Madeline Hunter: Bringing Medieval Times to Life
(January 31, 2001)
"A romance is a story in which the primary focus is the relationship between two people, and which ends with the couple together in love, facing the future optimistically. "
"I don't say it ends HEA, because that implies that all possible conflict and problems have disappeared from the couple's lives, and saying that would mean excluding some of my books. But the couple, and the reader, need to believe that whatever the future brings, love will prevail."
Despite all the buzz, and the fact that I have By Arrangement and By Possession in my TBR pile, it wasn't until I reviewed By Design that I discovered Madeline Hunter. I was struck by how a genre that can so often fall into cliches and the freshly-put-up-wallpaper type of historical flavor could be so rich in the right hands. I recently had the opportunity to engage Ms. Hunter in a Q&A session. If you're already a fan of this exciting new author's work, her answers will be intriguing. If you've not yet tried her - and what are you waiting for? - her answers will surely intrigue you enough to discover for yourself what all the fuss is about!
What books led you into writing? Were they historical novels, romances, general fiction, non-fiction?
I have been writing since I learned to read, so it is hard to answer this. I have published nonfiction articles, and reading nonfiction influenced those works. But given a choice, I will read fiction. I have always loved historical novels, and was both excited and relieved when I discovered historical romance. I have always preferred to read novels with good stories in the old fashioned meaning of the word, and where the stakes are high, so I was a natural for romance. After reading lots of romances, I just decided to try writing one because they fit all my requirements as a writer and reader.
How long had you been writing before you sold a book? Was that book By Arrangement?
I had been writing novels for years. Prior to writing romance, I had completed two other novels, one a mystery and one a family saga. I began writing romance seriously (by that I mean committing large amounts of time to it on a regular basis) about four years before I sold, and had completed quite a few manuscripts. By Arrangement was actually not the first book that sold; By Possession was. However, I sent By Arrangement in soon after the sale, and it was decided to go with that first, since my then work in progress was a sequel to By Possession and it was felt that they should come out back-to-back. I know that this sounds confusing!
Your debut was more low-key than those by other authors with similar backgrounds. Yet your publisher did some very smart things, such as giving you step-back covers, releasing all three books within a year's time, and giving you a low-priced entry. With so many people writing for so long without your kind of success, can you comment on how you viewed your experiences?
I can't compare other authors' experiences with mine because I don't know how to. What I do know is that I definitely wanted to be released in paperback. I have many friends who are romance readers and I know something of their buying habits. It seemed to me that paperback was best the way to build an audience for my particular kind of story. The publisher support that you mentioned was easier and more practical in paperback too.
I have been very lucky, that is all there is to it. The reality is that if I had not had the publisher support, fewer readers would have tried my writing by now. Every writer will tell you that marketing makes a difference. Even a good cover or clever title can make a difference. A reader can't taste the writing until she picks up the book and takes a closer look, so whatever a publisher can do to encourage that, through packaging or pricing, helps. The writing matters at the beginning and the end. At the beginning, in getting the publisher to decide to do this or that for the book, and in the end, because once the reader buys the book she has to love it or she probably won't even remember that writer's name.
One of the things that can make a medieval sink or swim is how the author uses history in the context of the story. Some authors provide so much historical information that it detracts from the narrative flow of the story. Your books do not do that - how do you manage to keep your books entertaining and informative yet not bogged down so that they read like history lessons? Is this something you keep in mind when you're reading someone else's books as well?
Not so long ago many publishers didn't want much history at all, but that is swinging back. Still, dumping in lots of history will slow down a story, and readers want things fast paced now. Also, going into great detail on the history takes up space, and since I tend to write long to begin with I simply can't afford to do that.
So I made some very deliberate decisions about this. First, much of my history occurs offstage, even though it is crucial to the story. It serves as a context and a catalyst for the romance, but the reader does not see most of it actually unfold. When it does occur onstage, it usually signals a major turning point in the romance. Second, I don't go into great detail describing clothing, settings, etc. I try to communicate that mostly through impressions and the occasional telling detail. Finally, even though I don't include a history lesson, I have the details inside me and can visualize them. That way I can pick and choose the ones that are appropriate to the story as I am writing.
For my own reading, I can enjoy either way of handling history. I can even enjoy a good story where the history isn't very accurate. It becomes clear very quickly how an author is going to do it, and I just switch into that mode for that book. I read a book on the basis of what it is and what it is trying to be, rather than judging it against some absolute standard.
