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Thursday, September 15, 2022

Author interview Virginia Crow/ Book review 'The year we lived'

 AUTHOR INTERVIEW

I have another treat for you this month, my first historical fiction. It’s a fantastic find and it’s not just me who thinks so, but more about that later! For now, let’s meet author Virginia Crow and I asked her to tell us a bit about herself.

‘I live in the far-flung corner of Scotland known as Caithness, where my life is dominated by my spaniels, Orlando and Jess. Since writing is not a reliable income, I also have a job as a private music teacher which I absolutely love. History has always been a passion of mine and I returned to university a few years back to bag my MLitt in History of the Highlands and Islands.

I also co-own a publishing company, Crowvus, not surprising as I come from a family of creatives!’

She mainly writes historical fiction, although she has also penned a Christian thriller. Her first book was published in 2017 and she says, ‘I’ve published seven books, my latest is “Haunting Whispers of Highland Waters” (published April 2022). “The Year We Lived” was published April 2021. It’s not part of a series as such, but part of something much bigger… You’ll understand when you read it!’

And what inspired her to write this book?

‘Randomly, it was actually a dream. I remember waking up and thinking, “Wow, that would be an awesome story!” I did a quick check to make sure I hadn’t dreamed it because I’d come across it already, a bit like Paul McCartney with “Yesterday”. When I realised this really was my idea, I naturally obsessed over it for days on end (like I do!), until the whole thing came together. And the rest, as they say, is history!’

I love it when inspiration comes from a dream! It makes me hope that I’m not the only person with a notepad beside their bed, waiting for their ‘Yesterday’ moment 🤔🤣

There’s a fair amount of historical detail in the story, which greatly adds to the richness of the text. It’s obvious Virginia’s completed a huge amount of research so I asked her about this element of her writing.

‘I absolutely adore research! I remember sharing a festival session with someone who said they did the bare minimum of historical research, and my jaw dropped! To me, it is a part of the writing process.

Like most people (if they're honest!) I start at Wikipedia, get ideas, then check that everything I want to use comes from a reliable source. Then I flick through whichever book it referenced on Google Books, or - in a lot of cases - Masters and PhD theses.

When I was writing The Year We Lived, I was also doing my Masters, so I had access to jstor, which was fantastic for research. I keep everything open on tabs in a Chrome window and every time I start writing, these are reopened before I even open my Scrivener window! I have to put in a good word for Scrivener, too, because there's loads of space to store random facts!’

Wow, there’s some great tips there, but I wondered if Virginia feel pressure to get the details absolutely accurate or whether a bit of creative licence is acceptable?

‘I am a stickler for the rules! My books slot characters in around pre-existing events and attitudes. I often research far wider than what is detailed in them. These have included 18th Century lunar eclipses, 17th Century duelling etiquette, and 1st Century BC body painting!

Researching The Year We Lived was incredible. By far the most intriguing aspect was uniting the society with their customs and beliefs in folklore. It was such a part of life back then! The only thing I overlook is the way people spoke. Keeping the characters relatable is more important to me than delving into Old English, but I've taken care to make sure there are no words which wouldn't have had at least a vague translation into their contemporary speech. Every character has a backstory - most of them involving real people of the 11th Century.’

My goodness! It's at times like this that I realise I will never write a historical piece – I definitely don’t have the patience! Now I have a slight spoiler so if you don’t want to know, please ignore this next highlighted paragraph.

Virginia had told me there’s a big plot twist at the end but I wondered if evolved as she wrote the novel, or whether she always knew it was going to be there?

‘As it came from my dream, it was centred on the plot twist. I really wanted to know if I could make it work, and I get such a buzz when I see reviews which make reference to the twist being a surprise! I wrote it for my sister's Christmas present. She's very used to my plots and characters and I was sure she'd suss it out in the first few pages. So, when she came into the room at 11 o'clock at night having just read ‘October’ and told me she'd worked out the twist, I felt pretty confident that it would be enough of a revelation for others readers too! I love that this aspect of the book seems to stick with people long after they've read it, and it's great to hear about how they reacted to such a twist!’

What a wonderful payback for all that hard work! But one of her most exciting moments must be when The Year We Lived was shortlisted for the Rubery Book Award last month. I asked her to tell us more about it:

‘Actually The Year We Lived has now been shortlisted for three book awards: The Chanticleer Chaucer Awards; The Rubery Book Prize; and I’ve just found out The Coffee Pot Book Club Book of the Year Award too.’

OMG, that’s amazing 🥳🎉 but then the book is incredible so it’s not really that surprising! She continues,

‘Awards are such a great way of widening a book's horizon. It can be a bit tough getting indie books in front of an audience, but book awards are a great way of doing it. But more than that, it is so rewarding to see my little book sitting alongside some of the biggest books in the independently published catalogue. I loved the feedback which came with The Rubery Book Prize and, I have to be honest, when I've felt a bit down about my writing over the summer, I've gone back to their page and re-read the feedback to remind myself I'm capable of this. It's been an incredible confidence boost!’

I’m gobsmacked she feels that way but I guess we all doubt ourselves at times. If you’d like to read the awards feedback too and see the full shortlist, you can find it here https://www.ruberybookaward.com/2022-winners.html

BREAKING NEWS! Virginia has just found out that she's won the Gold Medal in The Coffee Pot Book Club (Supernatural Historical Fiction) Award 🍾🎉 

I'm sure you'll join me in sending a huge congratulations to her, what an achievement (and hopefully those doubts will now be in the rear-view mirror!)

So back to our interview-  how does Virginia select the names of her characters?

‘Although she’s the main character, Edith was the last person I named. I knew I wanted her name to be something I could shorten so it would add a mutual intimacy between her and her brother, but for a long time she was simply called “Little Sis”. Because of the nature of historical fiction, looking at the names of that time is really important. But it wasn’t just the case of opening a history book, each one was carefully researched for their class and background. No one’s name is there by accident!’

And again, such dedication, I’m in awe! What does she enjoy the most about writing?

‘I love sharing the adventures of my characters and, when I’m writing, these characters become my friends. I’ve spent my entire life surrounded by books (we have a library of literally thousands!) and in my childhood imagination was something which not only existed but it was actively encouraged. Engaging with that imagination was so much a part of our growing up that every single one of us (my brother and four sisters and I) are all writers. I can’t imagine ever NOT writing.’

I bet I’m not the only one who would love a good ferret through their library! What does she find the most challenging aspect of publishing?

‘Definitely advertising. I am useless at promoting myself as a brand, something authors are actively encouraged to do. I know my books speak for themselves, but getting them out to an audience is a nightmare!’

Oh dear, this is the same thing I keep hearing but at least we can all play our part by letting others know and, of course, leaving reviews of the books we’ve read. And talking of which, does she read reviews of her books and how does she cope with them?

‘I read all my reviews. I love getting feedback and, I’m not going to lie, of course I prefer the five-star ones! But my favourite ones, irrespective of stars, are the ones where I can see the reader got really involved with the book. I love to know who their favourite character was, when they solved the twist, even if they had any aspects they would have changed themselves. Feedback and reviews are what the writer in me lives for!’

She goes onto say, ‘Please leave a review! I have my author email printed in every one of my books in the hope that someone will write and tell me what they thought… I love when they do, but it doesn’t happen as often as I hoped it would.’

And in case you’re not sure where to start with review writing (and you don’t have to be a wordsmith to do it, honestly!), please see my post with hints and tips about how to do it (press here).   

But back to Virginia – what’s her favourite novel and why?

‘The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. It has everything a book should have. Adventure, love, brotherhood, and utter loss and heartbreak… but it also has a happy ending. I’m a firm believer in happy endings, even though I write about some pretty brutal stuff. Not necessarily a textbook happy ending, but an ending full of hope. Without it, you might as well read the news rather than a novel!’

Too true! With the interview ending, I asked Virginia for a tweetable synopsis of her book (click here):

‘It is 1074, eight years after the Battle of Hastings changed the cultural & physical landscape of the country forever. But England is about to be shaped by another legacy: one which is truly immortal.’

And I also asked for a tweetable-sized favourite extract from the book too (tweet here):

‘It continued to hold his gaze before it gave a low, booming roar and trotted into the forest. The wound did not hinder it, and nor did the hunter.’

BOOK REVIEW

Virginia has set her novel after the Battle of Hastings and tensions are still running high. We follow Anglo-Saxon Robert, who is being hunted by a Norman Lord, Henry de Bois. Robert is the master of the lea and his priority is keeping his community safe in a hidden Hall. The story starts with his young sister venturing outside the village on her own (and a great backstory explains why), forcing Robert to send out 20 of his men to search for her.

14-year-old sister Edith is kind and naïve, but she’s lonely and this leads to her befriending a stranger, Dunstan, in the woods. He’s a changeling, a race that’s feared and distrusted by the villagers, so when her sister-in-law dies in childbirth, Edith is banned from leaving the Hall. Even though her brother believes this is best for her, her misery grows and eventually her pleading pays off. She’s allowed to visit Dunstan again, to set up a meeting with Robert, after which she’s allowed to visit him as long as two guards accompany her for safety.

Robert’s fears are realised when, on one such visit, Edith’s guards are killed and she’s kidnapped. She’s taken to the garrison where Lord de Bois takes advantage of her and her subsequent pregnancy leads to Bishop de Bois (the Lord’s brother) telling her, “A child outside the sacrament of marriage is a sin, my child. God will not look upon your offspring with kindness at His coming”, so she is coerced into a deeply unhappy marriage.

This is the setup of the story and I really don’t want to give away any more - it’s best you read it for yourself! What I will say is that it unfolds at a great pace, but Virginia’s style is also lyrical and it’s a great combination. Here’s an early description experienced by Edith:

‘She watched the rafters above her, huge beams from the trees of the landscape around them, as small beetles scuttled from one hole into another. There was a large spider which occupied the joist a little further into the room, which would occasionally labour out of its cocooned existence before wrapping itself once more in its hibernation.’

The characters are complex and likeable, except for de Bois of course - although I do like a baddie to be bad and he is really horrible! Here’s an example of how he treats his new wife, when her brother (the Saxon) arrives:

“Hold her inside the gates. If the Saxon brings harm, or the threat of harm, to any of my men, I want her throat slit and her hung from the wall.”

I think I’d like that done to him!

SPOILER ALERT (highlighted text only): Virginia had warned me there was a massive plot twist at the end, so I went into the novel looking for clues and I’m chuffed to say I worked it out! Even so, it was still enjoyable and if I hadn’t been forewarned, I’m not sure I would have spotted it.

It’s a great book, clever and intelligent, with lots of historical information giving an authentic feel without disrupting the story flow. I’d recommend The Year We Lived to anyone who loves historical novels but more than that, it’s a darned good read (which is why it’s been shortlisted for so many awards and just won one!). So why not try it and support a great up-and-coming indie author! 

Please visit Virginia’s links to find out more:

Website: www.stompermcewan.com

Twitter: @DaysDyingGlory

Facebook: /DaysDyingGlory

Instagram: @stompermcewan

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