Today I am delighted to be joined by author Julia Ibbotson to talk about romance writing and what it means to her.
Tell me a bit about the type of books you write and where you are in your publishing journey.
I’ve always written since childhood, but while I was starting to find my feet as a published author, I wrote a variety of books: a children’s novel (S.C.A.R.S, a fantasy medieval time-slip with knights and dragons!), a recipe/history of food/memoir book (The Old Rectory: escape to a country kitchen) and a trilogy set partly in Ghana spanning from the 1960s to the 1990s (The Drumbeats trilogy).
I then found my direction as I went back to my roots of Anglo-Saxon (medieval) language, literature and history, which was the mainstay of my first degree, and I wrote A Shape on the Air, an Anglo-Saxon time-slip with mystery and romance. All my books so far (apart from S.C.A.R.S which I self-published on Amazon) are published by Lume, who gave me a deal after just two months on the RNA’s fabulous New Writers’ Scheme. They’re all available on Amazon.
I loved going back to my research and seeing the more recent archaeological discoveries that have altered our perceptions of the so-called ‘dark ages’, the early Anglo-Saxon period. There’s a bit about this in my website blog. I devoured the research and even now I have to pull myself away from it to actually write the books! So, I’ve got two sequels to A Shape on the Air (in the Dr Dulac series) sitting on my computer ready for action (The Dragon Tree and The Rune Stone). At the moment, I’m writing a new series of time-slip mysteries (the Lady Mildryth series) and the working title of the first is Daughter of Mercia. All with lovely hints of romance, of course.
To be honest, I think most novels have romance somewhere in them! But personally, I really think that close personal relationships are the food of life, and I like to write about real life and emotional truth. I guess that’s really the thread that weaves through all my books. I don’t write genre romance or ‘happy ever after’, although maybe ‘happy for now’ endings, and there is a certain amount of gritty realism in my novels. I want my readers to feel they can identify with the main characters and their search for happiness – it’s not always an easy journey but I want readers to feel that there is hope, so they are ‘feel-good’ stories in a wider sense.
What inspires your stories?
Time and place, and the strength of women to rise above adversity. My Drumbeats trilogy spans 30+ years, starting in the 1960s, a fascinating period to write about, allowing me to do lots of wonderful research! And the ‘place’ is Ghana, West Africa, which I know quite well as I lived there for a while. It’s an intriguing, fantastic country and culture, exotic and so interesting. I wanted my readers to feel that they were really there at that time.
My Dr DuLac series and also my new Lady Mildryth series are time-slips partially set in the early Anglo-Saxon period, the 5th and 6th centuries in the midlands of England. That period inspires me so much, as it was a time of great change and new beginnings for this country, and I try to make the books as authentic as possible, with lots of details of Anglo-Saxon life at that time, with all its conflicts and confusions, but also with its mundane daily life as a backdrop. I don’t write kings and battles; I write more about everyday people and their lives.
Who are your favourite romance authors, past and/or present?
Well, I love time-slips, of course, and read a lot of Nicola Cornick, Barbara Erskine, Pamela Hartshorne, Susanna Kearsley and Christina Courtenay. But I also love straight-forward historical novels like those by Dinah Jefferies and Philippa Gregory, with all their vivid recreations of time and place. They really allow you to escape and transport you to another world.
If you had to pick one romance novel for me to read, which one would you recommend?
Only one?! So hard. I love Jane Austen but I’ve resisted the urge to say ‘Pride and Prejudice’! I would recommend ‘Chocolat’ by Joanne Harris: delicious, gorgeous, magical, and romance in its widest sense. Who could forget the wonderfully drawn characters with all their strengths and weaknesses: Vianne and Anouk, Joséphine and Armande, Fr Reynaud, and of course the mysterious and intriguing Roux. And I love books set in rural France; this one is very evocative and makes me feel as though I’m really there, even smelling the chocolate pralines. I can’t believe it first came out over 20 years ago!
In the small French village of Lansquenet, nothing much has changed in a hundred years. Then an exotic stranger, Vianne Rocher, blows in on the changing wind with her young daughter, and opens a chocolate boutique directly opposite the church. Soon the villagers cannot keep away, for Vianne can divine their most hidden desires.
But it’s the beginning of Lent, the season of abstinence, and Father Reynaud denounces her as a serious moral danger to his flock. Perhaps even a witch. If Vianne’s chocolaterie is to survive, it will take kindness, courage and a little bit of magic…
Which romantic hero or heroine would you choose to spend your perfect romantic weekend with? Where would you go and what would you do?
I’m going to be very cheeky (is this allowed?) and say my own hero, Rev Rory, the hot vicar from A Shape on the Air! He’s strong, yet sensitive, understanding yet at times confused, clever yet sometimes a little ‘dense’ in terms of Viv’s feelings – well, I guess they both are, really, otherwise there wouldn’t be a ‘will they, won’t they?’ thread. He’s the sort of man you could trust and rely on, yet he would also be exciting and fun to be with. I think he would be very interesting to spend a weekend with. Where would we go? It has to be a romantic winter walk through the cobbled streets of York, then a candle-lit dinner at a top, but cosy, restaurant. We’d stay at a beautiful historic hotel with open fires, heavy beams and inglenooks.
What is your favourite thing about being a member of the RNA? What do you think you have gained from membership?
The NWS is a fantastic opportunity and gave me the confidence to pitch for publication. But the support and friendship is amazing; you feel as though other members understand exactly what you are feeling about being a writer, the highs and lows, whether they are debut writers or successful established authors. You can always ask for advice and folks are happy to help. I’ve learned a lot about social media and book promotion which I wasn’t great on before! There are great learning opportunities too to help you refine your writing skills, through the conference sessions and now our online Learning Hub courses, which started during the lockdown. And the RNA is a very ‘broad church’: many of us write other than ‘genre romance’, romcoms or what used to be called ‘chick-lit’ – we also write historicals, alternative history, thrillers, psychologicals, crime, and of course time-slips/dual time – Anglo-Saxon, Viking, medieval, Tudor …
What one piece of advice or tip would you give to new writers starting out in the romance genre?
Not one, but those here are linked! In any genre, persevere, have faith in yourself but listen to advice. In the romance genre, even loosely (!) join the RNA – there’s a wealth of advice and support there. And go with your gut instinct: at times there will be conflicting advice, even amongst industry professionals. Listen to what they say but make up your own mind. Don’t get too distressed about rejections. Many highly successful authors have had loads of rejections from agents and publishers, so keep going even when you feel like deleting your whole manuscript! I nearly deleted A Shape on the Air after a depressingly negative critique, but before I could do so, I received an amazingly enthusiastic one – and ended up with a publisher for it! Even industry professionals differ and remember they’re looking for what’s selling at that moment – and they’re still subjective individuals with their own taste and preferences. Finally, join the Society of Authors who also give brilliant support and advice on contracts and other legal issues.
Tell us about your most recent novel.
My latest, The Rune Stone, is the third in the Dr DuLac series and it awaits publication (hopefully out soon!), so in the meantime you could start with A Shape on the Air! The latter is about Dr Viv DuLac, an academic and medievalist, whose story is woven through her connection to the 5th century Lady Vivianne who is betrothed to the loathsome Sir Pelleas. Both are fighting traumatic relationships and a desperation to save their own secure world. Can they help each other across the centuries? There’s a mystery for them to solve before they can find love and stability. There’s a strong supportive warrior and a hot vicar in the mix too!
The Rune Stone continues the story of both women and their new lives, but there’s a twist of misfortune to battle against that comes to light through the discovery of a rune stone in the churchyard and Dr Viv and Lady Vivianne’s lives again become intertwined as the mystery of the ‘rune curse’ evolves. It gives me shivers even as I think about it!
I hope you read A Shape on the Air and enjoy it (and the rest of the series when they come out) and I’d love to hear your reviews on any of my books, however brief, on the Amazon page – they mean so much to us authors! Many thanks. A Shape on the Air is available here.
Dr Viv DuLac, a medievalist, is devastated when her partner Pete walks out (and with her best friend too) and it seems that she is about to lose everything. Drunk and desperate, her world quite literally turns upside down when she finds herself in the body of the fifth century Lady Vivianne.
Lady V has her own traumas; she is struggling with the shifting values of the Dark Ages and her forced betrothal to the brutish Sir Pelleas, who is implicated in the death of her parents. Little does Viv realise that both their lives across the centuries will become so completely intertwined.
Haunted by both Lady Vivianne in 499 AD and by Viv’s own parents’ death and legacy, can Viv unlock the mystery that surrounds and connects their two lives, 1500 years apart, and bring peace to them both?
About the Author
Julia Ibbotson is fascinated by the medieval world and the concept of time. She sees her author brand as a historical fiction writer of books that are evocative of time and place, well-researched and uplifting page-turners. Her current series focuses on early medieval time-slip/dual-time mysteries. Julia read English at Keele University, England, specialising in medieval language, literature and history, and has a PhD in socio-linguistics. After a turbulent time in Ghana, West Africa, she became a school teacher, then a university academic and researcher. Her break as an author came soon after she joined the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme in 2015, with a three-book deal from Lume Books (Endeavour) for a trilogy (Drumbeats) set in Ghana in the 1960s. She has published three other books, including A Shape on the Air, an Anglo-Saxon timeslip mystery, with two more sequels written. Her work in progress is the first of a new series of Anglo-Saxon mysteries (Daughter of Mercia) where echoes of the past resonate across the centuries. Her books will appeal to fans of Barbara Erskine, Pamela Hartshorne, Susanna Kearsley, and Christina Courtenay. Her readers say: ‘Julia’s books captured my imagination’, ‘beautiful story-telling’, ‘evocative and well-paced storylines’, ‘brilliant and fascinating’ and ‘I just couldn’t put it down’.
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