I am so sorry I am late with the Friday Feature this week but better late than never and I am delighted to have had award winning and bestselling author Antonia Hodgson agree to take part. Antonia's debut The Devil in the Marshalsea has won The CWA Historical Dagger award and is featuring in The Waterstones and the Richard and Judy bookclubs.
The book is a riveting tale set in London's Marshalsea prison for debtors in 1727. So we have moved on less than twenty years from the world of last week's featured book but a world away from the isolated Ulster Scots community to the filth, noise and bustle of London.
The initial spark always seems to come from the research - at least is has done for the first two books I’ve written, and I’m just starting to think about the third! It’s quite intuitive - and is also driven in part by character. Tom Hawkins, my protagonist, is a risk taker and very bad with money. So when I first started thinking of him and a possible novel, I decided he would probably be in a debtors’ gaol in the opening pages. Then I stumbled across the story of the Marshalsea and realised I had to set the whole novel in there.
I do plot out a fair bit before I start and I do a lot of thinking about all the main characters. I’ll jot down detailed notes on them and develop the plot as I’m creating character. And vice versa. They’re very much intertwined.
Then I’ll trick myself into thinking I’ve got the whole plot ready and get to work. After about five or six chapters I’ll realise that it’s not fully plotted at all, that characters are doing all sorts of surprising things or the plot I’ve put together doesn’t actually work. Then the fun begins. (And by ‘fun’ I mean agonising self-doubt, chronic pacing about the room and the occasional happy moment of resolution.)
For me, one of the great joys of writing is the way a novel develops as I write. So while I need a plan of some sort, and often have lots of ideas about plot twists, murders, the killer - nothing is sacred. I’ll pull it all apart if need be - and actually that can be fascinating and thrilling.
2. Do you think historical fiction is enjoying a resurgence and why is that?
I think it’s always been popular. I love it because it allows me to escape into a different world while also learning about a moment in history. And then there’s that thrill of connection and understanding - it’s a very powerful thing, to discover how far we’ve changed and how much we’ve stayed the same.
3. What draws you to writing about the past?
I think for the same reasons I’ve described above. Also I really enjoy the research. I like taking what I’ve learned and turning it around in my imagination. I learn a lot, both at the research stage and in its transformation into fiction.
4. Do you have a typical working day?
Write, write, stretch, coffee, write, lunch, coffee, write, write, stretch, write, stop.
5. What are you working on now?
I’m just redrafting my second novel. It’s a sequel to The Devil in the Marshalsea and it needs a title. So I’m working on that, too... I already have an idea for book three and can’t wait to start the research on that.
Antonia's Top Five Favourite Books
Of course I reserve the right to name five different books tomorrow. It changes all the time.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
A theme is developing...
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Not entirely devastating.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Antonia's Top Five Writing Tips
1) Give yourself the space to dream. Walk to work if you can. Stare into space. Empty hours are precious and vital. You need to be on friendly terms with your subconscious and give it room to play.
2) Read. Would you trust a singer who doesn’t listen to music?
3) Love writing - or at least feel compelled to do it. If it feels like a chore, or forced, you’ve probably picked the wrong story. If this keeps happening, or you keep finding excuses not to write... maybe try something else. Life is short and there are lots of other pleasant things to do.
4) Be resilient. Rejection is tough but inevitable at some point - everyone goes through it.
5) Agents and editors are not intentionally scary. They genuinely want to find the next great writer. The process of submitting material is terrifying (I know, I’ve been there and I still feel it whenever I hand my editor something new). It’s perfectly normal and indeed rational to feel vulnerable and anxious when you send work out into the world. But don’t feel intimidated by anyone in the industry. They’re just a bunch of people - and most of them are very nice and friendly. Also, their jobs don’t exist without authors. So ‘who’s queen’ now?
Thanks a million Antonia for taking part. The Devil in the Marshalsea is available in paperback now.