I’m delighted today to welcome historical fiction author Julia Brannan to my blog. Julia is the author of the Jacobite Chronicles, a six-part series set around the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland in 1745. The sixth and final instalment, Tides of Fortune, is due to be released next Tuesday 6th March and is available for pre-order from today. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed the first five books, I’m really looking forward to seeing how the series ends. I got the chance to ask Julia some questions about her writing and here is what she had to say!
What drew you to historical fiction and to the specific era of the Jacobite Rebellion?
I’ve always loved history from being a child and listening to my mother and grandfather tell me tales of their (very colourful) lives. I’ve been an avid reader from a very early age, and was introduced to fiction via children’s classics such as Black Beauty, Heidi, Little Women, Tom Sawyer etc and well-written historical fiction is still my favourite genre to read.
Some years ago I started tracing my family history, and hit upon a mystery in my mother’s side of the family. This was a branch of Scottish Roman Catholic Gordons who emigrated to Ireland at some point, and then returned to Scotland in the 1800s. I wondered why they would have done that, and started looking for historical reasons in the 1700s that might have made them leave Scotland. I’d never really thought much about the 18th century before – it’s a period that isn’t written about much by novelists, but I found it fascinating. I’d been to Culloden in the 90s and found the battlefield profoundly disturbing, but knew nothing about the background to it. Once I started reading about it I became obsessed, and the Jacobite Chronicles were born.
Have any other historical fiction writers influenced you and, if so, how?
I haven’t been directly influenced in my actual writing by any other historical fiction writers, no. But I was certainly inspired to write in the genre by such talented authors as Dorothy Dunnett and Hilary Mantel. I wanted to write books that would pull the reader into my historical period and hold them there, and that would make them research the period for themselves afterwards. I don’t know if I’ve achieved that or not, but I’m having fun trying! I did read an interview with Dorothy Dunnett about her research in which she said she kept index cards for every character which she could refer to at need. I thought this was a great idea and adopted it. It’s been really useful.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever had to research? Did you ever come across something unexpected that affected the direction of your story?
The strangest thing has probably been what a person looks like when they’re being hung, in detail. I did the research and partly wrote the first two books pre-internet days, so I went to my local library and asked if they had any books that described that. After giving me some odd looks, they came up with one. It actually described just about every method of killing possible, and what the victim looked like before, during and after. I did wonder what sort of weird people would actually want to read about that sort of thing. And then I realised I was that weird sort of person…
I did come across something that affected the direction of my story and that was just too good not to use, yes. But unfortunately it’s in Tides of Fortune, so I can’t talk about it without giving away the plot and ruining it for my readers!
What do you think is the hardest part of writing?
The hardest part of writing in general is getting my bottom on the chair and switching the computer on. Once I actually start, I’m fine, and I can write for ten hours straight sometimes, completely unaware that it’s gone dark and I haven’t eaten since breakfast. But I can find any number of pointless things to do to stop me actually starting!
As far as writing historical fiction, one of the hardest things I think is to stay true to historical characters, who were products of their century, without alienating readers who are a product of this century. Attitudes towards women, children, crime, slavery, animal cruelty etc were very different from now, but the people who attended hangings, beat their wives and children, owned slaves or went to a dogfight or a bear baiting, were not the evil people we would think them to be now. They were just products of their time, behaving in perfectly acceptable ways. The concepts we now hold about these things were completely alien to them, but it’s hard to get that across without making the reader hate your characters.
How many years have you invested in writing the Jacobite Chronicles and how do you feel coming to the end of the series now?
I started researching for the Jacobite Chronicles in 2004, and wrote the first book between 2006 and 2008. A London agent picked it up and said that she thought she could find a publisher, but then the credit crunch came and no one was taking on new authors. I wrote book two, but then life took over and it went on the back burner, as it were, until I decided to self-publish. In between I wrote a couple of contemporary novels (one of which I’ve since published). So overall, more than ten years, but with a bit of a gap in the middle.
I must confess I’m really sad to be finishing the series in some ways – I think the best way I can describe it is if you were to move to a new place with lots of exciting opportunities, and you were looking forward to it, but at the same time had to say goodbye to a lot of very close friends you’d known for years. I’m looking forward to starting the next series, and I will be keeping in touch with a lot of the Jacobite Chronicles characters. But it’s still the end of an era for me.
