Ask the Author: Karen Maitland

I spoke to best-selling medieval thriller author Karen Maitland about her writing process.

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With many books published by several publishers, Karen Maitland deserves the title of best-selling author. Company of Liars, published by Penguin in 2008, was shortlisted for a Sue Feder Memorial Award for the best historical mystery of the year, and with very good reason. I picked up Company of Liars after a recommendation from a friend, and was blown away by Maitland’s captivating and compelling style.

As well as writing her own books, Maitland is one of six historical crime writers known as the Medieval Murderers. Together with Philip Gooden, Susannah Gregory, Michael Jecks, Bernard Knight and Ian Morson, she writes an annual joint murder-mystery novel, which is published by Simon & Schuster. She also contributes a regular blog on The History Girls website on the 8th of each month.

Company of Liars came to be written after Maitland was commissioned by the National Rural Touring Company to travel from Cumbria to Cornwall with a multicultural show, and write a book about the tour. Maitland is known for her historical accuracy, with a novelist’s flair, and her extensive research is evident in her wonderful stories.

Her latest novel, The Vanishing Witch, was published by Headline in August this year, and was listed as the Best Historical Fiction for summer reading in Woman’s Own.

After enjoying The Gallow’s Curse, another fascinating historical thriller, I contacted Maitland, and she was kind enough to answer my questions about her writing process.

When Maitland understood that a novel could be about what people really felt and feared, she began to write. But she kept her writing a secret for years.

The first adult novel I ever read which was Graham Greene’s ‘The Power and the Glory.’ It was the first time I understood that novels could be about real people – people who weren’t beautiful, who had flaws and bad habits, normal people who when faced with torture and death would naturally want to run away. Up to then all the children’s books I’d read had been about impossible, handsome heroes who charged into danger, but you knew would always escape.

Maitland needs three things to come together for an idea to work: location, central character, an event.

The location is very important, as, to Maitland, it is a character in a story, as it has as much personality as any character.

A remote village, a haunted street, a church with a strange carving or a lonely marsh… Every time I go anywhere, I am looking for a place that might inspire a future novel.

For the central character, Maitland tends to use someone who is outside society, such as a girl with a hidden birthmark, as in The Owl Killers, a man who was castrated as a child, as in The Gallow’s Curse, or a badly scarred peddler with a strange past, as inCompany of Liars.

Bizarrely, the events that inspire her historical thrillers come from things that are happening in the news now. Maitland then tries to find a parallel in the medieval period.

I know if it is happening again now, the reader will be able to relate to it. So, for The Vanishing Witch, it was watching the London riots of 2011 on TV were so similar to the Peasants Revolt in 1381.

Her advice to aspiring writers is to attend as many book festivals as you can.

Editors and agents often attend them to support their authors and to network, so you frequently find yourself standing in the coffee queue next to an agent or publisher who will be far more interested in reading your manuscript if they’ve met the friendly face behind it.

Before she was published, Maitland went to a book festival to learn more about writing from publishing authors.

I got chatting to someone sitting beside me in the audience, who told me about a Historical Novel festival that was coming up. I took her advice, went to the festival and there met a manuscript appraiser and talent scout who read the first few chapters of my novel, liked it, and asked if they could send it to an agent. That agent took me on and got me a brilliant publishing deal. You never know where conversations will lead, but you have to get out there and meet people.

Once she was published, she realised that, when you are under contract for a book, you no longer have the luxury of writing when you feel like it, or leaving your book for a week because there’s a family crisis.

Once the publication day is set, the clock starts ticking. The publishers have to book an army of free-lancers and in-house people months in advance to work on your book – cover designers, copy-editors, type-setters, proof-readers, printers, marketing, book-sellers.

If you miss a deadline at any stage of the writing process, from sending in the finished manuscript to answering the copy-editor’s queries, you can cost the publishers thousands, and risk your book being dropped.

So you have to be prepared to stay home while the rest of the family go on holiday, miss weddings, work through flu and ignore your best friend’s meltdown over her boyfriend to meet those deadlines. If you are not the kind of person who can do this then it’s best to self-publish, so you can decide when you want to write.

When researching for a novel, you have to make sure you keep a note of exactly where you found each piece of information, however trivial, because a copy-editor or proof-reader will query that small detail, and ask you to check it. Keeping thorough notes is a good way of making sure you don’t waste time digging up a small piece of information.

Her next novel, The Raven’s Head, will be released in March 2015.

The novel is about medieval alchemy. As the central character of the book discovers to his horror, the raven’s head is the alchemist symbol of death and putrefaction. The hero of the novel also learns it isn’t a good idea to blackmail an alchemist, not if you want to live long enough to enjoy the money.

Maitland has also just started a brand new historical thriller:

It’s always an exciting moment when the ideas are bubbling up and I am getting to know the characters. It’s like joining new club or moving into a new neighborhood in which everyone else knows each other, but where the author is the newbie in the group. I’m excited but nervous – what will this new group of people be like? Who will be leaders? Who will be the ones not to trust? What goes on behind those closed doors?

She has already attended several festivals this year, including Harrogate History Festival, Guildford Festival, the Celtic Crime Festival in Northern Ireland, and the Lire en Poche Festival in Bordeaux, France.

One of the fantastic rewards of being a writer is that after months of being locked in solitary confinement, scribbling away, you get let out on parole to go to lovely places and talk to readers who often share amazing stories and knowledge with you. So, I am excited to see where 2015 will take me.

She is looking forward to being one of the guest authors who will be running Fiction Writing Workshops at the AsparaWriting Festival from the 6th-13th June 2015, at Evesham, Devon.

I hope that festival will help aspiring novelists to realize their dreams and that I will be buying the novels of some of those new writers in a couple of years.

Maitland always has several books on the go, in many different formats. Her current audio-book is Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore, which she describes as brilliant and the perfect audio-book.

The books I’m reading are: Blood and Beauty, a novel about the Borgias by Sarah Dunant. It’s changing everything I thought I knew about them. Also, the The Winter Witch a beautifully written novel by Paula Brackston, and A history of Loneliness, an incredible powerful novel by the Irish writer, John Boyne.

To find out more about her books, visit her website. The Vanishing Witch, and many more of Maitland’s books, are available on, the UK’s No.1 book recommendation site.


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