A Chat with Anita Davison

Anita Davison poster

 

When I was in high school, my second favorite subject after English was History. Many a time, I’d imagine what it would have been like to live in a different time period and, accordingly, it was a natural step in my wordsmithing to invite my characters to cross paths, rub shoulders and even exchange in snappy banter with people who actually called those time periods “home.” Discovering fellow authors who share that same passion for the past is always a delight, even more so when it’s not just a stand-alone novel but, in fact, an exciting series. Our feature author this time around is Anita Davison, whose latest release, A Knightsbridge Scandal, is Book 3 of her Flora Maguire Mysteries.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q:  Tell us about your journey as a writer and when you first knew that penning stories of history and mystery was what you wanted to do?

A:  Being a published author was not something I ever aspired to. Ordinary people like me didn’t get books published. Those with Master’s degrees in journalism and English literature who have put years of practical work experience into their apprenticeship – those people write books.

In my early 20s I lived and worked in central London, where the National Portrait Gallery was a favourite haunt. In the 17th century room hung a painting of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, the eldest of 12 illegitimate children of Charles II who tried to seize the throne on his father’s death by raising a rebellion in the West Country. Inspired by his tragic story, and reading Cynthia Harrod Eagles’ The Long Shadow, at the time, I began to create a story about a family caught up on the wrong side of the rebellion. I enjoyed the process, but became aware that I was a novice where novel writing was concerned. However the idea of putting my work ‘out there’ for others to comment on terrified me, but I decided I might as well  find out whether or not I could do something with it, or if I had no discernible talent.

I found an online critique group made up of both published and aspiring writers to whom I submitted my first chapters. I would like to say my submission came back covered in compliments – it didn’t! The group pretty much trashed it!  Nicely though. They didn’t attack the plot or the characters, more my sentence structure and my head-hopping prose. Do I hurl the manuscript into a corner and never touched it again, or hunker down and try again? I did the latter, and that’s when I began to learn rules which aren’t taught in schools – how to use active voice as opposed to passive, putting a scene into one point of view, showing not telling, how to write effective dialogue etc. I also discovered my epic saga of over 200k words would never be accepted as a debut novel, so I split it into two and  it a series; now available as The Woulfes of Loxsbeare. One day I will finish Volume 3.

I was accepted by the Kate Nash Literary Agency, who, after a brief flirtation with Victorian romance, they secured a contract for Royalist Rebel, my biographical novel about Elizabeth Murray who was a teenager during the English Civil War. I now have a five book deal for my Edwardian Cosy Mystery series with Aria Fiction. The agency’s list of authors represented is pretty impressive these days, and I would like to say my career has taken off in the same way– but that hasn’t happened – yet.

Q: Who are some of the authors whose wordsmithing structure, plots and characters have had the most influence on your own style?

A: Cynthia Harrod-Eagles ‘Dynasty’ series about a Yorkshire family inspired me to begin writing.

Q: If we could travel back in time, what are some of the books we might find on the nightstand of your 10-year-old self? How about as a teenager?  And now, as a successfully published author?

A: The book I clearly remember reading at aged 10 was Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury which fascinated me. In my teens I started reading Jean Plaidy, Dennis Wheatley, Agatha Christie. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor cemented my love of the 17th Century. Lately I tend to read for research but for pleasure I enjoyed Tasha Alexander’s historical mysteries, Erin Morganstern’s Night Circus, and C S Sansom’s stories of the Tudor lawyer, Matthew Shardlake.

Q: Speaking of different time periods, what was the attraction for you to Edwardian England as the backdrop for heroine Flora Maguire’s adventures?

A: I was given a subscription to a genealogy site as a gift and became fascinated with my own family history. My family were Prussian immigrants who came to London in 1880, which led me to reading all I could about London during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. With all the photographs of London at that time, as well as a store of vintage videos on the web, I soon became hooked. Less than a hundred years ago, life and attitudes were vastly different to today. It’s accepted that the Regency period was a male dominated world, but these attitudes were still firmly in place in the early 20th Century. Women did not eat out in public unless they had a male escort, and many restaurants had male only dining rooms. Simpsons restaurant in the Strand didn’t allow women in their downstairs dining room at all until 1984.