How did you go about the process of getting published? Did this process change much from Book 1 to Book 6?
In 2011 I started doing some part-time proofreading and editing for some indie authors. At the time I knew nothing really about the Kindle and other e-readers, and about independent publishing.
A couple of the authors I edited for became good friends, and I watched them go from nervous newbies to extremely successful accomplished authors. It occurred to me that perhaps I should dig out Mask of Duplicity and put it up there. My author friends encouraged me and gave me a lot of useful advice too! The most useful piece of advice they gave me was: don’t give up, and keep writing. If your books are good, you will be successful eventually.
My first book sold seventy copies in six months, about half of those to friends. But getting five-star reviews from strangers, who had no reason to be nice to me, and therefore must have actually enjoyed reading my work really spurred me on, along with that piece of advice. The release of book two drove more sales of book one, and then I realised that I actually had to get my act together and write the rest of the books, because there were people (only a few, but even so…) who were waiting avidly to find out what happened next.
When book four was released, I realised that I couldn’t carry on as I was, working 14-16 hours a day, 7 days a week, and that something had to give. Giving up writing was unthinkable, so I ditched my day job. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I realised that if I didn’t give it my all, I’d regret it in the future.
So far, I’m not regretting it. Life is wonderful, I have an army of lovely, loyal fans which is increasing all the time, and I’ve never been happier than I am now!
Do you have any advice for historical fiction writers?
Yes. Don’t skimp on research. If you want to write credible historical fiction you have to know your time period really well – not just the events you’re writing about, but the periods before and after, the way people thought then, the way they spoke, the clothes, the politics, the food…really, you need to know as much as you possibly can. Don’t just use the internet. Read books, listen to the music, watch documentaries, read newspapers of the day, read primary source material, and if you can, go to places associated with your period.
If you’re writing about a real historical personage, don’t read one biography of them, no matter how good it’s said to be. Be aware that historians bring their own prejudices into their writings. I read five biographies of Prince Charles Edward Stuart and three of the Duke of Cumberland before I even started forming an idea of their personalities.
And then, after you’ve done all that research, DO NOT be tempted to include it all in your books. You might find the minutiae of how a marchpane subtlety was made absolutely fascinating, but unless your book is about a confectioner, your readers will not. They just want to know that there was a perfect marchpane model of a castle on the table, complete with drawbridge and flags, and that the dinner guests were suitably impressed. The purpose of your research is for you to know that it was possible to make a castle out of marchpane, that the ingredients were available at the time, and which echelon of society could afford sugar and almonds.
The purpose of your research is to enable your readers to live effortlessly in the world you’ve created, not to bore them to death with your vast knowledge of it.
What do you plan to write next?
Next I’m going to write some of the back stories of the minor characters (and at some point Alex’s story). I’m starting with Sarah Browne’s tale. All of the books will be able to be read independently of the Jacobite Chronicles, but they will end either where they enter the Chronicles or just after.
I’m also researching for my next series, which will probably be called The Road to Rebellion, and which will start in 1685, when King Charles II died and his brother James became king. In a way it’s a prequel series to the Jacobite Chronicles, and will explore the events that sparked the whole Jacobite movement, and how it progressed over the following forty years or so. The series will feature some of the characters from the Jacobite Chronicles, including Beth’s grandmother Ealasaid MacDonald, and Graeme Elliot.
Ultimately, between the two series of books and the back stories, I eventually hope to paint a picture of the whole of the Jacobite period. It’s a pretty lofty ambition, but I’m going to give it my best shot!
What do you like to read in your free time? Would your reading choices be strongly orientated towards historical fiction or do you enjoy reading a range of genres?
What’s free time? 😉
Seriously, I spend almost all my free reading time reading non-fiction about the periods I’m writing about or going to write about, particularly at the moment, when I’m about to embark on a fresh historical period. But when I DO take a bit of time away, I will read virtually any genre as long as it’s well-written.
My favourite books of all time are by Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. The Lord of the Rings is the only book that I’ve read multiple times. The quality of the writing I find utterly breathtaking.
If you would like to know more about Julia and her books, you can find her at the following links:
My sincere thanks to Julia for appearing on my blog. I wish her all the very best on the release of Tides of Fortune!