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The ‘Chieftain’ series of Scottish historical romances have been best sellers and award winners for Frances Housden, but her latest work is a contemporary police procedural along the lines of ‘Ian Rankin meets J D Robb.’ Frances talks about why she enjoys a good serving of mystery with her romance.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- What Frances loves about medieval Scotland
- Why reading is the essential for good writing
- The secret of successful romance
- How helping her son with his English exam got her writing
- The authors she likes to binge read
- How the first in the Chieftain’s series came to her in a dream
What follows is a “near as” transcript of the conversation in full with links to many of the key books and events discussed.
Where to find Frances Housden
Website: https://frances housden.com
Jenny: Hello there, Frances and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Frances: So nice to be asked!
Jenny: You’ve been a real light in the New Zealand romance writing community and it’s a privilege to be able to talk to you. Tell me, was there a “Once Upon A Time” moment when you realised you had to write fiction or your life would be incomplete? If so what was the catalyst for that?
Frances: I’m afraid there was no real catalyst. Ever since I was tiny – in nursery school – books and stories have always been a huge part of my life. It started off my grandfather reading stories, telling stories to me – I’d sneak under the blankets – he was a miner, and he’d be on the night shift. and he’d be there when I came home from school. It was nice because during the winter when it was cold you could curl you toes under the blankets – they were tickley and scratchy and when you were little it was really cosy. He used to tell me fairy tales, he used to tell me stories that he’d made up, so to be honest I’ve always been into reading, but writing was only done at school.
Jenny: Yes . . Obviously people will have picked up on the accent, a memory of Scotland, and although you started out writing contemporary romantic suspense, you’ve made you name with a medieval Scottish romance series. You’ve returned to your Scottish roots. How did that come about?
Frances: A lot of people think it’s just a lot of rubbish that I’ve made up, But the first Chieftain book – The Chieftain’s Curse – came to me in a dream. I was waiting to get into the shower – my husband was in the there – I was sitting up in bed, just dozing and suddenly there was this Highlander, and his fist was shaking and he was shouting “Will this curse never end?” I had to work out “Who was he?” “What was he doing there?” and “What was this curse?”
And that’s what started that first book… I set in in an area that I was familiar with – some of it I was familiar with – other bits I’d been to when I was young and travelled there with my parents or grandparents – so that’s how I ended up in the 11th century, because my grandfather used to tell me stories that would take me to the abbey and St Margaret’s grave was one of the places we used to visit _- we’d always used to go and look at her grave.. Robert the Bruce was buried under the pulpit in the same abbey.
Jenny: Which abbey was that?
Frances: Dunfermline Abbey – the place where the first Kings of Scotland used to live – it started off with Malcolm – the one who killed Macbeth in the ‘Scottish Play’ – and it was an area I was familiar with. Malcolm had his palace there and you can still go down into the ruins and see artefacts that they’ve found there.
Jenny: A lot of your readers wouldn’t be so familiar with the history but I get the feeling that it’s important for you to get the key events accurately portrayed.
Frances: I felt I needed to find an episode in history like a battle or something happening in history to make my story around.
Jenny: So there are seven books in that series?
Frances: No there are six books in that series and then a seventh, the most recent, which is a stand alone, Bride From the Sea.
Jenny: And will you continue with that series?
Frances: I haven’t decided. I did think about going back to where I started, which was contemporary romantic suspense, so I am currently writing a police procedural set in Dunfermline. My cousin is a drummer, he used to play with Nazareth, a big rock group, and the last time I was there I was talking to him about places he’d been and people he’d met – that over there (gestures to a wall hanging) – he gave it to us, it’s a drum skin signed by James Taylor.
Talking to him, I thought what could I start this book? What could be the incident to start it off? So I decided it was going to be the death of a rock star and the hero is a private investigator who gets shunted out because of something that happened.
Jenny: Sounds like a great set up!
Frances: It is! I am really enjoying getting into the story, I love getting in the back story, and getting inside their heads, it’s something I really enjoy.
Jenny: I’m aware there is quite a group of Irish women writers doing police procedural and crime fiction, but I’m not so aware of Scottish women writers?
Frances: There’s one I’ve just bought, by Val McDiarmid, the latest one in her “Wired” Tony Hill series. (Made into the TV series Wire in the Blood) She comes from Kirkcaldy, Fife way, and a lot of her books are set there. And Ian Rankin he comes from a little village about ten minutes from where I lived. So there are police procedurals set in that area, but not specifically women writers so much. I went back last time and took masses of photos to make sure I get it right.
Jenny: The Scottish thing is very strong with readers – what do you think the pull is?
Frances: People seem to just love the Scottish thing . I’ve noticed people love to hear the way I speak – in America for example, they love the accent and the sense of history in the books. I don’t want to be unkind but American writers don’t always get it right with Scottish historicals – with the language and the spelling. Anne Weale wrote about the same sort of thing just across the border – stories based in small towns, not big cities.
Jenny: And readers have reacted well to that?
Frances: Well yes, mainly I’ve had reviews with four and five stars. I did get one one star review from someone who said I plainly didn’t know Scotland – I had everything wrong and I thought – Well you didn’t read my bio!!
Mainly I’ve had good reviews, and they like my heroes, I like them to be different every time. I want them all to be honorable – I think that’s very important in the relationship. But apart from that, I want them different. The first one was very alpha, He took a leman (a mistress.) He can’t go with anybody else because he was cursed. He had three wives and they all died giving birth and so he finds this woman who can’t have children and so he picks her out to be his leman because he doesn’t want to kill any more women having his child.
Jenny: The other thing about your books is your women are also very strong.
Frances: Oh yes. Well if you have a strong man you have to have a strong woman opposite him or else they just become too submissive. I like it be be an even battle – an even conflict. It’s historically consistent too.
There were wives that became head of the clan and that sort of thing so at that time there were women who were really strong. Just across the water in Ireland there was a woman who was a pirate – so yes there were women who were strong, they weren’t all submissive. The ones in my books are all very strong.
Jenny: Perhaps turning from specific books to your writing career. Is there one thing you’ve done in your writing career more than any other that’s been the secret to your success?
Frances: I think I had a little tag line that Beverley Barton, a friend of mine gave and she said what she loved about my writing was my characters and that’s that I enjoy about the writing. These people have to come to life, it doesn’t matter if they are a secondary character. Chieftain in the Making someone wrote how they all came true and it all worked – its the characters for me. when you are writing, they are real to you. I don’t write to a formula. I don’t write an outline. things happen because of what just gone before. I don t think Oh I have to have a romantic scene here or a murder there, its all driven by consequences of what’s gone before..
Jenny: so you’re saying they are character driven books?
Frances: Very much so.
Jenny: For people who aren’t so familiar with Scotland,if you were going to organise a literary “magical” mystery tour for your Chieftain series, where would you Tripadvise people to go? Say you have ten days in Scotland?
Frances: Start in Fife, you go to Dunfermlin. There is a lot of historical stuff with the abbey and the palace and then go to Kinghorn – that’s where a Scottish King died trying to get back to his wife. He fell down a cliff because it was such a bad night.
Then Stonehaven – it’s a good walk to get up there I saw that in my mind – At Dunnottar a little peninsula with this old castle out on it.
I’ve got books set in the Cairngorm mountains. There are no castles there, but in the second book I set a castle there. I imagined it as the one in The Lord of the Rings that was set into the cliffs and I imagined that and when I go into writing that story I discovered the dwarf in it, Namath. I made that name up and he became so real to me, he should have been heir but his father cast him aside.
Then to go further north, Chieftain’s Rebel was set right in the north, in Orkney and Shetland were there there were Norseman and he wanted this woman who was of Norse extraction.
If you stick to the coast there are a lot of places, Inverness is lovely and historic and you can take a boat ride down Loch Ness. Everywhere you go there are thing to see. There’s a palace that belong to the Stuart’s Falkland Palace that Mary Queen of Scots used as a holiday place. set in a village that is preserved with all its historical buildings. That’s a beautiful place.
Jenny: Is there a mystery in your own life that could be the plot line of a book?
Frances: Not really. I met my husband when I was 18 . . .
Jenny: And he is a Kiwi is he?
Frances: No, he’s English. His parents had just come out to New Zealand and he had joined the English navy, so he got transferred to the New Zealand navy and we arrived in New Zealand, neither of us having been there before.
