Heather Day Gilbert talks with Beth about the challenges of writing historical fiction, her exciting hands on research, and a bit about her writing process.
Beth: Your latest novel, Trial by Twelve, just released this year. Tell us a bit about this story. How did this series come about?
Heather: I started this series when my Viking historical novel, God’s Daughter, was out on submission. I wanted to write something set in my home state of West Virginia, and I wanted to write something lighter and less research-intensive than a historical. I’ve always been attracted to contemporary reads with past-present storylines, so I incorporated that structure into my mysteries—it’s almost like cold case murders with glimpses into the past.
When I started writing my first mystery, Miranda Warning, Tess Spencer’s voice flowed easily (this series is written in first-person and she is the sleuth). When I began writing Miranda Warning, I wasn’t sure “whodunit.” But as the characters came to life, I realized more of their backstory and it all came together beautifully.
For Trial by Twelve, I did know my villain beforehand. I have always found the story A Most Dangerous Game completely chilling, and I’m trying not to give a spoiler, but that was part of the inspiration for Trial by Twelve.
Beth: You write both historical fiction and contemporary mysteries. Is one ever more enjoyable to write and why? What differences have you found between the two genres in regards to research, writing, editing, etc.?
Heather: I think I actually answered part of that above, but I will say that my mysteries are so much easier to write/edit, and that is including the fact that I have to structure an entire mystery plot/timeline and make sure all the pieces fit together! LOL.
Seriously, my Viking historicals are so labor-intensive, it’s why I’ve put off writing Book 2 in my Vikings of the New World Saga until next year. Basically I’m starting with two Icelandic saga accounts of the same events (which vary in detail and often conflict with each other), making sure most of the words I choose were used in Old Norse (not all of them, because I know Vikings would have had words for objects/actions that aren’t in my Old Norse dictionary), make sure the timelines/settings are right and the foods were available in that time…plus tie all the real events together with a driving internal/external plot and characters modern readers can still relate to. It’s pretty daunting. I actually look at God’s Daughter as my most ambitious book—I wanted to bring the true saga accounts to life in a way Viking aficionados would respect, create believable characters with universal struggles, contrast paganism and Christianity in the Viking world, and so much more.
I will say I’ve started writing a Viking romance and it is much easier when I’m not trying to match actions to the saga accounts, so the plot can come entirely from my imagination.
And the mysteries are definitely faster to write (they take about 2-3 months vs 6-8 for historicals). Editing for historicals is trickier because your editor needs to know the time period. I was blessed with an agent/editor for God’s Daughter (Andy Scheer) who had a great understanding of history, and he made sure my details/timelines were right.
Beth: When researching for your historical novels, what has been the most interesting or surprising thing to learn? Perhaps it requires less research, but what interesting things have you learned when preparing to write your contemporary novels?
Heather: I learned so much with the Viking historical research, and I enjoyed every bit of it. I especially loved reading up on theories about berserkers (blogpost on that here) and I also loved researching Viking weapons. I was particularly fond of Gudrid’s seax (blogpost on that here).
As far as the mysteries, I do a lot of modern weapons research, and I’m very particular that I get my gun terminology/situations correct. Tess Spencer carries a knife and a Glock and her husband and in-laws are also gun-owners, which is very typical for West Virginia. I wanted to make sure I got that cultural detail correct. In Trial by Twelve, I had a bow-hunting friend read over my book to make sure I also got those details correct.
I also did some hands-on research for Trial by Twelve, which included a) having my daughter put me in a car trunk, and b) having my husband duct-tape my wrists so I could try out an escape method I’d seen on YouTube. It worked. 🙂
Beth: Tess Spencer is one of my favorite characters that I’ve “met” this year, and Gudrid is an equally compelling character. What character or characters do you relate to the most? Who is your favorite character, whether a lead or a secondary character?
Heather: Oh, thank you so much! Well, Gudrid is very introspective and struggles with depression. She’s always looking back to the past (she is twice-widowed and on her third marriage at the start of the story). Gudrid often deals with things in a different way than I would, but I feel many women can relate to her.
