In an interview with us, writer Jennifer Jensen, novelist Elizabeth Buchan shared her writing schedule, getting her first novel accepted for publication, advice on choosing a literary agent, and some tips for aspiring writers.
About Elizabeth Buchan
London-based Elizabeth Buchan is the best-selling author of 12 novels, including Consider the Lily and Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. Her most recent book is The Second Wife (published as Wives Behaving Badly in the US).
First Published Novel:
Daughters of the Storm. It is set in Paris during the French Revolution and follows the fortunes of three different women. At the time, I was besotted by the period and I had discovered an old map of Paris which illustrated perfectly what a pressure cooker the city was in 1789 and I had to write about it.
Previous Writing Background:
I had been working in publishing but I knew I wanted to write. In my spare time I had co-authored an adventure game book for children and also written a children’s biography of Beatrix Potter. These were absorbing projects and important in the initiation of the process of developing the writer’s muscles. Once down, I felt I could get started on the novels.
Getting the First Novel Accepted for Publication:
I found an agent who was just setting up herself – so we were both young and hungry. She auctioned Daughters of the Storm (what a day that was) and Macmillan UK bought it. Another auction later, Bantam US bought it.
Do You Start with Character or Plot?
I find I have an idea. For instance with Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, I stumbled across the proverb: Living well is the best revenge. From that grew the story of a woman abandoned by her husband for an office colleague who also pinches her job. How she puts the pieces of herself back together, and how she achieves some kind of synthesis and healing all relates back to that central tenant of the proverb. From it grows various subplots and themes – e.g. how you handle emotional crises in middle age is quite different as to how you view them at a younger age.
Tips for Writing Historical Novels:
The main challenge is not to get too carried away. Research can be addictive and there is a tendency on behalf of the author to carry the subconscious thought: I have done all this research and I find it fascinating and now you, the reader, will too. The result is a top-heavy text which is freighted with too much information. (I plead guilty.) I have found it is best to do your research, put it to one side, forget about it even. Then, swimming up from the memory, a fact will surface, very often one that is not the most obvious one to do with your subject or era. This powers the dynamo of the plot and characters.
For example in Light of the Moon (my second novel) I wrote about a secret agent infiltrated into France during the Second World War. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to a couple of agents still alive who did exactly that. The things they remembered are not the obvious ones: the boredom of lying inactive for months at a time. The problem of keeping clothes clean when on the run. And the one that intrigued me in particular… how to keep a clear head as an undercover agent working as a farm labourer when everyone drank litres of wine before lunch.
Full-Time Writer’s Schedule:
Get up as early as possible… this can vary! However, I am usually in my office by 8.45 and I try to write throughout the morning. It is best not to have lunch with friends… but it is very congenial to go out to play from time to time as long as one realises that it will probably affect the afternoon’s productivity. I usually stop writing at about 6pm. When I am in the last stages of a novel, I will work straight through the day, stopping only for some exercise which I find vital to keep me sane.
Is a Literary Agent Necessary?
[Agents are] essential. But the trick is to pick the right one for you. I know it is difficult when agents are so picky but it is worth finding out about them, meeting them, setting out your objectives and discovering their objectives for you. It is akin to getting married and just as painful if it goes wrong and divorce looms.
Advice for Aspiring Fiction Writers:
Do it. No amount of talking about writing, reading about it or attending workshops can be a substitute for placing the hands on the keyboard or the pen to paper. Set yourself a (realistic) daily target and stick to it.
Writing is a very long process. When I published my first novel, I thought I had reached a plateau of my hopes and skills. It was nothing of the sort. I was merely on the nursery slopes of a very steep and high mountain. There was so much to learn, to develop, to think about, to try out. The other thing to consider is how to manage yourself. There will be times when you are driven to despair for various reasons – writer’s block, poor sales, indifferent publishers. Always, always keep a grip on your ambitions and objectives and do not allow these peripheral elements loosen that grip.