During the time I’ve been writing the series of back stories about Sarah, Harriet, Caroline and Philippa, Alex and now Anthony, I’ve been asked various questions by readers about how I came to write the stories, the difficulties involved etc. So as Anthony I is published and I prepare to have a few days off before diving into Anthony II (which will probably be the last back story, for now at least), I thought I’d take time to write a blog which will hopefully answer some of the questions I’ve been asked.
When I wrote the Jacobite Chronicles, I had no thought of writing the back stories of any of the characters. After I finished the main series I wanted to go back in time to the start of the whole Jacobite movement, which began at the end of 1688 when James VII/II was pushed off the throne and replaced by William and Mary. During that series I’ll write about Beth’s grandmother Ealasaid, her daughter Ann, Graeme, and maybe a few other characters who feature in the Chronicles.
After Tides I started researching for the new series, Road to Rebellion, which covers a much longer period of time than the Chronicles do, and soon realised that if I was going to make a good job of it, I first had to do a lot of background research. But I couldn’t just leave my loyal readers with no books for a couple of years!
So I put a competition up on Facebook, asking people to tell me which characters they’d like to know more about, and the prize was to feature as a character in one of the books, if I wrote them. The response was incredible, and it was that that led me to draw up a list of potential characters and to start thinking about their backgrounds, with a view to writing a book about each in between researching.
Once I had the list I realised that I had to re-read the Chronicles and pick out any places where those characters had mentioned events from their past, because their back stories had to match with whatever they’d already revealed. And this was where I hit my major problem. Because, as I said, I had never thought to write back stories, so the things that Sarah, Alex and Anthony had revealed didn’t always fit in with my shiny new ideas for their back stories, and sometimes there was a considerable amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth as I tried to work out how to incorporate a throwaway comment from the main series into their now increasingly detailed past stories.
It was a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle in which you have to incorporate pieces from a different puzzle and somehow make them fit. Sometimes it was fun, sometimes it was challenging, and sometimes I spent days miserably throwing away great ideas and wishing my character in Hell for saying such a stupid thing in book three. I initially thought Harriet’s book would be easier, because she only has two tiny scenes in the Chronicles, and apart from being Caroline’s aunt, her past is hardly mentioned. But when I decided to incorporate Highbury’s story into Harriet’s, and continue it into Caroline and Philippa’s, all that changed, and those books suddenly became incredibly complicated.
Although writing the back stories was comforting in a way, because some of the characters were already old friends, I also had to invent a whole load of new characters, some major, some minor, and also incorporate the competition winners, giving them cameo scenes in the books. At first I was a bit worried about this, but it turned out to be one of the most rewarding parts of writing the books! I decided to contact each winner and ask them to tell me a little about themselves, their appearance, likes and dislikes, hobbies, professions, dreams etc, which I would then weave into the book versions of them as I wrote. This was great fun, as I got to know a lot more about some readers who I’d not known at all before then, and establish relationships with them!
It was also fun exploring places and relationships between all social classes of people in some depth, from the very poor to the wealthy. This involved a lot more research, but was great fun. In the Chronicles I tend to focus more on the Scottish Highlanders and the English nobility, with a few scattered characters outside those spheres, but the back stories take me all over the place, which has been fascinating.
I just wanted to add a little about my covers. Because I’m self-published I’m responsible for designing my own covers. Which is wonderful in one respect, as I can make them relevant to the actual book content, and absolutely terrifying in another respect, as I have the artistic skills of a five-year-old. I can often see what I want in my head, but am completely incapable of drawing it. Luckily I have a phenomenal cover artist who is fully capable of taking my stick-figure sketches and written descriptions and turning them into my dream covers!
Having said that, it still involves a lot of work for me, and sometimes a lot of messing about for both of us, to get it just right. In the Chronicles the basic layout for the series is people at the top blending into scenery of some relevant sort below. In the Stories I decided I wanted the character to the left in the foreground, with relevant scenery behind. Every book in the series would have this basic pattern.
Then I came to Alex and Anthony, which were both challenging! The main figure of Alex is Jason Tobias, the model and actor who posed for the Chronicles pictures, but I just couldn’t find the right background! So it ended up as a mix of a Scottish scene with added heather, a photo I took of a Highland cottage from the Highland Folk Museum (well worth a visit), and two little boys at the beach dramatically altered by my cover artist to become the young Alex and Duncan. I love that cover now it’s finished, but it was a nightmare to construct.
Not as much of a nightmare as Anthony though. Initially I thought Anthony would be one book, so managed to find the perfect background, and have Najla (cover artist) drop a few figures into it. Lots of time spent researching, but worth it. However, I couldn’t find any pictures that were even vaguely like Anthony! In despair I managed to get a friend of a friend, Richard, to agree to pose for it on a visit from Wales, and then bought a wig, gloves etc, and paid for a local seamstress to make a basic 18th century frockcoat for me. The end result was fabulous.
But then I realised Anthony would have to be two books, so all of a sudden I had another cover to do, in which Alex would be somewhere between the Highlander and the baronet. I found a lovely background picture which would fit in with him as a student (after a little tinkering to remove modern accessories), but my previous model was no longer available. Luckily my electrician Tim, who is a great sport and now a friend, and also the right height and build, agreed to have a break from doing electrics for me and instead don a frockcoat and wig and adopt assorted silly poses in the garden, with much laughter. The result is Anthony Part I’s cover, which is one of my favourites!
As the books have come out and my readers have finished them, I’ve had a lot of feedback saying that the back stories made them feel much closer to my characters, and many of you have re-read the main series with new eyes. While I haven’t re-read the main series in that way, it’s certainly brought me a lot closer to my characters as well, and, although I’m really looking forward to starting my new series once Anthony II is written, (I have done a lot of the research for it now, although I’ll have to refresh myself on it), I’m also dreading it, because these characters have lived with me almost constantly for over ten years, and I’ll miss them dreadfully when I finally have to say goodbye to them and move on to new pastures, as it were.
So there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to finish Anthony II, as I think I’m going to find it very difficult to let everyone go, some characters more than others. When I started writing years ago I never imagined being as involved with my characters as I’ve become. It’s a heady, wonderful feeling! But also a sad one, as the series starts to come to an end. I may at some point write more back stories – Iain and Maggie, and possibly Gabriel’s stories are possibilities, but not immediately. I’m sure the new characters will become friends too, but there will always be a place in my heart for the MacGregors, and all the other characters I’ve grown to love dearly. I hope that’ll be the case for you, too, as my readers!