Delighted to welcome Catherine Hokin back to the blog, this time with her writer’s hat on. Catherine answered my blogger in the spotlight questions last year and as the author spotlight questions are quite similar I suggested she wrote a guest post. So here it is!
The Long and the Short of It
Until relatively recently I taught English to teenage boys – there’s probably a book in there but I’ll leave that for now – and, like much of teaching, the curriculum was heavily compartmentalised. One half-term it would be short stories, the next it would be non-fiction, then novels and so on. When I imagined myself as a writer (which I did and often, particularly when faced with a pile of year 9 stories to mark), I also thought in that compartmentalised way: I am going to be a novelist, short stories are what short story writers do.
Since actually taking the plunge three years ago and seriously working on my writing, I have been on a huge learning curve and once unheard-of phrases such as Blog Tours are now part of my everyday vocabulary. The biggest surprise, however (and as an ex-teacher it mortifies me to admit I hadn’t grasped this) was the interplay between short and longer forms of fiction.
For me, novel writing began first: my debut Blood and Roses was born out of a lifelong love of History and a particular fascination with the medieval period. Writing historical fiction is a very rewarding process, from the research stage when I am looking for the gaps into which I can weave my narrative to the creative process itself where the length of a novel allows you to explore characters and dilemmas in great depth.
Conversely, it can also be a very frustrating experience. It is difficult to get feedback: I am not someone who wants to submit chapter by chapter to a writing group and novels, at least the ones I seem to write, are very long. Submission requires a completed piece of work – I was 100,000 words down the line of what I thought was a finished novel only to discover (from agents who thankfully gave me feedback) that the narrative style simply wasn’t working and was burying what could be a strong book. This is probably not an uncommon experience for first-time writers – I knew I was doing something right (I got two requests for the full manuscript after the first 3 chapter submissions) but also a fair few things wrong. I couldn’t afford a creative writing masters so, on the advice of another author, I turned to short stories.
Historical fiction has timeframes, events and people already in place; starting a short story was far more daunting so I began by using photos as a stimulus. It was fun and what had at first seemed an impossible obstacle, the limited number of words at my disposal, rapidly became a test of what I could achieve. Another unlooked for beauty of short story writing is that there are lots of competitions and, for a very small fee, they give feedback. I have entered stories to get pointers on character development, setting and structural devices that I could then use in my novel. It’s a fast, invaluable and cheap way of refining your craft that I would recommend to any author.
It hasn’t been easy. I am wordy by nature: in short stories you have to strip everything back and 1 carefully picked word must stand for 10. Readers also rightly expect a rounded character or 2 and a sense of some kind of resolution and all in 3000 words if you are lucky but, more often, in 1500. I haven’t dared flash fiction with its 500 word limit yet although the Twitter 1 line days which give specific themes are fun and have given rise to a bank of new story ideas.
It’s not just the feedback which is rewarding. Short stories give a sense of achievement, of something finished when the novel feels forever away. The format lets me play with structure and character which has deepened my writing and, being really honest, the fact I’ve won competitions and had a paid commission is a huge boost. Nothing says writer like your name in print and a pay cheque!
My work is all linked: my short stories, my novel and my blog Heroine Chic are all about feisty, interesting women. For novel two, also historical fiction with a medieval setting, I have been lucky enough to win a place on the Scottish Book Trust Author Mentoring Programme and will be working one-to-one with an established author in my genre. This is a remarkable opportunity and my novelist learning curve will accelerate again but the short stories will continue – different voices, the joy of being a writer.
Blood and Roses – a novel of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses by Catherine Hokin.
The English Crown – a bloodied, restless prize.
The one contender strong enough to hold it? A woman. Margaret of Anjou: a French Queen in a hostile country, born to rule but refused the right, shackled to a King lost in a shadow-land.
When a craving for power becomes a crusade, when two rival dynasties rip the country apart in their desire to rule it and thrones are the spoils of a battlefield, the stakes can only rise. And if the highest stake you have is your son?
You play it.
Portraying the dynastic struggles of the Wars of the Roses as a medieval House of Cards, debut novelist Catherine Hokin re-interprets the story of Margaret of Anjou as a feminist re-telling of one of the bloodiest periods of English history. In a powerful revision of a woman frequently imagined only as the shadowy figure demonised by Shakespeare, Blood and Roses examines Margaret as a French Queen in a hostile country, born to rule but refused the right, as a wife trapped in marriage to a man born to be a saint and as a mother whose son meets a terrible fate she has set in motion. As Margaret desperately tries to stave off the judgement of history by writing her own truth—a desire she knows is almost certainly doomed – she unfolds a web of intrigue, shifting alliances and secrets and reveals herself as a woman forced to play the highest stakes to pull a throne from the spoils of the battlefield.
A key issue for historians has been the relationship between Margaret of Anjou and her husband Henry IV (who suffered from what has been described as narcolepsy, resulting in long periods of what are best described as coma) and the paternity of her son, born 8 years into what was a seemingly barren marriage. Blood and Roses offers a solution to the paternity question rooted in Margaret’s political acumen and her relationship with Jacquetta Woodville – a friendship which ended in a betrayal that has never been fully explored.
This is a novel about power: winning it, the sacrifices made for it and its value. It is also a novel about a woman out of her time, playing a game ultimately no one can control.
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. This kick-started an interest in hidden female voices which resulted in her debut novel, Blood and Roses. The novel brings a feminist perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou (1430-1482, wife of Henry VI) and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses, exploring the relationship between Margaret and her son and her part in shaping the course of the bloody political rivalry of the fifteenth century. Catherine also writes short stories – she was 3rd prize winner in the 2015 West Sussex Writers Short Story Competition and a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition. She regularly blogs as Heroine Chic, casting a historical, and often hysterical, eye over women in history, popular culture and life in general. She is profiled in the March edition of Writing Magazine. For 2016 she has been awarded a place on the Scottish Book Trust Author Mentoring Programme to develop her second novel. In her spare time she listens to loud music, watches far too many movies and tries to remember to talk to her husband and children.
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