The subject of today’s Author Focus is Karen Perkins, author of the successful Valkyrie series and haunting ghost story Thores-Cross, a novel that received five stars in a review here on my blog. Karen lives in Yorkshire, where she spends her time writing as well as editing and formatting as proprietor of LionheART Publishing House. She has been a keen sailor since childhood, competing nationally and internationally until the day she had both National and European Ladies Championship titles – and a terminally bad back.
Tell us about your writing background. What inspired you to write?
In about 2005 I picked up a pen and just started writing. I had injured myself sailing ten years before, which had pretty much brought my life to a standstill. When I filled the first notebook I bought another, and when I’d filled that I realised I was writing a book – I had the bug and it was terminal, I cannot imagine not writing now. I’d always been a bookworm, apparently I was a very easy child as I spent all my time curled up with a book, yet it had never occurred to me that I would be able to write one until I actually did. That first book took a lot of rewrites and a lot of learning before it was fit to be published, in 2012, as Dead Reckoning and even then I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to publish without the encouragement and support of my friends and family. Dead Reckoning was quickly followed by a novella, Ill Wind, introducing the Valkyrie Series, and Thores-Cross – something a little different; a ghost story set in my native Yorkshire.
I also run LionheART Publishing House (www.lionheartgalleries.co.uk), to publish my own titles and to offer publishing services to other authors – copy-editing, proofreading, formatting and cover design, and our list of services is still growing. Writing and books have given me a new future, and I’m very excited about travelling this new road.
How do you come up with your titles?
With difficulty, to be honest. I settled on Ill Wind for the first book of the Valkyrie Series because it introduces some of the main characters at times of change in their lives – and not change for the better. I wanted a title connected with the sea and sailing as it’s the first of a series concentrating on pirates, and the phrase ‘it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good’ seemed fitting, although I did shorten it somewhat!
Dead Reckoning came easier. When I wrote it, I was going through a very difficult time in my life and was desperately searching for a way forward – ‘dead reckoning’ is a phrase used to describe the method of navigating in the days before reliable clocks, and so longitude could not be calculated with any surety – and even latitude was difficult to pinpoint. On top of that, the theme of revenge runs throughout the book and on a number of occasions this is exacted through death.
Thores-Cross is set in a place very dear to my heart and now called Thruscross, and when I started my research I found out that when the Vikings originally settled the area, they named it Thores-Cross. The title pinpoints the setting, and also shows that although the past influences the present, things do change, albeit slightly. The reference to Thor, the Viking god of thunder, was also too good to pass up, especially as storms feature highly in the book.
Regarding your own characters – who is your favourite and least favourite?
That’s a hard one. Each book I write is in the first person, and most have different narrators. When I’m writing the narrator’s story, they are literally in my head talking through my pen. I feel what they feel, want what they want and even, in my dreams, see what they see. Whichever book I’m writing, the narrator is both my favourite and least favourite – for that time, I am them, for good and bad.
The most startling example of this for me is the character of Cheval. He appears in all the books of the Valkyrie Series, but really comes into his own in book five (working title: Shadowfall), which I’m expecting to publish late 2014/early 2015 (there are two more to come first, which I’ll talk about later). He is very much the ‘baddie’ of Shadowfall, and one of two narrators. I started off disliking him intensely, and really gave rip to a (very small!) side of myself normally kept very much under control, and once I started, I absolutely loved it! He is petty, vindictive and cowardly – those are his better qualities – and I started off hating him, yet he is the character I have enjoyed writing the most, and in a funny way he has become my favourite, although Jennet from Thores-Cross also has a great claim for this epithet.
What is the hardest part of writing for you?
Knowing when to stop rewriting, and recognising that I need to carry on editing. I love every stage of the writing process – including the editing and polishing – but I find it extremely difficult to judge my own work objectively. It is far, far easier to edit somebody else’s work, but when it comes to editing my own, I know what I meant when I wrote the words, and that’s what I read – whatever is actually written there. No matter my hardest efforts, I end up editing the intent rather than the sentences.
Then of course there’s the cover design. At first I did my own covers, but have recognised I am much better with words than images and am very lucky to have found a very talented designer in Cecelia Morgan who has really brought my books to life.
What are you currently working on?
I have a few projects and ideas on the go at the moment. The third book in the Valkyrie Series, Look Sharpe!, has been written and I am now preparing it for publication – it should be available early in the New Year, and will be followed by book four, Ready About! later in 2014.
I’m also in the planning stages of a similar book to Thores-Cross, again set in Yorkshire. It will be a completely independent novel, but will have a similar theme of the past affecting the present. I’m also planning an ‘Africa’ series of books. Cultural differences and attitudes, whether historical or national, intrigue me, particularly in the way they affect relationships. My own family is very international (in the main British, German and Danish, although I also have relatives in France, Italy and the USA – and probably more), and one of my most significant relationships has been with a Zimbabwean. The reasons for people leaving their homes and trying to build a life in a new land is very often denigrated with prejudice rather than understood and admired, and I want to explore and highlight the challenges people face in what is very often simply a quest for survival for themselves and their families.
What advice do you have for other writers?
Never give up. Never stop. Your stories need to be told – don’t be afraid of sharing them. Also, take your time to polish your book to as high a shine as you can before publishing – it’s far too easy to publish too soon in enthusiasm. If you need an editor – get an editor. If you need a cover designer – get a cover designer. Do your book proud. And most of all, enjoy – it’s a wonderful, inspiring, fulfilling and amazing thing to hold your own book in your hand.
Who would you choose as a writing mentor?
Stephen King (a bit of a theme as you read on!). I love the way he puts his characters into horrific situations to see what they do, then he goes further, then further still, showing no mercy. I’m fascinated by human psychology, and he always has such a broad – and brutally honest – mix of characters, emotions and motivations; his books fascinate me. His book On Writing is my bible.
What are you reading at the moment?
Yours! And enjoying it very much (The Black Hours by Alison Williams). Also on my ‘I-really-want-to-read-this-soon’ list is Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, Citadel by Kate Mosse and Black Roses by Jane Thynne.
The desert island question – if you could only ever read/own five books, what would you choose? Why?
Only 5 – aarrgh!! I want a shipful! Okay . . .
- Carrie by Stephen King – This was the first ‘grown-up’ book I read (and probably a bit too young!). It opened up a whole new world of possibilities and stories for me – which is still expanding. It has been my favourite for nearly thirty years, and I can’t see that changing.
- Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome – I need a childhood favourite for when I’m feeling lonely or down.
- Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier – one my favourite pirate books – got to have some pirates! (And if I took Treasure Island, I’d spend the rest of my life digging the island up in search of pirate treasure).
- The Complete Works of Charles Dickens – I love his work but still have so many to enjoy; I’d have the time on a desert island!
- The largest blank notebook I can carry – along with a kitbag full of pens. Even if there’s nobody to read, I’d still have to write.
Tell us something unusual about yourself
I once threw a brick over the Berlin Wall into the minefield in the East in a fit of temper as a child (but don’t tell my mum!). Luckily I missed everything explosive!
Excerpt from Thores-Cross
26th April 1988
‘I dare you to go up to the haunted house.’
I glared at my sister in annoyance, then up at the house. I’d been there plenty of times with Alice and my friends, but never on my own. I did not want to go on my own now.
‘Double dare you.’
‘You little—!’ I lunged at her, but she danced out of my way. She might have been small, but she was quick.
She laughed. ‘Scaredy-cat, scaredy-cat, Emma’s a scaredy-cat!’
I eyed the house again, then frowned at Alice. But a double dare was a double dare. And I was not a scaredy-cat. At ten years old, I could do this. I took a deep breath, ignored the butterflies in my stomach and started walking up the hill. I didn’t rush.
I scrambled through the gap in the crumbling dry stone wall that separated the house from the field, using both hands to steady myself. Something caught my eye and I stopped to have a closer look. Curious, I reached into the jumble of stones, and pulled it from the dark recess in the wall.
A little pot. Made of stone, it was a rich brown in colour, roughly an inch high and two inches round with a small neck and lip. An old inkpot. I shook my head. How did I know that?
I froze, then spun round to check behind me. Who had said that? I looked back at the house. There was nobody here. Although the stone walls still stood, there were no doors, windows, nor roof. Dark holes gaped in the walls and, I knew from earlier visits, it was knee deep in sheepshit inside. I must have imagined the voice. I glanced back at Alice, braced my shoulders and took a step towards the house.
‘Write my story.’
