Many thanks to Margaret Muir, whose Age of Nelson novel The Unfortunate Isles has just been published, and who has agreed to be interviewed for this blog.
Congratulations on the publication of the fourth in your "Under Admiralty Orders" series! And thank you for agreeing to be interviewed on World of the Written Word.
JD. Your hero, Oliver Quintrell, is a strong character, particularly as he is both taciturn in speech and silently decisive in action. When he was first created in your mind, did you have any man, either real or fictional, as an admired model? How has he developed over the writing of the books?
MM: Although I have watched various screen actors portraying famous sea captains, and have read of others, both fictional and real, I never consciously moulded Oliver Quintrell on any of them. Nor did I base his personality on anyone I have ever known. He is merely a figment of my imagination who evolved on paper.
From page one of the first book, I had no preconceived ideas about Oliver Quintrell, apart from the fact I wanted him to be human – not some composite cardboard character.
As such, he was physically scarred following an injury to his hand. This led to rejection of intimacy from his wife. This, in turn, scarred him emotionally. He compensated for this lack of affection with fleeting amorous encounters with Susanna whenever he visited Madeira.
Feedback over the past three years, mainly in the form of private emails, has told me that readers relate to a flawed character, a man with faults who displays human emotions. One reader, however, found the captain’s extramarital affair to be unacceptable. I take notice of what readers tell me, and because of this I decided to remove her from his life.
I believe that since he first walked the quarterdeck in Floating Gold, Oliver Quintrell has developed. He has accepted his flaws and moved on and despite a recent short period of withdrawal, he has grown in confidence. He accepts command without question, approaches challenges with determination and, as always, his ship and men are of primary importance to him.
JD. A distinctive feature of your writing is the very intricately evinced settings. The reader can picture the scene easily, feel the heat or the cold, and sense the power of the sea and the wind. How much time do you spend researching your backgrounds, and do you make any personal journeys to the places you write about?
MM. Reading primary source material written around 1800, describing exotic locations, opens the door on lyrical prose which is extremely evocative. I love it, though it strikes me that writers of 200 years ago saw things more clearly than we see them today. It is obvious they were overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of scenes witnessed for the first time. In my opinion, it appears that today the gloss has faded from these scenes. Is it because they have been presented to us so many times in the media that we have become blasé about nature’s beauty?
Whatever the reason, while we cannot see and experience everything the world has to offer, visiting the location of a story and experiencing its atmosphere, is essential if the writer hopes to convey a convincing picture to readers.
Having taken the helm of a sailing ship in the Southern Ocean, felt the power of the wind, and been overawed at the immensity of the sea, I regard myself as fortunate at having experienced such things so I can write about them with confidence.
While I love to travel, I do so with a view to finding new settings for my stories. Cruising into Deception Island in the Antarctic Peninsula inspired my first book Floating Gold. Sailing through the Strait of Magellan – The Tainted Prize, and visiting Gibraltar – Admiralty Orders. I savour the images I see and lock them into my memory bank.
JD. Writing a series has its challenges, as well as its pleasures. How difficult do you find it to write sequels, when you know that there must be readers out there who have not read the previous book or books? Do you feel compelled to reiterate a lot of what has gone before?
MM. Patrick O’Brian has always had a huge following of dedicated aficionados, who possibly knew the canon better than he did. Because of this, there was no necessity for him to regurgitate the back-story when each new book was released.
Unfortunately, for emerging writers, the dilemma exists that readers are not familiar with their earlier books. So, what should the author do? To repeat events from a previous book is boring to those familiar with the series. Yet, for those reading the book as a stand-alone work, it is essential to include some prior information.
One ploy I have used in an attempt to combat this problem is, prior to publication of a sequel, to offer the previous books free to readers. This allows them access to past events and characters. Over the course of the series, several thousand of my readers have taken up these free offers. I don’t regard this as a loss of royalty income, but as a promotional exercise and investment in future followers.
Another challenge for writers of any series is to maintain interest and not run out of ideas and steam. This happens in long-running series particularly where stories are spatially confined, for example, within the wooden walls of a sailing ship.
A similar problem, arising from a series set at sea, is having the limited cast of characters. This is something I am learning to deal with. At the end of Book 4, I purposely introduced a few new characters to add spice and vigour to the next book. I also added a few teasers, hopefully to entice readers back.
Will the presence of two women on board lead to any romantic entanglements? What is in Captain Quintrell’s new orders? Will he sail to Van Diemen’s Land or not?
Until he opens them, even I don’t know.
JD. Could you tell us something about your writing routine? Early or late? In long spells of creativity, or short bursts of inspiration? Do you do a great deal of research before commencing the novel, or do you find yourself pausing to check facts all the time?
MM. When I am in serious writing mode, I get up about 5 am. Turn on the computer. Make two cups of tea. And write. Often for seven or eight hours straight – seven days a week. But the serious writing phase does not always commence until half way through a book. Only then do I glimpse where the story is heading. As a result the writing flows more easily.
Research, however, comes first. For me, this includes everything from journals and logs written around 1800 to the latest travelogues describing exotic destinations. The internet is a Pandora’s Box of information and inspiration – the place where my ideas are born.
As I never write to a predetermined plan, it is often while researching something unrelated that the germ of a story is born. Twelve months ago, when drafting a blog post on Crime and Punishment in the navy, I came across an article on the physics of hanging. The noose and gallows slowly evolved as integral features in The Unfortunate Isles.
While seafaring terminology and naval actions are referred to all the time, I endeavour to get the facts correct. Readers of nautical fiction are sticklers for accuracy.
JD. Finally, if any (or all!) of your books were filmed, which actor would you like to see playing Quintrell?
MM. This is something I have never considered. From the time of writing the first book up to the present, I have never formed a visual image of Oliver Quintrell in my mind, perhaps because I tend not to dwell on descriptions of individuals’ physical features. I firmly believe, no matter how much information you supply to readers, they will create their own picture of a character in their imagination.
I do, however, carry Quintrell’s personality in my head and when I write, it is the character’s nature I aim to convey – his spirit, his temperament, his dedication to duty, courage, compassion, frustrations and fragility.
While actors are cast in roles where these qualities are portrayed, and certain actors manifest these traits in their off-stage lives, I will leave it in the hands of the film director to decide who should play Quintrell, if, in the unlikely event, a film offer should ever arise.
IN conclusion, the adventures of Oliver Quintrell will be continuing, but before I embark on another mission, I have to write the tale of a 19th century Australian convict. He has been nagging me to write his story for several years.
My thanks to Joan Druett for inviting me to be interviewed on World of the Written Word.
The Unfortunate Isles is available as an e-book from Amazon US (http://goo.gl/HjSglt) and UK (http://goo.gl/8jTLz2). It is due for release as a paperback in February 2015.