Kate Quinn, New York Times and USA Today best-selling author, drops by to share tips and answers. Kate is the author of such worldwide hits as The Alice Network, The Huntress, The Rose Code, The Diamond Eye, The Signal Moon, and The Phoenix Crown. I caught up with Kate just before her Kauai Writers Retreat with other Marsal Lyons authors.
1. Ever since The Alice Network, the Quinn train has been rolling strong. One might almost think you started the whole WW2 craze that historical fiction is going through in publishing now. But you wrote books in the Roman era before Alice, and you have new books coming in the San Francisco earthquake era, and Briar Club in the McCarthy era. What makes you choose a particular era as a background to a new book?
Kate: Oh, goodness, I don’t think I started the WWII craze at all—LILAC GIRLS and THE NIGHTINGALE were two enormous WWII hits that came out before ALICE NETWORK. I tend to be less interested in a particular historical era (I’m fascinated by many) than by the people in it: I’ll get snagged by someone—generally a woman or a group of women who did something astounding—and get thoroughly hooked by that. The people tend to come before the era for me.
2. You recently finished The Phoenix Crown, a team effort with Janie Chang. What made you decide to coauthor, and how was that experience different than your normal process? How would you describe your normal writing process?
Kate: Janie & I worked together beautifully: we have tremendous respect for each others’ work, mutually geeky hearts when it comes to historical research, and an unshakeable belief that an organized spreadsheet can fix anything. I’d always wanted to write about the San Francisco earthquake, but the more I read up on it the more I thought that the story would need a Chinatown heroine, and that’s not a voice I felt I could write. But Janie & I had been friends since THE ALICE NETWORK came out (we traveled together with Jennifer Robson, in a three-city tour where absolutely everything went wrong, and all came out the best of friends) and I adore her writing—when I asked tentatively “Are you interested in this as a possible background for a book?” she immediately jumped on it. Collaborating can definitely be less lonely than working alone: you can feed off your partner’s creative energy and they on yours; you can halve the research and work between you; you have someone to geek out with when you find something cool in your reading.
3. What does a typical workweek look like for you? How do you balance travel, writing, and family?
Kate: I’m not a morning person, so mornings are for email, business, dog-walking, gym, errands, and anything else I can’t shove off my plate for later. After lunch (15 minutes of whatever I can microwave straight from the fridge, as I read whatever latest ARC is top of my list for a cover quote) is writing time, usually between about 2-7 pm. Evenings are for relaxation: reading for pleasure, watching the Red Sox, reading aloud while my husband cooks dinner (a tradition we’ve maintained since college years; currently we’re working our way through Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series), and a half hour of whatever movie or show we’re currently watching. I try to make sure I completely disconnect in the evenings so that I can focus on relaxing & family. There’s been more travel lately as I’ve started doing more events post-lockdown, and I’ve found I can do good work on planes—no distractions! Work-life balance is always a bit of a struggle, honestly—it always feels like I could/should be doing more, using my time better. But I try not to beat myself up too much about it!
4. You’re always so generous to the authors starting out. What are three key things you would advise authors intent on success?
- Give yourself permission to be bad. That first draft is going to be terrible, but it’s ok; everybody’s is. Don’t give in to that little voice that says “This is terrible, whoever said you could do this?” because then you will never write anything. Give yourself permission to be bad, and just get it down. As Nora Roberts said, “I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank page.” Which leads to—
- It’s bad, but at least it’s down on paper—now fix it. And don’t be too precious about the editing process. My first agent once said that in her experience, fully half of new writers sink themselves because they cannot or will not effectively edit their work. (Which doesn’t mean blindly taking all advice—you need to know what hills are worth dying on. But “My book is perfect as it is” is not a good attitude to take into the submission process.)
- Be flexible. All writers at some point are going to hit a wall, and you will need to decide whether to keep hitting your head against that wall, or whether to pivot in a new direction. It’s scary at times. But the ability to pivot and adapt is key in navigating the ups and downs of a writing career.
5. Where do you see historical fiction going in terms of trends over the next few years?
Kate: Oh, goodness, who knows? I sometimes feel like trying to predict book trends is like trying to see patterns in a goldfish bowl. I think we are seeing more Cold War, more sixties-seventies histfic. I’d love to see ancient world and Renaissance make more of a comeback!
Thanks for sharing and taking time. We’re so looking forward to Phoenix Crown and Briar Club!
Best selling author Michael Ross is a lover of history and great stories. The first in the series, The Clouds of War, was published by Harper Collins, and was an Amazon #1 Best seller in three categories. The Across the Great Divide trilogy is now complete with The Clouds of War, The Search, and The Founding. His books have won Coffee Pot Book of the year for Historical Fiction, short listed for Chanticleer’s Laramie Award, Gold and Silver awards from the Historical Fiction Company, and profiled in Publisher’s Weekly.