Interview with Penny Devlin
You’re a new editor for non-fiction and will help with fiction editing as needed. Do you write both?
I started out participating in flash fiction contests. I enjoyed doing that so I took a couple of classes. One of the classes I took was a creative non-fiction class. After that, I started participating in flash non-fiction contests. I am currently working on the non-fiction MFA through Writer's Village University but am also taking fiction classes. I enjoy both, but I like the freedom of creative non-fiction. I think it gives the author more opportunity to share subjects they may not usually want to write about. They can conceal themselves behind the embellished parts in order to share the truths they would otherwise find too personal to write about.
What writers do you admire? What are you currently reading?
Currently, I am reading Bernard Cornwell's Warrior Chronicles/Saxon Stories. His fight scenes are amazing. I lean toward fantasy and action/adventure. I've read all of the George R.R. Martin Game of Thrones books and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. I also enjoy historical fiction and have read most of Ken Follett's books. As a child, my favorite books were Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain and Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series. I must have read those two series a half dozen times.
What's the one piece of advice that has helped you, and where did you get it? What advice would you give a beginning writer?
I can't remember who it was, but I heard a story on the radio that has always stuck with me. A woman is talking to the host about going back to school but is lamenting that by the time she gets her degree, she'll be fifty years old. The host asks her how long it will take her to get the degree and she answers four years. The host asks her how old she'll be in four years and she replies fifty. The host then points out that whether she goes back to school or not, in four years, she'll be fifty years old. She can either be a fifty-year-old college graduate or she can be a fifty year old non-graduate. Either way, in four years, sho's going to be fifty. I always think of this when I hear myself say, "but I'm too old to..." It's never too late to learn something new. I think it keeps our minds healthy.
Advice I would give a beginning writer is to keep writing and reading and learning. It sounds cliche, but practice makes perfect. Try to write and read as much as you can. Take classes and participate in contests. The feedback I've received from the contests I've participated in have made the work worth it. Learn and practice what the judges say and with every contest, you'll get better. The classes at WVU and the feedback from the facilitators and students have helped me improve. I am amazed at how much progress I have made when I look back at the material I wrote when I first started writing seriously.
How long have you been writing?
I have dabbled with writing since I was a child. I've had a diary for as long as I can remember and have always kept a notebook for ideas. Several friends commented that they liked getting letters from me because they felt like they were with me when I shared information about what I was doing or where I was at. That was a huge compliment to me. I didn't take writing seriously until I started participating in contests, though. While I haven't received first place yet, I have made it into the second or third rounds several times. That is an exciting feeling, knowing that other people enjoy what I am writing. I decided to get more serious about it and started taking classes and am trying to get into the habit of writing every day.
As a reader and editor, what’s your biggest pet peeve in other people’s writing?
My biggest pet peeve is trying to read something that hasn't been proofread. We all make mistakes and I usually spot mine half a second after I hit the send button, but at least try to minimize the obvious mistakes.
How much time do you spend on research for your writing?
Sometimes I spend more time researching a subject than I do writing. I think to be taken seriously a person needs to know what they are writing about. They may not need to be an expert, but they should at least look like they cared enough to do some research. I remember reading an article about horses. The author was amazed that two horses he witnessed were standing next to each other, head to tail so that they were able to take advantage of each other's swishing tail to keep the flies off their heads. The author wondered what the odds were that the horses stood together that way and surmised that it happened by accident. I grew up on a farm and sawhorses do this every summer when the flies bothered them. I always think about that story when I think about taking a short cut and not doing research. I don't want to be the author someone else remembers for making a glaring assumption that is nowhere near the truth and could have easily been researched.
Tell us one thing about you that may surprise readers of the Village Square.
In 2007, my husband and I quit our jobs, sold most of our belongings, and traveled the United States and Canada on our motorcycles. We put 32,000 miles on our bikes in ten months. We were both in management positions at our jobs and gave sixteen months' notice of our departure. We sold our house two months before we left and moved into a small apartment. We bought a fifty-foot storage container and parked it on a friend's property. After we moved out of the apartment, the container held all our worldly belongs with the exception of what we had on our bikes.
We did the same thing in 2016 except in a 24' toy hauler. When found a place we liked, we parked the truck and trailer and explored on our motorcycles. We also went to the U.K. for a month. We seem to have a ten-year wanderlust problem!
Mairibeth MacMillan was born in Paisley, Scotland but now lives on the shores of Loch Long with a gorgeous view down the River Clyde. After teaching high school Drama for many years, she took a career break to have children and during that time completed a BA (Hons) in Humanities with Creative Writing and a few years later an MLitt in Playwriting and Dramaturgy from the University of Glasgow. She has had short stories published in various magazines and anthologies and more recently her first poem. She has never been good at focussing on one task at a time but is currently working on improving this skill. In her spare time (!) she drives her children to various activities. She has recently taken up kayaking and wild swimming in the loch and has returned to ballet classes after a break of too many years to count. She is a member of the Scottish Association of Writers, the Romantic Novelists Association and the Society of Authors.
You are a romance writer; was your first choice or did you experiment with different genres? If you were to change your genre, which one would you choose?
I have never been good at sticking to one thing. I have always enjoyed reading romance, the fact that a positive, upbeat ending is guaranteed (or should be) is very appealing. I read a wide range of books but reading romance has helped me through a lot of difficult times in my life and always leaves me with a sense of hope rather than feeling depressed so it was a natural choice, to begin with when writing my first novel.
I also found that the romance writing community is, in general, a fantastically supportive one and I have made a lot of friends, and received a lot of support from so many people over the years — I could not have asked for better friends to accompany me on my writing journey. Although most of the as-yet-unpublished novels I have written have been romance, most have been romantic suspense and I enjoy merging the suspense plot with the romance. I also love reading crime fiction so this is a great way to blend them.
I think I would be most likely to write crime fiction if I had to choose a different genre but I think there would always be romantic elements in there at the very least as what is more important than our relationships with one another?
I did, however, begin by writing short stories and I don’t think any of them could be classified as romance. In fact, I think the opposite is probably true!
Playwriting is another of your passions; do you approach writing a play or a script in the same way you approach writing a novel?
Novels tend to be slower to form in my mind, whereas when writing plays I tend to work from a single idea — often a visual image. I prefer the shorter word count in plays and find it easier to keep track in my head of what is going on, which I find really difficult in a novel. I probably do less planning in terms of plot and characterization when writing plays because some of that will be up to those who produce the work. In a way, a play is a more open text; you are providing ideas and dialogue for others to use as a starting point whereas a novel is a complete work in itself and you need to provide more for the reader.
Your upcoming historical romance novel, The Viking’s Cursed Bride, is about the Norse invasion of Alt Clut (Dumbarton Rock) in 870 CE. What inspired you to write about this particular historical event?
When you spend any time at all near the River Clyde, Dumbarton Rock is a striking feature that you can’t miss. Throughout my life, I have been told various stories about events that happened there and how it used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Strathclyde (one of the four 9th Century kingdoms that are now Scotland). I’ve also recently bought a flat close to the rock and have a stunning view of it from my front window. Vikings are very much part of the history of the west of Scotland, but it was when I was watching the eponymous series on television that I realized that the Norse siege of Alt Clut was led by two of Ragnar Lothbrok’s sons, Ivarr the Boneless and Olaf the White. Or, at least, the evidence that exists points to that. There is really not much historical evidence from this area, at this time, that is not open to some level of interpretation. Most of the historical sources that we have were written by foreigners — mainly English or Irish monks — so the perception of the Britons of Strathclyde and the Norse invaders is not necessarily accurate, nor the way they would have viewed themselves. In our current political climate there is a strong tendency to try and present British history as some kind of pure heritage, while in Scotland at least, we are aware that our heritage is very much a mixture of people who came here in different waves of immigration through the centuries. If you listen to The Proclaimers’ song Scotland’s Story you will get the idea.
Though The Viking’s Cursed Bride is mainly romance, research has played an essential role. What specific research did you have to do? How long did you spend researching before beginning the novel-writing process?
I don’t think the genre is really relevant when it comes to research. You can’t write about anything unless you know enough about it to explain it to someone else. Romance is no different from any other genre in that respect — there are, however, poorly researched and poorly written books in every genre.
Although I began with prior knowledge of some aspects of the time period and events, I read all the historical accounts of the Siege of Alt Clut but I also looked at a lot of more recent archaeological research that has been done. I work for the University of Glasgow so I have access to the library there which has been invaluable. I also follow quite a few archaeologists on social media and keep up to date with recent finds which are changing the perceptions of Scotland’s past.
I read regularly about this time period, so it’s hard to say how long the specific research for this took as it’s an ongoing interest. I also went to quite a few events where there were Viking re-enactors and actually spoke to the people, saw the clothing and tried some of the crafts. That was probably the most helpful research in many respects as I had a direct experience to describe, and those people really pride themselves on being as accurate as possible. One thing I learned is that there are a lot of commonly believed misconceptions about Vikings!
What kind of historical sources did you use for The Viking’s Cursed Bride? What aspects of the research did you find most frustrating?
As I mentioned earlier there are virtually no primary sources and most of the secondary sources are generally not contemporary and were written by foreigners. I used a lot of archaeological reports and looked at reconstructions based on evidence found, but Dumbarton Rock was in use for centuries after this time and the digs were not straightforward and were unable to reveal as much as an abandoned site might have. For this reason, I looked at other similar sites occupied by the Britons at this time which had been abandoned soon after this time period and were, therefore, more intact.
The most frustrating aspect is the lack of primary sources. The next most frustrating is that history books don’t always tell you about day to day life, but that is where talking to the reenactors really helped.
