I also wrote Dracula the Undead (an ‘official’ sequel to Dracula), and The Court of the Midnight King, which was my alternative take on the history of King Richard III. At the moment I’m working on my third book for Tor, The Grail of the Summer Stars, which follows Elfland and Midsummer Night.
What was it that inspired you to write speculative fiction? Were there particular authors/books that were a formative influence? Which books/authors inspire you nowadays?
Being an only child has a lot to answer for! My dad would make up stories for me, and I loved to read and daydream. If I read something that excited me, it seemed natural to carry on the magic by trying to write a similar story of my own. So as a child I was mostly writing pony stories. As I entered my teens, I read a lot of war novels and I seem to remember starting something ‘serious’ – but truly dreadful – set in the Second World War, but then I gravitated naturally towards fantasy. I’ve never really grown out of it! My influences began with the obvious, such as CS Lewis and Tolkien, but I was even more inspired by the more exotic writings of Tanith Lee and Michael Moorcock, and solid children’s writers such as Joy Chant and Alan Garner. Oh, and Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, the Brontes – fortunately school didn’t ruin them for me. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Wuthering Heights, Dracula; I loved books of high emotion. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett gave me an early yearning to go through a door into a magical hidden world. These days I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like. The books beside my bed are an eclectic mix of old and new. I’ll jump from an incredible classic like The Great Gatsby to a contemporary great like Possession (AS Byatt) to a Harlan Coben thriller. However, I don’t think there’s much that influences me as such, not as it would in my younger days. A novel like Possession is so intelligent and intricate that I couldn’t possibly hope to emulate it and wouldn’t even try! I’m fairly settled in my writing style and the subjects I want to write about. However, reading any good, moving and well-paced story is a spur always to keep trying harder, to keep improving.
Midsummer Night, along with its companion novel, Elfland, are based around the premise of an Aetherial (or Faerie) race living alongside our own. Could you tell us a little about the research process you undertook in evolving your Aetherial race and their mythos. What sources did you turn to? What stumbling blocks did you encounter and how did you overcome them?
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of creatures who look human but aren’t – angels, demons, vampires, elves, demi-gods and so on. The Aetherials simply evolved as my own version of such a race. I loved Tolkien’s elves, and in fact my Aetherials (or Aelyr) first appeared as an elf-like race in my ‘Jewelfire’ trilogy (The Amber Citadel, The Sapphire Throne, The Obsidian Tower). But they are not really elves or faeries as such, it’s just a handy comparison. I didn’t do a huge amount of research, beyond reading up about the origins of ‘other-race’ myths down the ages, or looking at what other authors have done with the idea. I suppose a stumbling block lies in deciding just how ‘classic’ (or clichéd?) you want your other-race to be. Do you want Faerie Courts, or High Elves in the tradition of Tolkien? In my case, no I didn’t. I looked at the traditional forms, then I went my own sweet way and let my characters evolve as they wanted. They developed as individuals first and as an ‘other-race’ second. Another stumbling block then lies in asking, in what ways are these people actually NOT human? I tend to go straight for character and story, rather than working out elaborate mythologies, so my Aetherials reveal their otherness in various random ways as the plot unfolds. Sometimes these hints will reference folk tales, at others they’re just out of the blue. The main character Rosie (in Elfland) is told a version of their ‘history’ by her father Auberon, but you sense there may be more to it than he’s revealing. I don’t want everything set in stone. I’m discovering more about Aetherials all the time I’m writing or thinking about them.
When writing a book, are you a Pantser or a Plotter, i.e. do you outline in advance of writing, or plunge straight in, or a combination of both? What advice would you offer to beginning writers struggling with plotting?
Usually a combination. Editors always want a synopsis, and if you have already finished the book, they are not so hard to write. But if you’re pitching a new idea, something you have only part-written or not even started, it forces you to work out the whole plot, and in a way that sounds like a rounded, convincing story! Generally I have a vague idea of where I’m going. The finished book may end up very close to the outline, or totally different. I tend to work in jigsaw fashion, really. I’ll write a few scenes or chapters. I’ll get stuck, sit down and try to work out where I’m going, write a bit more, think a bit more – on and on until I eventually piece it together and iron out the seams. And then I’ll go back to the beginning and put it all right!
Once when I was moaning to Mike (my husband) that I was stuck on the plot, he helpfully suggested, ‘Have someone burst in with a machine gun and shoot them all.’ Yes, VERY helpful, thank you! But maybe he’s got a point. If your plot has stalled, you need to look at why. You might need a new element to intrude, a surprise, a twist to get the story motoring again. Reading thrillers is very good for studying plotting. Just as a scene is ending, there’s a phone call, or a revelation, or a shock – something that carries the reader and the story on together. The trick is to carry this off without it seeming contrived. You want the events of your story to evolve naturally from the behaviour of your characters, in a way that feels authentic. Not easy! But a good editor or a supportive writing group can be of huge help with this.
