Posted on August 1, 2018 at 2:00 PM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek

Author Harriet Steel surprised us majorly with her answer to our first interview question.

It turns out that despite being a lifelong reader, she never anticipated that she would someday write a novel ... let alone eight!

The former lawyer, who now writes historical fiction and historical mysteries, gave us a glimpse into her unexpected journey in this latest author Q&A.

SADYE: So how did you get started writing, then?

HARRIET: I began, as many people do, with short stories. They’re fun to write because one can easily try out a variety of genres and if an idea doesn’t work, you haven’t lost too much time.

I sent my better efforts up to magazines and was encouraged when they were accepted. I’ll always remember the buzz of getting my first payment.

I also entered competitions. One of those was a national competition organized by the BBC who used it as the springboard for a six-part television series called End of Story.

The idea was that six well-known authors would write the first half of a short story, then contestants would have a thousand words to add the ending.

I chose a story by Joanne Harris, author of the bestseller Chocolat, and to my delight, ended up in the final three of my section. This meant that I took part in one of the episodes, which was a fascinating experience.

Our lovely presenter (Claudia Winkleman in her pre-Strictly Come Dancing incarnation) and the charming production team whisked the three of us off to the Dartington Literary Festival in Devon where we read our stories and took part in a Q&A session with the audience.

After that, it was off to the Yorkshire Dales to meet Joanne at her lovely Victorian house where she talked to us about our writing and delivered the final verdict.

I came second, but the experience was in no way dimmed by that, and I felt considerably encouraged to be more ambitious.

SADYE: What was the best advice or feedback you received from it?

HARRIET: During the judging of the competition, some of the filming was carried out in the Japanese garden at Joanne’s house.

It’s a wonderful place full of little streams, Japanese sculptures, azaleas, and rhododendrons that she and her husband didn’t even realize was there when they took over the house and its overgrown grounds.

As we talked in the garden, Joanne gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard for aspiring authors: "Drop the word 'aspiring' and just write."

That’s what I’ve been doing ever since, and I’ve published eight novels so far.

My first was Becoming Lola, a biographical novel about the notorious Victorian adventuress, Lola Montez.

I discovered her story when I visited the palace of Ludwig I, one of the kings of Bavaria before it became part of Germany, and the novel follows her true story. ...

An Elizabethan adventure and two historical novels set in nineteenth-century Paris followed, and now my venture into the murder mystery genre with the Inspector de Silva mysteries.

SADYE: Are there historical-fiction authors who inspired you or influenced your style?

HARRIET: In my teens, I loved books by Alexander Dumas, Anya Seton, and Jean Plaidy; all of them writers who based their work on a good grasp of history but also knew how to tell a compelling story.

Since then, I’ve found many other authors – C J Sansom, Robert Harris, Elizabeth Chadwick, Manda Scott, and Rose Tremaine to name a few – and I’m always on the lookout for new ones.

SADYE: Your nominator admired how much your Inspector da Silva series has taken off. What do you think has given it its momentum?

HARRIET: I think a striking cover that gives the flavor of a book is important, as are a good blurb and thorough editing.

It’s worth doing one’s best to take advantage of the power of social media too, but always bear in mind that no one wants to be bombarded by authors who don’t have much to say except "Buy my book"!

I have found, however, that many readers are interested in learning about the process behind writing a book — how an author does their research for example, or what inspires them to write the kind of books they do.

Blog posts, Facebook pages and newsletters are all great for this.

I do go on Twitter a bit; it’s handy for quick messages and announcements, but I’m not a great user of it.

I do some paid-for advertising, but as I don’t have a huge budget, I need to be quite cautious. I’m not just saying this to be polite, but The Fussy Librarian has always delivered good results!

Recently, I’ve also ventured into advertising through Amazon Marketing Services, particularly their sponsored product scheme.

Luck also has a considerable part to play.

SADYE: How did you decide to go Amazon exclusive, and what advice would you give to someone weighing that option?

HARRIET: A couple of my books, City of Dreams and Following the Dream are, in fact, currently also on Smashwords, but Amazon’s dominance of the e-book market is very persuasive.

I’ve never had much luck with Kindle Countdown, but the five-day free promos have worked well for me. (I’ve found it worthwhile booking those in two bites rather than the full five days in one go.)

I’m also very impressed with the benefits to authors of Kindle Unlimited. This year I’ve chalked up between 300,000 and 500,000 pages read per month.

But I do know authors who’ve had good sales with companies like Smashwords and D2D, and they wouldn’t dream of going exclusively with Amazon, so I think my advice would be to try both ways and then decide which works best for you.  

SADYE: What is the biggest challenge to you as a writer, and how have you worked to overcome it?

HARRIET: Finding enough time to write everything I’d like to! Of course, that’s the same with many pursuits.

I’m still working on how to solve the problem, but I think the key may be to set aside some time every day, even if it’s only a few minutes, so that you feel you are making some progress.

Also, I try not to let myself be paralyzed by the blank page. Writing something, even if I decide to edit most of it out next time, is much better than carrying on staring at that daunting white expanse.

* * *

Learn more about Harriet Steel on her website, where her books can also be purchased; like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter

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Categories: Author Interview

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