Hi everyone! I’ve finally recovered from a nasty bout of bronchitis and also back from Dublin, Ireland (more about that later). I fell behind on a few things while I was ill, but I am trying to catch up now. Today’s the day for another edition of Getting to Know… our spotlight author is Catherine Hokin, whose debut novel Blood and Roses was published in 2015. Catherine is a Glasgow-based author whose fascination with the medieval period began during a History degree which included studies into witchcraft, women and the role of political propaganda. And this sparked an interest in hidden female voices, which plays a big role in Blood and Roses. So let’s get comfortable and get to know Catherine!
Thanks for joining us today, Catherine! Let’s start off by getting to know you a little better.
I’m from the Lake District although I’m a complete city-dweller now and too much countryside brings me out in a rash. I live in Glasgow, which I love, in the West End which is over-run by hipsters (of which I am not one), like a mini – McHoxton. I did a history degree at Manchester University and then set out on a very varied career which took me through the fashion industry, politics, teaching and the green industry – my CV looks mad but, like many women, it was often dictated by needs other than mine. Outside writing I go to concerts of the loud, guitar-driven type (Biffy Clyro was the latest), I love to travel (Sicily next) and I am helping with the organization of the Havana Glasgow Film Festival – I’m not sure how that happened.
I’ve always wanted to visit the Lake District. It’s on my bucket list of places to visit in the UK. I haven’t been in Glasgow in a while. Maybe next time I’m there we can meet for writing and chatting. Now tell me, when did you first know you wanted to be an author?
Since I was in my early twenties – before that I wanted to be a ballerina, a fashion designer and a forensic detective, none of which worked out! I’ve had a couple of near misses years ago: one was a children’s book but then a certain wizard appeared and I didn’t have any wizards; the other was a novel about Anne Boleyn but Ms Gregory beat me to it. Like a lot of women I got buried under children and the demands of full-time work and I simply couldn’t snatch enough time to string verbal sentences together never mind written ones. I finally started getting serious (ie. carved out thinking space) a couple of years ago when the youngest one went to university and then, this year, I got a mentorship through the Scottish Book Trust and decided to take the plunge and write full-time. That decision’s paying off in everything except money…
I know what you mean. But it’s fantastic with having the mentorship. So happy for you! And I can see your interest in history started early. 🙂 Was there any particular author or book that inspired you to become a novelist?
If I had to pick one author I think it would be Margaret George. Her novel The Autobiography of Henry VIII was published in 1986 and I loved it, also her novel about Mary Queen of Scots: Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. Until I discovered those I’d only seen historical fiction either of the type written by Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton which was far too romance-driven or Robert Graves, which was brilliant but way more literary than I wanted to/could ever imagine writing. Once I found George and also Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, which again takes historical characters and breathes real plausible life into them, I realized historical fiction was a genre I could not only love but write in.
Speaking of writing, are you one of those people who is a plotter? Or are you a pantster?
I’m a plotter with a little bit of panster thrown in. I start with an idea, which is a bit of an itch, and then do preliminary research to see if it is an idea with legs or a non-starter. Then I spend about 5 months in solid research, taking notes, using Pinterest, building a story arc. The next stage is a long synopsis (a very rough skeleton draft) of about 40,000 words were I put the notes to one side and write the story – this is when I let it flow and start feeling my way round the characters. If that works it’s time for storyboarding and a proper first draft – and lots more research. That never stops!
Are you working on a new book now?
My second novel is set in the fourteenth century and is an exploration of the relationship between Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt with a bit of help from Chaucer. Plague, political machinations, a crazed king and a very frightening monk plus one of the most powerful love stories you’ll find in any historical period. That is with my agent and you can find out more here. While that is being dealt with, I am busy on book three which is set in the twelfth and sixth centuries and has a cast of interesting women.
I love the premise. I will definitely be adding this to my TBR list. What about your favorite books of 2016–which titles are on your must-read list ?
Far too many! High on it was Summertime by Vanessa LaFaye which I’ve just finished. It is a wonderful book set in 1930s Florida which weaves together the worst hurricane to hit that area with racism and the treatment of WWI veterans. It is a visceral book and I devoured it. The next pile contains The Muse by Jessie Barton, The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I’m also keen to read The Girls by Emma Cline – I’ve just been watching the tv show Aquarius about Charlie Manson and am a bit obsessed with the case.
I’ve got the Girls on my TBR list. I’ve always been fascinated by Charlie Manson and his influence over the people in his gang. I read Helter Skelter a few years ago and remember being terrified of the sway he held over people. I need to add Summertime to my list as well–that one’s especially relevant for me considering the current tensions in the US. Now, I’m one of those people who usually end up writing in cafés. Where do you usually write? Do you have a favorite writing space?
