During this year’s York Literature Festival, Unknown Magazine met up with one of the key speakers at the event, well-renowned novelist Pamela Hartshorne, to discuss her literary works and latest projects. York’s art gallery café was a perfect setting for a chat with an author whose latest novels are set in the city.
Pamela Hartshorne was friendly, honest and chatty, discussing how she entered into the writing business as a way to fund her PhD in Medieval Studies, her love of travelling, and her passion for researching the streets of York as they were in the Middle Ages.
Q. Why did you decide to speak at the York Literature Festival this year?
A. Well to be honest, I’ve been trying to be a part of the York Festival for quite a long time, ever since I started writing for Pan MacMillan. I was originally a romance writer, I wrote sixty books for Mills & Boon to finance my PhD,and then I decided to take a different trajectory and started writing time-slips which are based on my research and set in York. The first one was published in 2012 and I thought it would be a good book to take to the festival and there never seemed to be a place for me,. But it was this year they invited me to talk at York Stories.
Q. Why did you decide to take your PhD in York?
A. Well, someone probably told me that York was the best place for Medieval Studies because I knew nothing about York!. But I am prone to making very sudden decisions. I used to travel, that’s all I ever wanted to do, and I read this book, Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, and it is about the life of Richard III. I was blown away by that book and decided that I was going to do a PhD in medieval history. I got home and I contacted the history department at University of York and they told me that I would need to do an MA first and I would need to do it in Medieval Studies, and that’s when I started writing. It took me about two years before I thought I would sell my flat and I would go to York. I hadn’t even got a place, it was madness – I wouldn’t do it now! I didn’t know anybody, and that was 25 years ago this year, my silver anniversary. I must say I have never regretted it and I loved being a student again. I hated it the first time round, I did French, but coming back and doing the MA here was fantastic. I absolutely loved it and I absolutely loved my PhD; I have finished it, but I am still trying to get through the records which are taking over my life.
I read this book, Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour, and it is about the life of Richard III. I was blown away by that book and decided that I was going to do a PhD in medieval history.
Q. Did you start writing romance novels because you read a lot in that genre?
A. No, I thought that would be easy and they would give me a cheque for £15,000, that would set me. It’s not easy at all actually. I wrote two sort of rubbish ones that got rejected. Then I did what I should have done at the beginning which is pick a book up from the library on how to write romance. I thought oh right, I better put dialogue in and use all five senses! That was really helpful, and so the next one I wrote using the guidance. Mills & Boon got back to me and said that they liked my voice but they didn’t think it was quite right for them. So then my fourth one they accepted and the first three have essentially been re-written. I was very happy writing them, but I had written fifty and the same year that I turned 50, I finished my PhD and I thought I need to do something a bit different. People said to me, why don’t you write an historical novel? At the beginning I was worried that it would never be authentic, it would never work, and it would be too hard. But then I started to think about it and I saw my agent. One of the ideas was a time-slip novel, where a character travels through time, so it is a way of describing the past through the character experiencing it. We don’t really know about the past and the only way to really know what it was like is through somebody who lived there. It can never be the same, so it is a version of the past, the way I would imagine the past.
My PhD was on the streets of York and there are fantastic records here about how they kept their public space. What the streets looked like, disposal of rubbish, and of the local court records. So I worked from those for a long time and that’s when I felt that I had a deep sense of the people who lived here at that time and that’s what I tried to convey in the first three books that I wrote, which are all set in York.
Q. Why did you choose to write about York?
A. I like to have a very strong setting, I think that is very important in any book that I read or write, and I love York. I have changed completely from someone who travelled lots to someone who can stay in one place for a great length in time. I have been asked by people, what were my first impressions of York, and I find York very intimate, and it is a city on a very human scale. You can walk everywhere and you meet people who you know wherever you go. It’s got everything that I think you need.
