Karen Maitland


Karen Maitland is the author of medieval thrillers including The Vanishing Witch; Liars and Thieves, and Falcons of Fire and Ice. Her latest work is The Raven’s Head (Headline Review, 2015).

We caught up with Karen to discuss her typical day as an author, and to find out how she first got published…


Q: What is your typical day as an author like?

A: I try to finish any housework by 9am and head across to my converted blacksmith’s workshop in the garden, where I write. I don’t take a mobile, and I try to resist the temptation to look at emails.

Armed with a bracing mug of tea, I settle down to edit what I wrote the day before. By the time I’ve finished editing, I’ve worked myself back into the voice and mood of my character, and I have started writing the next section before I realise it. At least that’s the theory!

I break for half an hour to eat lunch and watch Doctors on TV – I’m hopelessly addicted. Then it’s back to the workshop to check emails, before I start writing again and I finally close my laptop at 6pm. By that stage I’ve amassed a list of questions I need to look up after dinner: what symptoms would lead a medieval physician to diagnose ‘oppression of the gall-bladder’? How would the baby of a wealthy family been transported on a long journey in the Middle Ages?

I spend the evening trying to find the answers to these questions in reference books, and scribbling down any ideas that pop into my head while I’m doing the washing up or having a bath – why do I always think of good lines when my hands are wet?! Then, if I can stay awake, I read a bit – usually books on folklore or a novel, but never one set in the period I am writing about.


Q: How did you first get published?

A: I was chatting to a woman sitting beside me in the audience at a book talk, and discovered she too was an aspiring author. She suggested I join the Historical Novel Association.

I went to their conference, where a manuscript appraiser, Hilary Johnson, was offering 10 minute one-to-one sessions. I didn’t realise at the time that she was also a talent scout for a literary agency, and had come to the conference looking for a new historical fiction author. She liked the sample she read, and passed my manuscript to an agent, who suggested changes and eventually took me on.

My agent sent out Company of Liars (which was later published by Penguin in 2008) on a Thursday afternoon, and phoned me first thing on the Monday morning to tell me a major publisher had made an offer for a two-book deal.

When I got the call I was on my way to the shops to buy milk. I was in such a daze of excitement I went home with a tin of baked beans instead! It all began with speaking to stranger at a book talk. You never know where things will lead.


Q: What advice would you give people trying to get published?

A: Firstly, go to as many book talks and festivals as you can. You’ll pick up lots of tips about writing and publishing. Chat to the people in the coffee and cloakroom queues. You may find yourself talking to an agent or editor.

Secondly, join one of the professional societies for the genre you write in, or at least check out their websites. Many societies such as the Crime Writers Association, Historical Novel Association or the Romantic Novel Association run competitions for unpublished novelists. They also have mentoring programs and manuscript appraising schemes, where your manuscript will be read by experienced authors or agents in that genre.

And from their newsletters and websites, you’ll be able to see at a glance which editors in the different publishing houses are buying the kind of book you write. That will save you a lot of time, and help you to get your manuscript on to the desk of exactly the right editor or agent.


Q: Which writers do you most admire and why?

A: I admire the claustrophobic, but very realistic micro-societies that Minette Walters creates in her crime novels. She shows how the most ordinary people are capable of murder, and that it takes only small triggers to set them down that path.

But in contrast, I also love the magical realism authors such as Angela Carter, Isabel Allende and Margaret Atwood, who lead you into a real world and then start to distort it in such imaginative ways you still believe it is entirely plausible. Deborah Harkness, who wrote the All Souls trilogy, has the same talent.

Meanwhile, short story writer Isaac Bashevis Singer was a master of his craft. He could populate a single short story with whole village full of sharply drawn characters, and cover a greater time span than most authors could handle in a whole novel.

And of course, I greatly admire many historical novelists. CJ Samson with his Shardlake books makes my spine crawl in the most delicious way. Bernard  Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles about King Arthur are brutal, savage and enthralling – a far more realistic picture of Arthur and the Dark Ages than the Victorian fantasy of swooning maidens and knights in impossibly shiny armour.

I also love the historical novels of Manda Scott, who can uncover amazing historical facts and has the courage to blow tradition apart in her novels.


To find out more about Karen Maitland, visit karenmaitland.com

Are you a budding historical writer? Then enter our Inspiring History Writing competition


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