Meanwhile, Gudrid’s sister-in-law, Freydis, never looks back, is impulsive, and is basically a Viking feminist. I relate to Freydis’ headstrong personality, but there are some things about her I have struggled to understand, like why she historically did certain things. I feel like I’ll be handling a stick of live dynamite as I write her story, Forest Child.
Tess Spencer is the most like me, but not entirely. We both have great lawyer husbands and supportive in-laws. I like to play video games and shoot guns like she does. But she had a horrible childhood and she tends to charge into trouble without thinking, which is not like me at all!
Favorite characters…ooh. That’s tough. I positively love Tess Spencer’s mother-in-law, Nikki Jo. She just cracks me up with her fluorescent sock-monkey themed Christmas tree and her electric lime yoga pants, among other things. I also love when Axel Becker walks into the scene in my mysteries (he’s an enigmatic German florist). I will also say I have a special place in my heart for Snorri Thorbrandsson in God’s Daughter (and so do many readers). And I am very fond of Gudrid’s husband, Finn, and Tess’ husband, Thomas. 🙂
Beth: When did you begin writing and what made you want to become a writer? What writers have inspired you throughout your writing career? What are your favorite novels?
Heather: The first time I won a writing contest was in the fifth grade for an essay contest. I would say I realized I “was a writer” when I was a tween and wrote my first poem—it was just this exhilarating feeling that this is something I can do. But I never finished a novel until my children were out of their toddler years, which is when I finally carved time to do it (I did NaNoWriMo and wrote a 50,000-word book in a month).
You’re going to laugh, but Stephanie Meyer was my inspiration. Here she was, a stay-at-home mom, who wrote these books that were unique and un-put-downable. She reached so many readers, and not with frou-frou wording or any fancy bells and whistles—just with good stories, simply told.
And favorite novels—I know I say this everywhere, but I love classics. The Mill on the Floss, Vanity Fair, Far from the Madding Crowd, Agatha Christie, and many others. You can find more of my all-time faves on my Pinterest board here.
Beth: Describe your typical day of writing for us – what, if any, writing process do you follow? What writing quirks or habits have you picked up that help you as you write?
Heather: My typical writing day is totally atypical! The entire time I’ve been a writer, I’ve been a homeschooling mom, as well. So I work when I can—but most of my writing occurs at night when things are quiet.
I’m between a plotter and a pantser—I have a rough outline of what will happen in each chapter, but I tend to fill in and change it as I go.
As far as helpful habits, I don’t really have any! I would just recommend investing in a great work chair because my last one gave me back problems for weeks. Thankfully my parents got me a new one and it’s working great!
Beth: And an extra random question since it is summertime – what summer traditions does your family have? What are your favorite summertime activities?
Heather: I would love to go to the beach each year, but that’s not really feasible. Our children have activities at different times each summer, so I can’t say we have a plethora of family summer traditions. We do usually have a garden with my parents, and I love puttering around in my flowerbeds. Also, I like putting up a hummingbird feeder and sitting on my porch to watch them. These are highly interesting activities, I know. LOL!
Beth: What projects do you have coming up and what details can you share with us?
Heather: Forest Child will be in the works for 2016, if all goes well. For the rest of 2015, I’m finishing a YA fantasy novella (at my girls’ request) and I will hopefully get another mystery out, as well. Also, I’m working on a Viking romance that would be separate from my Vikings of the New World Saga. Basically, I’m keeping busy! 🙂
Thank you so much for letting me visit today! I love your website!
Author Bio: Heather enjoys writing stories about authentic, believable marriages. Born and raised in the West Virginia mountains, she believes that bittersweet, generational stories are in her blood. A graduate of Bob Jones University, Heather has been married for eighteen years and has three children.
Heather’s Viking historical novel, God’s Daughter, was an Amazon Norse Bestseller for an entire year. She is also the author of Miranda Warning and Trial by Twelve, Books One and Two in A Murder in the Mountains mystery series, and the Indie Publishing Handbook: Four Key Elements for the Self-Publisher.
To find out more about Heather and her books, visit her website or connect with her through FaceBook.