Saturday, October 01, 2016

Interview with Venessa Knizley- Medieval Fiction Author

I'm hosting one of those rare things, an author interview. My subject today is not so well known as some, but deserves to be. Her first novel Beneath Outstretched Arms a work of Historical Fiction set during the Black Death in England was released in April. The sequel is due out later this year.

First of all, what inspired you to write ‘Beneath Outstretched Arms’ and the rest of the series (there are another three books if I am right?)?

VK: Yes, there are another three books. But when the thought for these characters first came to me in
2006, I never had it in mind to create a series at all, actually. About a year after our first daughter was born, I went to work at a clothing store. I worked nights after the store was closed, changing out the sale prices and listening to the same music play over and over again. I was in the break room when one song in particular caught me up and took me to another place almost. It was a song called Out of Sight by Hooverphonics.
Being only newly married and a first time mother, I was still missing some very close friends from college that I had left behind after moving to my husband’s home town, and the lyrics of this song brought those friends back into my mind (one in particular who was my inspiration for the character of Tristan). It was the rhythm of the music, itself, that brought me face to face with a castle. I couldn’t tell you why, but there it was…setting and characters in one epic rush. 
The story was all at once so vivid in my mind, that I grabbed one of the old yellow sales papers I’d been switching in and out of the clothing racks, and I began writing the story down on the backs of them. I still have them, today. 

Over the next 8 years, I would get inspired on and off to write a chapter down that I could see especially well in my head…sort of like movie shots. I’d write them down and tuck them away for later. Later finally came in 2014 after I’d had three more children. 
The Lord finally gave me the go-ahead, and so I pulled out every chapter I could find, laid them out, and realized I had enough story for three books! The first one would have been quite lengthy though, so taking my publisher’s good advice, we split the first book in half, thus expanding the series to four books. It’s sort of overwhelming in the best way possible. I’m very excited!

I’ve got to say I admire authors who can balance writing with family life and raising children. I struggle to make time, and I only have a dog- but also an obsessively pedantic outlook (wanting to check the accuracy of everything, avoiding looking at things from a modern standpoint). How do you manage, and could you share any tips?
VK: Thank you…and I agree. It is a struggle! One of the reasons that it took me almost nine years to seriously pursue writing down this story was because of exactly that… family and the time it takes to put in to them. And not because they were overly demanding of my time or against my pursuing something personal, but because sacrificial loving is demanding. There’s no way around it. To be mentally and emotionally present during those first few years of marriage and children is exhausting…especially if you have an entitlement mentality, which I did. The Lord had to break me of that. It took my husband saying to me, “You stay home all day. If you’re not happy with the way things are, then make it what you want it to be.” He’d been walking out the door on his way to work, and I just stood there stunned, staring at the door. 
That truly changed me. Instead of complaining that I never had a moment to do something, like sit down and read a book, I simply sat down and read. The children would, of course, interrupt, but I realized then that if it was important to me to have some time to myself, then it needed to be important to them also. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and the lack of time to do things, and started training them to be respectful of my time. I realized I was not a slave to my family, but a steward—and it was up to me set the scene, not get lost in it. So fast forward, three more children. Now, when I sit down to write, they know that I’m writing a book, and that it’s something I love doing. They still interrupt (because they’re still kids), but they know that I may not jump to my feet first thing to take care of all of their wants. Needs, yes. Wants, no. They know I have goals, and I see them setting goals of their own. I think it’s been good for them to have a chance to be excited for me and my ambitions, just as I express joy in their creativity. It’s been good for all of us.

Still, I want to point out that during those eight or nine years prior to getting serious about this book, my husband and I had decided that I would stay home and home school our children, so I also felt like it wasn’t the right season in life for me to devote myself to something too much more than that. Ultimately, we are working for the Lord and His kingdom, and that’s what He had me doing—and I was at peace with that.  But once the Lord gave me the “Okay” to pursue writing seriously in 2014, I jumped all over it. We still home schooled, but my husband was nothing if not supportive, and I spent many evenings locked up in my room or haunting tables at Starbucks. It was a difficult thing to balance both school and writing (still is), but the Lord makes us fit for His tasks, and somehow it gets done. 

I don’t know if there were any “tips” in there, other than to say, don’t fight against God. He’s created us for certain tasks at certain times. Embrace His will and learn to find contentment in all seasons of life. I am five months pregnant now, and this may very well slow me down…but I’m keeping my hands lifted and open to whatever He puts in or takes out. There is no peace in fighting against His timing. My oldest child is ten and my youngest is 4. We suffered two early miscarriages in the last two years before this pregnancy, so although I am looking forward to finishing the rest of my books in a timely manner, if I don’t, it’s because the Lord’s placed a new baby in my hands…and I plan on taking every opportunity to snuggle up to her.

It seems to me that it’s not the usual run of the mill historical Romance- I think I called it more of a family saga. Would you say that’s right? How would you describe it? What if anything would you say makes your book stand out?

VK: You’re right. It’s really not your run of the mill romance… In fact, I try not to even advertise it as such, just in case I upset anyone who’s looking for the normal “romantic formula” offered in most romantic fiction. Which I love in books, I might add. I just didn’t happen to create one. Despite there being romance, I think a friend of mine was right when she called it a character novel. These books are about Velena and Tristan…and how they change as people. Even your calling it a family saga is probably very accurate. I can see myself writing several spin offs about Velena’s brother or maid, Daisy. In fact, I’m surprised how much Daisy is liked, because it wasn’t ever my intention that she be such a rounded character. But from day one, she asserted herself, and has become a favorite of several people who’ve already had the opportunity to peek into book two. 

But still, romance does exist in these books. I’ve had people read book one and gush about how perfect Tristan and Velena are for one another. I’ve had others say, “No, they’re not right for each other at all…but what about Stuart?” Still others have brought up Makaias as a viable option, who’s only cameo thus far has been in the prologue with Velena’s brother, Britton. Readers have been able to see whoever they want to see as Velena’s love interest… and I love that! 
What makes my book stand out? That’s a difficult question because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what might be great reading for one person, might be run-on sentences to the next, haha. But for myself, I hope what stands out the most is the dialogue. As I mentioned before, it was the memory of my friends that inspired this story in the first place. So some of the conversations between characters really did take place (slightly tweaked, of course). I wanted their interactions to seem real and plausible… not manufactured or written as filler until the next scene. I hope that through their words, people are drawn into loving them, as I do.


One thing I liked was the heroine, Velena and her father, had a good relationship. So many stories set in this period include brutal or tyrannical fathers who treat their daughters badly, and of course, want to force them to marry men they don’t like. Its treated as though that was something that was usual, although I don’t think it was (I can think of at least two Kings who are known to have cared for their daughters). What’s your take on the matter, and what made you want to write about this matter in the way you did?


VK: Honestly, I thought of my own dad. It never occurred to me to make him anything but loving. Yet, I did still feel the weight of giving him the appropriate mind set of someone having lived in the fourteenth century, and I hope I was able to do that. Other than that, and I’ve mentioned this to you before, there really is nothing new under the sun. I suppose I just figured that there have been good fathers and bad fathers since the dawn of time. Lord Richard is one of the good ones, and Lord Magnus (Velena’s uncle)…not so much.


Do you have a favourite character? I rather liked Rowan and some of the household knights.

VK: I’m so happy to hear you say that!!! Rowan is one of my all-time favourite characters, as well. Although, he’s barely mentioned in book one, he plays a much bigger role in book two. Rowan is not exactly “religious,” and you really have to take his advice and actions worth a grain of salt, yet, he brightens up any scene he’s in. I never have to think too hard about what the dialogue will be when he’s around. I just expect that he’ll run off at the mouth in some way or another, and my typing quickly becomes at his beck and call, haha. 

I, of course, love Tristan and Velena. Tristan’s character was the catalyst for the whole story, really. Velena has been interesting to work with, because she began as myself in some ways, but I was soon faced with making decisions for her that were advantageous to the plot of the book, but not something I would do, myself. And for a while there, I had a bit of a struggle separating myself from her, as funny as that sounds. Eventually, though, I was able to step back and let her be who she was supposed to be. So, I especially like her emotional journey for that reason.
Daisy, I like because I had no one in mind when I created her character. This being my first novel, I chose to base most of my characters’ personalities off of people I’ve known, unsure if I could completely fabricate a personality from scratch. Daisy has given me confidence that I can. She’s pretty special for that reason.


Did you learn anything usual, unexpected or funny in the course of your research? If you can think of anything, please share! 

VK: Yes, a plait! Of all the things I researched, and aside from the scant amount of information I could find on the use of Bibles, I had the most difficult time figuring out what a plait was, in reference to the hairstyle. I would read that a girl’s hair was put into a plait and then wrapped into buns at the sides of her head. I would look at the pictured diagram and think…do they mean a braid? But I kept doubting my interpretation, and wondering if it was a certain kind of braid, and should I even mention the word braid, or did they not use that term at all. I did all sorts of google searches until I finally came across an online conversation where a British woman was asking the same question, detailing her confusion over whether or not the American term braid was in reference to a plait…and was it a certain kind of plait, such as a thick plait or a thin one. I started laughing when I finally realized they were, in fact, just the same thing. And furthermore, it was pronounced “plat” and not “plate,” as I had supposed. It was such a silly thing, but it had still managed to drive me crazy until I figured it out.
Other than this, most of what I learned was on the more disturbing side. Perhaps, it was my setting of the Black Plague that kept me in the more solemn parts of research. But it was fascinating to me! I constantly found myself wondering what I would have been thinking had I been alive then. It was as if the world was ending. 

Letting you in on a little secret, part of my nine-year delay to putting this series together was actually the thought of doing the research. I did not want to do it! I thought that maybe I’d just make it a cutesy novel, not based on much fact, and then pass it around to my friends. Then I toyed around with the idea of making it a fantasy novel so that I didn’t have to do any research at all… but the reality of that was really absurd, because then I would have to go through the process of making up all of my own setting instead of doing the research on what already existed. So, I finally buckled down and asked myself the question, “When during the middle ages was my story to take place and how long a time period did I have to choose from?” I looked it up, rolled my eyes and laughed when I realized I had about 1000 years of time to choose from. So, I submitted myself to the library and came back with 19 books covering the most quintessential portions of that time period (which for me involved knights and castles).
The time of Lady Jane Grey was very interesting to me, but once I picked up a book describing the Black Death, I knew I’d found my time in history, and for two very important reasons. First, it offered me an outside antagonist that my characters had to contend with that I knew would only add to their depth of character…pulling from them the need to make important decisions that would reveal more of who they were. Second, their world changed so much after the Plague that I felt I was giving myself a buffer zone in case I was to make any mistakes in their daily living routines, etc… that might be something funny, haha. But it’s true. I was very intimidated by the research.


I think you pulled of the British setting rather well, in terms of the language, idioms (I think I mentioned our famous tendency to complain about the weather in my review) and attitudes- and without silly stereotypes or accents. 
It may be controversial, but I don’t think all authors who write British Fiction can do that, and some just don’t seem to bother. Did you have any help, or do any specific work (I know some authors watch British TV shows). I know I think it’s important to get these things right, do you agree? 

VK: I do agree…and I thank you for the compliment! For this, without having any real exposure to British speakers, I did have to rely heavily on what I could mimic from movies and series that I’ve watched. I didn’t re-watch any as homework for my book, per say, but I pulled from some favorites that I’ve already really enjoyed, such as Jane Austin movies, and mini-series like Upstairs Downstairs and Wives and Daughters, etc… 
Honestly, most of the time, I just spoke in an English accent as I wrote and hoped that it would help me stay in character. This I had to do in my head because I’m much better at English accents in my head then out loud, haha... though at times I did attempt it...even going so far as to watch youtube videos on how to speak with an English accent, which was fun…though not mastered, haha.

I love the way the British are able to say things without actually saying them. The wit in those movies makes me smile. We share the same language, but their wielding of it was far superior. For instance, in Wives and Daughters one man says to another, “I’m not saying you have a silly wife, but one of us is being very silly, and it isn’t me.” I heard this same phrasing by one of the characters in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, oddly enough. It made me laugh.
Though I may not have been able to get everything accurate (especially since they were mostly speaking French in the 14th century anyway), putting together the scenery and feel of medieval England was very much at the forefront of my thinking once I decided to do it. This was sometimes very tedious, as I felt like I couldn’t get through a paragraph without having to research something for it, but when I didn’t research, I would make so many mistakes. I realized this when I began reading my rough drafts out loud to my husband. 

For instance, at one point I had Velena drinking tea…because British people love their tea, right? It was my husband who quickly pointed out that tea was from China and it hadn’t been introduced yet. I hadn’t even thought twice about it before he said something. He challenged me on so many things. I’d mention them eating something like a slice of bread, and he’d ask, “Wait a minute, did they slice their bread or did they make it in individual rolls?” I mentioned that the wagon wheels were kicking up dust as they rolled on towards Wineford Castle, and he’d say, “Wait a minute. It’s December. It’d be snowing in England.” I got tired of this fairly quickly and realized that I’d just have to look up anything and everything I wasn’t sure about… from the weather, to the plants, to the clothing, to the hairstyles, to the food, to the utensils they used. Pretty soon, when he’d ask, “Wait, did you look that up?” I was able to say “Yes, as a matter of fact, I did.”
His willingness to sit through all of that with me has become a very sweet memory. He was the first to take me seriously as an author…even before I was willing to do so, myself. He’s definitely my knight in shining armor.

Finally, if you wanted people to take something away from reading your book what would it be? 

VK: That the Lord is sovereign, and a giver of good gifts. Perhaps, this is more than what someone would see in the first book, but to me, Tristan’s friendship was a gift to Velena and hers to him…and as Tristan and Velena’s story continues, I hope it becomes apparent that every hardship they face, is really an opportunity to prepare their hearts to be obedient to His sovereign will. It’s an exercise in faith. The more they do it, the better at it they will become. The same goes for us…and I hope this encourages someone.


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