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Liz Harris’s Road Back

I’m delighted to welcome Liz Harris to my blog today.  With law and English degrees under her arm and experience of living in California and teaching teenagers in the UK, Liz started writing. She  belongs to the Romantic Novelists’ Association, The Historical Novel Society and is a member of the Oxford Writers’ Group, where she has contributed to their fourth anthology of short stories. Her debut novel, The Road Back, was published in September.

How did you start writing?
I have always loved writing essays, tasks given at school, letters to friends, but it never occurred to me to write a novel until my sons were aged 2 and 3, and so in bed at a fairly early hour, and my husband, a head teacher at the time, was frequently out in the evenings. Since there was a limit to how many letters I wanted to write in an evening, I decided that it might be fun to write a novel. And it was.

I received a lot of encouragement for that first attempt, but couldn’t follow through the advice I was given as the demands of the family took over.  Years later, when I once again had some free time, I remembered the thrill I’d felt when I first put my finger to the key and begun to create a world that hadn’t existed until that moment, and I put my finger to the key again …

You and I met through the Romantic Novelists’ Association. What drew you to the romance genre?
I’ve written novels in more than one genre. At the time I did so, I didn’t realise the difficulties that that would pose. I began with a novel that had a dark theme, and followed that with Evie Undercover, a romantic comedy set in Umbria, an area I know well, which is now out on a Kindle exclusive.
The idea behind Evie dictated the genre – it could only be a romance.

The Road Back is romantic fiction, different in that it lacks what I see as an essential part of the definition of romance – an element of fantasy/wish fulfilment. Patricia and Kalden are real people, with real families (Okay, only in my mind, but what’s in one’s mind is very important). Theirs is a love story, grounded in the world that existed at their time.

P.S. The RNA has done many good things. Introducing us was one of their best!

I believe that Ladakh, the setting for your book The Road Back (just out!), is sometimes called “Little Tibet”. Do you have a particular affinity with the area?
The connection is that my late uncle, when stationed with the army in North India, went on a visit to Ladakh. When he came back, he compiled his copious notes and photographs into an album and gave it to his daughter. Three years ago, my cousin contacted me from Australia and asked for help in finding a home for the album.

It’s now in the Indian Room of the British Library, and in the two weeks between its arrival in England and my handing it over to the Library, I read it and fell in love with an area about which I had known nothing prior to reading the album, and I knew that I had to set a story there.

Your pocket novel, A Dangerous Heart, published in March, was set in Umbria. Do you prefer settings abroad?
Not necessarily. My first full-length novel – the dark themed one – is set in England, and a large part of The Road Back is set in London, particularly in the Belsize Park area, and I really enjoyed writing both of those. Perhaps, though, I do feel drawn towards setting my novels abroad. I love travel, and I love learning about the way in which people live in different places/times, and I love languages.Setting my next full-length novel, A Bargain Struck, in Wyoming, 1887, rather bears out my interest in looking overseas for my story and setting.

In The Road Back, we see some of the heroine Patricia’s childhood in the 1950s and young girlhood early 1960s before she sets off for her life-changing journey. What attracted you to this period? Is there anything personal you can draw on?
I lived in Belsize Park for some years, and I really enjoyed learning about the way it used to be. I’d had no idea, for example, that there used to be a deep-level air raid shelter by the underground station, and that the entrance to it is still there. Since I was setting a large part of the novel in a place that was entirely new to me, it was comforting, if you like, to locate a part of the novel in an area with which I was more familiar. For the purposes of one of the plot lines, the novel had to be set before 1969, and I worked back from there.

Kalden is intelligent and sympathetic and would have been an attractive hero in any time and place. Would your story in The Road Back have been the same in a different environment, e.g. 1960s swinging London?
That’s a very interesting question, Alison!

For Kalden, there would have been little change – it was only after the gates of tourism were opened in Ladakh, which was in 1974, that there was any significant change in the lives of the Ladakhi.

I’m tempted to say that Patricia’s story would have been different in a later period of time, that she was almost certain to have been affected by the social changes that were taking place, but I’m not sure that I would be right.  Just as her father, the Major, was a product of his social environment and regimental background, Patricia, too, was a product of that same environment since she lived within it and had rather turned her back on the wider society.

I think that there’s a strong chance that just as the social changes towards the end of the 50s rather passed Patricia by, so, too, she might have chosen to ignore the possibilities offered by 1960s swinging London, and her story might well have been the same.

I like a firm resolution, not necessarily a “happy ever after” ending. Do you plot your stories or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?
It’s a combination.  I know when I start a novel where I’m going, but I don’t know all of the little details (for want of a better word) that I’ll include on the way.  Having said that, the extent to which I plot in advance varies according to the novel.

With The Road Back, the structure of life in a Ladakhi village gave me the framework for the story of Kalden. But with A Bargain Struck, I started with a completely empty sheet, and I had to plot in advance more than I’ve ever done for any other novel.

From a technique point of view, is it easier writing stories set in the past? Have you found any special things to be aware of, apart from the obvious ones of technology, dress and manners?
Yes, language. I have a real dislike of being jarred out of an historic period by a narrative voice full of modern idiom, or by characters speaking with a vocabulary and idiom that didn’t exist at the time at which they were supposed to be living. I keep a dictionary of slang at my side when I’m writing a historical novel, and I’m forever checking the origin/first usage of a word or phrase.

What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?
Definitely, the frequent interruptions caused by emails, FaceBook and Twitter! Before these became a part of my everyday life, I used to write for hours with complete concentration.  It was a blissful feeling, and one that I want to re-capture. To do so, I’m going to organise my day differently when I start the next book. On three days of the week, I won’t be switching the internet on for anything other than research until after 6pm.

Which authors have influenced you?
I don’t know that any authors have directly influenced me, but I know that I’ve learnt something, one way or another, from just about every single book I’ve ever read. I’m fortunate in that my mother loved reading. She passed down to me her favourite novels, and she made sure that I always had access to books.  This is one of the greatest gifts a person can give a child, and I shall always be grateful to her for it.

Can you tell us something of your work in progress?
I’m just completing A Bargain Struck, set in Wyoming, 1887, which tells the story of a family of second generation homesteaders.

To my amazement, A Bargain Struck was much harder to research than The Road Back, and I ended up with a lot of unanswered questions, despite having bought a large number of books, many from the US. There was only one answer for it – I dragged my husband, who hates the heat, to Wyoming in August!

It was an easy climate to be in and we had a brilliant time, during which I found out the answers I needed. To be able to walk in the tracks that my characters walked was truly amazing. I can’t describe the excitement I felt when I stepped out of my car in Baggs on to exactly the spot that my heroine stepped from the stagecoach in 1887.

And finally, what advice would you give a new writer?
When you’ve written your novel, send it out for a critique by someone who doesn’t know you and who will know what they’re talking about. When your report comes back, look carefully and dispassionately at what you’re told, and apply what you recognise to be right, painful though it may be. Everyone needs independent eyes on his or her work. We cannot see the flaws in our style and in our narrative in the way that impartial, experienced eyes can.  It is in the process of taking on board criticism, applying it and learning from it, that a writer becomes a very good, very skilled writer.

Many thanks for the questions, Alison. They’ve made me really think, and I very much enjoyed doing them.

And we’ve enjoyed reading the answers! Thank you very much, Liz.

Visit Liz’s website at http://www.lizharrisauthor.com/ and follow her on Twitter @lizharrisauthor.

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