I have a study and I love it. My desk is in the front of a window looking out onto the River Kelvin, although admittedly I’m usually squinting through rain as this is Glasgow. I have an internet radio permanently on, my favourite movie posters on the walls, a sofa for when I’m ‘thinking’ (that’s my excuse) and a reading corner. It’s the first time I have ever had a proper workspace that wasn’t fighting family needs – the children are no longer allowed home.
I know what you mean. It’s important to have writing space of one’s own. I have a little home office, but I need to make it feel more mine. Now, I still work every day and have to fit my writing around my 9-to-5 job. What’s your typical writing day like? Q
I keep office hours – it’s a hangover from ‘proper jobs’ I can’t shake. Like many writers, I have 3 books in different stages: Blood and Roses is out and there’s still a lot of publicity to do including 3 bookstore events in October; book 2 is with my agent; book 3 is in research/draft/fear stage. I start the day with admin, emails and social media – then research/reading moving to writing in the afternoon when I’ve been for a head-clearing walk. It’s quite ordered but I like it that way!
I think I need structure like that. Once I can actually write full-time I will need to follow a similar schedule. When you write, do you imagine any particular actors/actresses as your leads? Or do you find inspiration elsewhere?
I love the whole movie casting thing although I sometimes think it’s just an excuse to look at pictures of attractive men! I’m very visual and use Pinterest boards a lot. When I was first starting to imagine Margaret of Anjou I had pictures of tv characters like Claire Underwood from House of Cards, Alicia Florrick from The Good Wife and Marvel’s Jessica Jones. All feisty, challenging women who fight convention. As to the casting of Blood and Roses, I’ve always wanted Oona Chaplin for Margaret and Richard Armitage for Warwick – actually Armitage would make a great John of Gaunt and I’m sure I can write him into book three…
I think most writers have a favorite character. Which of your characters is your favorite?
It’s a funny question to answer as I think each character becomes my favourite as I write about them: they have to be challenging and strong, and flawed, to interest me or I wouldn’t be able to bring them alive. I found Margaret of Anjou, who was a very complex woman, fascinating partly because the myths around her are nothing like the accounts written at the time – she has really fallen foul of propaganda – and also because of the relationship with her son. Katherine Swynford in my second novel is another woman who has come to us in one-dimension (romantic heroine) when she was multi-layered and at the centre of one of the most turbulent centuries in English history. She was also my ancestor so perhaps I should choose her!
A lot of people say that writers need to be active on Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, etc if they want to make it these days in the literary world. What’s your take on social media? Do you think it’s an absolute necessity for us?
I do think it is vital – when I was taken on by my agent she asked for a writing CV which needed to include my internet presence and how confident I was using social media. Her advice was that publishers expect authors to market their work and every writer I know has borne this out: my first novel was with a small publisher who had no marketing budget so I expected to do a lot but writers at large houses do no less. It’s a competitive world and there’s no point pretending it isn’t. My advice is to pick a couple of platforms you are happy with, make relationships, learn every wrinkle and stick to just them so you don’t get overwhelmed – I do Author Facebook and Twitter, that’s plenty!
Since I am an indie writer, I end up spend a lot of time on social media, but it’s a necessity. It’s just trying to find a good balance. What about taboo topics? I know a lot of people have lists of what they refuse to read or write about.
I am an adult so nothing is taboo when it comes to what I read and I will challenge myself to read things that might be out of my comfort zone, whether I ultimately enjoy them or not – the recent A Little Life is a good example of that. When it comes to writing we all draw on our personal experiences – with historical fiction there are ways that you can explore difficult emotions and people in your own life without it being seen as autobiographical and I take a lot of comfort in that!
So true! People are always giving writers advice. I know I’ve had my share of it. 🙂 What about you? What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
Treat it like a job, ie. give it serious time, set deadlines and expectations and finish things. Also draft and edit, then redraft and edit, then redraft… Nothing is ready when you think it is and everything can be re-edited. The other thing that has worked for me is writing short stories and entering competitions which give critiquing feedback – it is a great way to learn your craft particularly in terms of story structure.
Catherine, it’s been so great getting this chance to get to know you and your writing. Have you got any final words of advice you’d like to share with aspiring authors?
Respect your readers: do your research but don’t show off your knowledge; care about the characters you are writing about so they will care to; edit your writing even when you think it has been edited enough. Be brave and send your work out but don’t let the first person other than you who reads it be the agent or publisher you send it to. Take criticism positively and never respond to bad reviews, ever – once the work is out there, it’s out there. Enjoy very success, no matter how small – it’s all steps on the way to being published and that’s the big celebration!
Many thanks to Catherine for doing us today! Make sure you follow her: