15 March 2015

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Carol McGrath on THE SWAN-DAUGHTER

This week, we're welcoming author Carol McGrath, whose latest title is THE SWAN-DAUGHTER, book #2 of The Daughters of Hastings trilogyOne lucky visitor will get a free copy of The Swan-Daughter - this giveaway is open worldwideBe sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb. 

It is 1075 and Dowager Queen Edith, widow of Edward the Confessor has died. Her niece Gunnhild, longs to leave Wilton Abbey where she had been a guest since 1066. Is her suitor Alan of Richmond, Breton knight and cousin to King William interested in her inheritance as the daughter of King Harold and Edith Swan-Neck or does he love her for herself? And is her love for Count Alan an enduring love or has she made a mistake. Then there is Count Alan’s younger brother! The Swan-Daughter is a true eleventh century tale of elopement and a love triangle.

Praise for The Swan-Daughter

‘A wise and lyrical evocation of the lives of women in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, and high romance in the true sense of the word. A captivating read.’ Sarah Bower , best- selling author, Needle in the Blood.

‘She [Carol McGrath] brings the 11th century alive, packing in a wealth of well-researched detail. Her style is easy to read and her Gunnhild is a rounded and sympathetic character.’ The Historical Novels Review, February 2015.

** Q&A with Carol McGrath**

I would like to thank Unusual Historicals for this opportunity to talk about my writing practice and specifically about The Swan-Daughter, the second novel in my 1066 Daughters of Hastings series. I stress that while it is part of a Trilogy, The Swan-Daughter is a stand- alone novel.

Is writing something you have always wanted to do?

I have always wanted to be a writer. As a child I made my own books. Many of these were witch stories or rewrites of adventure stories such as The Island of Adventure. As a teenager I was obsessed with history and was determined to study it at University. I did! I studied History, English and Slavonic Studies at Queens University Belfast. I taught History, even ran a High School History Department but, importantly, I was ever a great reader and my advice to all prospective writers is to read widely. Once I grew up, I never had time to write because I had children, a busy home, husband and career.  I began writing seriously when I attended Oxford University Continuing Education day classes and for several years became part of a fabulous group that included writers who had successful writers in their families. One of these writers was Antonia Fraser’s niece. One Christmas, Eliza’s family read the first chapters of my novel, not one actually published, but one about love, linen and suffragettes set in 1910-12. That was special and I felt honoured that they loved it. It was also encouraging that so long ago a creative writing teacher wanted me submit my work to agents. I never did. At that time writing was an interest only. And it was such fun! I wrote because it was a passion. Now, I am thrilled to have reached a standard where I feel I can share my passion with readers.

What is your experience of writing courses and workshops? Can they really help writers?

No man or woman is an island. These workshops and courses can be helpful on, at least, a basic level. I studied on The Diploma in Creative Writing at Oxford University, a two year part time course to study writing poetry, plays and prose. Two years later, I gave up teaching to take an MA in Creative Writing at The Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University, Belfast. When I achieved a distinction on this MA, Andrew Motion, the MA’s external examiner, invited me onto his PhD course at Royal Holloway, University of London. This I completed at MPhil writing a 35k thesis on How Romance Tempers Realism in Historical Fiction as well as my debut novel The Handfasted Wife.  I think academia worked for me. I thought a lot about the process of writing, gained confidence and honed my writing skills. My advice to writers is that if you chose this route thoroughly research creative writing MAs and, especially, doctorates very carefully. I was lucky. I met great tutors and writers and was writing in a fabulously creative environment especially whilst studying prose and poetry in Ireland. Writing courses and workshops do not necessarily make you a writer but they can foster that gem of ability that you may already have. I experienced a long apprenticeship and I value this. I did it, not especially to be published; this happened along the way. I did it because I love writing and want to learn to write as well as I possibly can. It is not the only way to become a traditionally published author as we all know. I think workshops and courses can be uplifting and encouraging. They help you create a network of writing friends.
You write Historical Fiction. What comes first, the research or the story? What are your feelings about historical accuracy in Historical Fiction?

