I was first introduced to Catherine Meyrick’s writing after she released her second book, The Bridled Tongue. Let me tell you! This was a story filled with tension that kept me guessing how Catherine was going to pull all of the loose ends together (which she managed beautifully!) It is well researched and as a writer of 16th century fiction myself, I really appreciated her attention to detail. (To read my original review of The Bridled Tongue click here.
When planning my blog posts for the upcoming months, I knew I wanted to include Catherine in my great line up of authors’ interviews and guest blogs. Catherine was kind enough to answer some writerly questions for me and I appreciate her insight. She answered these questions for me way back in October 2021. It was not long after I had lost my mother and I was still recovering from Covid-19, so I guess life just got in the way. But she is so interesting and I wanted to be sure to get her interview posted.
Read on to find out a little more about this Australian author.
Tonya: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Catherine: Rather than thinking that I ‘wanted to be a writer’, my experience has been more of a slow progression from oral storytelling to writing stories down, later followed by the thought that ‘one day’ what I wrote might be published but that was all in some vague future.
Storytelling was a constant through my childhood whether it was listening to my parents and grandparents telling stories about incidents in their lives (or, in the case of my grandfather, just making things up and finishing with ‘and then it started to rain and I woke up’ when he got tired of it), listening to serials and plays on the radio (we didn’t get a TV until I was eleven), listening to Dad reading to us at bedtime and, occasionally, overhearing the fascinating stories, otherwise called gossip, told by Mum’s visitors. Once I could write, it seemed natural to try to write stories down. I enjoyed ‘composition’ when I was at school and loved the books we had in secondary school with pictures and sentences that could be used to inspire a story. I was encouraged at school and that probably gave me the confidence to continue writing through my late teens and twenties though my efforts, poetry and short stories, ended up in the bin whenever I moved house. I saw it as something I just did and realized that most of it was rubbish. When I was at home, after my first child was born (she is now in her early thirties), I was decided to move beyond unfinished bits and pieces and write something substantial. The first few years were really re-education as I tried to shake off years of formal and stilted essay and Public Service report writing. Once the children were at secondary school, I took several writing courses which did improve my style. It was at that point that I began thinking that what I was writing might be something others would be interested in reading.
Tonya: In your opinion, what is the hardest part about writing historical fiction?
Catherine: Possibly the most difficult thing for me is developing an awareness of what I do not know. It is always what you don’t know that you don’t know that will trip you up.
As an example, when I had nearly finished writing The Bridled Tongue I read, by chance, that Elizabethan women didn’t wear earrings. Sheer panic set in as earrings were an element in a couple of scenes that I didn’t want to remove. I spent an afternoon searching for images of 16th century women and found that while there were plenty of women wearing earrings throughout the 16th century, these were mainly Spanish and Italian women. The only woman I could find wearing them in England was Mary, Queen of Scots in the 1570s and she had had a French upbringing. Up until the 1580s, it is impossible to tell if English women were wearing them at all because of the shape of women’s headwear, and later the ear-high ruffs. This supported the idea that they were not wearing them because what’s the point of wearing something so pretty if no one can see it? From the 1580s, before earrings appear with any frequency, there are images of women wearing baubles in their hair near the ears. By the end of the 1590s earrings are common but not ubiquitous. I kept the earrings by mentioning that the women wearing them were embracing a new fashion.
While something as small as a pair of earrings is not crucial to the story, if you make assumptions about bigger things you open yourself to being seen as someone who doesn’t know their history well enough. Even with the little things, if you get them wrong, it can erode the reader’s confidence in the authenticity of the world you are trying to recreate.
Assuming is an issue with language as well, particularly when reading contemporary sources. The meaning of words can change over the intervening centuries so it’s important to be aware of this when you are reading and to always use a dictionary such as the OED that includes the historical development of a word as well as its current meaning.
I suppose the best advice is to be vigilant and assume nothing.
Tonya: Is there a genre you would love to write but are too afraid to try?
Catherine: I would love to write a ghost story, one of those unsettling stories where more is implied than what is written, where the darkness of the past echoes into the present leaving the reader uneasy long after the book is closed. I used to make up ghost stories as a child to scare my sister but usually ended up scaring myself more.
Such skill is needed to write these stories well—the creation of atmosphere and tension, implying rather than showing, an ending that resolves but, the more you think about it after you have finished reading, isn’t really resolved at all. One of my favourite short stories is ‘The Tower’ by Marghanita Laski. It is brilliant. It starts in bright sunshine in Florence and ends in something worse than shadows. While not strictly a ghost story, it is chilling and ambiguous. I read it thirty years ago and it still gives me the shivers.
At this point, I doubt I could do such a story justice. Perhaps one day…
Tonya: Which one of your book characters is your favorite? Why?
Catherine: My favourite character is always the one I am currently working on or have just released into the world. So, it is Ellen Thompson, my great-great-grandmother, the central character of the book I’m planning to release in April next year (2022). Ellen was born in Hobart, Tasmania in 1858, the daughter of two transported convicts. Between the ages of nineteen and twenty-six she faced every single thing, short of her own death, that women fear most in life. Hers is the story of the resilience of the human spirit, the story of so many ordinary women of the past.
Tonya: What is your favorite time period to read? Is that also your favorite time period to write in?
Catherine: I used to read a great deal set in the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries. These days I read widely and will read pretty much anything, provided the story is good. The bulk of my reading is historical but this year I have read from the fourteenth century through to contemporary. I particularly like murder mysteries. Two series that I would absolutely recommend are the Purveen Mistry series by Sujata Massey, set in India in the 1920s, and the Harriet Gordon mysteries by A.M. Stuart set in Singapore in the early 1910s. Both are excellent with female main protagonists.
I would have said that the Elizabethan period was my favourite to write but I have found writing ‘Cold Blows the Wind’ liberating. This is partly because it is closer to home in time and place. I haven’t needed to think about where the sun sits in the sky, the time it rises and sets, the depth of colour of the sky or how far away it looks, the stars at night. In a way, it has been writing about ‘home’ although I have never lived in Hobart (my father was born and grew up there) where it is set, just visited quite a number of times. It has been a delight to write the sort of Australian vernacular that was spoken by my maternal grandparents who were born in the 1880s. I had imagined that I would return to the Elizabethan period when this one was finished but I won’t be. I am planning to truly write about home—the suburb where I have lived for the last thirty-four years. The story will be set in the aftermath of World War One. I’ll see how I feel about the 1580s when that is done.
Tonya: Do you have authors that you feel have influenced your writing or inspired you?
Catherine: There are so many wonderful writers that I admire whose writing I wish I could emulate. The greatest are Terry Pratchett, Dorothy Dunnett and Hilary Mantel. I love Terry Pratchett’s writing for the sheer entertainment, the humour with seriousness beneath, the cultural references and the underlying commentary on the human condition. Dorothy Dunnett’s novels have an incredible breadth of vision and complex plotting combined with beautiful prose, depth of characterization and rich evocation of the period. Hilary Mantel has the ability, in a single sentence, to perfectly encapsulate a critical event and the effect it had on ordinary men and women; reading it you are awed by the depth both of her research and her understanding.
I believe that you don’t necessarily have to analyze their work to learn from them. In those moments when you pause reading, awestruck by what you have read, you do take in some understanding of the way brilliant storytelling is constructed. At very least, it allows you to realize when your own writing falls short.
Tonya: What is the biggest obstacle in your writing process?
Catherine: My biggest obstacle is the length of time it takes me to write. I start out with a general plan and I know how the novel will end but my early drafts are seriously lacking. My work goes through many drafts and heavy editing as I slowly refine characterization, structure and language. And, while I do a lot of research prior to writing, this continues while I am writing because, sometimes, I need to check things I have assumed to be correct. If my assumptions are wrong that can mean more rewriting. Once I do have a draft I am not ashamed of, I then pass it on to a structural editor. In the case of The Bridled Tongue and my current work in progress, that is Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial. She is brilliant and can see what is missing, what needs to be cut or developed further. Both novels are so much better for her advice. All this takes time. I see this as the slow cooker approach to writing, the one that brings out the full flavour of the ingredients.
Tonya: How long did it take you to write your books?
Catherine: I began my work in progress about ten years ago. I barely touched it between mid-2017 and early 2020 as in that time I published my two other books. I have been working on it solidly since The Bridled Tongue was released over eighteen months ago. The other books took about the same length of time. Usually after a revision, I will put the draft aside and work on something else. So, for a while, I was cycling through three stories. I was working near enough to full time up until a couple of years ago, so that meant I had to juggle writing, work and family commitments. Possibly, if the time was compacted, I have spent about three years writing each book.
Tonya: What is your biggest inspiration for stories? Where do you get your ideas?
Catherine: Each novel has had a different inspiration. Forsaking All Other had its beginnings in a daily writing exercise—a scene of a woman lost in the meaner streets of Elizabethan London. There was something about the scene and the character herself that made me want to develop it further and place it in the wider context of the period and of the lives of ordinary women at that time.
The Bridled Tongue grew out my own experience of gossip both as the subject of it and observing it in action with others, the way minor incidents or slips of the tongue can be twisted into something else and once the snowball starts the most ludicrous things can be said and be believed. While, usually for us today, it is embarrassing and uncomfortable for the subject of gossip, in earlier times it could be dangerous.
Tonya: What are you currently working on?
Catherine: I am revising a novel with the working title ‘Cold Blows the Wind’. It is set in Hobart, Tasmania between 1878 and 1885 and is based on a period in the life of my great-great-grandparents, Sarah Ellen Thompson and Henry Watkins Woods. Their story had been forgotten until I uncovered it through my genealogical research about twelve years ago. They were both the children of convicts and belonged to the lower end of the social scale where life was a constant struggle and the middle-class virtues we see as ‘Victorian’ were not much regarded. The story touches on such issues as secrets, family ties, poverty, and the struggles of unmarried mothers. I am hoping to show just how hard life was for these people, women in particular, and the spirit they showed as they did their best for those they loved. While I would describe it as a love story, encompassing not only romantic love but a mother’s love for her children, it certainly doesn’t fall into the standard definition of a romance.
Tonya: What inspired you to write the book you are currently working on?
Catherine: From early in my genealogical research, I felt that I wanted to write something about one of my female forebears. I had read A Cargo of Women: The Novel by Babette Smith, based on the life of her great-great grandmother Suzanna Watson who was transported to New South Wales in 1829 having stolen to feed her children. This book is tight and gripping and reads like any good novel. I had read other novels based on family history that did not work anywhere near as well. A Cargo of Women showed me that it could be done well. The story of Ellen Thompson and Harry Woods had been pretty much lost to memory until I began my obsessive digging. My father was not sure what his great-grandmother’s name was and no one even knew who Harry Woods was. By the end of my research, I knew the whats and wheres of Ellen and Harry’s lives but I did not know the whys. My novel sets out possible motivations and reasons for what happened. I would say over 90% of what happens in the novel is factual but the reasons for it happening are my speculation. The novel only covers a period of seven years but they were tumultuous years for Ellen. I hope, through Ellen, to show what life was like for many women in the past, the everyday courage they showed in their struggles to protect and care for their children in a world that seemed to conspire against them. Ellen and Harry illustrate what I firmly believe – that the people of the past, plus and minus a few attitudes, are just like us with similar hopes and dreams and challenges to face.
Tonya: What words of wisdom would you share with inspiring authors?
Catherine: I think the most important thing of all is to read and keep reading—the classics, whatever is popular now, prize winners, your chosen genre, anything that appeals to you. My belief is that through reading, to a degree, you learn by osmosis. And make sure you read works on the craft of writing. A reputable writing course is a good investment. And revise and redraft, as many times as is needed even if you end up completing more than a dozen drafts like I do. What you want is for your book to be the best it can be. If you can, find a couple of readers, or other writers you can share with, who you can try your new story out on and who are willing to give you their honest opinion. Listen to any professional advice you are given and think especially seriously about those things they say that you hate the most–they are probably right. Be honest with yourself and most of all, keep faith and don’t give up.
Catherine Meyrick is an Australian writer of romantic historical fiction. She grew up in Ballarat, a city in regional Victoria, but has lived all her adult life in Melbourne. Until recently she worked as a customer service librarian at her local library. She has a Master of Arts in history and is an obsessive genealogist. When not writing, reading and researching, Catherine enjoys gardening, the cinema and music of all sorts from early music and classical to folk and country music (she just loves the banjo) and, not least of all, taking photos of the family cat, Dusty, to post on Instagram.
List of published books:
Forsaking All Other (2018)
The Bridled Tongue (2020)
Connect with Catherine at the following sites and check out her books:
Check out Catherine’s books:
Love is no game for women; the price is far too high.
Bess Stoughton, waiting woman to the well-connected Lady Allingbourne, has discovered that her father is arranging for her to marry an elderly neighbour. Normally obedient Bess rebels and wrests from her father a year to find a husband more to her liking.
Edmund Wyard, a taciturn and scarred veteran of England’s campaign in Ireland, is attempting to ignore the pressure from his family to find a suitable wife as he prepares to join the Earl of Leicester’s army in the Netherlands.
Although Bess and Edmund are drawn to each other, they are aware that they can have nothing more than friendship. Bess knows that Edmund’s wealth and family connections place him beyond her reach. And Edmund, with his well-honed sense of duty, has never considered that he could follow his own wishes.
With England on the brink of war and fear of Catholic plots extending even into Lady Allingbourne’s household, time is running out for both of them.
Death and life are in the power of the tongue.
Alyce Bradley has few choices when her father decides it is time she marry as many refuse to see her as other than the girl she once was—unruly, outspoken and close to her grandmother, a woman suspected of witchcraft.
Thomas Granville, an ambitious privateer, inspires fierce loyalty in those close to him and hatred in those he has crossed. Beyond a large dowry, he is seeking a virtuous and dutiful wife. Neither he nor Alyce expect more from marriage than mutual courtesy and respect.
As the King of Spain launches his great armada and England braces for invasion, Alyce must confront closer dangers from both her own and Thomas’s past, threats that could not only destroy her hopes of love and happiness but her life. And Thomas is powerless to help.
‘People never forget. When the fancy takes them, they bring the old stories out and embroider them further.’