Please find below an interview with the talented debut novelist Carol McGrath, author of The Handfasted Wife. The story, although based on research, is an imagined account of the life of Edith (Elditha) Swan-Neck. She is cast aside when Harold becomes King in 1066 but is the only person who can identify his body following the Battle of Hastings. Living amongst invaders, Elditha finds a way to protect her children and seeks a new future. The novel is a wonderfully evocative read, rich and textured, showing a woman’s resilience at a time of much uncertainty.
Welcome to the writer is a lonely hunter, Carol.
Thank you, Gail, for inviting me as a guest on your blog. It is an honour to appear here and to discuss my writing.
How was your interest in writing awakened?
As a teenager I wrote stories and read voraciously. I was particularly interested in historical fiction and loved Anya Seton’s novels especially Katherine. These were the kind of stories I wanted to write. However, teaching history and having a family delayed my debut novel by years.
Tell us about your studies and how this supported your work
I began with Oxford Continuing Education. I studied for the two-year Diploma in Creative Writing which was delivered by well published tutors for poetry, prose and drama. My final submission on this course was a play about Edith Swan-Neck, Countess Gytha and two monks who came with Edith Swan-Neck to the battlefield at Hastings to recover King Harold’s body. Elditha’s story has haunted me for years. After this successful experience I progressed onto the MA in Creative Writing at Queens University Belfast’s Seamus Heaney Centre. There, I wrote a collection of short stories and a novel set in the Edwardian period. As a result, I was invited onto The Royal Holloway PhD in Creative Writing by Andrew Motion who was the external examiner on my MA. I have graduated at MPhil level. It is, otherwise, a long, long process. My studies enhanced my organisation, enabling me to write with variety and in varying mediums. In fact, I found my voice. However, a good university MA in Creative Writing is more about writing than about publishing your work. I think my MPhil took me further because I researched and wrote an academic thesis about Realism and Romance in Historical Fiction as well as writing a novel. I understand the genre better as a result. However, I would point out that my debut publication resulted from putting my work through a commercial critique with Cornerstones and the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme, as well as the university studies.
I love the way you’re able to draw upon the senses in your writing, creating a story with atmosphere and intimacy. What were the challenges in writing The Hand Fasted Wife?
Finding Elditha’s voice was tricky. She lived in a past so distant that there wasn’t much recorded about her. I took what I could glean from research about noble women during this period and then I stood in her shoes. First I wrote into the story using first person. After I felt closer to her, I rewrote the initial chapters in third person narrative. This way I could include the perspectives of Countess Gytha (Harold’s mother) and that of Harold’s sister, Dowager Queen Edith. However, every time Elditha was in a scene, I always reverted to her point of view. That way I remained closer to her, seeing events through her eyes and with her feelings. This enabled me to create the sense of intimacy which is important because it is predominantly her story, and I was sorry to leave her when the book ended. I loved writing this book.
What is your next writing project?
The next book follows the fortunes of Edith Swan-Neck’s daughter, Gunnhild, her elopement from Wilton Abbey and her love for two half-brothers, both important Bretons who came over to England with William of Normandy. The story of Gunnhild and Count Alan of Richmond was recorded in contemporary chronicles. Now that I am fictionalising it, I find it a wonderfully adventurous and romantic story to write.
Which authors do you admire and why?
I read widely and not only Historical Fiction. I enjoy Vanora Bennett because she brings such depth to her historical characterisation and because she writes with delicious descriptive detail. My favourite is The Queen of Silks set during the fifteenth century and about a female London silk merchant. I feel similarly about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies. She is unique as a Historical writer. Her scenes and her dialogue are wonderful. The opening situation in Wolf Hall is unsurpassable in Historical Fiction for its grittiness and the resilience that surfaces in Thomas Cromwell’s personality later and that initially appears in Cromwell as a youth. Importantly, her extensive research is concealed well in her evocation of the period, her character development and in her fabulous depiction of the claustrophobic nature of Tudor court life. Finally, I do enjoy reading the Irish writer Sebastian Barry. His prose is achingly beautiful and On Canaan’s Side is currently one of my top favourite novels.
Can you offer some tips for yet to be published writers?
The first tip is obvious; write the book you would want to read and write from the heart. Secondly, consider view point carefully early on; make the story ‘character led’ so that a reader cares about what happens to her/him/ them. Third, hone your writing and do not be afraid to redraft. Get the story down in a first draft to achieve flow then work it up or review it all carefully as you write. I do both. Significantly, know where your story will end so that you are clear about where you are heading. I recommend an outline, not necessarily too detailed, because you may find that you deviate from it as you write. Finally, if you can, have readers look at your novel before you submit to agents or publishers.
Thank you very much Carol for sharing your experiences.
If you would like to purchase a copy of The Handfasted Wife visit Amazon or Accent Press. There is one free apple download of The Handfasted Wife from iTunes for the first lucky person to apply. Use the following code to access this: XEMRRHEAH7H. It’s well worth popping over to Carol’s blog Scribbling in the Margins where you can find out more about this fascinating period of history and gain further insights into the life and loves of Elditha.