By BRUCE DENNILL
In Alissa Baxter‘s new novel, The Earl’s Lady Geologist, Cassandra Linfield is a lady fossil collector who declares she will never marry as no man will ever take her studies seriously. When circumstances force her to travel to town for the season, Cassy infiltrates the hallowed portals of the Geological Society from which she has been banned. She is horrified when she comes face to face with her nemesis, the infuriating Earl of Rothbury. Lord Rothbury is a gentleman-geologist with a turbulent romantic past. After a youthful disappointment he vows never to fall in love again, and makes the decision, instead, to seek out a convenient wife when he returns to England from his geological travels abroad. Brought together by their close family ties, Cassy and Rothbury collaborate on a geological paper and discover a powerful attraction. Marriage, however, is the one subject they cannot agree upon. But when Cassy’s life is threatened, the two realise that love matters more than their objections.
How do you know when an idea is worthy of developing into a book? With songs or other shorter formats, you can get to a point of knowing if something will work relatively soon, but getting several thousand words into a manuscript and then deciding it’s a waste of time is far more frustrating.
It’s not easy, as it’s not so much about ideas for me as it is about characters. I meet my characters on the page, which makes it tricky to plot a book as I need to start writing before I can start plotting! What I tend to do is think of something interesting about my heroine. She usually has something about her that that makes her unique. I’ve created a governess heroine, an abolitionist heroine, a geologist heroine, a novelist heroine and a biologist heroine. Once I decide what interests her, I imagine her in a setting related to the thing that defines her, and that is when my ideas start to spark. It’s a nebulous process, though, and I must admit that it’s not easy to know if an idea will work early on. That’s where panic brain-storming usually comes into the process, usually at the mid-point! Having said that, I’ve managed to complete every novel I’ve ever started, so maybe there’s more going on in my subconscious than I realise.
When you do decide that a theme or story is worth exploring, how do you go about unpacking that?
I read books set in the period that may match the theme I’ve decided on. These books also help me get me into the right frame of mind in terms of the language used at the time and the way people viewed the world. I think next about the setting and try to picture it in my mind. And then there is the research – lots and lots of research.
Research: how much do you do, and how detailed is it?
I do a tremendous amount of research, as I frequently choose to write about topics about which I know very little. I researched fossils and geology in the 19th Century for about six months before I started writing The Earl’s Lady Geologist. To write about any subject convincingly, I need to understand it otherwise my creativity stalls.
How much planning do you do before beginning in earnest? Do you have to know where you’re going to end up before you start?
I can often picture the beginning and the end of a book. It’s the middle that’s frequently shrouded in mists! Even if I manage to write a general outline, the characters often don’t do what I expect them to do. So, instead, I pay a lot of attention to story architecture and plot points. Although I may not know what will happen at the mid-point of a book, I know that I’m working towards a major context-shifting event. And at about three-quarters of the way through a novel, I know that something significant must happen to act as a catalyst for the final part of the story. And so I work towards these important points in my novel and things usually become more apparent as I go along. This structure gives me direction as I discover the story.
If the hundreds of memes about writing are to be believed, sitting down and actually putting words on a page is perhaps the toughest part of the job. What are the distractions you battle with the most when trying to work?
It’s easy to get lost in the research. There are hundreds of fascinating rabbit holes to disappear down when you’re writing a book. I’ve learned the most important thing to do when writing a story is to recognise when the research is just acting as a pleasant distraction.
What’s the weirdest or craziest way you’ve found to avoid meeting a deadline?
I’ve never missed a deadline!
Daily goals: what, for you, is an acceptable daily target, in terms of wordcount or the quality of what you complete, be it a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter?
At the beginning of a book, I write quite slowly. I am satisfied if I can write 500 words a day. When I reach the mid-point, however, I tend to pick up speed and write much faster. It often takes three or four months to write the first half of a book (usually about 35 000 words) and then one month to write the rest.
What have you found are the best ways to get this done?
When I’m writing a book, I stop reading for pleasure, I don’t watch any TV, and I limit my social life. That’s the only way I can carve out time to finish a novel.
If writing books is not your full-time job, how does completing a project fit in with your other duties?
I’m fortunate to be able to write in the mornings while my children are at school. In the afternoons, I take them to their extramural activities and help them with their homework. The pandemic has changed all that as my boys are young and need help with online schooling. I did manage to write a book last year, but I burned the midnight oil completing it.
Marketing new books – print or digital: what fresh ideas do you think could be introduced to the process to make new work more accessible and appealing to both new and established readers?
Authors need to be involved with their books’ marketing these days, and an interactive presence on social media is very important. I’ve found that creating a Facebook group for readers who enjoy books set in the Regency period has been a great way to connect with my audience. The important thing is to realise that potential readers know nothing about you – especially if you are a new author – and if you just try to sell them your book, they will feel that you’re nothing more than a pushy sales-person. Marketing online is all about connection, so an author should think of promoting around his or her book. Think of what value you could add to a potential reader’s life and then try to build a relationship with that reader. Once they see you as a person, they will be more likely to be interested in you as an author, and may even buy your books. Another excellent tool for an author is a newsletter, which enables you to communicate directly with your readers rather than relying on the social media giants who want authors to pay for any marketing they do on their platforms.