Joan Schweighardt is the author of several novels. In addition to her own projects, she writes, ghostwrites and edits for private and corporate clients.
Q: Congratulations on the third release of your latest book, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: The book is about a Burgundian noblewoman in 450 a.d. who goes to the City of Attila to give Attila what she believes to be a cursed sword. There are two threads throughout the book, one describing what happens to her in the City of Attila and one illuminating the reasons she went there in the first place.
Q: What do you think makes a good historical novel? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun is based on both history and legend, and I think this is probably true of many so called historical novels. The most important element for me, for this particular book, was blending the historical and legendary materials together so that they would feel seamless. The history of Attila contains a catalogue battles, of instances of greed, ego, and extraordinary acts of violence. On the other hand, the legends talk about magic swords and even dragons. So I had to mix these elements in such a way that the reader wouldn’t feel jerked around from one utterly realistic setting to one bordering on fantasy.
With other historical fiction that I’ve worked on, where there were no legends involved, the challenge was to mix historical fact with fictional characters. After you’ve spent hours and hours researching, I think there is a tendency to want to pour all the factual stuff you’ve learned into the novel. My first draft is always too heavy on the historical end, almost like a text book. So when I do second and third and fourth drafts, I try to keep deleting unnecessary details while I simultaneously work on enhancing character and plot.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A The main plot points were there for the taking, in the legendary and historical materials. But it was still no piece of cake. I had to fill in lots of gaps, build lots of bridges. Also, when I wrote the first draft it was in chronological order, which meant that the legendary stuff was for the most part in the first half of the book and the historical stuff was in the second. That didn’t work at all. I had to find a way to weave the legendary and historical materials together, and that took several more drafts.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: I got my protagonist from the legendary material, not the historical. Very little is known about the “personality” of the last wife of Attila. We only know that at some point near the end of his life Attila married a Germanic woman. I identified this Germanic woman as the Gudrun from the legends. The legends provided elements for the motivation and the plot I would develop to get Gudrun from A to B to C, but they still fell short when it came to her personality, who she was as a woman. That just kind of developed over time as I worked on each draft and began to be able to really imagine her. The story is written in first person, which helps a lot with character development issues. It forces your character to reveal herself.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: The history books I researched had all kinds of interesting information about Attila. The Huns and Germanic people didn’t write back then, so most of the stories about Attila came from Roman historians. But, as ruler of half the known world and a man who felt his calling was to take over the other half too, Attila was a hot topic among Roman historians, and I got some really juicy tidbits about his behavior, his relationships with his sons, his relationships with his various wives, his beliefs, his superstitions and of course his battles. It was a real revelation. I knew virtually nothing about him before.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: Unlike other novels, where I’ve had to really focus on plot, here I had to focus on what I should leave out of the plot so that the story would not become “congested.” But in general, I try to end chapters with developments that seem surprising or ironic. I say to myself, What’s the least likely thing I would expect to happen here? And then I try to make it happen.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: There are descriptions of the great City of Attila in history books, so I was able to draw on that. The other main setting in the book is a rather dilapidated “castle” in a rural area of Europe in 450 a.d. I did research to figure out what life would be like in such a place, how people would bathe, how they would eat, what the inside of their dwellings would look like, etc.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: I knew what themes were of interest to me when I started, but the great thing about fiction is that when you get done you see that there are other themes that worked their way in, things you didn’t really intend. The writer Susan Sontag once said she wrote to find out what she was thinking. I think this is what she was talking about.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: If I never edited my work it would all be garbage. I can’t speak for other writers, but for me craft is essential. I have a few friends who are not only wonderful writers but also very honest in their critiques. I ask them to read early drafts of my work. When you get caught up in the day to day of writing a novel, you can take a wrong turn or get sidetracked by a really boring subplot and not realize it. My three favorite fellow writers are all really different in their approach to writing. So once they each give me feedback, I feel I have the best possible picture of the weaknesses in my work and I can go back to the drawing board assured that the next draft will be better.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: I am always surprised by the number of writers who don’t want to go back and polish. Maybe some are geniuses and they don’t have to. But most writers will find that it is impossible to write a really good book without going back over it a number of times. During the first draft you may want to concern yourself mostly with plot. The next draft you may want to work more on character development. The next one you may want to just go through and make sure your characters’ motivations are clear and setting descriptions are solid. Sometimes in my work I make assumptions about motivation; I think because I know why a character is doing something other people will know too. This is one of those areas where the help of other writers/readers has been invaluable to me. So, the three things I believe most writers need to be successful are: draft one, draft two, draft three (and drafts four and five can’t hurt either).
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: Most people would agree that “homework” connotes a task that is given to you by someone other than yourself for the purpose of ascertaining that you’ve learned certain lessons. Writing a book, on the other hand, is a task you’ve generated for yourself, for the purpose of telling a story that is important to you for one reason or another. So no, I don’t think the comparison is apt.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: Again, what I’ve found most helpful is insights from fellow writers. These days there are all kind of websites that provide help to writers too. Savvy Authors is one of my favorites, but there are plenty of others. There’s no shortage of ideas out there about how to do anything, whether it’s writing a book or changing out a toilet.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: A lot of young writers who start out writing short stories with the hope that they will write longer works in the future get bogged down by the idea of taking on a huge project. I would like to say to them, Why not try your hand at writing a novel based on history or legend? Maybe you have a time period that interests you, and you can develop it and then tell a story on top of it, so to speak. Or maybe there is a historical character that you’d like to develop a setting around. Or maybe there is a myth or legend that you’d like to bring into modern times. Jane Smiley took the story of King Lear, which is of course best known as a Shakespearian play, and made it her own in her novel A Thousand Acres. What’s really interesting to me is that Shakespeare borrowed his King Lear from a Celtic legend, and the legend likely had some foundation in history.