Q: A college professor of mine once said that if one is going to write mysteries in which a broad spectrum of skullduggery is afoot (including dead bodies), it’s easier to do it in an earlier century when technology was not a prevalent tool for crime-fighting. Do you find that to be the case with your own work?

A: In some ways that’s true because the clues have to be more prosaic; an overheard conversation, a document, etc., and the villain revealed without the use of forensic science. In the first book, Flora finds blood on a knife, but in 1900 there was no test to tell whose it was as blood grouping had been thought of but not perfected. Also, fingerprints weren’t used for identification until a landmark case in 1902 – but were still not considered conclusive. And poisons were easier to obtain, arsenic being an ingredient in all sorts of products. Cocaine was used in cough linctus until then 1950s.

It was easier to change identities and information was much harder to find, you had to know where to look. The SS Minneapolis was one of the first ships to carry wireless telegraphy, so my character was able send a telegram to an associate on land to find out certain facts about a suspect.

Q: Writing out-of-your-time-zone, of course, requires a lot of research in order for the storyline to feel both plausible and authentic to your readers. There’s always a danger, though, of getting so carried away by these vintage details that they can easily overwhelm—and detract—from the plot. What governed your choices regarding which research should be included and which could/should be left out?

A: Absolutely – and this is a major problem for historical writers. Personally I get so immersed in historical events that I always put too much into my stories, assuming the reader will be as fascinated as I am. Editing tends to illustrate these ‘info dumps’ though and I do follow advice and remove most of it by reminding myself I am not writing a history book. Anything which doesn’t drive the story forward or fit seamlessly into the narrative without jarring – or boring the reader – must go!

Q: When and where did the fictional Flora Maguire first step into your imagination and demand your attention?

A: I was writing a Victorian romance which began with my female character travelling between New York and London on a steamship I had researched extensively right down to the patterns on the stateroom curtains and bed covers. When the book was contracted, my editor said the novel should begin when my character steps off the boat onto English soil – thus all my intricate research and writing was dumped. However, I kept my meticulous research. I had worked too hard to consign it to the bin – and when Flora Maguire needed a crime to solve, I wanted a  ‘closed room’ environment with a limited number of suspects, my steamship was ideal.

Q: Did you always intend to turn that first Flora Maguire story into a series?

A: No I didn’t. As my first try at mystery writing, I wasn’t sure if it would be credible, but the critique group and my agent said mysteries did better as a series as readers like to be familiar with the main character. When the critiquing process ended, the group asked me what was going to happen to Flora when she got off the ship. It was while I was writing Books 2, 3 and 4 that my agent secured a five-book deal for the whole series from Aria Fiction. Thus, I am currently writing Book 5. Books 1 to 3 are available and Book 4 will be released in November 2017 with Book 5 scheduled for next year.

Q: Series fiction is not without its own set of challenges; specifically, if there’s an expectation or hope that readers will read these books chronologically. But what about someone who jumps in and reads the most recent book first? How do you handle that fine line of giving them just enough background teaser to want to go back and see what they missed without giving away too much information on how the prior “episodes” were resolved?

A: I have suggested to readers that they are best read chronologically as Flora’s personal life changes, although the murder mysteries are complete stories.  Flora has a mystery in her own life, which develops a little more with each book.

Q: Flora starts out her career as a governess. Given the circles in which she moves as crimes unfold, wouldn’t she be more effective as a wealthy, titled lady or an actress?

A: Flora’s station in life was a major consideration before I began. I don’t know anything about the thespian world, either now or the Edwardian era, so didn’t feel I could portray it with any conviction. The aristocracy, unless they baulked the system and existed on the fringe of fashionable society, led restrictive lives. Unmarried girls in 1900 had to do what their parents told them, while married ones had to obey their husbands. Unless I made Flora a widow, like Tasha Alexander’s heroine, Lady Emily Ashton, Flora couldn’t gad about town on her own, which is why I introduced Sally Pond, her maid and sometime sidekick. I felt that as a governess, Flora would be intelligent by nature and discreet by necessity. As an upper servant, she moves between the two worlds with ease with an ability to be invisible, so people tend to talk in front of her, forgetting she is there.

The first story is set in 1900, the beginning of a new millennium where great changes in science, medicine and society were taking place in the run up to WWI. She ventures into some unsavoury areas at times which no titled lady would enter, and with more freedom.

Q: You make mention of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in this novel. Is Flora herself a Suffragist?

A: She’s a non-militant Suffragist and an admirer of Millicent Fawcett who worked for years to have women’s rights acknowledged by the government, and succeeded to a point with the Liberal Party. Flora’s status was gained by her marriage, and had she remained a governess, the movement wouldn’t have represented her at all as they were fighting for women who owned property. One aspect people forget about the ‘Votes for Women’ fight was that the majority of working class men didn’t have the vote either. Thus, Flora has mixed feelings about the aims of the Suffragists. Flora also believes that the WSPU- Christabel Pankhurst’s breakaway militant group with their campaign for vandalism and public protest was not representative of most women who wouldn’t dream of destroying works of art or throwing bricks though windows.

Q: What does her husband think of her stance on equal rights for women?

A: He admires her and holds similar views. He’s a solicitor from a wealthy background who has fallen on leaner times and has to make his own living, so he is sympathetic to the struggles of the working man – and woman, but he also has the ability to function in both societies.

Q: Do you have a favorite character in this series?

A: Flora is my favourite as the stories are written from her point of view, so hers is the head I am inside most of the time. I do like her young charge, Eddy, though, who enters the stories as a 13-year-old boy. My editor says he is one of her favourites, so Eddy is making an appearance in Book 5 as an 18-year-old university student. He gets into trouble and runs to Flora and Bunny for help.

Q: So what’s in store for Flora in future novels in this series?

A: No 4 is at first editing stage where a murder leads her into the shady world of child trafficking. This ties in with the International Agreement for the Suppression of the “White Slave Traffic Act” which was ratified that year in the UK.

Q: Do you start with an outline or make up the plot as you go along?

A:  Plotter every time. I research specific historical events which I would like to include, then work out the crime, the villain and the clues and misdirection. Then I sketch out each scene synopsis, its goal, content and conclusion– I need to know exactly where the story is going or I get lost.

Q: Does anyone get to read your work in progress or do you make them wait until the very last page?

A: I am still a member of the Historical Fiction Critique Group to which I submit my draft chapters for feedback. We have been working together for some years and trust each other’s opinion. If they tell me a character is hollow or not credible in the first draft, I do something about it.

Q: Have your characters ever surprised you and gone off the path in dialogue or action that you hadn’t originally fashioned?

A: On occasion, a character I had given a cameo role to has developed into a major one because the group really liked them and wanted more. Bunny’s mother was going to be a shadowy figure who made an occasional appearance, but now she is Flora’s nemesis. Beatrice Harrington is the archetypical Victorian widow with unbending principles and an opinion on everything. Naturally she doesn’t believe any woman is good enough for her only son, especially a governess brought up below stairs by a Scotsman. I thought she could be one character readers could love to hate and I allow Flora to score the odd point against her to assert herself.

Q: Are your previous novels Edwardian-themed as well?

A: I have written two Victorian Romances, but my first love was the 17th Century. The Woulfes of Loxsbeare are about an Exeter family caught up in the political chaos of the late 17th Century. Royalist Rebel is a biographical novel about Elizabeth Murray, who became Duchess of Lauderdale. A friend of Charles II, she was also one of his spies during the Interregnum, and was published by Pen and Sword Books

Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: That I am happiest at home with my writing and only venture out when absolutely necessary or when bullied by my family. I don’t even like eating outside! I’ve been accused of everything from being an agoraphobic to a vampire, but I just like the indoors!

Q: What do you think is the best thing about being a writer?

A: That I can manage my own time and workload and create my stories from any premise I like, when I like. The autonomy is very important.

Q: And the worst thing?

A: Those times when I sit in front of the computer, a coffee at my side and fingers poised over the screen – and nothing comes. It doesn’t happen too often but when it does it can be soul destroying. Writers are insecure at the best of times [well, maybe not all] and when your mind is as blank as the screen, it’s hard to accept you will feel differently tomorrow, or maybe the next day. You think it’s over – forever!

Q: What’s your best advice to an aspiring author who is just starting out?

A:

  1. Find your author voice and have confidence in it.
  2. If you write, you are an author – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
  3. The story is the thing. A steadily moving plot, plenty of conflict and a satisfying ending is more important than flowery descriptions and a ton of woven in research. No one recalls what the heroine was wearing when she finally wins the battle or falls into her hero’s arms.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you?

A: My social media links:

BLOG: http://thedisorganisedauthor.blogspot.com

GOODREADS: http://www.goodreads.com/AnitaDavison

FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/anita.davison

TWITTER: @AnitaSDavison

LINKEDIN: https://www.linkedin.com/in/anita-seymour-davison-9ba57014/

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Other than promoting my current book? No, I don’t I think so, I have gone on long enough.

 

 

 

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The Baby in the Window

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A Conversation with Alretha Thomas

What happens when a happily married woman, determined to have a baby, discovers that her diabolical stepdaughter is the source of her infertility issues? This chilling premise is the subject of author/actor/playwright Alretha Thomas’ newest book, The Baby in the Window, the second in a compelling four-book series.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Let’s talk about how, when and where your passion for the written word was first ignited.

A: The fifth grade is where it all started! LOL. Wow, I can’t believe how long ago that was! My teacher gave us an assignment to write a short story. At the time, I was creating stories in my head, but I had never put my thoughts on paper. So needless to say, I was excited. I wrote a romantic comedy. It was about a supermarket bagboy and a young girl who was a customer. The following day my teacher told us that we all did well but that one piece stood out. My stomach flipped because I had this strange knowing feeling that she had chosen my work. I was right. While she read my story aloud, I scanned the faces of my classmates. Their wide eyes, open mouths and fits of laughter were intoxicating and validating. It was an amazing feeling and I knew at that very moment I wanted to be a writer.

Q: Were you a voracious reader growing up? If so, who were some of the authors whose work especially resonated with you and/or influenced your own style of expression?

A:  I loved to read. It was not only fun, but it allowed me to escape my dysfunctional childhood. While other kids in the projects were running after the ice cream truck, I was running after the Bookmobile! Growing up, Alice Walker, Tony Morrision, Lorraine Hansberry, Maya Angelou, and Zora Neal Hurston, wowed me, but it wasn’t until later in life that I began to develop my own voice, and I have to say the work of Terry McMillan and the late Bebe Moore Campbell influenced me greatly.

Q: I’m pleased to see that we share a common love of theater! Looking back, how has a theatrical background been instrumental in developing characters, crafting dialogue and envisioning scenes?

A: It’s been enormously helpful. Actually, before writing plays, I pursued acting and studied for several years. My acting background served me well when I began writing plays because as an actor, you have to break down the character and the scenes. In the process, you learn how to develop a character and how to structure scenes. As an actor, the first thing you ask yourself is “What is my character after?”  As an actor you know that your character should start one place and end up somewhere else. You know that there has to be drama. So when I began writing, I was aware of these elements. Every scene needs to drive the story forward. A scene has to start one place and up somewhere else. My characters have to have an objective. As an actor I read a lot of scripts—well-written scripts. So I got a sense of what realistic dialogue sounds like. It was invaluable knowledge.

Q: Which medium presents the greater challenge for you – writing a play or writing a novel?

A: Writing a novel is more challenging because it’s longer and more in-depth. For the record, I love the challenge. Writing a novel for me is definitely a labor of love. When crafting a novel, you’re creating an entire world. God did it in seven days, but I’m a mere mortal! LOL! I can complete the first draft of a play in a few weeks, but it can take up to three months to complete the first draft of a novel. The average full length play is approximately 20k words, whereas the average full length novel can run as long as 80k words.

Okay, I must include this disclaimer regarding the first book in the Cass & Nick series, Married in the Nick of Nine. I completed the first draft of this full length novel in four days! I had gotten laid off my corporate job in 2011 and that same week I was somehow compelled to query the novel. One caveat—it wasn’t complete—a definite no-no in the literary world. Never query an incomplete manuscript. I only had thirty-two pages. I queried one agent and, of course, the agent asked for the entire manuscript. This had never happened before. Usually I had to query over 300 agents to get a few responses. Crazy! So I got busy. I stayed up for four days straight writing. I was like Bradley Cooper in the movie Limitless, but instead of the fictional drug NZT, I was riding on faith and prayer. I submitted the novel, but needless to say the agent passed! I got great feedback, but no cigar. I eventually got the novel in tiptop shape and it’s since been published.

Q: What governed your decision to write a series and how was your creative approach to its structure different from that of a stand-alone novel?

A: I didn’t set-out to write a series. As mentioned, Married in the Nick of Nine was a single novel. However, after it was published, readers wanted to know what happened next with Cass & Nick. They fell in love with the couple and so did I. I had to give them more stories. So after marriage comes baby…right, The Baby in the Window. That’s the second book in the series. Being that I didn’t intend on writing a series, I approached Married in the Nick of Nine in the same way I do all of my novels.

Q: Is it imperative that someone read the first book in the series, Married in the Nick of Nine, in order to follow what’s going on?

A: I wrote The Baby in the Window as a stand-alone novel so that it can be enjoyed even if a reader doesn’t have the opportunity to read Married in the Nick of Nine. I also made a point to reference major plot points and include other pertinent information from Married in the Nick of Nine so that new readers can easily be brought up to date. However, for the ultimate ride, I’d suggest readers begin with Married in the Nick of Nine.

Q: Tell us about Cass and Nick and what makes them tick as watchable characters? Are they fashioned after anyone you know in real life?

A: Cass is a modern-day woman. She’s strong, independent, smart, owned her own home before she was married and is on the fast track at her corporate job. She’s also a strong A-type personality and that tends to get her in trouble. Sometimes she can be on the controlling side and she invariably finds out the hard way that it’s better to let go and let God when it comes to things that she cannot completely control, such as finding the perfect partner and having a baby. Cass also has a big heart and can be funny. She volunteers at a shelter for women. In terms of her humor, there’s a scene in The Baby in the Window where she’s at church and goes to the altar for prayer. A man with a receding hairline and a woman wearing a large hat approach the altar also. Cass wonders to herself if the man is praying for hair and the woman for better taste in hats.  Cass wasn’t fashioned after anyone in particular. I’d have to say she’s my fantasy woman, i.e., the woman I wish I could have been from the beginning of adulthood. I started out more like Cass’s crazy cousin Cynthia. That was in my 20’s and 30’s. Today I am more like Cass.

Nick is the kind of man I would want every woman to have. He’s real easy on the eyes, loves Cass to death, is loyal, a hard worker, but not flawless. He tends to procrastinate when it comes to making hard decisions and he hasn’t always been the most truthful man. His heart has been in the right place, but he’s made poor choices, especially when he meets Cass for the first time. But his good looks, charm, and love for Cass make it easy to look past his faults.  Nick, like Cass, isn’t based on a specific person. He is my fantasy man. Don’t laugh, but I have a serious crush on Nick!

Q: How about the diabolical stepdaughter?

A: Renee is the antagonist in The Baby in the Window. She’s thirteen going on forty with a bad attitude. In her mind, Cass is the enemy and she’s determined to get rid of her. Granted she’s been through a lot with her real mother, but she takes troubled teen to a whole ‘nother level. I try to write my characters three-dimensionally. No person is all bad or all good. So as much as the reader will grow to detest Renee, I’ve written her in such a way that there will be times when you want to not only hit her, but give her a hug.

Q: Do you already have an idea where their fictional lives will take them as the series unfolds or do you invite them to “talk” to you as you write?

A: It’s a combination of both. The characters are so real and alive to me they’re always talking to me and I’m always thinking about the next step. That’s one of the most gratifying aspects of being a writer…having the power to orchestrate lives.

Q: If Hollywood comes calling to turn Cass and Nick’s story into a feature film, who would your dream cast be?

A: At a recent book club meeting (Sistahs Read Too, in Los Angeles) that question was asked. Casting Cass and Nick isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. From a producer’s point of view I’d want to go with a name. Jennifer Hudson comes to mind. She’s the right age and has the right look. I ran across an actor the other day that could be a good Nick. His name is Lawrence Saint-Victor. But on the other hand, I’d love to have unknowns cast and surround them with named actors. The women of the book club thought a young Blair Underwood would make a great Nick.

Q: Your debut novel, Daughter Denied, was published back in 1999. What motivated you to start writing again after 14 years and how has that journey been different from your original foray into publishing?

A: After writing my first novel, I put it on the shelf and took it off the shelf for several years. During this period of vacillation, I wrote several plays that were produced in the Los Angeles area. It was Barack Obama deciding to run for president that gave me the courage to self-publish my debut novel, nine years after writing it. Once the book hit and I started getting feedback from readers, I felt like that fifth grade student again. I had to write another book. The industry has changed a great deal since 1999. I recall having to use snail mail. I spent a lot of money on postage. Most agents or publishers did not accept electronic submissions. Now it’s just the opposite. Contact information for agents and publishers was limited. Now you can find everything on the Internet. The competition was not as fierce fourteen years ago either. With the advent of E-Books, everyone is writing, has written, or wants to write a book and not everything in the market place is on a quality level.

Q: How did you go about choosing a publisher for your work?

A: My work is self-published.

Q: What do you know about publishing now that you didn’t know when you started?

A: It’s driven by the bottom line. I thought that if you had a good story and it was written fairly well, then you were guaranteed a deal. However, I was very naïve. Publishing is a business and houses want to make money. They need to know that your book is going to sell. That’s why it’s very difficult for a first-time author to land a publishing deal and easier for a well-known entertainer to get a lucrative deal, even if they have no writing credits. It’s their following that the publishers know will guarantee that the book sells.

Q: As an indie writer, how are you marketing and promoting the series so that readers will discover it?

A: I utilize social media to the max, i.e.,  Facebook and Twitter. I’m always posting about my novels. If I get a new 5-star review, I announce that. I post about book club meetings. I attend book fairs. I am currently connecting with book clubs across the country, offering complimentary books in exchange for reviews and to be added to their reading lists. I do something to market my book multiple times a day. I’ve also run commercial spots on radio stations in Los Angeles and Atlanta. I participate in Blog Talk Radio Interviews. You name, it I do it!

Q: So many aspiring writers lament that they don’t have time to write all the books bouncing around in their heads. You, however, manage to get this done despite a full-time job and a 350-mile-a-week commute. How do you do it?

A: I’ve never had writer’s block. Writing comes easily to me and it helps that I don’t have any children. My husband is a talented pianist, so while he’s on his keyboards, I’m typing away at the computer. We both put a lot of time into our passions.

Q: What would readers be most surprised to learn about you?

A: I have a 99-year-old mother-in-law who will be 100 in January 2014!

Q: What’s the one thing you wish someone had told you before you decided to become a writer?

A: Don’t become a writer. LOL! Just kidding.  I wish they had really told me how difficult it is to get an agent and a publisher. I’m sure I wouldn’t have listened anyway. I love writing. BTW, after thirteen years, I finally landed an agent. A great one at that. Stacey Donaghy of the Donaghy Literary Group.

Q: What’s your best tip to aspiring writers?

A: Never give up! It’s a cliché, but true.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I want to thank each and every person who took the time to read this interview. Thank you!

Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

A:  At my author website. www.Alrethathomas.com.