Mary Brock Jones On How She Does Research For Her Historical Novels + The Future of The Historical Fiction Genre

Mary Brock Jones (2)Name: Mary Brock Jones
Website: Mary Brock Jones
Blog: Mary Brock Jones Blog
Facebook: Facebook Page
Goodreads: Goodreads Page
Twitter: Twitter Handle
Hometown: Born on a farm near Oamaru, South Island, New Zealand.
Based In: Auckland, New Zealand.
Education: BSc, Zoology; BVSc, Veterinary Science, and have just finished a Graduate Diploma, English.
Briefly: I live in Auckland, New Zealand with my husband and a cat, now that our sons have all grown up and moved out. We recently bought a farm just north of the city, so escape there most weekends to wrestle with the gardens and play farmer, then traipse back to town and the traffic during the week to earn the money to pay for it. I write historical romance novels and science fiction, though have only had my SF short stories published so far. Novels: A Heart Divided (Escape Publishing, April 2013) and Swift Runs the Heart (Escape Publishing, Sept 2013). Awards: RWNZ Clendon Award Reader’s Choice, 2012.

Favorite Read: There are so many books, but ones I have read repeatedly include Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series, Nora Roberts Chesapeake Blue, Nalini Singh’s works, particularly Kiss of Snow and Slave to Sensation, Catherine Asaro’s Skolian series, particularly Diamond Star, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and M.M. Kaye’s Trade Winds. As you can see, I like series. Other favourite authors include Robert Heinlein for sci-fi, the brilliant Georgette Heyer for historical romance, Jayne Anne Krentz and her alter egos, Jayne Castle and Amanda Quick, and fellow New Zealand contemporary romance authors Jackie Ashenden and Karina Bliss. A stand out book that defines for me what it means to be a New Zealander is Man Alone, by John Mulgan. Trade Winds also gave me the lines of Elizabethan poetry that epitomize what storytelling is for me.

“Teach me to hear mermaids singing,”
From John Donne’s “Go and Catch a Falling Star”

With a host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander.

By a knight of ghostes and shadowes
I summon’d am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wild world’s end.
Methinks it is no journey.
From “Tom O’Bedlam” by Anon.

Pet Peeves: Kindle e-books open at the beginning of chapter 1, rather than at a blurb to remind me what the book I bought months beforehand is actually about.

If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be…Maybe a journalist, so I could indulge my ‘nosiness’ even more.

Author Crush: Dorothy Dunnett for the vividness and glory of her writing.

Fiction or General Publishing How-To Book You’d Recommend: Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Writer’s Digest, 2001.Stephen King’s On Writing, Hodder, 2001.

Both of these are easy to read, and very much ‘can do’ books. Also helpful are the many standard screenwriting guides, for tips on how to structure a story, communicate information non-verbally and keep your writing and dialogue tight and effective. Examples are Save the Cat by Blake Snyder ( ), Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field, and Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (and Screenwriters!) by Alexandra Sokoloff.

Up Next: I’m currently working on a science fiction novel, involving a climate change theme.

What’s the first book that comes to mind when you think of your childhood?

All of the Narnian books, for the fantasy and the characters. Talking animals — irresistible!

How did you get interested in writing in the historical romance genre?

I’ve always loved history and did toy with the idea of being an archaeologist as a young girl, but it was the stories that fascinated me more than spending hours scraping inches of dirt of obscure artifacts. So historical novels were an early favorite, including those by Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Renault. Then in my late teens I discovered historical romance, such as the deft comedy of Georgette Heyer, and was hooked.

Was 19th Century New Zealand the only setting you thought of for your first novel A Heart Divided?

A Heart Divided came from the setting, so it could never have been set elsewhere. It started with my reading of the tragedy of the miners lost in a snow storm during the first winter of the Otago rush, and I decided to visit the site of the monument at Gorge Creek when next down south. My opening scene came as I drove over the hill from a rough, rocky section of the route inland into the peaceful Fruitlands valley. It felt like deliverance and a refuge, and that was my heroine’s starting point. It’s usually like that for me — I need an opening scene, complete with setting and at least one main character, then the rest of the book comes from that. Then I found a lovely old stone cottage in the Fruitlands valley, and my heroine had found the home she had been looking for all her life. My hero came from the enduring strength of that stone cottage.

Are you convinced that a book’s cover can sell it?

A good cover is a huge part of what brings a book to a reader’s attention, particularly when browsing online, but only the writing inside will sell the book. My own technique when browsing is to check out books that look interesting, including which covers appeal to me at an emotional level, then I’ll read the blurb. If that sounds intriguing, I’ll read a page or two. However, if either the writing or the story fails to capture me, then I won’t buy. Good writing will get me to persevere with a slower starting story, but poor writing gets tossed as soon as I meet it. Nor is it likely I’m more brutal than other readers. It’s why as authors we have to ensure that the work we put out there for readers is the very best we can make it. Don’t expect readers to give you a second chance, ever.

In creating Geraldine Mackenny for your latest novel Swift Runs the Heart, did you use real-life people to make her more authentic?

Not that I am aware of. I never know precisely where a character comes from, though I have seen it written that all characters are aspects of the author’s own character and there is an element of truth in that. I also like to people watch to see how we act and interact. It’s an essential ‘hobby’ for any writer, but good research is the bedrock for creating authentic historical characters.

For Geraldine, I wanted her to be born in New Zealand, even though that would have been rare in that time, so I needed to find a credible back story for her. At the time of her birth in the late 1830’s, there were few Europeans in that part of New Zealand apart from whalers and one small farming community. So that was where her parents came to and where she was born. It’s only briefly mentioned in the book, but I do know the full story of how her parents came to be there and then moved inland, and all does match with the actual timeline for the early settlement of coastal and inland Otago. Apart from that, she is of renegade Scottish and Irish descent because I’m of Scottish and Irish ancestry, and also because I liked the underlying cultural tension that would create with the hero, who is English. None of that is overtly written in the book, but it informs the way I wrote about these two characters.

A Heart Divided_Finals

What was the editing and revising phase like for this book?

My own revisions tend to take quite a long time, and involve a series of re-drafts. I handwrite the first draft, then transfer to computer and edit from there. Structurally, the overall shape of Swift Runs the Heart was mostly set in the first draft, but it was a bit short, so I added in another chapter then found that it actually filled in a lot of confusing holes in the rest of text.

I tend to do that quite a lot. The accepted dogma is that revising is about cutting stuff out, and it is to a certain extent, but it’s also about adding in the forgotten bits. As an author, you know the characters and back story so well that you don’t realize you have failed to let the reader in on it too. It easier to see what’s missing once the first few drafts are completed and the overall scheme of the story becomes clear.

Once accepted for publishing, it was a different matter. Escape Publishing, my publisher, is an e-book imprint of Harlequin, and a feature of e-publishers is a very quick turnaround. There is no time to do other than concentrate solely on what is essential to make the story better, and what can go, which is actually quite liberating. Forget literary tantrums and grieving over cuts that are made. No time for such nonsense! Fortunately there were no major changes or re-writes needed, and I do enjoy working with professional editors. You both have the same aim; to make the book the best it can be, and remembering that makes for a happy collaboration.

How can aspiring authors get better at writing?

The old adage of write, write and write some more is very true. Also, seek out and join supportive writer’s organizations and find ways of getting your work critiqued well before you put it anywhere near an agent or publisher. There are a number of online critique groups and writing competitions that give entrants feedback on their stories.

Do you have a research process?