How do you approach your revision process? What did you learn along the way? What advice would you offer to other writers about approaching revisions?
Revision, to me, is the enjoyable part. The first draft, the dreaded blank page, is the hardest stage. Other writers say the opposite – they love rattling out their story, but find revisiting it a real chore. If you can produce a perfect first draft, you are lucky indeed! So I sit there and write whatever is coming into my head. When I’ve got to a certain point, I’ll go back over the text, start ironing out the errors, working out what’s missing, cutting out flab until I see a way to continue. Once I’ve got it into a readable condition, off it goes to my editor. Then he comes back with a ton of queries that didn’t even cross my mind! By that point, I’ll have thought of more ways to improve it – so then I’ll work through another draft including all our revisions, followed by a final polish or two. The advice to set it aside for a while, then come back to it with fresh eyes, always holds good.
Your 'Aetherials' novels are a cross-over of contemporary fiction and fantasy. Given this balance, how did you go about finding the voices of your viewpoint characters? Were there particular issues you bore in mind, or were you able to 'channel' them quite easily? What suggestions do you have to help others to find the voice of their protagonists?
I’d suggest people think about the tone of their story. Are you writing a very formal ‘high’ fantasy, or something rough and medieval full of orcs, or something modern set in the inner city? I always loved the formality and elegance of Tolkien’s elves, but you could never really imagine them getting drunk or having sex. (Well… I’m sure some people could, but leaving that aside…). As I said before, the Aetherials in Elfland came to me as individuals first, magical creatures second. So they developed very much as human characters would and I had a lot of fun with them, because they were allowed to behave badly and swear and argue and fall in love and make mistakes. Not just to stand around looking remote and mysterious. (Although they like to do that sometimes, too.) And of course, the fact that they can pass into other dimensions and change form gives them a whole set of problems that humans don’t face. A central theme of the book was their struggle for identity – how human are they, how Aetherial are they, how do they find their proper place in the scheme of things? I think a major key to finding your protagonists’ voices lies in this question – who do they perceive themselves to be? Do they know what they want, and if not, how will they find out? Will the journey hurt other people? Do they care? Ask lots of questions of your characters and their voice will come.
What are you working on now? Will we be seeing further Aetherials books in the future?
I’m working on the third book for Tor, The Grail of the Summer Stars. Again, it’s a standalone novel, but set in the same background as Elfland and Midsummer Night. The main character is new, but it will bring together characters from both the other books. I hope the story, although it’s self-contained, will tie up some of the issues from the first two and bring everything full circle. We’ll see what happens as I write it, though. After that, I have ideas for at least two more Aetherial Tales – whether they appear or not will depend on my publisher. Because my characters move in and out of the human world, in and out of history and parallel worlds too, the possibilities are endless, really.
And finally, since many of my blog readers are writers dreaming of the day when their own books are published, what three pieces of advice would you offer about the process of writing/getting published?
Only three? At the risk of sounding bossy…
- Learn the ‘rules’. Read lots of ‘How to write’ books, search terms like ‘best writing advice’ on the net. I say this tongue-in-cheek, but it can yield fascinating insights – here’s a good one. http://www.guardian.co.uk/
books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules- for-writing-fiction-part-one. Once you become familiar with the ‘rules’ of good writing, you can exercise intelligent judgement over which ones make sense, and which you can happily break. Neil Gaiman sums up what I’m trying to say: ‘The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough confidence and assurance, you’re allowed to do what you like.’
- Or ignore the above completely, keep away from the net, and just write, write, write. You are writing because you are PASSIONATE about it, correct? Stay passionate and make us care about your characters as much as you do. Join a writers’ group or impose upon literate friends to get feedback. (You’ll learn whose opinions you can trust). Be prepared for lots of rewriting – it’s a rare piece of work that’s perfect first time.
- Remember that an agent or publisher receiving dozens of manuscripts a week will take on only one or two new authors a year. Please ensure that your spelling, grammar, punctuation and presentation are as near-perfect as possible. I’ve learned from judging short-story competitions that clumsy punctuation looks illiterate and often indicates a cloth-ear for language, so… don’t put them off on page one. Present your work like a professional.
And if this has whetted your appetite to curl up this winter with some of Freda's luscious novels, why not start with her Aetherials series. Each stands alone, with the first, Elfland, now available in paperback and the second, Midsummer Night, released in hardback on Tuesday 23 November. Who could resist?