Today I have an interview with the incredible Anna Castle. Anna very kindly agreed to come on the blog and has written some fantastically informative answers to my questions about her writing processes.
Anna Castle writes the Francis Bacon mysteries and the Lost Hat, Texas, mysteries. She’s earned a series of degrees — BA Classics, MS Computer Science, and PhD Linguistics — and has had a corresponding series of careers — waitressing, software engineering, assistant professor, and archivist. Writing fiction combines her lifelong love of stories and learning. Find out more at www.annacastle.com.
Your Francis Bacon series is a set of crime novels set in sixteenth century England. What interested you in particular about Francis Bacon and that period of history that led you to set your books there?
I chose that period and that protagonist after much consideration. I knew I wanted to start an historical mystery series with a famous person as the principal sleuth. And I wanted a vernacular literature (works in English) so I could immerse myself in the culture of the time. At the time (2009), I was still aiming at a traditional publishing career. At that time, people preferred historical fiction set in England. I used Wikipedia to browse through English history and picked the period that rang bells. OK, how hard was it to choose the Elizabethan period, especially when “a vernacular literature” was one of the requirements? It is one of the most colorful periods of all times and places.
Your writing is full of details of the historical period, almost as if you’ve time-travelled back to the sixteenth century yourself. Could you describe your research process please?
Read mountains of books and papers. I am happily retired from one of the world’s great research libraries – the University of Texas at Austin – so I have access to online resources like JSTOR (humongous collection of journal articles) and lots of wonderful books. I have a PhD, which is a research degree, so you learn how to study. That’s a big boost, but it’s not required. What is required is really learning what you read and digging deeper than overview books like Liz Picard’s Elizabeth’s London. Follow the references in those books as far as you can go. When I read, I stick a strip of sticky note next to anything I really want to remember. Then I go through the book again and type up those notes. I keep that stuff in files like ‘notes_books&publishing.docx’. I’ll read those notes again – actually that particular file – when I start book 4, which will be set in the publishing world. And I can use Window’s Find utility to search for phrases like “banned books” in the whole folder of files of notes. Mostly, I’m just hooked on the period. I would rather read a well-written scholarly book about the Elizabethan period than pretty much anything else!
Crime novels need to be tightly plotted so that they hang together. Do you plot everything out in advance of doing the actual writing, or do you work things out as you go along? What do you do if you get stuck?
I’m a plotter. Plotting is the most fun part of the process, before you get bogged down in all those frustrating details. I like color-coded post-its stuck on my beat board (Blake Snyder, Save the Cat (fun!!)), although I like Michael Hauge’s plotting system better. This time I’m going to start with Libbie Hawker’s Take off Your Pants system, which gives a greater role to theme, which I haven’t tried before. And I’m going to plot right down to the color of their undershorts. (OK, they’re always white, but you know what I mean.) I’m going to work out my clues and red herrings, my suspects and false leads, in much more careful detail this time, because I hate getting 2/3 through and realizing that things are not coming together properly. The glory of plotting is that you never get stuck. If you’ve done a good job of plotting, you always know what scene you’re going to write when you sit down to work. You know what happens, who’s there, where they are, so you can focus on the sensory envelope and the quality of their interactions. Sometimes, you will discover that something doesn’t work the way you thought it would, usually because you didn’t work out the emotional consequences clearly enough. If it’s little, you can just take notes about it in your scene list or outline or whatever you call it and then do the repairs in draft 2. Draft 1 is a mess anyway; that’s the nature of the beast. If the problem is big, you might have to stop and go back and fix it from the ground up. My first 3-4 books always hit a snag around page 100 which would force me to stop, rework the plot, and start more or less completely over. That doesn’t happen any more, to which I say, “Yay!”
What do you enjoy most about the writing process? Is there any part of it that you dislike?
Oh, I love writing! Of course I hate those days when my brain is tangled wool soaked in mud and nothing comes out right. But I’ve written enough now to know that even those truly terrible pages can be revised to make them glow. I LOVE plotting. I also love writing silly scenes. I hate being told by my critique group or editor that I have to do significant revision, although that’s happening less often. Gritting your teeth and doing those revisions are when you really earn your chops as a writer. Experience is the key, my friends. Write, write, write and it really will get easier.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?
I am about to revise in accordance with the feedback I just got from my editor on draft 2 of book 1 of series 3 🙂 Most of the issues have to do with explaining too much or too little, which is easy to fix. One biggish thing; I think I have a solution for it. So, it’ll be done by Mar. 31, in time for me to start plotting book 2 of series 3 (woohoo!) (We love the new book. The new book is always brilliant!) This is my new Victorian series, the Professor and Mrs. Moriarty mysteries. “Behind every master criminal, there’s a brilliant woman with expensive tastes.” Book 1 will be out May-ish.
Who are your favourite authors? Are there any that have influenced your own writing?
I can’t answer this question, unless I just say J. R. R. Tolkein and leave it at that. I like lots of different things and books and writers and colors. Everything I have ever read or seen or done influences my writing. I’ve read very widely, all genres, all eras. Also, I stopped reading best-sellers years ago, so I’m not sure who y’all might recognize. For the past couple of years, I’ve been reading for leisure purposes almost exclusively from the Historical Fiction Authors Cooperative catalog: http://hfebooks.com/. I’m loving the quality and the variety, but I guess I’m too old to be influenced, exactly, any more.
As a successful indie author, do you have any advice for anyone just starting out and thinking about self-publishing?
Yes, but you won’t like it. I really honestly truly believe that new writers should just write a couple or three books, from start to finish, revising them 2-3 times while learning craft from books, classes, and critique groups, without thinking a single thought about publication. It will only confuse you and cause stress, which will interfere with both your pleasure in creation and your open-minded learning. If you insist on thinking about it, just subscribe to some blogs about self-publishing and some authors you like who blog about writing (not me – I only blog about history) and learn things about the industry, without forming any actual goals. It can take years to write your first book, and it’s hard enough without the pressure to publish and somehow be successful nipping at your ankles while you work. Write the book of your heart, as they say, for your own personal glory. Make it as good as you can. Then write another one and polish that to a fare-thee-well. Then see where you are, which is probably going to be indie publishing. There’s heaps of books about that and it isn’t very difficult, if you have already learned how to write books.
Thank you, Anna, that was fantastic!
If you’d like to find out more about Anna and her books, please visit her website www.annacastle.com