It varies, depending on the book in progress. For my historicals, the research phase is cumulative over a long period of time, which is not a problem for me. Like most historical writers, I adore the research side and can spend hours wandering through museums or browsing book shelves. Second hand book shops are a treasure house, particularly for local histories of a town or region or old collections of local stories, and it’s relatively simple now to find copies of historical newspapers online. I do feel it is important to read works from the time period of your book to get the rhythm and feel of the language of the time, how people thought, what was their outlook, their dreams and goals. Doing this lets an author absorb enough of a period sense to give their writing that necessary feeling of authenticity. So for A Heart Divided, I read factual and social histories of the area, newspaper clippings, browsed credible internet sites, and traveled to Fruitlands where my hero’s home is set, as well as revisiting some of the other sites. Google satellite helped in working out the details of the landforms, particularly the top of the Old Man Range. I also needed to find out what the flora and fauna was like at the start of European settlement of the area as modern farming practices and introduced pest species have dramatically changed much of the landscape.

Then as I get further into a book, the research is more focused on smaller details. What kind of gun would have been used by the troops protecting the gold shipments in Swift Runs the Heart, what kinds of food they ate, how to use a clump of grass to boil enough water for a cup of tea, what materials were used to build the shops and buildings in the gold rush townships, how did the early miners get their gold out? Once the final draft is done, I go back again to check that the timeline and locations match the known facts and recorded events. Historical fiction may not be a precise record of history, but it cannot contradict known facts unless as the author you have a particular reason for doing that. With my science fiction stories, I still need to research the science behind my stories, to ensure my setting and ideas are credible, but at least I can make up the timeline and landscape. That’s so much fun.

0913 Swift Runs The Heart_500

Are you able to write anywhere, or is there a certain environment that you favor?

I need to feel free from fear of being interrupted so work best late in the evening, or in a café where no one knows me. Plus there must be music. I always wear earphones, both to give me background music and to cut out the rest of the world.

What tips do you have to offer to beat writer’s block?

First, recognize whether you have writer’s block or are just procrastinating. Generally, it’s more the latter, so sit in that chair and start writing. It doesn’t matter if it is any good — a first draft is made to be edited anyway — as long as you add something to the story. If you get stuck while in the middle of writing something, then that is writer’s block and often it’s because you need ‘musing’ time. Put the story out of mind, go for a walk or doing something physical, and let your subconscious do its thing. It is amazing how soon the next bit will come to you.

What have you learned so far about building readership?

Not sure I know too much at all about this. The whole marketing side of the book industry is still a huge mystery to me.

Are there some things you wish you had known before you published your first book?

Yes, how to build readership and all the other parts of the publicity side of being an author. In the current market, authors have to work very hard to have their work noticed among the ever burgeoning numbers of books out there.

What do you think is in store for the historical fiction genre?

Readers of historical romance are very loyal to their genre, and that core will remain. However, it is exciting to see the newer regions and periods being explored by authors now, as well as the crossover into mixed genres, such as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series and the whole steam punk genre. The stories of the past are still as evocative, still as relevant to the readers of today as ever. Mary Queen of Scots will remain tragic and complex, the explorers who opened up our world as driven and courageous, the pioneering families as insanely staunch. What the internet and modern communications has done is introduce readers to wider possibilities, culturally and historically, and that creates exciting possibilities for both authors and readers. So I think historical fiction will thrive thanks to the ever increasing diversity of potential subjects and stories to explore. Think of the Australian set historical romances put out by my publisher, Escape Publishing, and the winning of Britain’s Booker awards recently by New Zealand writer, Eleanor Catton with The Luminaries, also set in New Zealand’s gold rush era. Readers are open to good stories, whenever or wherever they may be set, and that is great for historical writers.

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3 thoughts on “Mary Brock Jones On How She Does Research For Her Historical Novels + The Future of The Historical Fiction Genre

  1. I would love to see Ms. Brock’s book collection. I bet it is amazing with the type of research she does for her novels. <3 Great post!

  2. What a great interview Mary. I agree hugely … ‘like most historical writers I adore the research side’ and it is always the setting that kick starts a story for me too. My daughter only reminded me yesterday of the fact that my latest story began in “that wine bar I took you to in Sydney”!! I’ve read both of your historical romances and loved them – you might have to try and tempt me into the world of Sci Fi however. Have a wonderful 2014!

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