Today I have the pleasure of introducing Anna Belfrage, whose work I came across as reviewer for the Historical Novelist Society. Her book, Revenge and Retribution, part of the Graham Saga (which I can recommend from first-hand experience) won the HNS Indie Book Award this year. So you don’t just have to take my word for it. We’ve become good ‘online-friends’ since. Welcome on my blog, Anna.
First of all, allow me to say thank you, Christoph, for inviting me to drop by. I do have a slight headache after considering my replies to some of your questions – but they say exercising your brain is a good thing, right?
Let’s say it is…
Please tell us a little about yourself as writer and as person.
I am one of those odd people who combine an extremely structured approach to everything in my life with a bubbly and open personality. This translates into long to-do lists with creative doodles all over them, usually of flowers, horses or naked women. Do I strike all items off my lists? No, but they give me reassurance I have things covered. Of course, as life (or the day/week) progresses, the originally so neat list ends up revised, expanded, revised again, expanded, expanded, and just to really highlight what items are the most important I resort to circling them with a red pen. Generally, I end up with many circles, which allows me to pat myself on the back and congratulate myself on only adding truly relevant stuff to my to-do list J
And yes, I have lists for my writing as well. Essentially, beyond the scribbled notes to self I write in the middle of the night, only my lists are handwritten. Everything else I do on my laptop.
What in particular fascinates you about the era(s) you write about?
The 17th century is a fascinating period in time, a bridgehead leading from the last remnants of medieval times to such novel concepts as the Bill of Rights. It is also a century defined by war and bloodshed, by religious controversies all across the European continent, by huge leaps forward in science. It has Velázquez and Vermeer, it has Louis XIV, James II, and Oliver Cromwell. And Charles I, and the Spanish Hapsburgs, and the arrival of tea. Finally. How people survived without this beverage in the preceding centuries is a mystery.
I also write about the 14th century. No tea, but rebellious barons and ineffective kings, boy princes with huge ambitions, Chaucer and Froissart, the Hundred Years’ War, men like John Hawkwood (English mercenary turned Florentine grandee) catastrophes like the plague – well, there’s enough fodder there for an entire library.
How did you come up with your stories?
I have been fortunate in that I have a vivid imagination. I go out for a walk, and as the dog does his stuff, my head throngs with potential characters, with odd little plot twists. Often, something visual triggers my imagination – a painting, an odd rock formation, the shadowy ruins of a convent…
Specifically, my new series started with a picture of a very old mirror. Somehow, the polished metal had me thinking of queens, and from there the leap was short to Sir Roger Mortimer – probably because I’d recently re-read Mr Ian Mortimer’s excellent biography about this England’s most famous rebel baron.
The Graham Saga was inspired by a beautiful BMW cabriolet. And as to what a series set in the 17th century has to do with a red BMW, well I’ll leave you to mull that one over.
Are you like any of the characters (and how so)?
I think all authors invest something of themselves in their characters. It is difficult not to – but the trick is to avoid overdoing it. For me it is difficult to write female protagonists that are shy and easily swayed – probably because I am outgoing and rather forceful. However, when writing a female lead in the 14th century, I have to be very careful so as to not make Kit too modern. She has been raised in a society where men, per definition, know best. She has been taught to be obedient – to the Church, to her husband, to her elders – and unassuming. Such a woman is still fully capable of defending her own – including her husband, if he’s out of commission – but it requires some very specific triggers for her to do so.
Alex in The Graham Saga has more in common with me. (“You think?” She raises a brow. “Dearest Lord, save me,” Matthew mutters in the background.) But she is not me – she has been shaped by the time she lives in, and I find her braver and more reckless than I am. Plus she is stubborn as hell…
Were the plot and subplots completely planned from the start or did they change during the process, and if so, how?
For The Graham Saga, I had no idea I’d end up with a series. I knew how the first book should end, but once I got there it didn’t end quite as I’d expected. Then things happened as they said, and poor Matthew was aboard a ship – in chains – and I couldn’t very well leave him like that, could I? Once I cottoned on to the fact that my one book project had swelled substantially, I did set down a general outline, and all in all the eighth book ended up more or less as I wanted it to. But the way there has been circuitous, with far more detours than planned. That’s what makes writing so much fun – your characters take on form, they express opinions and beliefs, and where before you had them doing A, they do B instead.
My new series is different in that there is a real timeline I must adhere to, which means some things must happen. Adam doesn’t want them to, but in this case I have to be adamant: no tampering with facts. Having a real timeline is at once helpful and constraining. The plot to some extent takes care of itself, but there are times when pesky realities interfere with my more dramatic moments. So yes, even here the subplots change, adapting themselves to factual events.
What are the best and the worst aspects of writing?
In general, I write the first draft in one go, sixty days of tapping away like a maniac. This is an engulfing process, leaving me drained and in severe need of sleep. For a control freak like me, there’s always an element of fear involved in allowing the creative process to take over – I am but flotsam, swept along in the tidal wave of my own inspiration.
Once done, I leave the draft to marinate for some weeks or so. This causes me anguish. My fingers itch with the need to begin the re-writing I KNOW this first draft requires, but mostly I manage not to touch it. (Mostly…)
Finally comes the day when I am allowed to start working with my rough draft. I love this part of the process. There are as many “OMG, did I write that? Fabulous!” as “OMG, did I write that? Awful!” moments, and I alternate between suppressing an embarrassed groan and high-fiving myself (difficult to do, that). The re-write is a labour of love. It takes roughly half as much time as writing the first draft, but is devoid of the frenzy that marks the first phase. It allows me to sit and fiddle with a pen while considering if she’s wearing dark green or blue, or how appalled her husband will be when he discovers just what risks she’s taken to keep him safe. Also, as long as I’m re-writing, the WIP is still “For My Eyes Only”, and I rather like that period when the characters only belong to me – an extended period of preparation for the moment when they’ll step out into the world at large and take flight on their own.
What is your life like outside of writing?
I work a lot. Mostly with numbers and excel sheets – I’m a CFO by profession. At present, I’m on a sabbatical, which means I end up cleaning out my closets and stuff like that – plus I indulge in slow-cooking, stuff that requires hours of simmering while the entire house fills with the promising smell of goulash.
I dance – mostly when I’m on my own so that youngest son won’t roll about laughing – I take long walks, I teach our old dog new tricks, I read, I read some more, and drink far too much tea. Seriously, if one can be addicted to tea, then I’m a tea junkie. On a relative scale, I suppose such an addiction does not require any major intervention.
*Laughs* Of the top of my head? Best make that a buffet with standing room only… If I am forced to choose, I’d like to invite Philip II of Spain, Kristina of Sweden, Martin Luther, St Teresa of Avila, John Donne, Thomas Fairfax and Geoffrey Chaucer. And maybe Hugh Despenser. Or maybe not – Adam, the protagonist of my soon to be released In the Shadow of the Storm, would kill me if I did.
What is your advice to new writers?
Write. Write some more. Read extensively in your chosen genre. Write. Write, write, write. And once you’ve written “THE BOOK” – hand it over to an editor!
Hot or cold?
Cold. I like woolly things and clunky boots
Salty or sweet?
Sweet. That’s how unsophisticated I am – you want to shut me up, you hand me a cup of tea and a piece of chocolate…
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m in research mode – the third in my new series The King’s Greatest Enemy is begging to be written, so I am sorting out political timelines and all that. Plus, just to cheer myself up, I am dabbling with some more Matthew and Alex writing. I have serious abstinence when it comes to the protagonists of my The Graham Saga!
What else would you like us to know about yourself and your books?
I’m a romantic at heart. I believe love to be a fundamental part of human life, and love is therefore a central component in my writing. But love is not always pink and fluffy. It is gritty and determined, it encompasses peaks and troughs. Those who have read my books can testify to there being plenty of dark stuff in them, loss going hand in hand with love. Besides, I am a sucker for action, which ensures my poor protagonists are taken through their various paces – repeatedly.
Amazon author page: http://t.co/dto2WzdTJQ
Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exists, she settled for second best and became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.
Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power.
When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, chances are she’ll be visiting in the 17th century, more specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This series is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.
My review of Anna’s “Serpents in the Garden”
“Serpents in the Garden” by Anna Belfrage is a historical novel with a time slip twist, the fifth in the Graham Saga series about Alex, a modern day woman who is stuck in 17th century Maryland, and her family.
Married to Matthew Graham she has by now adapted to her new surroundings and has grown up children who are ready to leave the nest and make their own mark in the world.
It is probably advisable to read the previous books in the saga to fully appreciate the characters and the complex background for each of their story lines.
The book is a well-crafted family saga with a great setting and it includes some interesting historical facts and aspects which were new and fascinating to me.
The book keeps up suspense by switching between the storylines, always maintaining an air of suspense.
As with most epics, this book has plenty of romance and dramas. I most enjoyed the plot concerning the threatening Burley brothers and their impact on the Graham family, and as European, I found the information contained about slaves, Native Indians and colonial society most fascinating.
Perfectly infused with the flavour of the 17th century but with the occasional modern perspective by Alex this should please readers of family epics and 17th century history alike.
I reviewed this for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews