On My Writing Career and the Historical Novel Society
I turned to writing historical fiction after spending most of my adult life working in theatre, and it was sort of accidental how I got there.
When I was an ambitious young actress a teacher and friend of mine, Jim Piddock, was getting a lot of attention for a one-man show he was doing. He was British, and it was his introduction to the San Francisco Bay Area and the U.S. In fact that show was the springboard for a successful acting and writing career that it still going strong – Jim’s most recent news is that HBO has bought the series “Family Tree” that he created with Christopher Guest, and he’ll be appearing in it.
Anyway, I decided to write a one-woman show for myself. Someone suggested Nell Gwynn as a subject, and the more I read about her the more I loved her. I did some work on the script but never finished it to my satisfaction—it just wasn’t possible to do her life justice in such a short format.
Many years later, when I was living in London and caring for my terminally ill mother in 2006, I decided to write Nell’s story as a novel. When I returned to the U.S., I determined to put my focus on finishing and selling the book, which I called The Darling Strumpet of the Crowd, a quote from a contemporary doggerel about Nell.
In 2007 I went to my first-ever writer’s conference—the HNS conference, which was held that year in Albany, New York. The workshops and discussions were valuable, but maybe more importantly, I felt like a writer, and made contact with other writers. Diana Gabaldon gave the keynote speech. I was already a big fan of her books, and it was inspiring to hear her talk about beginning to write Outlander as a practice book when she was not a kid and well along in a career in science.
I was fortunate to connect through another writing conference with literary agent Kevan Lyon, who was interested in my book before I had a complete first draft and gave me feedback as I finished it. That took almost two years, but then she sold it almost immediately—and a second book, as yet unwritten. My attendance at the HNS conference paid off, as Diana Gabaldon and two other writers I had met there—agreed to give me blurbs for the cover.
During the course of my research for The Darling Strumpet, as Nell’s book came to be called, I read about Jane Lane, an ordinary English girl who had helped Charles II escape after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, not only saving his life but probably ensuring the future of the British monarchy. When my agent wanted to know what I wanted to write next, I remembered Jane, and was pleased to discover that no one had written a novel about her before. That book was released in the U.S. in 2011 as The September Queen, and in July 2012 in the U.K. as The King’s Mistress.
The second time I went to an HNS conference was in 2011, in San Diego. By that time I was a published author, and got to participate in one panel and lead another. And once more my previous HNS connections helped. Chris Humphreys suggested that we read an excerpt from The Darling Strumpet as part of the Saturday Night Sex Scenes readings, which Diana Gabaldon had instituted at the 2007 conference. She not only liked the idea but agreed to read the narration. My agent recorded it and the video has more than 13,000 hits on You Tube!
Now there’s another HNS conference coming up, in London, and once more I’ll be on a panel—and reprising the reading of the notorious Nell-Rochester scene. Diana will be reading the narration once again, and I’ll be reading Nell. Chris Humphreys won’t be in London, but I’ve got an excellent substitute—Bernard Cornwell will be reading Rochester’s part!
So the Historical Novel Society has been a constant and important part of the development of my career as a writer, and I look forward to many more!
Gillian's Banquet Guests
Nell Gwynn – she’s been in my mind and heart for many years, and I’d love to get to know her in person!
Jane Lane—the heroine of my second book. From everything that’s known about her, she had courage, brains, humor—and the life-long respect and friendship of Charles II.
Charles II—I feel I know him from having done so much research and writing about him, and I’m sure he’d be a lively companion over dinner and into the evening.
Samuel Pepys—He knew Charles II and Nell Gwynn, as well as many of the other luminaries of Restoration London in the worlds of politics, theatre, and more. From his eminently readable diary, I think he’d be a lot of fun. As a friend pointed out, he’s always saying that something is “the best” or “the most excellent”—an enthusiastic participant in whatever life had to offer.
Bess of Hardwick—she’s the subject of my third novel, Venus in Winter. A very different kettle of fish than Nell Gwynn, but no less fascinating. She rose from humble beginnings to be the most wealth and powerful woman in England other than Queen Elizabeth. She knew all the Tudor monarchs as well as Mary Queen of Scots, Jane Grey and her sisters, and many other people who have cast long shadows down the centuries.
Shakespeare—whoever wrote the plays, that is.
I’ve read enough about the authorship question to think that the Earl of Oxford is a possibility
But we’ll throw him in, too, just in case: Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford.
Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh—Talented, glamorous, witty, charming, theatrical legends. They’d be able to talk shop with Nell and Shakespeare and I’m sure they’d more than hold their own with all the other guests. And they could help me explain some twentieth century cultural references that the others wouldn’t get!
Gillian's author page on Amazon.co.uk
You Tube video of Darling Strumpet reading: (HNS Conference 2011)