Something you did in By Possession and By Design was showcase the treatment of women in the times. That scene in By Possession where Moira is branded a whore because she's out after dark is mirrored by the scene in By Design where Joan is punished in the stocks after selling defective tiles. Both are very vivid and really bring the reader into the period. Can you talk about these scenes?
I will confess that I didn't think of either scene as especially highlighting the treatment of women, but rather as being typical of the historical period. Those were things that could have happened at the time, and that were useful for plot development. I also think that both are more telling about what could happen to people in general rather than to a woman in particular. They also point out that punishment was much harsher then, and almost always physical, even for women. Now in my next book, due out in late June, I very deliberately focus on the treatment of women and the expectations the society had for them, and the limited choices available to a woman who didn't fit in. It is a major element of the story.
Many medieval romances focus on knights and ladies and don't much get into tradesmen or the peasant class. There's an obvious reason for this, because life for the peasants wasn't anything to write home about, but you've taken a different path and written about both in your romances. Can you talk about this?
The first three books all feature a love that crosses class boundaries. The situations were useful for both plot and character development, and I chose them for those reasons. Considering the time period, it produced a complex conflict, and something to keep the couple apart, for example. I think that my desire to base stories in London just naturally led me to choose characters who were not knights and ladies too.
However, I do not consider this something that I am bound to in the future. Some of my stories will be about the nobility, although most of them will include at least one main character who doesn't really conform to that society. I like the interplay and contrast that develop when one character doesn't belong in the world of the other character, either because of birth or personality or experience.
Is there any other period that interests you other than the Middle Ages? Can we expect to see a treatment of the merchant classes in, say, the Regency period, or the Victorian era? What about a novel set in contemporary times?
I will continue with medievals, but I want to write in at least one other period so that I can switch back and forth. I think that will keep me fresh. I will have characters from the merchant class sometimes, but it probably won't have the same impact. For one thing, that is not so unusual in later European historicals or American historicals.
Thanks to the Internet, romance readers are now more vocal than perhaps at any other time. How do you think these online communities influence an author's work nowadays? How important do you think it is to an author to acknowledge/respond to this feedback?
You are touching a topic that I have been thinking about lately, in part because of some of your Write Bytes.
First, I think of all of these sites and boards and lists as forming one big online community, rather than many small ones. There are common denominators regarding level of interest and communication skills, and there is a lot of overlap in memberships. So when I speak of this in the singular, I am not referring specifically to AAR.
I think that many writers appreciate getting the feedback. However, while I know of some cases where there was influence on writers, on the whole I believe that writers cannot let it influence them too much, for the reasons that Teresa Medeiros articulated so well in an At the Back Fence segment. But writers can learn some very interesting things about their novels and readers' perceptions from the community.
For example, the reviews and feedback have revealed to me that different readers can read the same book in very different ways, and take from the book very different impressions. I think that this has to do with the experiences and ideas that a reader brings with her, and is also a matter of how, in the act of reading, different readers focus on different things. As an extreme example, a writer may think that she has created an arrogant but inwardly sensitive hero. However, if that hero reminds a reader of her first husband for some reason, she may not notice the nuances that point up the sensitivity, and only see the arrogance.
Also, some of the readers in the online community are incredibly articulate and analytical about stories, and have wonderful insights. I have been really impressed by some of the reader and reviewer analyses of books that I have either read or written. In the AAR review of By Arrangement, or example, it was noted that the hero comes within centimeters of being a villain. I knew that the book does not have a standard villain, and also that it is a "man against himself" conflict, but that comment really brought home to me just what I had done in that story, just how closely I had shaved it. A reviewer on another site noticed a metaphor that I had used throughout By Design, and even noticed that the characters' development reflected the metaphor. I had no idea I had done that, but I had to admit that she was right and that the metaphor was there. I have received emails from readers that also pointed out things that I had not consciously done. I find this fascinating, because while I can do it with the books I read, my writing is a very intuitive process and I never analyze my own work this way.
On the other hand, there are certain kinds of comments and discussions that, while perfectly valid among readers, probably do not influence writers very much. The issue of "likeability" is one, since it is totally subjective. Also, comments regarding what a reader would have preferred to have happen at some point in the plot rarely take into account how every decision a writer makes has repercussions throughout a story. The preferred change probably would have resulted in a very different book. There is nothing wrong with readers voicing these opinions, but there really isn't any good way for writers to respond.
I guess that it might be said that if a criticism is frequently voiced online, the author should indeed be influenced by it. Maybe so, but there is evidence that the tastes of online community are not necessarily representative of the mass market as a whole, and most writers know that. By that I mean that most romance novels are not sold to this core of avid, knowledgeable readers, but to casual impulse buyers, or to fans who do not participate online for various reasons. There are many examples of books that do not fare well in the online community but that enjoy a huge popularity in the larger market. So the only thing for a writer to do is follow her muse, and hope that enough readers love the stories to keep her going.
As to writers responding, that is a matter of preference, although I think that there is no "up" side to complaining about a negative review. I personally tend to be pretty invisible when it comes to the venues for reader discussion because I do not want to interfere with the reader exchange. I think that lots of readers are very hesitant to post anything that appears negative if the writer is a participant on the list or board.
On the other hand, I try to respond to any reader who emails me privately or signs my guestbook, and I host chats and do interviews. The internet provides a level of interaction between writers and readers that was unheard of ten years ago, and I appreciate that access.
Some authors know the entire story in their head before they sit down to write, while others begin to write and let the characters take them where they may. How are your books crafted? Do you have a methodical process of outlining from beginning to end, or are your characters constantly "taking over?"
I used to be a "seat of her pants" writer. I knew the beginning and the end and the basic conflict, but I let the story evolve. It was an exciting way to write, but it was also very inefficient. Now I work out a very sketchy outline, although outline isn't really the right word. After I have written the first 50 pages or so, I define the spine of the rest of the story. It is pretty vague as to the "how," and focuses more on the "what" and the "why." This leaves me quite a bit of flexibility, so there are still some wonderful discoveries. The characters' developments are still "seat of the pants", but I don't let them take over. I just allow them to grow and to reveal themselves. I am fortunate that my editor accepts my sketches, because I would not want to work up a chapter by chapter outline.
What are your favorite books - romance or otherwise?
I really can't answer this, and not because I am avoiding the question. My favorites keep changing, as I change. There are certain books, however, that mesmerized me and made me forget that I am a writer. By that I mean that the internal editor, which is both a writer's friend and enemy, was totally silenced by the reading experience. Kinsale's Flowers From the Storm did that for me. Bliss by Judy Cuevas did as well. So did Silk and Shadows by Mary Jo Putney. Sometimes it will be one section of a book that does that for me. When a book provides that kind of engrossing experience, it always has a special, permanent place among my changing list of favorites even if there is some aspect to the story that I don't especially like.
I am also a big fan of books that are a bit different in how the story is presented, that defy predictability in the way they unfold. After lots of slam-bang openings, it is very refreshing to read a book that opens more quietly, for example. I suppose that you could say that my favorite books tend to be the ones that increase the variety within the genre, and not just with respect to subject matter.
How do you define what is romantic and/or romance?
My definition is fairly simple. A romance is a story in which the primary focus is the relationship between two people, and which ends with the couple together in love, facing the future optimistically. I don't say it ends HEA, because that implies that all possible conflict and problems have disappeared from the couple's lives, and saying that would mean excluding some of my books. But the couple, and the reader, need to believe that whatever the future brings, love will prevail. As far as I'm concerned a writer can create any story that has those two features and it is appropriate to the genre. Whether the market will embrace a book that contains certain controversial topics or behaviors is another, and different, issue.
Last but not least, what can we expect from you next?
The next book will be released in late June. It's titled The Protector, and it is the story of Morvan, who was the brother of the heroine in By Arrangement. I am currently writing the sequel to The Protector, and it will feature all of the main characters from By Arrangement and The Protector, and serve as a grand finale of sorts for them. It takes place on the Scottish border, and the hero is a "bad boy" so I'm having lots of fun with it. It does not have a title yet.
The project after this one is still to be decided. I have several proposals on my editor's desk. It may be another medieval, or I may turn to another period for a while. One of the small stylistic changes occurring is that I am becoming more comfortable with letting my sense of humor show, and am finding ways to let it come through while still maintaining the emotional intensity of the stories.
||Madeline Hunter on Honorable Heroes in this ATBF column