Sunday 24 July 2016

WILD HUNTING: The life story of my first novel by Elizabeth Chadwick

The gorgeous refresh cover of my first novel
Actually the title is a misnomer.  THE WILD HUNT wasn't my first novel at all, it was my eighth.  However it was my first published novel.  The other seven unpublished test pieces, written over the course of fifteen years are still in ring binders in my cupboard and without a serious overhaul that's where they are staying!

I discovered novel writing when I was fifteen years old.  I had told myself stories verbally from first having language - my first memory is of making up a tale about fairies printed on a cotton handkerchief when I had just turned three.  I never wrote any of my stories down, although I spent many happy hours kneeling in front of illustrations from books and magazines making up tales about the people, animals and objects within those visuals. I would enter the pictures and use my imagination to invent all kinds of new adventures and scenarios over their horizons.  Sometimes I'd tell the same story but change direction - bring in a new character, alter the weather, meander along different footpaths until I discovered other roads.  Basically I was teaching myself the art of story telling and exploring its constructs just by doing it.

I finally got around to writing down my verbal tales when I was fifteen, and fell in love with a handsome dark-haired man on a historical children's TV programme titled Desert Crusader. It was a drama put on by the BBC and dubbed from the French original Thibaud Ou les Croisades.  You can buy the DVD's in the original French from Amazon France.  I was inspired to begin writing my own historical  romantic swashbuckler set in the Holy Land. When it started out it was fan fiction but it rapidly developed a life of its own.  I called it 'Tiger's Eye after the stones in the hero's sword hilt (not sure that such a thing is authentic these days, but it felt right at the time). I wanted my story to feel as real as possible to me, so it was off to the library to swot up on my subject.  I admit to doing this with a lot more diligence than I applied to my school homework, but that's the different having a passion makes! 

 The more I researched the medieval period the more interested and fascinated I became and the more I wanted to write about it.  Researching was a revelation to the teenage me. All that guff about enormous swords I'd seen on TV and read in novels?  Absolute rot.  Ewart Oakeshott's  works on the medieval sword informed me that a 12th century sword weighed no more than 4lbs and was supremely balanced and suited to its function. An accomplished man could wield it with the skill of say a professional tennis play wielding a Tennis racket   at  Wimbledon.  Here was information not in the mainstream and the 'real thing.'  The more I read, the more I wanted to know and the more I immersed myself in the period, its culture  and personalities.

 I also realised that I wanted to write historical fiction for a living.  Full stop, no ifs or buts.   I asked for a typewriter for my 18th birthday present (no computers then) and I went to nightschool to learn to touch type.  Back in the 1970's creative writing degrees did not exist. I was even put off going to university to do history or English by the head of year who told me I wouldn't get the necessary grades and there was too much competition in my chosen subject.  As it happened I did get the grades but by then my course was set elsewhere and I entered the job market as a management trainee for Debenhams Department Stores.  It wasn't what I really wanted to do and really just a means to an end in that it paid a wage - although from that time I do have a higher qualification in distributive and managerial principles!  Eventually I married, gave up the career job and went to work at Asda filling shelves part time so that I could have the rest of the day to write.  That's how much it meant.  I didn't care that I was doing a dead end job just for the money, because my sights were set elsewhere.
My unpublished novels!  It always gives me a wry smile when authors say they're fed up
because publishers and agents won't look at their first or second novel.  As Treebeard says
to the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings: 'Don't be too hasty.'!  Sometimes there's a good reason!

This was the pattern of my twenties.  I took time out to have children and went back to work on the night shift filling shelves, and in my spare moments I wrote - on an Amstrad Green Screen by now.  Fortunately I have always had the ability to multi task and switch the writing on and off like a tap. I'd sit at the kitchen table, watching the dinner cook, keeping an eye on the children playing, and I'd write. My husband would come in, we'd eat, and then I'd be off to fill shelves while he took over the child care.  Throughout that decade of my life, I continued to hone my craft.  Novels were sent off to agents and publishers and came back with rejection slips but it never bothered me because it was part of who I was. Even if I was never published, I wasn't going to give up because it was too much fun.  However, gradually I started to win prizes.  I won £15.00 in a local competition.  I was honourably mentioned in a national magazine short story contest, and then I won another £150 in another county-wide competition. These were markers along the way that showed me I was improving.  

And then came THE WILD HUNT.  I began writing this when I was on a B&B break in 1988 with my husband and two sons aged five and two. THE WILD HUNT was a romantic/adventure/historical set on the Welsh borders at the close of the 11th century.  My imaginary hero and and heroine were pushed into a political marriage, neither of them very keen at the outset, and it's the tale of how they came to a much better understanding while at the same time having to deal with personal rivalries, warfare and political skulduggery.  I  chose to set the novel on the Welsh borders because of its frontier nature and fluid alliances, and I gave my hero Norman, Welsh and English ancestry just to add a bit more nuance and difficulty to his problems.  It took around a year to write, and then it was ready to go off to an agent.  
I wrote in longhand on our holiday break and that first chapter ended up being discarded.  It wasn't the right place to start, but it had to be written for me to know it was wrong and it did tell me a lot about my hero that I wouldn't otherwise have known and enabled me to really get going when we arrived home.  In the normal way of things I would have discarded the rough work, but I put it down somewhere, lost it, then rediscovered it several years later, rather tatty and clipped together with a clothes peg.  It has since, like my 7 test pieces, become an 'heirloom'!
The prologue of The Wild Hunt that was never included in the novel

Back to the main story:  I trawled the Writers and Artists Yearbook and the Writers' Handbook and plumped for the Blake Friedmann literary Film and TV Agency.  Their brief told me that they dealt with commercial fiction and that they belonged to the Association of Author's Agents - members of whom agreed to abide by certain codes of conduct.  I sent off a letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters of the novel and then settled down to wait because I'd read up enough to know that it could take a couple of months for a reply.  About six weeks later a brown envelope landed on the doormat and I thought, as per usual, it was the return of my manuscript sample.  But when I picked it up, it felt far too light. On opening it, I discovered a letter from agent Carole Blake saying that she had loved what she had read, she would love to represent me and could I send the rest of the manuscript.  Also enclosed was some information about the agency and an acceptance form - should I wish to sign it.  SHOULD I?   Once I'd recovered from the euphoria and shock, I went scrabbling for a pen to sign on the dotted line, and sped off to parcel up the rest of the novel.
The letter Carole Blake sent to me in March 1989 offering to represent me.

Three months later, Carole rang me ( again I was on holiday) to tell me that four publishers were in a bidding war for THE WILD HUNT and it just remained to be seen who won out with the best package.  I arrived home to the news that Michael Joseph, part of the Penguin group were going to publish me in hardcover and that Sphere would publish the paperback.  They'd offered me a two book contract and a deal that meant I could put down my pricing gun and hand in my notice at the Co-op.  Seventeen years after writing my first book and deciding that this was what I wanted to do for a living, I was finally on my way and my 8th novel was about to become my first published one.

While my new agent was busy selling THE WILD HUNT into various different languages, news came through that the novel had won a Betty Trask Award.  These awards, administered by the Society of Authors are for young authors under the age of 35 for a first novel of a romantic or traditional nature.  The reception to present the awards that year was to be held in the banqueting suite at Whitehall and the prizes were to be presented by HRH the Prince of Wales.  It was a somewhat surreal experience to go from filling supermarket shelves with tins of petfood to being presented with a cheque for several thousand pounds by the heir to the throne!
The UK first edition hardcover.  Michael Joseph.

I won't say I have never looked back since then because every career has its ups and down. In the mid 1990's historical fiction hit the doldrums and for a short time  THE WILD HUNT and its associated novels went out of print, However, in the early 2000's, a massive upsurge in the popularity of historical fiction led by the charge of Philippa Gregory's THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, led to renewed interest in my early work and my then editor decided that THE WILD HUNT must be reissued.  I was delighted of course, but insisted that I be allowed to re-edit it with a fresh eye first.  I had many more 'flying hours' under my belt by now and I have always been of the opinion that if one gets the chance to overhaul one's work, then one should.   It's a brilliant opportunity.
The first UK hardcover published by Sphere

THE WILD HUNT has just turned 26 years old, although it seems only yesterday I was writing it while keeping an eye on the dinner and two small children!  It's still in print and still selling steadily. Together with THE RUNNING VIXEN and THE LEOPARD UNLEASHED, its two companions novels,  it's about to celebrate a terrific cover refresh.  A friend looked at the re-jackets and said 'They're gorgeous.  Just like fireworks!'  I agree and I do adore the colours.
The Ballantine American paperback

So, I am raising a toast to my first published novel, and extending a huge thank you to the readers who have brought, read and loved my work down the years - keeping me in a job along the way!  I'm also raising a glass to any new readers and hope you enjoy!

The wrong order in the graphic. The Wild Hunt comes first followed by The running Vixen
and then The Leopard Unleashed

wonderful new covers on the 26th of August 2016.


Grace said...

Oh I had forgotten Thibaud. I don't think I saw it often for some reason. Did it clash with something else? Anyway, yes, he was so attractive in those white robes. I enjoyed listening to the theme just now on Youtube. And thank you for your account of learning your job and persisting.

Unknown said...

it annoys me no end that this series (and quite a few others of your books) are not available on Kindle to residents in the US. I do much of my reading whilst on a treadmill, and Kindles don't try to close during the interesting parts the way paper books do. As this is out of print here I will have to buy a used book. So dumb of the publisher not to let US residents buy a Kindle version so they get some of the money.

Katherine Roberts said...

Interesting to see the different cover designs as fashions change! The new covers are gorgeous, and congratulations on keeping the book in print for so long... though why not a Kindle version in the US? Is there some contractual issue?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Katherine and Cary, the issue with the States is that my UK publisher does not have US rights in the novels. My US publisher Sourcebooks has not yet brought these particular novels on board, but will hopefully publish them in the future.

judiabbott said...

One can only hope. Time to read them again and Kindle would be nice.