My breath caught in my throat, then I sucked in a great lungful of air, turned and ran. Dashing past Alice, I didn’t care that she was laughing at me, that I’d lost the dare. I was terrified, desperate to get away from that house, that voice. It was only when I stopped running that I realised I still clutched the inkpot.
Chapter 1 – Jennet
28th June 1776
Pa moaned and moved in his sleep. I groaned. I knew by now that meant he had shat himself again. I had only changed the heather and straw he lay on an hour ago – I would have to go through the whole thing again: wake him and force him to move so I could take the stinking bedding away and give him fresh. I cursed. Mam’s body were laid out downstairs in the hall. She would be buried tomorrow, and instead of sitting over her, I were cleaning Pa’s shite.
I sighed and got up to take care of the mess. I were being unfair. The bloody flux were because of his ducking in the sheep pit. But I had seen the bloody flux before, and it did not bring such a man to this so quickly, not in three days.
I were fifteen years old, had just lost my Mam, and Pa were leaving me too. It were his grief and guilt that had reduced him to this pitiful hulk. If he wanted to stay with me – take care of me – he would fight this. I heaved him over and recoiled from the stench of blood and shite, but gritted my teeth and gathered up the dirty bedding. Yet another stinking trip to the midden.
I picked up fresh from the dwindling pile downstairs – I would have to go out and pull more heather soon. I glanced over at Mam’s body, then carried the bedding up and dumped it on the bed Pa had so recently shared with her. He rolled back over – without even a flicker of his eyes to show he were aware of what I were doing for him.
Tears dripped down my face. How could this have happened? I went back downstairs, took the pot of steaming water off the fire and poured some into the bowl of herbs. I had struggled to remember what Mam had used on Robert Grange at the Gate Inn when he had been struck down with this, and eventually recalled a tea of agrimony, peppermint and blackberry leaf, then as much crab apple, bilberry and raspberry mash as she could force down his neck.
The herbs needed to steep for a few minutes, and if he would not drink any of it, I would wash his face with the tea. At least the smell were fresh. I held my head over the bowl and breathed deeply, then carried it upstairs to Pa for him to breathe in the healing steam. He were too far gone for the mash.
Mam had taught me the cunning ways since I were old enough to walk and talk. She had showed me how to recognise the restorative plants and herbs, which ones helped fevers, which helped wounds, which helped women and childbirth – even preventing a child. I knew their names, where they grew, whether flowers, leaves or roots were best, and the best times to plant and pick them. I knew what she knew. Had known. But I were struggling to remember. My thoughts were as muddy as the sheep pit she had died in. I had racked my brains to think what to brew for Pa, and had to take out Mam’s journal to check. Even so, my remedies did not seem to be doing much good.
I dipped a clean cloth into the tea and wiped his brow. I did not know of any plant that healed grief. I only wish I did.
How could this happen? How could they leave me?
I started at the sound of my name being called and went downstairs to greet Mary Farmer.
‘Thee’s never alone here!’
I nodded, too worn out to respond with any enthusiasm.
‘Ee, I thought that Susan Gill would be here with thee.’
‘She were, she had to go help William with the sheep.’
‘Oh aye, likely story, she’s not a one for hard work, her. Happen the smell got to her.’
I glanced up at her, but she showed no embarrassment. I realised I had got used to all but the most pungent, and wondered how badly my home smelled.
‘Go on, get out of here. Go get some fresh air, this is no job for a lass. Thee’s done well, but let me stay with him for a bit. Go for a walk.’
I did not need telling twice. I grabbed my shawl and nodded my thanks. When I got to the door, Mary stopped me.
‘Has thee put bees in mourning yet, lass?’
I shook my head.
‘Well, do it now, if thee don’t, they’ll never do owt else for thee, thee knows that.’
I nodded and ran. I had never been so glad to get outside. The crisp June wind blew the fresh scent of heather into my face and hair, ridding me of the scent of sickness. Chickens scattering at my feet, I hurried to the beeboles in the wall bordering the garden to tell the bees of Mam’s death, ensuring plenty of honey and beeswax to come, then walked up the track on to the moor and kept going – not in the direction of the sheep-ford, but the other way, uphill where there were just space. No walls, nowt constraining me, just wind and heather. I breathed deeply, trying to forget, but very aware I were now alone in the world.