To celebrate today’s release of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY, by the amazing Sharon Biggs Waller, I’m reposting my earlier interview with her. Congrats, Sharon!!! (Throws confetti.)
Today on the blog I’m chatting with to Sharon Biggs Waller—writer extraordinaire, critique partner, and dear friend.
Sharon is the author of A MAD, WICKED FOLLY (Viking/Penguin winter 2014. Sharon lived in England for six years, after falling in love with a British mounted police constable and marrying him. She did extensive research on the British suffragettes for her novel, with the help of the curators of the Museum of London—when she wasn’t working as a riding instructor at the Royal Mews in Buckingham Palace and as a freelance magazine writer. Today, she is a full-time novelist, and has three non-fiction books published under her maiden name, Sharon Biggs: The Original Horse Bible (co-author Moira Harris, Bow Tie Press, 2011); Advanced English Riding (Bow Tie Press, 2007); In One Arena (Half Halt Press, 2001). She’s also a classical dressage rider and trainer, and she lives on a 10-acre sustainable farm in Northwest Indiana, just outside of Chicago, with her husband, Mark, two horses, four dairy goats, five cats, two dogs, 60 laying hens, and a hive of bees.
Tell me about A Mad, Wicked Folly.
Thanks for having me on the blog, Jen! A MAD, WICKED FOLLY is about a teenage girl who longs to become a famous painter during a time when women had few rights. It’s set in Edwardian London against the backdrop of women’s suffrage. I love to write about rebellious girls, and my character, Vicky Darling, is certainly a rebel. When the story opens she gets kicked out of her posh French boarding school for posing nude in a forbidden art class. Her parents try to tame her rebellious nature by taking away her art. Vicky is devastated, but sees a glimmer of hope when her parents arrange a marriage to the very handsome and wealthy Edmund Carrick-Humphrey. Marrying Edmund means she’ll have the funds to attend her dream school, the Royal College of Art; but more importantly she can finally break free from her parents’ control.
But then Vicky meets a group of militant suffragettes and a handsome young police constable, William Fletcher, who is sympathetic to their cause. When Vicky mistakenly gets arrested in a suffragette riot, she falls into a world where women are willing to sacrifice everything to win the right to vote. Vicky feels understood for the first time in her life with the suffragettes, and when Will becomes her muse, she has to decide whether to step out in a uncertain world she’s grown to love, or remain in a world where she feels safe but her voice is never heard.
How do your stories come to you? Do you begin a character? A concept? A plotline? Do you work from an outline?
Well, FOLLY came to me when I lived in England. There’s a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union, in Victoria Gardens, next to Parliament. I used to walk by it a lot and I often wondered how hard it must have been to fight for women’s rights during that time. What if you were a teenage girl with hopes and dreams but told you couldn’t do them because you weren’t a boy? That’s when Vicky was born.
I work with a loose outline. I know the basic story and I write signpost scenes, which are significant scenes that are important to the story and to the character’s emotional development. Things change all the time, I try not to be a slave to an outline, but it’s good to have a rough idea of where the story is headed. I also use Martha Alderson’s Blockbuster Plot book. She advises using plot planners and scene trackers. It’s fun because you use a big sheet of banner paper and write all your scenes on a plot line. That way you can get a bird’s eye view of your novel. You can see what’s working and what’s not.
Talk about other art forms that influence your work?
This is such a great question. I draw a lot of inspiration from music. When I’m stuck, I walk in the woods with my iPod listening to a playlist I’ve created for my project. Music helps me feel my character’s emotions and then I can put that feeling into words. For FOLLY, nothing beats Tori Amos and Florence + The Machine. Tori’s song A Sorta Fairytale helped me work out the ambiguous feelings Vicky has for her fiancé. The first time I heard Florence + The Machine’s Rabbit Heart (Raise it up) I thought I was hearing things because it explores the same themes of FOLLY. And Florence Welch is influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, who are the same artists who influence my character, Vicky. And then I saw the video and it blew me away. It looks like a Pre-Raphaelite painting come to life! You can watch it here if you’re interested. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GF6kBNLTvaU The blond guy on the left side of the screen is a dead ringer for Vicky’s art muse, Will.
I also love artwork, and photographs. When I find a historical photograph that resembles a character doing something in my book, I feel like I’ve found an actual picture of my character! Art is inspiring for me because I grew up around artists. My dad is an artist, and my brothers and sister and I used to hang around this sculpture studio he belonged to. The students treated us like actual people (not bothersome children!) and would encourage us to sculpt. I felt so accepted there. It was a very happy time in my life, and I’m fond of artists to this day—if I were wealthy I would be a huge patron of the arts. By the way, I saw a naked guy for the first time at that school. It was in a life class. One of the students was posing that day and I happened to wander into the studio. I was probably 12 or 13. No one freaked out. They just said if you’re going to stay, sit down and grab some clay! I wanted to be an artist, but unfortunately I didn’t inherit the art gene. But I suppose writing is an art form, too.
How do you balance writing and family?
It’s just my husband and me, but I do have a farm with lots of animals and that keeps me busy. I also used to be a full-time freelance magazine writer, but now I’m a full-time novelist. So I used to write fiction for two hours every morning after farm chores, go for a walk to clear my head and go over any plot or character issues (see above about the music). I’d come home, have lunch, and then get into the non-fiction work. Then back out to farm chores. Now I replace the non-fiction work with more fiction. I try to work on two projects at once…because I’m crazy! Anyway, it’s all about carving out time for each activity. I have a lot of friends who have children and I think it must be hard to work when they are around because you want to give them your full attention. I think many of them write when the kids have gone to bed or before they wake up. That takes a lot of discipline because I’m sure sleep would be a good thing too. Hats off to them, that’s what I say.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Don’t take rejection personally. Even though it’s hard to hear, rejection has nothing to do with who you are, so don’t let it change you or make you bitter. Also, it’s important to learn how to turn rejection into a positive experience. Whether it’s an exercise to grow a thicker skin or to review a weak part of your novel, or even to understand that this is part of the process, rejection is part of the writing life. Everyone gets rejected. No one is immune.
I decided when I started writing fiction seventeen years ago (gulp) that I would not give up. That with every rejection I would try to be a better writer. Even if I didn’t agree with the reason why I was rejected (and if you get a reason from an editor/agent that’s a win!) I would try to strengthen that skill. What could it hurt? Writing is a craft, after all, and all crafts need honing.
Do you have a favorite book about writing?
Book? More like books! I have an entire bookshelf of writing books, for reasons mentioned above. I can narrow the list to four. REVISION & SELF-EDITING by James Scott Bell keeps me on track. Martha Alderson’s BLOCKBUSTER PLOTS is just required reading for any novelist, plus she’s an amazing person and a good friend of mine. WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass changed the way I think about crafting stories. He also just came out with a workbook on the subject. And when I’m feeling really low I open up THE ART OF WAR FOR WRITERS by James Scott Bell. Here’s some sage advice from chapter ten: status, worry, and comparison are ways to madness, not victory. Great advice, right?
Where can readers find you?
www.sharonbiggswaller.com or on Twitter @sbiggswaller