So it was an experience for both of us. If I can say anything about the moment when I thought I could write, as you were asking me earlier, it’s this. When my son was doing his school exams, he was having trouble with English. Now I have to admit to having left school at 15 with no qualifications. So my son was going to take his School Certificate English for the second time and I thought “I will go to night school for a year and see if I can help him.” So I went to night school for a year, and I wrote essays and that and I wasn’t going to sit the exam and the teacher said “No you have to sit the exam and after that you have to go to a writing class because your stories are so good.”
I sat the exam and I got 89 and a half per cent – but that’s the beauty of reading, when you read you learn. So after that I went off to writing class, but it wasn’t until I joined Romance Writers of New Zealand that I learnt about things like Point of View and other things they don’t teach you at creative writing.
Jenny: That leads me on to another question I was going to ask you – and that is – what is the secret of a good romance novel?
Frances: Oh I think it has to have some of conflict. It can’t start off falling in love like my husband and I did, falling in love at 18… or if they do, something has to happen to part them and bring in conflict. But I think the best successful romance novels are the ones when you get to end and it makes you feel so good by the time you get to the end. (Gives a sigh of satisfaction to demonstrate the right mood)
Frances As reader
Jenny: The series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” and you mentioned you’ve loved reading since you’ve been a tiny tot. What are the books you’ve enjoyed binge reading?
Frances: Well, when I got to New Zealand, it was Georgette Heyer. Before that I was reading Mills and Boon and anything I could get my hands on including DH Lawrence’s Women In Love which I found in a drawer at home . My mother in law (in NZ) was into Georgette Heyer. We would buy them between us and share them . . and then pass them on to my sister in law when we’d finished them. I’ve still got a lot of these books stored away. And Ian Rankin – I love him. Dick Francis I loved them, I’ve got every JD Robb that she’s written. Anne Weale’s Shetland stories. Tana French, the Irish mystery writer . . Lee Childs – we’ve got everything. . .
I love going back to a character and seeing how they develop and change. . . There is a book Lee Child wrote in the middle of his Jack Reacher series – Enemy – where his brother was buried in the centre of Paris -and it took you right back into the character’s child hood.. That was really good that one.
Circling back to the end At this stage in your career, if you were doing it all again, what would you change – if anything?
Frances: I wouldn’t try and write a Mills and Boon. That’s what I did, but they kept turning into suspense. I should have taken the hint. I just can’t help it. My first lot were romantic suspense for Silhouette in New York .
Jenny: And most of them were New Zealand based, weren’t they?
Frances: Some of them were. One of them was set on Everest. They were all connected through a family, and one of the family was a mountaineer so that’s how we got onto Everest.
I used to live in the country and the books came in a big box and I used to give the postie one, so I gave her the Everest one, and a couple of weeks later she said to me “Frances when were you on Everest?” And I said “Oh no I’ve never been there.” And she said “Oh yes you have, I can tell from the book!
Well I watched so many videos, I wrote that book with a map of Everest on my knee, I did so much research. I don’t mind doing research and I think apart from the romance that’s what makes books ring true,
Jenny: So you discovered you were really a suspense writer . . . . that brings us nicely to the next question and that’s what’s next for Frances the writer? What new projects, new things in the pipeline?
Frances: Ahh – well my next book is a police procedural set in Dunfermline and I call it – if I ever sell it – I’m looking for a home for it – I call it my “Ian Rankin meets JD Robb” and I am really enjoying writing it and I see it as one that can become a series.
Jenny: You say you are looking for a home for it – would you ever consider self publishing?
Frances: I might. I am looking for an agent at the moment – I have had two agents before but neither of them were a success, but I have a lot of friends who are indie published – I just have this thing that I’d like to be in print again. I don’t know if I’ve got the where withall for be a good publisher.
Jenny: Coming to an end of our chat – Where can readers find you on line?
Frances: Yes – there’s my website
Facebook two pages
My personal one, @frances housden 9
and frances housden author https://www.facebook.com/franceshousdenauthor1/
Jenny: Thanks so much for being with us and we’ll have this online in a few weeks . .
Frances: I hope everyone can understand the accent . . . thanks so much . . .
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