Another aspect that was frustrating, but at the same time interesting, was the various languages and how the names of those involved are complicated by those translations and you have to be very careful to make sure that you know who is who. For example, Causantin is better known in English as Constantine and Ìmar as Ivarr.
At that time, four main languages would have been used in what is now Scotland; Brythonic (Old Welsh), Goidelic (Old Irish/Gaelic), Old Norse and Northumbrian. Latin is used in most of the historical sources. It remains debatable whether the Picts used a Brythonic or Goidelic language, but either way, it was Celtic in origin.
What are the most common pitfalls for aspiring historical romance writers during the research process? What advice would you give to avoid these pitfalls?
The most common pitfalls are either not doing enough research and being inaccurate or else trying to put all your research into the book. You need to learn to pick and choose so that you include just the right amount. There are, however, times when you just need to decide what makes sense to your story as a whole and go with it. The story is, after all, meant to be entertaining and too many facts or too much realism is probably not going to be all that romantic. I, for one, do not need to read about lice!
Are there any real historical figures in your novel? Are any of the characters modeled on real historical figures?
Ivarr the Boneless and Olaf the White don’t actually appear but are mentioned. They really did besiege Alt Clut for four months, then carried off many of the Britons there and sold them at the slave market in Ath Cliath (Dublin). One of those captives was King Artgal, who was killed just before the events of the book begin. His son, King Rhun, appears in the second book and I have tried to keep that information accurate but again, there is so little known that a lot of it had to be created just for the story. I’ve tried not to include events that are totally incongruous.
Are there any specific rules to follow when modeling fiction characters on known historical figures? Is there a risk the character becomes too predictable? What steps would you suggest to the aspiring historical writer to avoid this type of pitfall?
Personally, it’s not really something that interests me. Having said that, it’s always important to remember that the historical record that exists is generally that of a male, white, western perspective and may not actually be the most accurate version of the events from the viewpoint of anyone else. It’s important to consider that the records, and the information contained within them, are biased and therefore, re-interpreting historical figures through a different lens may be a very interesting thing to do. I’m not really the person to ask about the pitfalls of this, as it’s not where my interests lie.
The Viking’s Cursed Bride will be published this November. Would you describe its journey to publication as easy or arduous?
I found the editing process very difficult but I have learned so much from working with my editor this time around and feel sure that many of the issues can be avoided next time. I have quite a long list of words that I need to make sure I stop overusing and have also learned I need to plan better before I start writing. I always start with a plan for my books but now I need to learn to stick to it!
What is your next project, a novel or a play?
I’m currently writing the second novel in this series, revising a romantic suspense for Harlequin and writing a play exploring the inaccuracies in the media perception of the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper.
An Interview with Wyndie Deaver
What made you decide to become a facilitator?
WVU has, for me, always been about writers helping writers. When I first started the MFA program, the facilitators helped so much. Not just with posting the assignment, but also making sure we were following the concept. I wanted to help someone else the way I had been helped.
Has being a facilitator affected your writing?
I am more aware of how I write and how I respond the things. There have been a few times that I disagreed with something in the text and been a bit over the top with that disagreement. I am more professional in how I deal with disagreement with the text now.
What tips do you have for a newbie facilitator?
1. Start small. I started out just doing the record-keeping for Narrative Design one year. When I did go solo, it was for a two-week course.
2. Make sure to balance the courses you are facilitating with the courses you are taking. Don’t try to juggle too much at once. That also transfers into your personal life. You need to have time to check in on the class and do the various things required.
Have you taught or facilitated classes outside of WVU?
No, I haven’t.
What classes have you taken here at WVU?
I’ve taken Narrative Design, the Sin and Syntax class, a few literature classes, Calvino Six Memos, the Fairy Tale class, Maps of the Imagination, and I am currently in the last part of The Difficult Imagination. I have also taken flash fiction and poetry classes.
What has been your favorite class or classes to facilitate?
I’ve only facilitated Literature and some Flash Fiction courses. My favorite ones are the ones with active boards. It is so much fun when it comes together, and the class is just rocking.
How much time does it take to research and prepare for each class? And to give feedback? As a facilitator, what other kinds of things do you spend time on?
It depends on the class. I always try to read the material well before the class starts (much easier in a two-week class lol). I try to go in and read the assignments posted and give feedback every day— getting a response in a timely manner is so important. Sometimes, especially when people are new, waiting for feedback becomes nerve-wracking. I try to remember that feeling and respond accordingly.
With the two literature classes I just facilitated, I also did research into the authors too. I know it enriched my understanding of the work; I hope it helped the other students too.
Please share what you’d like to on your special love of writing. Is there some aspect of writing which really intrigues you?
One of the things that intrigues me is a writer's voice. My voice has been evolving and changing with the classes I’ve taken and I’m excited to see where it leads me!