Today I’m interviewing Rachel Walkley, who writes women’s fiction and magical tales about family secrets.
Rachel is an East Anglian turned Northerner-ish. Biologist, in her memories. Archivist, when required. Amateur pianist and flautist. Scribbler of pictures. And not forgetting, cat lover!
Tell us something about your books.
I write Women’s Fiction, which really just means my books are centred around female characters, although not exclusively and I have plenty of male readers who enjoy my books. Women’s Fiction includes many sub-genres: mystery, romance and historical, being the most popular, and success ranges from commercial hits to literary prizes. More importantly, my books have a dash of magical realism to them. Unlike fantasy, where new worlds are built and characters seem slightly unearthly, magical realism is grounded in our world, a familiar reality, but there is something magical about a character, or place, that takes the reader out of normal situations. It’s something of a challenge to pull this off and keep the realism believable.
Miriam, my protagonist in The Women of Heachley Hall, is a young woman who must live alone in a decaying old house for one year before inheriting it. She refuses to believe the rumours that the house is haunted, and relies upon the help of a handyman who knows more than he’s saying.
My second book, The Last Thing She Said, features three talented sisters who must decide whether their late grandmother’s prophecy is worth the worry. One sister believes they should, especially as she can ‘see’ things the others can’t.
What inspires you to write? Who are your favorite writers?
The inspiration has always been there since I was a child. First with poetry, then short stories, followed by a long fascination with crime novel, which I’m hoping to exploit with a new series I’m writing; and always throughout my life, historical themes, both fiction and non-fiction. However, I’m quite eclectic in my tastes, so don’t pin me down to anything. I’m not one for favourites as over the years I’ve picked up new authors and my favourites of old have unfortunately passed away.
However, for crime, I’m a big fan of Ed McBain who I read from the tender age of twelve, and in recent years I’ve shifted into other genres. There’s Isabel Allende, Sebastian Faulkes, Amy Tan, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who all write magical tales, and my biggest inspiration perhaps would be Dorothy Dunnett – still trying to fathom the finer details of those epic books of hers!
How do you start writing? Do you have a process or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
The idea comes, often when I’m not expecting it, and I write perhaps something I think might be the beginning of the story, though invariable in the final draft it isn’t. I try to establish the characters and voice before plotting out the details. If I can’t grasp the characters and their motives, the story will fall flat. Once I’m sure I know I have a good feel for those, I start to develop the plot, scene by scene, although chapters aren’t necessary written in the final order. When I wrote The Last Thing She said, the three sisters were written separately, to keep their voices unique, then I merged them into the storyline.
So not quite seat of the pants, but I’m not a detailed plotter either. The important thing is to get the first draft down. Consequently, for me, editing is a lengthy process.
How has your writing process changed since you started writing?
In the beginning was Word, Microsoft Word, and I wrote linear stories, often stumbling on how to edit them because of the mass of words and the lack of clarity about the structure. Once I shifted into using tools, like Novel Factory and Scrivener, my process became less linear, and I now have the confidence to shift scenes around, ditch a few pages or paragraphs, or throw in an extra scene.
As for the wordsmithing, I’ve learnt a great deal from working with professional editors, and that is never ending. A writer doesn’t stop learning the craft, so obviously, like many authors, I’m critical of my earlier writings, as well as things that I’ve yet to publish.
How long does it normally take you to write, and what proportion of the time is spent doing what?
The Women of Heachley Hall took four years to write. Most of that was responding to suggestions from agents, editors, book doctors, who assessed the opening chapters.
Having gone around in circles, taking on board good advice, but often contradictory, I realised if I wanted my book to reach an end-point, published or not, I needed to take control. So I engaged an editor to review the whole book, and from there I edited it until I had what I considered to be the best final version. The Last Thing She Said took a year. Goes to show that writing books doesn’t fit a pre-planned timeline. Most of my ‘writing’ time is actually spent editing, the first draft usually is completed within three-six months.
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
Writing the first draft is the most productive period for me. I get lost in the writing, and it fills my waking hours. After that, I put the manuscript to one side for a while and forget about it. Hence, I often have more than one project on the go.
The next stage, acknowledging what you’ve written is nowhere close to publication, requires re-iterative editing. The further along this process, the harder it becomes to keep going. If there is such a thing as a writer’s block, I suffer from editor’s block. I simply don’t enjoy this stage as much, and I guess I’m driven to finish a project because publication is my goal.
Do you involve other people in your writing, as collaborators or editors? How do you make this work?
You can’t be an independent author without support.
I have editors, somebody who checked the final formatting of the book, a professional cover artist from a company that works with publishers. I rely on book bloggers for the launch, the unsung heroes for many authors, and family, of course for their honest feedback. Writing is a lonely business without support. Unfortunately, there’s no writers group in my area.
Do you have any writing tips you’d like to share with readers?
Don’t judge yourself harshly if you think you’re not getting anywhere. Write what you want to write, and in the early stages don’t worry about publishing or where you’re going with the manuscript. Write for yourself. I’m very selfish as a writer; it’s the publishing process that changes the manuscript into something marketable. If you’ve no interest in publishing, then you’re in a wonderful place to just enjoy writing.
Anything else I haven’t asked you about?
Ergonomics! I would say that if you’re going to write, make sure you’ve got the right environment. Crazy, but when you’re uncomfortable, the words don’t flow as well.
I have this ergonomic keyboard and weird mouse, which my husband hates, that keeps my fingers working (I have problematic joints) and blue filter reading glasses, because my optician warned me to look after my eyes. I also quite like the notebook and pen, sat in a café with a cuppa. Readers are part of the world around you and getting out is important.
Thanks to Rachel for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find out more about Rachel’s books on her website.