We loved bringing you the sweet North & South romance “A Merry Little Christmas” this weekend and now The Armitage Authors Network is pleased to bring you our interview with the author, Catherine Winchester. We talked to her recently about Richard Armitage as an inspiration for her heroes, her writing process and what it’s like to market herself as an independent author.
Armitage Authors Network: Welcome to the blog, Catherine. Can you tell us a little about how you became a fan of Richard Armitage?
Catherine Winchester: Watching North & South. I’d been on a historical drama bend and having rewatched all my favourite classics, I looked for ones I may have missed. N&S had good reviews so I tried it.
AAN: What was it about him that’s been an inspiration to you as a writer – him as an actor, a particular character, etc.? How are your heroes inspired by him?
CW: I can’t say what it is about him that inspires me. All I can tell you is that to write a scene, I have to be able to see it, and he’s such a versatile actor that he’s very easy to picture in a myriad of different roles.
AAN: You’ve published two North & South novels, one a continuation of Gaskell’s story and one a time-travel romance. Can you tell us a little about the difference between writing John Thornton as the husband of Margaret Hale in Northern Light and John Thornton as the employer and suitor of modern woman Carrie Preston in What You Wish For?
CW: They were very different, actually. For Northern Light, I wanted to focus on Margaret’s desire to affect change among and for the working classes, something that John came to see the logic in too. The Victorian era was full of social change as many in the ruling classes sought to improve things for the working classes. The Victorians brought in the first laws governing things such as child labor and working hours, they made education compulsory and they gave the working man the vote, so it was an era of huge social change. The whole story was built around John and Margaret’s desire to build a “model village” for their workers, which I based on the village of Saltaire. Saltaire was built in 1851 by Titus Salt on the river Aire, hence Salt-aire. He wanted to provide his woolen mill workers with decent living conditions and although there were older model villages, Salt’s was in the same time period, region and in a similar industry.
I also had to stay true to the social mores as they were written by Gaskell. Her writings are very clean, morally speaking, and I had to honor that, despite my historical research painting a very different light of the times. One example is sex. Much Victorian literature ignored it completely and it is just assumed that both men and women were virgins on their wedding night. Actual figures for illegitimate births and pregnant brides show that at nearly fifty percent of women had sex before marriage. Prostitution was the second biggest employer of women, second only to being a servant and syphilis infected one third of the armed forced and 10% of the general population in metropolitan regions. In addition, birth control was available in the form of condoms made from animal intestines, sea sponges soaked in vinegar, quinine or olive oil, vaginal douches and even diaphragms, usually called rubber pessaries. Advertisements for such devices appeared in many publications of the time but it’s worth remembering that few people could read in the 1850s, so only the educated could access them as proved by the difference in birth rates between the working and upper classes. Many examples of such devices still exist in medical museums.
Clearly there was a lot more sex being had than the Victorians would have us believe but aside from a brief mention of there being ways to impede pregnancy and a doctor’s advice to stop ‘marital relations’ when Margaret’s pregnancy faces complications, I never touch on the subject of sex in Northern Light. The Victorians were also very hypocritical with sex though, assuming that men would seek sex and while that was frowned upon, it was acceptable, while a woman who was discovered having premarital or extra marital sex was a pariah.
In What You Wish For, I have a modern day female heroine who has obviously lived by our modern social mores and isn’t a virgin. I felt that I had to address this in some respect as it was probably one of the biggest differences in how we live our lives and likely, the most shocking thing about how modern British women live to a man from the Victorian era. I also gave John a past that would be in keeping with the times, he isn’t a cad or a bounder, but he isn’t a virgin either. Then of course, it was fun to explore some of the other differences between then and now in things such as medicine. The Victorians actually knew very little about the human body, for example many doctors still believed in bloodletting as a treatment and cure and they believed that bad smells transmitted disease and caused infection. Ignaz Semmelweis, the first doctor who suggested that doctors and surgeons should wash their hands in between patients and wear clean aprons — they wore dirty ones as a sign of their good trade — died in disgrace, a broken man.
So yes, the approach to each was very different but as an author, both were rewarding.
AAN: You’re incredibly prolific, can you tell us a little about your writing process?
CW: It stems from insomnia. I’ve had trouble sleeping since I was a child and it only got worse with adult problems. While I lie there, rather than replay events or worry about things, I have always created stories to distract myself. Once I began to write, certain scenes would plague me night after night, until I purged them by writing them down, then the next night, the story could move on in my mind.
AAN: You write in several genres, do you have a favorite?
CW: Honestly, it’s speculative fiction, sci-fi and fantasy type, but while my works in that area have been well received, they aren’t big sellers. I like all the genres I write in though, or I wouldn’t write them.
AAN: You’ve been very open about having dyslexia. How has that affected the way you write?
CW: It stopped me for many years. I would write stories in school feeling as proud as punch but they came back covered in red ink. They never commented on the story, only the spelling and grammar used to tell it, so I ended up thinking the whole thing was rubbish.
I kept creating stories in my head though and then I discovered Star Trek tie-in novels. I didn’t even know fan fiction existed but began to craft stories around my favourite TV shows of the time, which back then were Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap. I would write stories based on them in spiral bound notebooks then later, on my school computer. I never showed them to anyone though, I didn’t see the point. When I finally got a home PC, I discovered fan fiction and began to post a few stories, they were in email groups then, rather than on a specific site. I’d moved onto Buffy the Vampire Slayer by then.
I think the internet was generally a nicer place back then and everyone was supportive and appreciative of my efforts. I don’t recall my spelling mistakes ever being brought up back then. Slowly, I learned how to better craft and pace my stories, and I’ve taught myself far more about spelling and grammar than my school was ever able to teach me. It still took over 10 years before I felt ready to try writing an original book.
AAN: What was the first piece you published?
CW: The first book was Past Due, part one of a vampire series. There are five planned, of which I’ve written three.
AAN: What made you decide to publish independently rather than through a publishing house?
CW: I sent the book to publishers and while I had a couple reply asking for the full manuscript, it went nowhere. But the book was written and just sitting there, doing nothing, so I looked into self-publishing. I had nothing to lose by that point, and my family rallied around to help me edit and proof it. I taught myself to use GIMP graphics program (which is open source and free) and bought stock photos for the cover.
AAN: How did the audio version of The Reluctant Duchess, narrated by Eva Hathaway, come about?
CW: I’d heard about it, it’s another amazon company, basically self-publishing for audio books with the royalties usually split 50/50 between author and narrator. You can also pay a flat fee to the narrators. It was a very new thing for me as I was expected to critique the version and make changes. Considering that I knew nothing about audiobooks and voice work, it was very uncomfortable for me, but I was lucky to have picked someone who seemed to know what she was doing and she did a very good job. When I can face it, I intend to turn my other books into audio books too because with the 50/50 royalty split, you have nothing to lose.
AAN: You do all the marketing on your books, can you explain to our readers a little about what’s involved in that?
CW: I have tried almost every marketing trick going and have found that very few of them actually pay dividends for the time involved. The best promotional tool I’ve ever used is Amazon’s Select’s free program. For every three months you agree for your eBook to be exclusively with Amazon, you can give it away for free for five days. I know it sounds counterproductive but it really does encourage new readers to give your book a chance, which results in reviews on your page, sales of your other books,assuming they liked what they read, and recommendations to their friends and family. A lot of people tie their Amazon and Goodreads accounts to Twitter, so purchases and reviews automatically appear on their Tweets.
Other than that, I’ve rounded up my personal experiences with other marketing ideas on my blog.
You can find Catherine Winchester’s books on Amazon here. Her books are archived here under the tabs John Thornton, Armitage Inspired Heroes, and Other Works by Armitage Authors. Follow her on Twitter @CatWAuthor and on Facebook here. She also blogs at Catherine Winchester.