Historical Romance Writer
So who is Juliet Landon?
It would have been a bit confusing for the readers of the embroidery books to find that there was another woman called Jan Messent writing something completely different, to put it mildly. So it was decided that another name would be best, that's all.
Why choose Mills and Boon?
Because at the time I wanted to try my hand at historical fiction with a view to (eventually) writing a fictional story based on the making of the Bayeux Tapestry. I offered a historical romance to Mills and Boon because they are one of the rare publishers who accept un-solicited manuscripts for reading and, to my surprise, they accepted it. And that's how it started, and since the writing of historical fiction is so enjoyable, Juliet Landon has continued to weave her way through Jan Messent's embroidery activities.
Questions for Juliet Landon
Q. What did you most like about being a writer of romantic fiction?
A. From a creative point of view, I like being involved in a fictional world where women live rather glamorous lives and meet wonderful people, and do wicked things that were rather unconventional at a time when the rules about propriety were strict...
My heroines are independent and often unruly, the way I never dared to be. Pure escapism, but I believe this is what gives pleasure to readers of romance, as much as it does to me. I also like being able to walk away from the problems of my characters, then to return and sort them out when I've thought of an unusual solution. Great fun!
Q. Why historical fiction instead of contemporary?
A. Since I read my first historical novel (possibly Black Beauty?), I have discovered a way of learning history that is pleasanter by far than the kind we learned at school...
I learned that social and political history are inter-connected, and that each period of study generates further interest in the periods on either side of it. I love the research.
Q. Do you have a favourite period?
A. Yes, when I began to study the Bayeux Tapestry, I became fascinated by the Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods...
I found that to know more about conditions in England at that time gave me more of an insight into how and why the tapestry was made, where, and how, by whom, and for what reasons. My first story, however, was centred around the Opus Anglicanum period of English embroidery (13th and 14th centuries) so I set my characters in the Yorkshire Dales and in York, which was familiar territory to me. I thought, as an embroiderer, I could bring something authentic to the story. Looking back, I'd like to re-write it. Since then, I have written stories set in Roman Britain, the Middle Ages, the Anglo-Saxon period, and Regency England, with a brief venture into the 17th century. These are all favourites, but the only one in which I cannot raise any enthusiasm is the Victorian era.
Q. Where do you go for inspiration?
A. I have a large library of history and art books, and I find that reading about history generates new stories and new situations, particularly concerning women and their rights or, to be more precise, their non-rights...
Social unrest, deprivation, unfair laws, women's struggles against convention, family feuds and delinquency all make for an interesting background to the emotional tangles of the hero and heroine. There is never a time when I'm stuck for inspiration. Changing periods keeps me on my toes and demands more research and more invention. I also tried writing in the first person recently and, despite fearing that I might find it inhibiting, it was quite a challenge, and thoroughly enjoyable. (Marrying the Mistress: Juliet Landon 2009).
Q. How much research do you do, and how do you know when to start writing?
A. One of the snares in researching a period of history is, because it's less demanding than the actual writing, one is tempted to go on for ever and never start the story...
I like to do a lot of reading beforehand, even if I'm familiar with the period, so that I know my location as well as if I've lived there, the social conditions, the people, and what was happening locally and politically. One cannot ignore things like floods and droughts, wars and pestilence, important social changes and, if the story is near the royals, the monarchy situation. For wealthy characters with connections at court, entering royal circles was more usual than it would be today. But beware, court etiquette can be quite a tangle of do's and don'ts, whatever the period.
I keep my information on record cards in file boxes because they're easier to access that way, but only the sources of my information, not the notes themselves, as this could involve whole chapters. This tells me which book to look in, the page numbers and the cross references. Everything is to hand. For my characters, I write every detail down on file cards, and sometimes draw them too so that I can describe them without forgetting who has blue grey eyes! I also write the physical description, temperament, early life, relatives and close friends, background story that affects the future story, Skills like musicianship, fencing, horsemanship and dancing, etc.. Only when I feel I know my story and my characters in enough detail for at least the first 20,000 words (i.e. about three chapters) do I begin to write, knowing that the extra details that come out of this will also move the story on, although the direction of the story should follow the synopsis sent to the editor beforehand. (No, she doesn't accept anything you throw at her: she likes to have a good idea of what you're proposing before you start, so that she can approve or not.) By the way, the Mills and Boon editors are delightful people to work with.
I work from a page of notes that gives me the chapter outline and main events, in order, and this usually overflows into the next chapter when my characters do something I had not expected or because something has to be explained before the chance is lost. If this ties in with the story, I let it stay, but if a character threatens to divert the plot, I either revise my plan or bring it back on course. The writing has to be shaped to fit a certain number of words and characters, to maintain momentum, to contrast highs and lows, to keep the characters in view, to add enough colour but not to swamp the action, and to keep the story alive at all times.
Q. What one piece of advice would you give to a writer wanting to start a career?
A. Do what I didn't have the chance to do and attend a course in creative writing...
Such courses show writers how to structure a story, how to find an individual style, pitfalls like "flashbacks" and viewpoints. You may have the most original story in the world, but unless you're a naturally gifted writer, you'll need to learn how to string it together. If you cannot do a course, read books about writing fiction, and read other authors whose work you admire, not with a view to emulating them but to see how they handle words and sentences, ideas and events, conversations and emotions. Writing needs practice and perseverance. It doesn't come easily.
Q. Do you write straight onto the computer?
A. No, I use paper and pen for the first two drafts. As an artist, I like to have a pen in my hand, to see the marks on the paper, to see all my alterations, and to sit in comfort when I'm creating...
I put this onto my laptop, tidy it up, print it out, make corrections, then continue with the next chapter. This way, I can see more clearly what I'm doing and refer to my previous chapters in page and paper format easily. There is, of course, plenty of "tweaking" to be done at a later stage.
Q. What has been the reaction of friends to you writing romantic fiction?
A. In the early years, I kept Juliet's romantic streak very quiet, only a few friends know about her...
When it became known to my embroidering friends that I was writing romantic fiction, I was not too surprised to find that the reaction was mixed, some of them raising rather shocked eyebrows (can eyebrows be shocked?) at the odd mixture of professional embroiderer and writer of what they scathingly called "bodice rippers", which, although there is a certain level of appropriate sensuality in them, my Mills and Boon historical romances are definitely not.
Undaunted, I carried on doing what I enjoy best, mixing both professions successfully, having no problem reinventing myself whenever the occasion demands. Since I have declared both names in my more recent Mills and Boon books, I find that no-one who matters to me is in the least critical of what I do. If you find you have more than one skill, I say, then make the most of whatever you're given. Perhaps this is my unconventional streak.