Today’s interview is with the author of numerous books, primarily historical romances, Elizabeth Ellen Carter. She has created an impressive body of work for herself over the past few years, which anyone interested in quality history with a lot of love should check out here: http://eecarter.com/
You can also supporter her by getting a copy of her work here. She also has the distinction of being the first Ozzie I’ve interviewed for the Gab Interviews. We talk historical accuracy, what makes for good characters, conventions, and free speech.
- Tell us a little about yourself, where did you grow up, what was your family life like? Were you a big reader from an early age? Did your parents encourage you to be creative or was that more of an independent thing that came later in life?
I grew up in Australia in a coastal resort city called the Gold Coast. It’s in Queensland, Australia. My parents split up when I was nine-years-old. I was a pretty solitary child, so reading was my solace and so too was writing.
My mother encouraged me to write my own stories when I ran out of things to read in the house when I was on school holidays. Over the years I made half-hearted attempts to write a novel, but it wasn’t until the past four years that I got serious about it.
- When did you first become interested in writing as a career? Were you a hobbyist or an essayist before becoming a novelist? I know you were a journalist and ran a PR firm, how did that contribute to you becoming a successful writer?
Well, being a journalist does make you very good at making deadlines! It also taught me how to structure a story and how to research too – since I write historical the research part is vital.
Before I got serious about writing stories, my husband and I wrote a conservative political and social commentary blog for a while, but like many bloggers, we suffered from burn out and decided to put our focus into other areas.
- Which books really contributed to your style? Which books are near and dear to your heart?
I love the classics. In fact, it’s funny you ask this question because I was going through all of our books just a couple of weeks ago (I had a rush of blood to the head and did some long neglected housework…). Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie are major influences and, depending on what historical period I’m writing in, other influences include CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Robert Graves, Philippa Gregory and Colleen McCullough.
- You write historical romances with pictures of impossibly good looking people on the cover. What drew you to writing romance novels? How would you say that a historical romance differs from other types of romances?
LOL! They are gorgeous aren’t they? I have a theory about that. When it comes to romances where the focus is on the relationship journey of the hero and heroine, you are seeing each of them through the other’s eyes – so of course they see each other as good looking!
I love writing romance because I love a happily ever after. I want the two people I’ve come to care for and cheer on to be happy and in love. Yes, I am an incurable romantic. J What I like doing is exploring the relationship beyond the acknowledgement of feelings – that’s the easy part. I want to experience how the couple whether adverse circumstances to come out stronger on the other side, so my couples end up together about half way through my stories.
I describe what I write as historical romantic suspense. The characters and the story have to be true to the time and place. I’m not a fan of ‘ball gowns and bling’, for a historical romance to be satisfying to me, I have to know something about that period in history. You can’t do justice to Regency if you don’t mention the Napoleonic wars or the impact of the Industrial Revolution, for instance.
From my perspective, I enjoy exploding some of the myths people have about particular periods in time. In Warrior’s Surrender which is set in 1077, we see a sophisticated Anglo-Norman society, not the Monty Python parody of the ‘Dark Ages’, in Moonstone Obsession and its sequel Moonstone Conspiracy, I take a look at the darker side of the Enlightenment movement and origins of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.
- What do you think it is that makes audiences love romance novels so much? And do you find that you have a (surprising) number of male readers as well?
I think romance novels remain enduring for a couple of different reasons — it gives us a guaranteed happy ending and it allows us to explore the human condition.
I’m delighted to day that I do have a few male readers (including my husband who is quick to tell me during the editing phase if I have male psychology wrong!).
I enjoy writing action scenes (and no, I don’t just mean the sex scenes J ) – things like sword fights, fist fights and shipwrecks. It helps create a bigger universe in the story and for men, that’s important. I like to return romance to its broader concept of heroism and chivalry – Beowulf, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel are all romances. The movie Die Hard is a romance.
And on that basis, if a love story is about drama and action as it is the feelings and emotional connection, I think guys will love it.
- Does one have to be in love to write a romance? Or is that like asking if you have to be an astronaut to write sci-fi?
No, I don’t think you have to be in love to write romance. What it does take is an understanding of human nature. To take a risk of opening yourself up to someone on a physical, emotional and spiritual level takes great courage. Finding the courage to be that vulnerable is what makes a romance.
- What types of themes and ideas to you like to insert into your work? I would imagine that a romance has the potential to explore themes that would be nearly impossible in something like sci-fi.
I think there are a lot of similarities between sci-fi and historical romance. I believe human nature is immutable. It doesn’t matter if you lived 50 years ago, 500 years ago or by the other token, 50 years or 500 years into the future, people still live, love, laugh, show create courage or exhibit selfishness or great evil.
What historical romance and sci-fi have in common is the opportunity to explore human nature and the recurring patterns of effect and consequence without the self-consciousness of contemporary fiction.
- You write short stories as well as novels. What is the appeal of the short form for you? How do your readers respond to seeing characters from your Moonstone Obsession, for example, in a short?
I love writing huge 100,000 adventures, so short stories take a special form of discipline. Writing a short story is like telling a good joke – get in with the set up early, provide a bit of misdirection and get in with the punchline.
The Moonstone Promise story which is in the Valentine’s Heat anthology was a bridging short story between Moonstone Obsession and Moonstone Conspiracy. It is a standalone but it did give me the opportunity to give a favourite secondary character a romance.
Speaking of sci-fi, I’m about to start revising a sci-fi short story for a competition.
- How did you get hooked up with Etopia publishing? How long did you work before obtaining a publishing deal, and did you take the first deal you were offered or did you shop around a bit?
I was so nervous about my first book (Moonstone Obsession) I nearly didn’t submit it for publication, but I got some great feedback on my manuscript from a competition that I sent submissions here, there and everywhere including Etopia Press because another author I knew was published with them. And yes, I took the first contract I was offered. I was glad because I worked with a really good editor and got a better understanding of novel writing technique which is so completely different to any other form of writing I had ever done.
- Which eras and geographies of history interest you the most and why? Are you formally trained in history or are you a casual reader?
I joke that I’ve never met a period of history I didn’t like! I love history but I’m not a scholar – thank God for the Internet, it makes research so much easier! My husband jokes that in a typical hour’s work on a manuscript, it is twenty minutes research for every five minutes writing – he’s not far wrong.
- What is the difference between romance and erotica in terms of genre conventions and what the audience expects to read?
Romance is concerned with the emotional journey, first and foremost. Erotica is much more tied up (pardon the pun) with the physical relationship first and the emotional connection secondary. There may be sex scenes in a romance but you could take out those scenes and not lose the story. In erotica, the sex is the centerpiece.
Most romance readers do enjoy at least one sex scene in the story and that sex scene may be somewhat explicit or may focus less on the mechanics of the sex act in favour of how the characters are feeling emotionally and spiritually at that time.
- How do you know you’ve written a really good love scene? Do you rely upon beta readers or do you just know because you can’t stop thinking about it yourself?!
You just know when you’ve written a good love scene – yes, authors can get a bit hot and bothered too! – because it should be the result of our hero and heroine making the decision to make themselves emotionally vulnerable. They’re risking their hearts, they’re risking being hurt or rejected or being haunted by their past and yet in this instance they are equals, both vulnerable and yet stronger together.
But it’s more than that. For instance, I’m writing a scene at the moment in which our in love hero and heroine are being forced apart by circumstances. I’m just gutted for them because I can see both sides of the story and the drama is in the fact the hero and heroine don’t see that.
In my stories, characters have their ‘dark night of the soul’ and they can be emotionally draining to write. I had one reader tell me they cried when they read a scene in which the hero fears that he has to abandon the woman he loves in order to save her.
You know when you have those moments in your story.
- There is a lot of talk about the relationship between religion and science in sci-fi stories. Do you ever include any reference to religious figures or religious themes in your work and explore how they can impact the love between characters?
One of the reasons I enjoy writing historicals is the opportunity to look at the role religion plays in people’s lives. I get a bit annoyed with lazy fiction writing in which a person of faith or the clergy is depicted as being corrupt or ineffectual. It’s cheap, tired and done to death.
One of my favourite religious characters from my books is Friar Dominic in Warrior’s Surrender. He’s an honest, forthright priest who is instrumental in helping our killer identify and capture a serial killer.
In Moonstone Conspiracy the hero and heroine who are on the run in Paris during the Reign of Terror meet a young man who was a seminarian before the Revolution. He has no authority to marry our couple, but he tells them ‘to hell with that’ and gives them a religious marriage without the blessing of the state.