This is a very pertinent question and one I am speaking on at The Alderney Literary Festival next week with Simon Scarrow. I believe both do matter. Accuracy matters as far as one can be accurate but obsessive accuracy can push an author into the realms of historical non- fiction. I research thoroughly, often to achieve atmosphere, but am aware too that to be accurate about the women who lived in the period I write about and the many facts concerning The Norman Conquest and its aftermath, one needs to understand provenance. Who wrote the source and why? Primary sources can give the writer a strong sense of that past, its atmosphere and preoccupations. I think for my current writing period the 11th C, it is important to understand religion and politics of that era. Women were the footnotes of this history but it is possible to research the society they lived in, its laws and its every-day life. I want to recreate that world, to know for example, little details that enliven it such as how they brushed their teeth. Then, I want to place my characters, real and invented personalities in that very strange world. But I want my characters to lead my plot. I do plan the narratives but the stories can change as I write. I am always aware that I am writing a story, not a history book. Story matters. As for accuracy where characters are concerned, we do not actually know, as a rule, what these long ago people really thought or what their conversations truly were. However we can invent in an informed way and bring them to life in a work of fiction. 

What inspired you to write The Swan-Daughter?

When I discovered that there was so much to the story of the noble women of 1066, especially the Godwin women, albeit snippets in sources, I was hooked. These noble women were strong personalities. The Handfasted Wife was influenced by The Bayeux Tapestry. The Swan-Daughter came about because, whilst researching The Handfasted Wife, I discovered the Anselm letters between Harold’s daughter Gunnhild and Archbishop Anselm, written circa 1090. In these the Archbishop tells Gunnhild that she had eloped from Wilton Abbey which was wrong in his eyes as she should have taken vows, though he appreciated there had been feeling between her and Count Alan. ‘Feeling’. Amazing that this is said in an era of dutiful arranged marriage and said in a letter by a Norman Archbishop! The letter states that that since Count Alan has died it is a further wrong that Gunnhild has taken up with his brother and that no good would come of this. The Archbishop begs her to return to Wilton Abbey. I used the historical background of castle building and land grab for the fictional story and as I was fascinated by emergent Anglo-Norman romance I worked Tristram and Iseult into the love triangle aspect of it. Really, this novel is a mix of invention and fact. Above all, The Swan-Daughter is a story of two people ill-suited to each other and what happens next, particularly as Gunnhild was officially confined by the societal dictates of her time.

What do you consider the secret of writing successful historical fiction?  

Invent characters whose journey a reader wants to follow and more than this, wants to inhabit for the duration of the journey. Recognise what it is to be human. Recognise the limitations facing a character when he/she breaks the rules of the time they inhabit. Research well but bury that research in the story. Think about a story’s theme and incorporate delicious little details into the world of that story so that the reader is hoodwinked into entering a past world and, importantly, is hoodwinked into believing in it. Above all, remember that we are writing fiction and telling stories. We are not writing history books.

Many thanks to Unusual Historicals for hosting me today. Comment. There is a copy of The Swan-Daughter available internationally for a lucky reader. 
The Swan-Daughter by Carol McGrath published by Accent Press 11th December 2014

The Swan-Daughter is available from all good bookshops and on amazon.co.uk and amazon .com and all e readers.

About the Author

Carol McGrath lives in Oxfordshire, England with her husband and family. She taught History until she undertook an MA in Creative Writing at The Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University Belfast, followed by an MPhil in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her debut novel, The Handfasted Wife, first in a trilogy about the royal women of 1066 was shortlisted for the RoNAS, 2014 in the historical category. The Swan-Daughter is second in the trilogy and published in 2014. It is also a stand- alone novel. The third, The Betrothed Sister, set in the medieval Ukraine and Denmark, and about Harold’s elder daughter will be published in 2015. Carol can often be discovered in Oxford’s famous Bodleian Library where she undertakes meticulous research for her novels. Find Carol on her website: