Sometimes you don’t even notice the writers working quietly beside you, in my case, my writing partner and longtime friend, Annie Pearson, who writes medieval novels under the pen name E. A. Stewart. I first met Annie when I was teaching Historical Fiction back in the Eighties at the University of Washington. She also designed my first book, Celebrating the Seasonal Holy Days, back when photocopying and comb-binding were cutting-edge technologies (1990). When she moved back to Capitol Hill, we re-connected and have been meeting two to four times a week to write together at a local coffee shop. She inspires me with her devotion to her craft, her deep knowledge of publishing and her generosity in sharing what she knows with other writers (check out the guides she has created to help other writers).
Bone-mend and Salt is the first book in the Accidental Heretics medieval historical fiction series, deep in the spice-and-intrigue world of southern Europe. Three adventurers—a Moorish mercenary, a French knight and a Catalan widow accused of heresy— seek a mutual enemy, while a holocaust is being kindled in the cities and villages of the Languedoc.
I remember how pleased I was when I read the first volume in her medieval saga, which has the density, richness and immersive experience that I crave in historical fiction. At her web site, you can download the prequel, The Blue Door, free if you sign up for her newsletter. The Blue Door may tempt you into reading the entire series as I did.
I know you’ve been working on your career as a writer for a long time. Tell me about how you set up your life so you could write fulltime.
From high school on, I believed I’d write fiction. I practiced continually, and tried to arrange my employment to allow a place for fiction. Then I became a technical writer (which in my case was economically rewarding). My job responsibilities increased and I had a child in my forties. Something had to give. So for a dozen years, I became a reader and abandoned my own fiction.
That life milestone we all pass–losing my parents–caused me to consider deeply what I intended to achieve in life. I had to write fiction again. It was like a physical hunger. While the idea of the next story was forming, I rearranged my life.
– Warned my boss that he couldn’t have 70 hours a week of me anymore.
– Rearranged an unused room, which became my working office.
– Made a deal with my family that I was done with family business by 8 pm.
– Set a space for my middle-school daughter to do her homework nearby (which resulted in modeling work habits for her).
– Stopped watching TV.
For four nights out of the week, and 5-10 hours a week on my weekends, I worked on a new fiction project: a medieval historical series, projected as 1500 pages over 4 volumes. I’d decided that I wanted to grow up to be Dorothy Dunnett.
This schedule worked very well for over a year. I learned NOT to work on Monday. Somehow after a successful weekend of writing, I couldn’t repress my internal editor on Mondays, so I just took that night off.
Tell me about the development of the book. Where did the spark come from?
I wanted to create a saga set in the Middle Ages, but wanted the story to be outside of Britain and northern France. I had the basic notion of the braided story I wanted to tell, but still needed the precise time and place in history.
On one of my family’s ritual pre-Christmas visits to Powell’s in Portland, I spied a book lying out of place, flat on a shelf, waiting for a bookseller to reshelf it. It was a small, red-covered book called “Chasing the Heretics,” a personal travelogue about southern France. I swear I said aloud, “I always wanted to know more about the Albigensian Crusade.”
And made my decision there about time, place, and the theme that guided my characters: What happens when radical changes in society and war pull ordinary people into conflict and tragedy?
The complication for me? Everything I knew about northern Europe in the Middle Ages didn’t apply to southern France: not a feudal economy; not commanded by kings; women held positions of power; almost 200 years of a mini-Renaissance — and all wiped out in less than a hundred years, with the losers’ side of history destroyed by the victors.
What’s your favorite thing about your books?
After I found a way to modify my technical-writing practices to techniques of fiction (which took many months and is still on-going), I learned I could live inside my characters and their stories, and gain even deeper pleasure than when I read other writers’ big, great books. Making characters live and breathe, and their world bright and compelling, is exhilarating. I’d compare it to playing golf — most of the time, you’re miserable and sunk in your failure to execute. But then once in a while, you hit the ball just right. And it keeps you coming back, hoping to feel that thwock of perfection again.
What or who helped you during the writing process?
My first/best reader continues to encourage and beg for more stories. A friend who’s a medievalist confirmed my speculations and offered details that led to insights, while repeatedly saying, “We can’t really understand the medieval mind.” Don McQuinn counsels me on the techniques of fiction.
This year, the texts that are helping me with my current craft focus: John Truby’s “The Anatomy of Story,” James Scott Bell’s “Super Structure,” Shawn Coyne’s and Steven Pressfield’s “The Story Grid,” and Rayne Hall’s short craft books, like “The Word Loss Diet.”
Did you plan all along to self-publish? If yes, why?
When I finished the first two volumes of the Accidental Heretics series, the Kindle was just being released. And in my tech-writing world, while I was pulled into a new morass of other writing and management stresses. I was sending my story out to agents and editors, and was consistently hearing “big historical novels are impossible to sell…we just don’t know how to find the audience.”
As part of planning my escape from my over-worked job, I followed what was developing with Kindle publishing, and decided that I might be as creative as anyone else in searching for an audience. So I resigned my job, revived the small press that I’d started in the 1980s, and submerged myself in indie publishing.
You know a lot about self-publishing. How did you learn how to do it?
Since the early 1970s, I’ve been making books with little or no economic backing, using whatever new technology helped advance quality and reduce costs. In my work as a tech-writer, we were continuously in the avant-garde with print and web technologies for publishing, including large print books.
So, I learned how books are made and how to manage quality among contributors, using various tools. However, as much as I thought I knew, the crude tools available for producing ebooks threw me for a bit of a loop. It took a lot of experimenting to learn how to get what I wanted out of bad tools.
Where do you turn for advice and support when publishing?
I belong to ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors, which I find the most comprehensive and reliable source of information and insight, both via the ALLi website and its private Facebook group. I also follow a couple of private Facebook groups that grew out of marketing classes I’ve taken from Mark Dawson and Nick Stephenson.
For understanding the world of self-publishing, the best blogs I’ve found are The Passive Voice and Business Musings published weekly by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
What has been the most surprising/exciting/challenging thing about being a publisher?
Coming from a professional technology world where there are rapid changes and huge emphasis on using data to understand consumer audiences, I’m perpetually surprised that no one in publishing seems to know anything about truly reaching audiences. The whole industry feels like it’s 1850, and everyone’s sharing wild gossip about where the next rich gold vein might be discovered.
How do you let people know about your book?
I run promotions with book promo services who I believe can reach that mysterious body of secret historical fiction readers. I make sure my books are available at online sites where readers are sharing news and opinion about books.
I completed the four volumes of Accidental Heretics that I’d planned, and am now writing in the same world, but rather than saga, I’m writing traditional mysteries that feature side characters from the Heretics world. The first peek at that new direction is the novella I just published, The Blue Door. I’m exploring medieval-appropriate notions of magic realism, while continuing with my overall focus on how people cope when their ordinary world turns to chaos. It is available as a free download if you sign up for my newsletter on my Accidental Heretics web site.
Any advice for other writers considering self publishing?
If agents or editors say they can’t see your book’s commercial potential — please jump into indie publishing. There’s lots of help to be had, rather easily found. The online world makes it possible to find audiences for unusual topics and unusual books, where major publishers can’t afford to invest.
If you want a career as a genre fiction writer, then dig in and investigate. I’ll again suggest Kris Rusch’s Businesses Musings. Whether you’re considering self-publishing or want to find a way into a traditional career, the most important thing (besides honing your craft) is to understand that you must become an entrepreneurial business person, and that the business aspects require study, discipline, and persistence.
E.A. Stewart is an American writer whose Accidental Heretics series explores intrigues in France and Spain in the Thirteenth Century. After a brief academic career studying myth and literature, she took up siege engineering—as a technical writer and project manager in the heart of the computer industry. Her technical work focused on strategic advances for cutting-edge hardware technologies for PCs and servers. Ms. Stewart lives and writes in Seattle.