Interview: Katherine Clements

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Last year I had the good fortune to read and review Katherine Clements’ first novel The Crimson Ribbon, a tale of witchcraft and suspicion set in the English Civil War. Her latest novel The Silvered Heart, about a legendary (in both senses of the word) aristocratic highway woman, was released last Thursday and will be reviewed here in a couple of days (it is safe to say I am currently tearing through it and enjoying every word!) I was lucky enough to bag an interview with Katherine in the run-up to release day.

 Can you explain how/where your inspiration for your novels comes from? Do you make lots of notes, or is there a ‘eureka!’ moment?

So far my ideas have come from reading about history. With The Crimson Ribbon, the real life character Elizabeth Poole was the starting point. I came across her while reading about something else, but that chance encounter led to a much wider story. With my second novel, The Silvered Heart, the popular legend of Lady Katherine Ferrers, the notorious highwaywoman known as ‘The Wicked Lady’, drew me in. I wondered about the real woman behind the myth. Both novels have come out of asking myself the question: Who were these women and how might their situations have come about?

The Real Lady Katherine Ferrers
The Real Lady Katherine Ferrers

Once I’ve settled on a subject I read around it, making notes of anything interesting or relevant. I find myself reading about all kinds of unexpected things. And sometimes there is a ‘eureka’ moment, when a plot point suddenly falls into place, or I find a historical fact that fits perfectly.

Your novels are set during the English Civil War; what is about the period that attracts you so?

It was such an important, exciting, tumultuous time in British history that doesn’t get the attention it should. You don’t hear much about the English Revolution do you?  The 17th century saw the beginnings of so many things that are important in modern society, like parliamentary authority and a free press. Some of the things that people were questioning and fighting for back then are still not resolved today.

In The Crimson Ribbon, I wanted to explore some of the aspects of the period that interested me; women’s role in society, new freedoms brought about by the war, new religious sects, radical political thinking and the witchcraft trials. When it came to writing a second novel, I wanted to look at what happened after the wars, to people on the losing side.

You write about women navigating a very masculine society- are there any real life women from the period who particularly inspire you? If so, why?

There are lots of examples from the years of civil war, and the wider period, but if I have to pick a personal favourite, it would be the Leveller women. The long-suffering Elizabeth Lilburne, wife of Leveller leader Freeborn John, is a favourite of mine, along with Katherine Chidley, who became the leader of a group of influential women within the Leveller movement. The latter attempted to galvanise these women to express radical political opinions, including early shades of feminism, at a time when that was a very brave thing to do. Ultimately the impact they had was limited, but in a society where outspoken women could be condemned as heretics, whores or witches, I admire the courage it took to speak out. The roots of the suffragette movement can be traced back to them.

How do you carry out your research? Could you describe the process for your latest book?

Research begins with lots of reading. I start with secondary sources – history books mostly – and only move on to primary sources if I need to. Once I’m writing, small things come up all the time, so the research goes on right up until the book goes to print. The Internet is a fantastic help, but it does throw up red herrings at times, so you have to be careful and constantly crosscheck.

With The Silvered Heart I began by researching everything I could about the real Katherine Ferrers and her connections. To be clear, the story is an amalgamation of the limited facts we have about her life, and the legend of the Wicked Lady that has traditionally been pinned to her – it is by no means a ‘true story’. I had great fun trying to match the fact with the fiction – like solving a puzzle.

Once I had the basic plot, I moved on to researching the locations, all of which are real places. I love to visit locations if I can. Writing novels set in the UK makes this possible. I visited the all locations in Hertfordshire that I could and made a trip to the V&A to view The Great Bed of Ware (that’ll make more sense if you read the book!).

Image: V&A
The Great Bed of Ware

I also spent a day horse riding on Dartmoor. I used to ride when I was younger but wanted to remember how it felt to be in the saddle for hours (painful). But my favourite trip was a visit to the Royal Armouries in Leeds, where I got to handle some 17th century pistols and muskets that were probably used in civil war battles. That was an amazing day. I love to do hands-on research like that. It probably doesn’t make much difference to the story but it helps me inhabit my characters, and it’s great fun.

Of all your characters, who’s your favourite and why?

It has to be Ruth from The Crimson Ribbon, for purely sentimental reasons. I spent a long time with her, writing in her voice and telling her story. I often talk about my first visit to Oliver Cromwell’s house in Ely where I spent an afternoon marvelling that I was in the house where Ruth actually lived and worked – it took me about an hour to remember that she wasn’t real and I’d made her up! That was the day when I understood what authors mean when they say their characters become real.

Which novel do you wish you’d written?

There are so many! I’ll go for Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. I read it around the time that I was beginning to think seriously about my own writing and I absolutely loved everything about it. It inspired me but also made me feel overwhelmed and despairing, because I couldn’t imagine ever managing to complete a novel, let alone one that good. (I still often feel that way!)

Can you describe the place where you write?

I moved house last year and, for the first time, have my own study. Though I prefer to write first drafts by hand, often in bed or on the sofa, any typing up, re-writing and editing happens at my desk. It’s a small, bright room, filled with light on sunny days. Bookshelves are stacked with non-fiction books and files. I’m serenaded by the sound of my neighbour’s chickens. There is always tea. I’d like to say I have a wonderful view, but it’s mostly a red brick, ivy-clad wall, where small birds dart between the leaves. One day, I’ll finish unpacking.

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Keep your eyes peeled for my review in a few days- and in the meantime, you can follow Katherine on Twitter.

Buy The Silvered Heart here for £14.99 (affiliate link)

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