I like to have a very strong setting, I think that is very important in any book that I read or write, and I love York
Q. When writing historical novels, do you research in advance?
A. No, I kind of research as I go along. When I started writing the first one I thought I would be fine because of my PhD in Medieval Studies. I already knew about the pagans, but I realised that I needed small details about them, like what they ate for breakfast, what they wore. So I have a lot of books that I can turn to as I write. I type a first draft, which is rubbish and just to get the outline, then I go through the draft and I bring in a bit more texture and add the details. I bring in what they were doing and feeling. I look at recipe books. You still have to have contact with the reader, but you have to make it as exact as you can, though I do accept that you can’t put in everything completely accurate. Of course, every time you think you know something you doubt yourself. I had this idea that this character would have a doll, and that could be a theme that runs all the way through the novel. But I couldn’t find any reference to dolls and I eventually found that they had these dolls which don’t resemble the ones we have now; , you can’t take anything for granted.
Q. Why do you think there has been a growing interest in the time-slip and historical novel genre?
A. I think we are intrigued by the past, and I think it is important to make the past accessible to people. I like to show people what is the same between the past and the present, and show what is different too. It is thought that people in medieval Britain threw their waste out of windows, but they did care about the environment and they did want things clean and they did want nice neighbours. For us they would have been dirty, but for them they were putting things where they felt they should be. They cleaned themselves by rubbing themselves with cloth and water, and that is not what we do but they would get clean and that’s how they kept themselves clean.
I think it is important to make the past accessible to people
Q. Do you think it’s important that you give these people a voice?
A. One of the things about my research was that it was about ordinary people. It’s not about kings and queens and nobles. It’s just very ordinary people going about their normal lives in York, and about what they cared about, and they cared about things which we care about too. I did like that idea, because they have been largely neglected – I mean they’re just people they weren’t doing anything wrong, they were just being told how to behave and most of them did what they were told. They are people who are completely lost from history. I like that idea of giving them a voice again, but what I didn’t do was name the main characters after real people, though I do give real names to minor characters. There was an incident I found in the records about a man, Miles Fell, whose dog bit the unfortunate Nicholas Ellis on the leg. We know that it happened, but we don’t know where it happened. Though I feel that it happened in [the] Thursday market, and whenever I read it I am always shocked that the records don’t mention [the] Thursday market. Then when I wrote Time’s Echo I used this incident as a backdrop for where Hawise meets Francis Bewley for the first time.
Q. Through your work as an independent editor and an author, have you any advice for people who want to start fiction writing?
A. When I do my courses I start them off by asking five questions: the first one is why are you doing it? You need a key idea of why you are doing it. Whether it is that you want to win an award, or you want to see your book in print. Then you need to decide, what am I writing? Am I writing a romance? A crime, or a thriller? That will help you retain a structure and prevent you from getting lost. Then, when am I going to write? Are you going to set aside time to write? Then, how are you going to write? You’ve got to think about breaking it into achievable goals. I need to set myself short-term goals and I need to set out the number of words I need to achieve by that night. I read a brilliant article by Ann Lamott called ‘Bird By Bird’ – it is a story about her brother who, as a boy, had the whole holiday to do a huge project on birds and he left it to the last minute. On the last day of the holiday he was sat at the table, which was covered with pictures of birds, books, papers and pencils, and he was saying ‘I can’t do it, it is too much’. He was completely overwhelmed by how much he had to do, and his dad sat next to him and said ‘bird by bird buddy, bird by bird’. And that is what you have to do. So you have to know why you are doing it, what you are writing, and then have a plan and then anybody actually can write a book. The difficult thing is not writing one book, but writing another one and another one and another one and another one, that’s the hard bit. You see lots of people who write a brilliant first book and then struggle to write the next one.
Q. What are you working on at the moment?
A. I am working at the moment on a historical psychological thriller – The Miniaturist meets Gone Girl – which is set in Elizabethan London.
House of Shadows is released in paperback on Thursday 24th March. Pamela will be running a giveaway competition on her Facebook page that day.
Pamela will also be talking about writing historical fiction as part of the Ryedale Book Festival on Saturday 2nd April at 2.00pm at Norton Library.