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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

An Interview With Jeanne Whitmee

I am thrilled to be able to post an interview that was kindly given to me by a long-standing friend of mine, Jeanne Whitmee. I first got to know Jeanne back in the mid-‘90s when I began aspiring to write for Mills & Boon. It was Jeanne’s advice of NEVER GIVE UP that has held me in good stead over the past thirteen years.

Jeanne, can you tell us what kind of career you had before becoming a writer?
I trained at drama school in the hope of making a career in the theatre, but only worked for a short time before marriage and children took over! I always had the urge to write since childhood and once I had a little free time that was what I turned to.

Who/what were your early inspirations?
My early inspirations were wide and varied - from Dickens to Enid Blyton. Later my favourite authors were R F Delderfield and H E Bates. Writers who knew how to tell a good story.

When did you become a published writer?
I first became a published author in the early seventies.

Can you take us through your journey – when you made your first sale, what it was like when you first saw your name in print and how long it took you to go from aspiring to published?
Wow! What a tall order. The first thing I ever sold was an article on the history of cosmetics to the local paper for a special edition. I received the princely sum of £1.00. My first short story came much later - probably a couple of years. It was to a woman's magazine and I was totally over the moon and thought I was made. However, the fiction editor who bought that story left the magazine and it was back to square one for me. Try and try again, though eventually I did sell regularly to several women's magazines; short stories and later romantic/suspense serials. My first novel was written during this time and by then I had acquired an agent. The book went the rounds for two years before it sold. If it hadn't been for my agent's perseverance it would have been thrown away long before then!

How would you describe the kind of novels you write?
I've written historical romances, from the eighteenth century to WWII and the fifties. I've written a couple of contemporary mysteries and for ten years I wrote Mills and Boon romances with medical backgrounds. At the moment and for several years past I've been writing what are loosely termed 'sagas'.

What type of writer are you - a planner or a spontaneous 'pantser'; plot-driven or character-led?
I like strong characters and meaty plots and I find that the two go hand-in-hand. An idea usually comes first, then I find two characters and they take over from there. My years of writing for magazines taught me to plan carefully - magazine editors always wanted to see exactly what they would be getting and old habits die hard. I still work that way.

How much research do you do and what kind?
It really depends what kind of book you're writing. Historical detail is important and I feel I have to get it right. There are plenty of books on period, food, costume etc. And plenty on historical fact. When writing the medical background books I always found there was nothing like asking the professionals. They always seem happy and willing to share their knowledge with you and love to see their names in the 'credits'.

At what pace do you work?
I like to work what I refer to as 'office hours'. I find a book makes its own pace and I like to beaver away while it's flowing. A lot is said and written about 'writers' block'. If the words won't come I find it is folly to force them. I just pack up for the day and work in the garden or wash the kitchen floor. I usually find that the reason is that something I've written recently isn't quite right and doing another job usually triggers the memory. Once that has been put right the words flow again. It's all a matter of the subconscious giving you a dig in the ribs.

Can you give us an idea of your typical working day?
As I've said above, I like to have a routine. I don't believe in 'waiting for the muse'. The brain seems to get into gear when you sit down at your desk at nine o'clock. If I waited for the muse I think I'd wait a long time! I just take the phone off the hook, make a strong cup of coffee and get down to it.

Can you tell us about your latest release, *Wishes and Dreams?
Wishes and Dreams is set in WWII and follows the lives of two girls, one struggling to make a life whilst caring for a sick and cantankerous father, the other a young aspiring actress who works as a hairdresser to pay for acting lessons. When she sees the chance to join ENSA and entertain the troops she jumps at it, but things do not work out quite as she had hoped. Both heroines have a long, hard struggle with disappointments and tragedy along the way, but both finally win out in ways neither could possibly have foreseen.

What are you currently working on?
I've just completed my next novel. This one has a contemporary theme and has to do with a surrogacy that goes wrong and the effect it has on the lives of seven people two decades later.

Who are your favourite authors?
The authors I admire a lot at present are Philippa Gregory and Ken Follett. I tend not to read writers who write the same kind of books as me.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
This is a tough one. When I started out there were a lot of magazines that published fiction and it was a wonderful training ground. Nowadays, sadly, there are not as many. I'd say just write what you want to write. Everything is good practice. Don't aim too high to begin with. But if you want to sell your work make sure you are writing what editors want. Invest in a copy of the Writer and Artists' Year Book and look for your own particular genre and who is publishing it, whether it be magazine articles, stories or novels.

There are also agents listed and once you get an agent interested you're in with a good chance. The trouble is that agents need to see some proof of success - at least one sale. I'm afraid it's something of a 'catch twenty-two' situation.

There are quite a few writers' summer schools around nowadays. They are always good value and it's great to share your experiences and hopes with fellow hopefuls. I can recommend them. Professional writers are the most generous people - always happy to share their knowledge.

Don't expect to make a fortune at writing unless you become an international best seller. Do expect disappointments but whatever you do don't give up!!!. I actually wrote for five years before that first sale!

Having been brutally frank about the down side of writing I'd like to add that if you're a true writer and love what you're doing writing is its own reward. In spite of all the pitfalls I wouldn't want to be anything else.

All the very best of luck to all aspiring authors.

Jeanne, thank you so much for taking the time to share your wealth of knowledge and experience with us!

* Many of Jeanne's titles are available here


Melissa Marsh said...

Thanks for sharing this, Sue. :-)

Jessica Raymond said...

You'd make a great interviewer, Sue -- very in-depth!

By the way, I've tagged you for the "Eight Things About Me" list :)

Jess x