Today, we are honored to have Margaret Frazer join us. As a fan of her Dame Frevisse and Joliffe series, I was excited to learn she had written a new and different book. Of course, I had to learn more about it, and here is what Margaret had to say.
Circle of Witches will be your twenty-fifth novel. After twenty-four books, how did this one surprise?
Does it count to say that I’m surprised someone wanted to publish it finally?
It’s very different from my previous novels. And when I presented it to my agent, she said, “The book is fine, but I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know what category it fits in exactly. So I don’t know what editor to present it to.” She didn’t know how to market it. But I wasn’t concerned about marketing it. All I wanted was for the story to be out there! For people to read it!
What category would you apply to it?
I couldn’t really help her there! [laughs] I didn’t write for a category. I wrote the sort of story that I would love to read. It works like this: Because the character is young, it must be a young adult book. But because the story is mature – and because it speaks to adults like myself who are well past their childhood – it can’t be young adult. The story involves magic, so it must be fantasy. But it doesn’t involve a lot of magic, so it must be a historical. There’s a love story, but it doesn’t play by the rules so it can’t be a romance. There’s a mystery and there’s a murder, but the mystery isn’t about the murder so it doesn’t fit tidily into the mystery genre.
Let’s turn back to the book itself. What did you find surprising in the writing of it?
I was surprised by how difficult it was to complete. Because it’s so different from my previous books, it required a different style of storytelling. I knew how to do it theoretically, but actually exploring and developing a type of storytelling that I hadn’t used before made it an interesting challenge.
When you write mysteries – history mysteries or any other mysteries – there are rules: You have to set up the suspects, get your victim dead, lay out your clues (hopefully some before the murder and more established after the murder), initiate a deliberate investigation, then a triumph, the end.
Circle of Witches didn’t have that assumed structure. So it became a matter of when I could bring certain elements into the story and how I could interlace them with each other; how the flow of the story worked when I didn’t have this characters-clues-victim-investigation structure – this genre format. It’s not one that I ever followed rigidly as a mystery author, but until writing this book I hadn’t realized how much it had informed my writing.
Speaking of your existing books: My books are set in a priory in the 1200s. Your books are centered around a priory in the 1400s. How did Circle of Witches end up so far afield from that?
I have done a lot of casual reading over the years about paganism – what they call the “old religion”. About looking for traces of that old religion in the English landscape. I’ve done a great deal of travel in England. I love visiting megalithic stones. And all of those elements are a very intriguing foundation to build a story around.
But to set it in the 1400s would have meant that there were too many other aspects of the historical situation. What I wanted was a time past the point where witches became anathema – past the 1600s and 1700s when the Age of Reason decided that witches were a threat worth killing – but when the original aspects of the old religion could still exist; before the modern world wormed itself into the far corners of the realm (with the railroads coming in and so forth). So the 1800s seemed an ideal time to set this people and to explore their beliefs.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
Integrating all the different elements I wanted to include: The characters and their relationships; their actions within a realistic landscape that might actually have been lived in and moved through. There were details I needed to include because I knew they were real, so that there would be gaps. And then integrating the aspects and people of the old religion in a believable form along with all the other aspects. Making all of the elements come together in a coherent whole that was fun to write and, hopefully, compelling to read.
Let’s break that down. You talked about characters. To make the Dale come to life, it seemed as if you had to populate an entire village with memorable characters that live and breathe. How do you make even your minor characters step off the page?
As I do with my major characters, I find some aspect of myself (if I’m lucky) and explore it. It may be a servant: Well, I’ve worked in a British public school as an assistant matron so I know the hours and the effort that goes into that. And you extrapolate from that.
So, for example, I lived in an English village and watched people going about their daily lives. And, of course, I read a great number of studies about what life was like. So I’m drawing on any number of sources of information to make even the minor characters belong in their landscape.
Speaking of major characters: The villainess – Virna – is positively cruel in Circle of Witches. Do you worry about readers becoming totally alienated by the poison of her hate?
I don’t expect them to like her. [laughs] I’d worry if someone decided she was the one they favored.
The truth is that Virna isn’t ubiquitous: She doesn’t dominate so many scenes that I think the readers will be overwhelmed by her. Because she’s not a constant presence, I actually felt free to make her a vicious creature. She’s not always there, but when she is you can feel her in a way that resonates throughout the book even though she is often nowhere to be seen.
How did you approach the research needed for the book?
I read a number of studies, both scholarly and also reports from those who simply enjoy writing about the old ways. More importantly, I looked at the landscape of England through that particular view of existence: Here’s the landscape, but here are the ideas that go with it.
And even in the tourist-centered frolics that contain elements of the old religion you can find a layer of truth. They’re for fun; they’re just a reason to party – but the elements are still there and you can still get a feel for what was deeper behind them. So it’s a matter of accumulating impressions; accumulating information; and then integrating them into a realistic whole.
The book contains a special thank you for your editor. I hadn’t seen that in your previous books. Was it an unusual process for you?
This particular editor became very involved in perfecting the story. He read the book. He came up with I do not know how many questions and suggestions that could be strengthened or restated or just outright dropped or changed. The aggravating thing was that he was almost completely right on all these things! [laughs] So I had to look at the book from his critical viewpoint instead of from my involvement with it as the author.
And after we had made a number of changes to improve and strengthen the book, he went out and found beta readers to read the almost final version to get their feedback. I’ve never had pre-readers on any of my books before. So this was a whole new experience for me and I found it fascinating: What they would pick up on and enjoy or have questions about helped me to focus the book so that it would achieve all the things I wanted it to achieve.
I ended up doing far more work on the book after I thought I had the final draft than I have ever done on any of my other books. I have never had an editor who was so insistent and stringent, kind and fair-minded. He helped me make the book better than it was. So I had to thank him specifically.
It was either that or kill him! [laughs]
Final question: If someone reading this is still hesitant about picking up Circle of Witches, what would you say in three sentences or less to convince them?
You mean other than, “I’m a poor old woman and need the money for medicine!” [laughs]
Well, that works for me, but…
It’s an exciting story with compelling characters in an unusual place. It will make the reader move out of where and when they are into an other when and an other where. Whether you read for the adventure or for the journey or for the characters, Circle of Witches will take you into a world where you can find all of those things.
Thank you, Margaret, for being a LadyKiller for a day. I can guarantee that this new book will not only delight your current fans but bring even more readers to your incredible storytelling talents.
Amazon Link: http://www.amazon.com/Circle-of-Witches-ebook/dp/B00AG3KGFK
Amazon UK Link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Circle-of-Witches-ebook/dp/B00AG3KGFK
Nook Link: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/circle-of-witches-margaret-frazer/1113876393
Smashwords Link: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/260459
Also available through the iBookStore, Kobo.com, Google Play, and online bookstores everywhere.