Sunday, 3 November 2013

An Interview with the Author Jenny Barden and the Opportunity to Win a Copy of Her Latest Release, 'The Lost Duchess'!

Jenny Barden is an artist-turned-lawyer-turned-writer with a love of history and adventure. She has travelled widely in the Americas, and much of the inspiration for her first two novels has come from retracing the steps of early adventurers in the New World. Jenny has four children and now lives on a farm in Dorset with her long suffering husband and an ever increasing assortment of animals. She is an active member of the Historical Novel Society, the Historical Writers’ Association and the Romantic Novelists’ Association. She is also possibly the only female author in possession of a fully functional replica Elizabethan caliver (a type of firearm which developed from the arquebus and was a precursor of the musket) and thus able to declare with conviction: ‘Avast! For God and St George!’

A very warm welcome to you Jenny, and can I thank you, for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us today.

Thank you most kindly for this opportunity, Calum; it's a great pleasure to talk with you and answer a few questions.

For the benefit of our International readers can you tell us a bit about the part of the world that you are currently resident in and why do you like living there?

I now live in Dorset, England, after a move from Hertfordshire earlier this year, and I love this part of the world for its beautiful countryside and ancient towns and villages. Sherborne is very close to me, the home of Sir Walter Raleigh in later life, and since my most recent book is about Raleigh's famous enterprise to found an English colony in America I think it's fitting that I should be here!

Can I ask what sort of books did you like reading as a child?

The books I enjoyed most were tales of myth and legend, adventures and fairy tales. I used to undertake quests with Hercules and Odysseus, join Galahad in his search for the Holy Grail, and ride across mountains with the last of the Mohicans. Stories about dragons, monsters and animals were favourites too, and I particularly loved those that rhymed.

Do you think the books that you read as a child have influenced your writing in any way?

Certainly they have. I think it's generally true that the loves we develop as children never entirely leave us, so, whilst I don't try to write like James Fenimore Cooper or the Brothers Grimm, I do enjoy writing about adventures.

Do you have a set routine when you are working on a novel?
When I'm in the thick of novel writing I try to be disciplined about cutting out distractions and getting a certain amount done each day, though that will vary depending upon whether I'm at the conceptual stage with any scene or mid flow in getting it down. I'm usually at my best first thing in the morning, so I'll start scribbling in bed as soon as I wake up if I have the opportunity. I also find it helps to go through my writing objectives for the following day before I go to sleep - it's amazing how much can be achieved subconsciously! Beyond that, I simply try to stick with it and do as much as I can.

Where do you do your writing best?

My best writing is usually done in my study, not in front of the computer. I like to have peace and quiet and a good view when I'm working. Sometimes my Bengal cat will come and sit on my knee and that can help me relax (or at least stop me getting up for too many cups of tea!). I find that thinking about what I'm going to write, surely the most important process of all, is often most productive when I'm out walking my dog, or pacing around the garden. Movement seems to free up my mind!

 Is there anything that you can't stand while you are writing?

A ‘ticking’ clock - perhaps because I can't bear to be reminded of time passing when I'm at work. While I'm bringing my stories to life I like to feel that time stops.

What else apart from your obvious interest in history helped you decide to actually write historical fiction novels?

The key impetus which led me to write my first novel was sight of the portrait by Carel Fabritius that hangs in the National Gallery. That painting, which I first saw over ten years ago, and the tiny amount of information I was able to find out about Fabritius, made me determined to discover more which culminated in my writing a fictionalised account of the artist's life. With that book, I secured an agent and the interest of editors, even though it remains unpublished. I've been writing historical fiction ever since.

When you are writing a novel, how do you place yourself into the time period that you are actually writing about? 

I use all sorts of tricks! Listening to music of the period is a favourite - the music of Tallis and Byrd, and the love songs of the lutenist John Dowland for example. I'll seek out fragrances associated with Elizabethan cooking such as rosemary and nutmeg. Paintings and portraits are an excellent resource for the way people looked and dressed as well as the interiors they inhabited. Museums and Galleries can be very useful, for example the fabulous exhibition that's on at the moment at the National Portrait Gallery: Elizabeth and Her People (where there's even an original tar stained mariner's tunic and galligaskins on display!). Another must for me is to go to the places where my books are set. Even if the buildings that stood over four hundred years ago no longer remain, there's usually something to find that will take me back in time - a bricked up window, the diamond pattern of Tudor brickwork in a surviving wall, a coat of arms over an archway, the lie of an old street - any of these details can be enough for me, and I'll take lots of photos so that when I come to write a scene in that location I'll have the pictures to take myself back there, and I'll put these together with the evidence for what that place would have been like at the time I'm writing about, using old maps and descriptions, even models and reconstructions if they're available. I also make good use of reference books such as Liza Picard's Elizabeth's ‘London’ which is packed full of interesting details about Elizabethan daily life. Basically, I try and immerse myself as much as I can in everything and anything I can find that will help me step back into the past. It's usually the minutiae of everyday existence that are far more important to this process than the 'history' in terms of notable events.

How do you go about imagining, developing and give real lives and personalities to the characters that we read about within in your books?
In developing character I think it's most important to understand where the characters are coming from: their past and motivations and the influences that have shaped them. So with Emme Fifield in my most recent book, I conceived her back story - of being a minor baron's daughter who had lost her mother at a young age and had then been displaced in her father's affections by the son of her stepmother - and that helped me imagine her in later life. Deep down she is rather lonely and uncertain of her position but determined not to be pushed around; she has had to be resourceful and cope with alienation, and this gives her inner strength. After she joins the Queen's household she is raped by a nobleman and that leaves her scarred psychologically and nervous of any man's touch. She feels defiled and longs for escape; in part this leads to her joining the expedition to the New World - she wants a fresh start. She is also attracted to Kit, the handsome mariner with a troubled past, but she cannot bear any physical contact with him. That makes for an interesting dynamic between them! At the beginning of each new scene I remind myself of the characters' histories, and what they want to achieve at that point in the story, and how they are likely to react to one another. When the writing is flowing well I simply watch and listen to the characters speaking. In this sense I think of myself as an observer, just jotting down what is playing out before me. 

Did you encounter any difficulties in getting your first book accepted and published?

'Difficulties' is an understatement! I had all manner of setbacks and disappointments. Even after finding a good agent and getting the interest of editors my novels were repeatedly turned down at acquisition meeting; that's terribly upsetting because hopes inevitably rise, and to go through the agony of the wait while the final submission is made and still end up without a publishing contract is hard to deal with. The start of my writing career was a bit like ‘snakes and ladders’, it seemed as if every time I made some progress I'd end up sliding back down to land no further forward with a thump. I think it was only grim perseverance that kept me going - after investing so much effort and taking so many knocks I was determined not to throw in the towel.

Do you undertake any sort of research for your novels?

Masses - as you can probably tell from my earlier answers. I read as many relevant firsthand accounts as I can find, consult reference books and try to understand the history intimately well before I even begin my story-writing. Other kinds of research are more tangential but just as important such as studying the paintings of John White for ‘The Lost Duchess’. (White was the first Governor of the 'Lost Colony' and also a brilliant naturalist and artist; catalogues of exhibitions of his work at the British Museum were a great help to me in writing the novel.)

 What is your favourite book and why?

That's such a hard question to answer partly because my favourite book changes all the time! At the moment I'm torn between ‘Music and Silence’ by Rose Tremain, ‘Captain Corelli's Mandolin’ by Louis de Bernieres and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by Ernest Hemingway. I think I'm going to plump for ‘Captain Corelli's Mandolin’, even though I felt both the beginning and end were flawed. I choose this novel for its exquisitely poignant and moving love story - one that reduced me to tears and that I really couldn't put down.

Are you currently reading a book at the moment, and if so what is it?

I'm reading a book by a new author: ‘The Handfasted Wife’ by Carol McGrath, and I'm very much enjoying it.

Do you have any other hobbies or interests that you enjoy in order to give you a break from your normal routine and your writing?
I love travelling, hill and mountain walking, getting out into the wild and journeying anywhere remote, cycling, swimming, observing wildlife of all kinds, going to the cinema and the theatre, painting when I get the chance, enjoying a good meal and a drink at the pub. That's in addition to reading of course and all the other really fun aspects of writing, the poking about in castles and archives and attending the occasional conference and festival!

Can you give us a hint about any other books that you may have in the making at the moment?

No more than a hint - The next book may well be a romantic adventure against the backdrop of the threat of invasion by the Spanish Armada.

Jenny, I have been absolutely delighted and very honoured that you agreed to be interviewed for my literary site. I would also like to thank-you again for taking the time to speak to us today.

Thank you so much, Calum. It's been an absolute delight to talk with you.  

If you would like to find out more about Jenny and her writing, the link to her website is given below:

Jenny can also be found on Twitter @jennywilldoit 

About to be released:-

Jenny's second novel, 'The Lost Duchess', an epic Elizabethan adventure set against the backdrop of Raleigh's 'Lost Colony' of Roanoke will be released on 7 November and can be pre-ordered from Amazon UK

Win a Copy 'The Lost Duchess' by Jenny Barden!

Jenny Barden has very kindly offered to supply and dispatch a copy of 'The Lost Duchess' for an International  book draw to go with this interview post. I would like to officially thank Jenny for her kindness and generosity in doing this, from all of us here at 'The Secret Writer'!

What I have decided to do is to offer this copy Jenny's Barden's book as the prize in my November  'GFC Followers' Book Draw so everyone can have an equal chance in entering! If you just click on the hyperlink given below, or click on the Monthly Book Draw tab at the top of web page, you will then be taken to to the Monthly Book Draw page where you can enter the draw for the opportunity to win the free copy of this amazing book! 


  1. Jenny, you're a new-to-me author and I love the sound of your book 'The Lost Duchess'. While I love historical romances and historical fiction, you book is set in a time period I don't often read. I enjoyed reading your interview and read the excerpt for the book at Amazon. I plan on adding it to my books-to-buy list.

    kareninnc at gmail dot com

    1. I'm delighted to hear that, Karen. Thank you for your enthusiasm! I've just come back from giving a talk about Raleigh's Colony and The Lost Duchess which was very well received. I find the subject endlessly fascinating - and it seems that others are intrigued by it too!


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