21st July 2019

This month’s author is Annie Whitehead who is prepared to share with us the secrets of wriitng her award-winning novel, To Be A Queen. As a fellow Anglo-saxon enthusiast – although as an historical novelist so far my ‘period’ has embraced Revolutionary France and post-Jacobite Scotland –  I look forward to finding out more! Welcome, Annie!

Annie: Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about To Be A Queen, Lizzie. It’s really appreciated.

Lizzie: Perhaps – with no spoilers – you could briefly tell us the story of To Be A Queen.

Annie: Certainly. To Be A Queen tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She was the daughter of Alfred the Great and came to rule a country in all but name, defending her adopted kingdom against the Viking invaders.

Lizzie: A true story then. Do your characters change in your fictionalised story? 

Annie: Yes, they do. We first meet Æthelflæd, who is known by her family nickname, Teasel, and her brother, Edward, when they are children. Witnessing the struggles of their father, Alfred the Great, against the Vikings affects their thinking, and we learn how their relationship develops and why it is so important in their adult years. We also see how Teasel and her husband change, as they learn to live together and overcome their many misunderstandings. Teasel, moving from Wessex to Mercia, also has to learn to change her attitude towards the Mercians who do not, initially, welcome her and it takes her a while to realise that some of the hostility stems from her own assumptions about her new country. She learns to adapt and to face her fears; only then can she, her husband and the Mercians begin to work together to drive back the Viking menace.

Lizzie: What moments in the novel do you like best?

Annie: Probably the ‘turning point’ moments. When hopes are dashed, or when two characters come to an understanding which helps to move the plot on. I enjoy watching the way in which the interaction between people has an effect on events and I also like the foreshadowing scenes; it’s fun to drop them in! I also had fun with the scene where I was able to put to use the knowledge that flour dust is extremely flammable…

Lizzie: What moments do you like least?

Annie: Sadly, and especially in a novel where all the characters are real people, there must be deaths. I find these moments almost unbearably poignant. I can’t say I enjoy writing them, but if it makes me tearful, then hopefully I’ve done a good job. One of the scenes set in Deerhurst Chapel is also incredibly sad, and it was difficult to write.

Deerhurst Chapel, Gloucestershire

Lizzie: When writing, do you like to plan in detail or set up a situation and see where it takes your characters? Or, as someone who is fictionalising history, do you have another way of working?

Annie: Because all of my characters, even the minor ones, are based on real people, I don’t have much freedom to plan the story. I pin the plot on the recorded events, but where there are gaps in those records, I fill in those spaces as plausibly as I can, and use them to let my characters either move the plot on by themselves, or concentrate on their relationships.

Lizzie: Could you lose yourself in this novel’s world?

Annie: I think that, in a way, I already do, because I spend all my time writing about the Anglo-Saxon world, either in fiction or nonfiction.

Lizzie: How would you describe the genre of your book, if any? What drew you to this genre?

Annie: It fits firmly into the Historical Fiction genre. I’ve wanted to write stories since I was about eight years old, and I think my love of history developed at around the same time, when I started reading books by Jean Plaidy. I suppose it was inevitable that at some point, my two passions would merge. My interest in all things Anglo-Saxon probably began when I was a student, as that period was a huge part of my degree studies. As I learned about and researched the people, I realised that one day I wanted to write their stories as fiction.

Lizzie: How do you build your world? How do you describe it? Sensory perceptions? Stream of consciousness? Reflection? Anything else?

Annie: I do a great deal of research, not only about the history but about how people lived: what they ate, what sort of crops they grew, how they dressed, etc. But I also ask myself, with every scene, ‘What can I see?’ and then try to describe it. I like to make use of all five senses too, and will make sure my characters smell, touch and taste as much as they hear and see.

Lizzie: On re-reading, have you noticed anything that is inaccurate or inconsistent? How would you explain this away if challenged? A particular possibility when fictionalising history.

Annie: At the beginning of the book there is a baddie, the king of Mercia. He’s in league with the Vikings and a usurper of the throne. There is evidence that he was, in fact, a legitimate king and I gave details of this in my recent nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, as there isn’t the same freedom with nonfiction to alter anything. But I’ll justify my depiction of him as a baddie because he came from a different branch of the royal family than my main characters, and I chose to ‘side’ with them. And, though legitimate, he was in league with the Vikings, who are very much the enemy. Very recently, however, some coins have been discovered which suggest that he might have been an ally of Alfred the Great’s. Further research needs to be done but it could turn all previous thinking about him on its head. I’m watching these developments with interest!

Lizzie: What does this novel tell you about the difference between fiction and non-fiction?

Annie: Last year I gave a talk about Æthelflæd at the Tamworth Literary Festival, and the subject was ‘giving voice to women in fiction.’ In that talk, I said that one of the differences between fiction and nonfiction is that in nonfiction all we can say about Æthelflæd’s marriage is that, ‘In around 886 they were married and he was probably older than her by some years.’ Fiction enables us to fill in those gaps, imagining their personal relationship during those years. We know that her husband was ill for some time. Through nonfiction, we can work out when he fell ill, but with fiction we can describe what it was like for the two of them during his illness.

St Oswald’s Priory, Gloucestershire – where Aethelflaed and her husband, Athelraed are buried

Lizzie: What comes next?

Annie: I have a new nonfiction book coming out next year focusing on Anglo-Saxon women, and I’m currently working with the publisher on the edits. I’m writing a collection of short stories – all historical fiction – and then I hope to write the follow-up to my third novel, Cometh the Hour.

Lizzie: Thank you, Annie, for all those intriguing insights into turning history into fiction.

Annie Whitehead

Annie has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England (one of which was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society Indie Book of the Year 2016). She has also written a full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017.

To buy any of these books, contact http://viewauthor.at/Annie-Whitehead

To find out more about Annie, see the following social media links:

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