Author Interview: Beth Elliott

How long have you been writing or when did you start? 

As a very small child I was fascinated by the little black marks on pages and how my parents could read me stories from those signs. How I longed to understand those marks for myself. I would hold a book open, look at a picture on the page and ‘read’ aloud the story that it inspired. Once I could read, I devoured any and every book I could lay my hands on. When the story finished too soon for my satisfaction, I added more to it. That’s where my writing began, and my motivation is still to create a story that is complete and satisfying. 

What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why? 

Inspiration usually starts from a picture of a person, or maybe from an interesting looking fellow passenger on a train or plane journey. For example, in an Airline magazine I spotted an advert for a black leather jacket. The model had such a moody expression, such an arrogant pose, that he sprang to life and I could see several episodes of his adventures. As I wiggled my way into his mind, his aims, abilities and of course, his faults and weaknesses become clear. Then his family, friends, enemies, and so on develop. These other people also tend to come from pictures, and their expressions and attitudes tell me their characters. By now they are all real people to me and the plot tends to develop as they dictate, rather than what I want them to do. 

Where do you get your information or ideas for your books? 

All my life I’ve been a voracious reader, mainly of any story or textbook about past ages and long ago travel and events. My grandparents had plenty of tales about their young lives, which gave me information about customs and activities from the past. Studying French and Italian meant reading books from medieval to modern times in both languages, and then life in Turkey added another dimension to my experiences, as my husband was a great traveller, and both the history and geography of that land is vast and diverse. Along the way I observed people, places, climate, customs and food. It’s a rather large reservoir to help with thinking up a story.   

How do you develop your plot and characters? 

Once the main characters come forward and I can see scenes from their story, I work out what their urgent problems are and how they can try to solve them. This brings in antagonists, difficulties of character, family situation, ambition and the growing number and type of obstacles they must battle. Also the time they are living in, the events of that period, the general rules of behaviour, costume, transport and so on, all need noting carefully and adding to the complications of the plot.  

As an example, The Rake and His Honour involved checking information about the Huguenots in London, silversmithing, smallpox, coaching routes and their stages for changing horses, the life of the French King and his Court in exile at Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire, to name a few items on my list. 

Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer? If so, what are they? 

A most important rule is to ‘cut, cut, cut.’ It takes a writer time and practice to learn how to express ideas clearly but concisely, by choosing an effective noun or verb, rather than through a longer description or by adding an adverb to a weak verb. Journalists who have to produce an article in a set total of words, quickly learn to convey ideas and information in an economical manner. Sometimes a story really improves after the writer removes passages they took great pains over, but which merely drag a scene out. It’s the rule of ‘kill your darlings.’ It hurts but usually by trimming the text, the story gains tension and becomes more vivid. 

How do you come up with character names for your stories? 

For my Regency Tales, I use the names of Georgian era writers and poets. Also, Jane Austen’s family is a good source of suitable names for that period. My main characters have fairly classic names, I keep a few outrageous ones for the people I don’t like. It’s also necessary to consider religion, to have suitable names for Catholic or Huguenot characters. All titled names need to be checked via Google to be sure there is no living peer of that name. As for my Turkish characters, I search Google for the names of Sultans of the period and choose from the list of their children’s names. And for the French characters, as my de Montailhac family is based in the very south-west, I went round several graveyards in the region to find local names from that period. 

 Have you ever traveled as research for your book? 

Travel is essential for accuracy, whether it’s knowing how long it takes to walk from Sydney Place to the Pump Room in Bath, from Grosvenor Square to the St Giles Rookery in London, or to make an accurate description of the layout of the rooms in the Sultan’s little summer palace on the Golden Horn in Constantinople [Istanbul]. In fact, I enjoy travelling, and bring it into my stories a lot, together with a range of different nationalities, appropriate to the time in which I set my novels.  

How many books have you written? Which is your favorite? 

I’ve written ten books, of which six have been published, and two are out seeking a publisher. Two more are still getting some adjustments.  

My published novels are all set in the wider Regency period, but three stories take place at least partly outside England. I draw on my years living in France and Turkey to add a slight exotic flavour. In Scandalous Lady, Olivia craves travel and adventure, like her role model, Lady Hester Stanhope, who she meets in Constantinople [Istanbul]. Writing a real life person into a novel means doing careful research to be faithful to her real character. 

The hero of Scandalous Lady, surprised me by revealing [in Chapter 7] that he had two brothers and two sisters. Once I got over the shock, I brought in his next brother in a minor role, and then gave him his own story in The Rake and his Honour. He is Arnaut, the middle son, desperate to find a worthwhile role in life and not altogether pleased that girls are helplessly attracted to him. Arnaut is my favourite character, he’s an ardent soul, all action and sensation and with devastating charm. I’ve obviously succumbed to that charm because I brought him into his younger brother’s story as well. So three stories are linked because they are about the Montailhac brothers. One is a diplomat, one finds a role as an anti-Napoleonic agent and one is a farmer.     

What, to you, are the most important elements of good writing? 

Good plain writing is what I prefer, simple sentences that flow so smoothly you barely notice the words, only the effect they have on you. If you are immersed in the story, then the writing is doing its job.  

How do you celebrate when you finish your book? 

Oh, it’s never a celebration when I finish writing a book. It means parting from one of my other families, as sad an event as at the end of my annual visit to family and friends in Turkey. Goodbyes are hard. At least the book is there so I can spend a little time with these people again. In any case, I revise a lot, which delays the parting. To be honest, someone really needs to show me how to let go.  

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