A recently completed manuscript (I’m in negotiations with a new publisher) is set in 3rd century Rome and I get to explore the clash of religious faith among the Roman state religion, Christianity and a pagan religion based an ancient Syrian cult.
- What is your process like? Do you have a special writing spot or time you retreat to? Do you wait for the muse or do you sit down trusting that she will show up when you put thought to paper?
I’m pretty adaptable. Most of the time I put my feet up on the sofa and start writing. I try to get 1000 words down a day as a matter of discipline – you can’t edit what you don’t write!
Fortunately I’m not short of ideas. My current work in progress is set in the early 19th century and centres on the Barbary Coast pirates that raided and enslaved millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of Europeans.
What started as a standalone title is going to spin off into another two books. I’m also about to start work on a six book Medieval murder-mystery series in 2017. All-in-all, I have about 10 story concepts and the list keeps getting bigger.
Before starting each manuscript I write a story outline first, but if I ever get stuck, I just leave it for a day or two to unknot the plot and keep going.
- You are known for putting a good amount of historical accuracy into your novels. How long do you research the world of the characters, and the characters themselves, before you begin writing?
I start with the period of history first and then humanize it with a human conflict. Again, thank goodness for the internet and generous history scholars who freely share their research online!
Because I’m an author and not a scholar, I use the historical period to inform the characters beliefs and expectations and then build the world so they move naturally through it. For instance, you want a character to enter a darkened room. In a contemporary story they would flick a light switch, in the 19th century they would strike a match and light a gas lamp, in the 16th century they would light a candle with a taper, in the 3rd century, light an oil lamp with a flint and striker.
All you’re doing is describing an everyday action using the available technology at the time but doing it in a matter of fact way and not pulling the reader out of the suspension of disbelief by making the characters self-conscious about doing it.
- What do you think is your greatest strength as a writer? Plot, character, theme? Or maybe something like persistence and a great work ethic?
Oh yikes! I’m not sure. I find it difficult to give myself an honest assessment, although I did get a nice e-mail just today from an agent who said I was a natural storyteller who creates strong plots.
Yes, work ethic and discipline has to be a key part of any author’s skill. Just dreaming a story doesn’t get it done, writing it does!
- What are you currently reading and what are you looking forward to in 2017?
I’m about to dive into some Thomas Hardy, Colleen McCullough and re-read some Camille Paglia and catch up with a few titles by some great author friends of mine – Susanne Bellamy, Amy Rose Bennett, Alison Stuart and Virginia Taylor.
Then it’s more writing. I want to write a six book medieval murder mystery series set in the early 13th century.
- Do you go to many conventions? And if so what is the environment like?
I’ve been to a few Australian conventions, but unfortunately the budget hasn’t stretched to conferences in the United States, but they are definitely on my bucket list. I need a few more book sales to make it happen!
Conferences are fun – 400 authors in one place talking books? Heavenly!
- We met over Gab.ai a free speech Twitter-like company, what are your feelings on things like free speech and the writing profession? Should there be limits on speech for examples like “hate speech” “bullying” or “offensive” terms?
Free speech is essential for exploring concepts, sharing ideas and solving problems. The wonderful Milo Yiannopoulos articulates the importance of free speech in his university talks. He points out, as did the late Andrew Breitbart did earlier, is culture is upstream of politics. What we’re seeing now is culture under threat.
We’ve seen it in academia, then the media – now we’re seeing intolerant barbarians coming after literature.
I don’t think it really hit home to me how pervasive this totalitarian ideology was until about four months ago when, the Brisbane Writers Festival – a minor literary festival in my capital city that no one other than the typical leftist SJWs go to – erupted into a major international incident. I blog on it here: http://eecarter.com/index.php/appropriate-appropriation/
But long story, short: hate speech, bullying and offensive terms are entirely subjective, and we’ve seen all too often these damaging accusations are carelessly flung around and do real harm to people’s careers and livelihoods.
The only limit to speech should be when it is used to incite actual crimes such as physical assault.
Being offended is not a criminal act, it is a free will choice. One can equally choose not to be offended. Hurt feelings are something for the owner of those feelings to process. They are not everyone else’s problem.
- What inspires you?
Great ideas inspire me. Great literature and art which helps me to look beyond the confines of my time, place and experience is endlessly inspiring. So too is letting yourself experiencing the wonder at the scale and intricate beauty of the natural world.