Welcome to Sunday Spotlight. Today we feature Carmel McMurdo Audsley, whose latest historical novel, The Undertaker: Masquerade, was released on February 6, 2017.
When did you start writing and what was the catalyst?
My dream as a child was to write books and I used to bang away on my little portable typewriter at night in my bedroom. I did very well at school winning essay writing and poetry competitions. I majored in Journalism, Literature and Philosophy at university and soon found that it was easier to make a living working as a journalist than to try to become the great Australian novelist. I had a very successful career as a journalist and editor working in newspapers and magazines for over 30 years. I owned a publishing company for several years and was also a theatre reviewer. It was only after I retired from a major metropolitan newspaper a few years ago that I had time to pursue writing a novel.
How many novels have you written and published?
I have just published my sixth novel. Ours, Yours and Mines was published in 2012 as part of a trilogy, and I have had a book released every year since then.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
It takes about a year from starting the research to getting the book into print. I have usually been mulling the idea over for a few months and making notes before the research begins in earnest.
What inspired your most recent book?
The greatest reason of all inspired my latest book – readers asked for a sequel. I published The Undertaker in 2015 and a couple of people casually mentioned that I should write a sequel. I had no intention of doing that as I was plotting out a new book which sees a privileged young woman from the Highlands of Scotland inadvertently transported to Australia in 1820. But then I started receiving more and more emails from readers wanting more adventures with Kate the Undertaker. I had some research that I hadn’t used in the first book and decided to look through my notes, and then the strangest thing happened. I locked myself away for three full days and emerged with 30,000 words as a first draft. Because I knew the characters so well, the story just flowed and I built upon it from there. It was a very enjoyable experience.
How much research do you do? With Historical Fiction, how do you balance the demands of getting the facts right and telling a good story?
Because I write historical fiction, research is a very important part of the writing process. Not only do I need to ensure that historical facts are correct, but it is important that the dialogue is true to the period. While researching The Undertaker: Masquerade I spent a whole day trying to find out how a homosexual would have been described in England in 1859. The language is quite offensive today but details are important. Once I have the historical facts, I write the characters and put them in situations that were true to the period. Occasionally I will do a read through and find a character turning out a light when she should have been blowing out a candle. For me, telling a good story is paramount. I can’t bear novels that consist of dry historical facts that read like a text book. The key is to bring the characters to life with dialogue. I love giving my characters accents.
Do you read your book reviews? Do you appreciate reader feedback and take it on board, even if it is negative? How do you deal with negative feedback after spending so much time writing your book?
I never used to read reviews but I have joined a few groups lately and a lot of time is spent discussing reviews. I get many emails from readers telling me how much they have enjoyed the books, but most people don’t bother to post public reviews and that’s fine with me. If people enjoy reading my books, and not only spend their money but take the time to send me an email, I always reply to thank them. I can honestly say that I haven’t had any negative feedback about my books and I put that down to the fact that I do my research and I know how to make readers laugh or cry. If you can move people, I think you have achieved success as a writer. If I did receive negative feedback I would of course be hurt at first, but it wouldn’t affect my confidence in who I am as a writer. Some people enjoy being negative – I am not one of those people.
How much planning do you do? Do you plan / plot the entire story from beginning to end, or let it evolve naturally as the writing progresses? In terms of characters, are they already a firm picture in your mind before you start writing or do they develop a personality of their own as the story progresses?
I start with an idea then write a loose plot. During the research period, particular events in history can shape the course of my book. I write my story outline, list of characters and their descriptions and dates in history on a very big sheet of paper and put it up on the wall in my office. I keep adding to it, or subtracting, as the story starts to flow. The plot can change if I find any interesting events in history that I would like to incorporate into the story. I usually let the characters control the story. I know how they speak and what they would do in certain situations so I just let them run with it.
Have you ever had to deal with a situation where someone feels they recognise themselves in one of your characters?
I write about strong women so I hope that many readers can identify with the characters, or at least aspire to be like them. The first three books were written as novels based on my family history so I was writing about real people, places and events. A lot of people have identified with the characters, and the information in the books has filled holes in readers’ family trees because the characters are so like their own ancestors.
How has being Australian AND a woman impacted on your writing and/or writing career?
I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when young women were still called ‘girlie’ and ‘love’. If you had ambition, you had to be strong to survive. I had ambition and great survival instincts – I knew when to be quiet and when to speak up and if I felt someone was being disrespectful I said so. Now I write about strong women in my books. Young women, especially today, need strong intelligent women role models. You can be assertive without being aggressive and you can make your point without resorting to the use of expletives.
When did you discover the Australian Women Writers Challenge? Do you think the challenge has had any impact on the awareness and discoverability of Australian Women writers? Have you personally benefited in terms of exposure of your work to new readers?
I very recently discovered the Australian Women Writers Challenge and am interested to read all I can about it. Anything that promotes women writers will have lasting benefits for everyone.
What authors and types of books do you love the most?
I prefer to read non-fiction books, mostly because I like to read about people and their lives.
What is your favourite childhood book? Did reading as a child have any bearing on your decision to become a writer?
I have lots of favourite childhood books, even back to the readers we had in Grade One. I always loved books and read anything I could get my hands on. A book that had a great impact on me was Two Queens at the Abbey by Elsie J Oxenham, not because it was an especially good book but because it was the first ever hard cover book I was given. I was about eight years old and it was a Christmas present. I carried that book everywhere with me. Reading and writing felt as comfortable as breathing to me – they still do.
Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people would know?
I don’t have a lot of secrets. Most people would tell you that you won’t die wondering what I’m thinking as I would tell you.
If you could go back in time for a year, which historical era would you choose to live in?
I would go back to the mid-1800s for two reasons. One, because I have a great fondness for Kate in The Undertaker series and I would like to visit her house and her undertaking business in Edinburgh. That seems mad because I invented Kate and her surroundings, but across two books she has become very real to me and I know I would love to have her as a friend. Secondly, I would like to meet my great-great-grandmother Mary Hamilton. In some ways, she is the reason that I started writing novels. Her life was so sad. She bore eight children and buried seven of them at various stages of their lives. How a woman can get out of bed each morning and put one foot in front of the other and just keep going, knowing that each day she faces such pain, is beyond me. She was a very strong woman and her strength has filtered down through the generations. I felt that her story needed to be told and that is why I wrote the first novel.
If you could sit down for an afternoon with an iconic person from history, who would you choose to spend that time with?
I would love to sit down with Aristotle, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson and soak in their wisdom and the beauty of their expression. When I read their writing as part of my university studies, I felt I had already met them long ago.
About The Undertaker: Masquerade:
In Edinburgh Scotland in 1859, young Kate Grainger is running an undertaking business after her father died. She is inquisitive and can communicate with the spirit world. She also has a knack for chasing down serial killers. Kate desperately wants to become a doctor but, despite the prestigious University of Edinburgh School of Medicine being on her doorstep, women are not allowed to study. Kate sets out to find a mysterious man who she thinks can help her in her quest. She thinks she knows his secret – but does she?
You can find out more information about Carmel and her books by visiting her website Scottish Books.
Historical fiction fans might be interested to attend the 2017 Melbourne Historical Novel Society Australasia conference on 8-10 September. The programme features over 60 speakers. You can read interviews with some of the participating authors at the HNSA blog.
About Theresa Smith Writes: Writer, avid reader, keen reviewer, book collector, drinker of all tea blends originating from Earl Grey, and modern history enthusiast. I enjoy reading many genres but have a particular interest in historical fiction. You can find me and all of my book related news and reviews at Theresa Smith Writes,
Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter @TessSmithWrites.