Romance to Mainstream – ‘The Tide Watchers’ author Lisa Chaplin shares her journey to date

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2015 is set to be an exciting year for Lisa Chaplin, Australian Writers’ Centre graduate and author of The Tide Watchers – to be released in June. Not that the years that have come before have been particularly dull. We asked Lisa some questions recently, and here’s what she had to say…

LisaHi Lisa. Tell us in less than 4,000 words about your new book, The Tide Watchers.
The Tide Watchers is set in Napoleonic France. It’s a fictional account about the still-unnamed team of British spies who found and sabotaged Napoleon’s secret invasion fleet in 1803 on the eve of its launch (before the more famous attempt in 1804-5), using only a hand-cranked submarine and a drill. Since the British Alien Office (forerunner of MI6) named their teams and gave their spies code-names, this was unique in this period of history – and as a history buff (read nerd), it fired my imagination. I had to write it!”

Well yes you jolly well did. Although oddly, your background is in writing romance. Why the switch to historical fiction?
“It’s a weird story!”

We like weird stories. Continue.
“In 1997 I got a call from a Sydney-based agent about a book I’d sent to her. She recommended I write a romance novel – writing a full story to a tight word count is the best editing discipline in the world.”

Kathy Bates’s character in Misery may disagree. So how many romance novels did you write?
“I wrote 5 romances for Silhouette NY and 15 for Mills & Boon before quitting. After the tragic death of a dear family member and moving back to Australia, I simply burned out. I always adored history, and had found the ‘hidden history’ of The Tide Watchers, and was excited about writing for the first time in three years. My agent said that my romance was infecting my mainstream and vice-versa.”

So was it a case of choosing one?
“I’m not a writer who can do both. I was forced to make a change, and now I’m incredibly glad I did. I prefer writing history mixed with suspense, murder, intrigue, and real characters mingling with the fictional.”

You completed our History, Mystery and Magic course even though you were already a published author. Can you tell us how the course helped you?
“I need to refill the well, so to speak, and Kate Forsyth is streets ahead of me in published historical novels. I felt I’d be a fool to pass it up.

“The course fired my imagination, reminded me of things I’d pushed to the back of my brain, and helped me meet several lovely writers. It also helped me to complete my revisions in a way that I felt proud to turn in to my editor. I felt I had only benefits from attending the course. I still refer to the notes.

“I learned again from all the examples Kate gave, and her lively way of teaching. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and I went home with my well filled, batteries charged and started the revisions from scratch. I got a ‘You nailed it!’ email from my editor a few weeks after turning the revisions in.”

Alright then, let’s do some history of our own. When did the idea for the book come to you?
“Its genesis began in 2006, when a writer friend from America asked me to meet her family in Sydney and show them around. At the Maritime Museum, I bought a book that changed my writing life: The Terror Before Trafalgar by Tom Pocock. The history fascinated me, and the gaps in some of the timelines made me wonder. I started the story, and actually was offered contracts by two single title romance houses, if I made it less about the history and more about the romance!”

Could have made for a swashbuckling, bosom-heaving tale…
“I couldn’t make myself do it, and my agent agreed with and applauded my decision. I bought other research books, found some cryptic one-liners in the books that made me research more. Having been lucky enough to live in Europe for four years, I could do the research on the ground. I pieced together as much of the story as I could, placed fictional characters in for the rest, and the book came to life.”

And if the idea kicked off in 2006, we’re talking…umm…carry the two…eight years from start to finish, right?
“Eight years! It went from single title romance to mainstream, and even then had three major overhauls and at least 20 more research books read before I sold.”

You mentioned your agent. Tell us more.
“Eleanor Jackson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency in New York. She is a dream agent; she applauded me when I left romance to go mainstream. She said ‘I’d rather have you sell later and be happy in your writing career than make me money now and hate it later’.”

Any wisdom on finding the right agent then?
“It truly is NOT who you know, because I knew NO contacts with any of these agents. I’m a poor girl raised in housing commission. I got representation with sheer, dogged hard work and a refusal to find excuses for failures or rejections (of which I have at least a hundred!). I found the agents that I hoped would like my kind of work, learned what they like, adapted it to my style and worked my butt off, revising and creating and re-creating the story that would be my breakout novel. My agent read an earlier version [of The Tide Watchers] and said she knew I could be a breakout mainstream novelist, but needed guidance. And that’s exactly what she’s done for me.

“So that’s my advice: find something unique – don’t do the next Stephenie Meyer, EL James or George RR Martin, etc, it’s all been done. Find a storyline or real happening that inspires you, write it and rewrite it until you want to die of it (The Tide Watchers sold at Draft 12). Leave your arrogance and insecurity at the front door, listen and be willing to work your butt off. Agents and publishers love that, because they sign on an AUTHOR, not a book. And who wants a tense, fraught working relationship for years?

No one. No one wants that. So, it sounds like you were persistent with The Tide Watchers. How did your book deal finally come about?
“In 2013, I’d had about a dozen rejections on The Tide Watchers, and I knew something was wrong with the book. So I went back to basics again. I might have sold 20 romance novels, but I’d never sold a mainstream. [Writing teacher and author] Fiona McIntosh read the first 10 pages of my book [during a fiction class] and bluntly said what was wrong from page 1. I rewrote the book in eight weeks, right from line 1, and my agent loved it. Three weeks after it was sent out, I had offers from two publishers!”

Wow, persistence paid off! So do you have a writing routine?
“I believe in showing up for work, the same way I would if I worked outside the home. But with two kids still at home and my husband home a few days a week, and surrounded by yapping dogs in the neighbourhood, it’s a challenge.”

Yes, we can see how that might be a distraction…
“On deadline I shut the door of my study, and woe betide anyone who interrupts then! But I write whenever I can, quite often missing sleep to get the work done. I miss movie dates and coffee dates. I skip my favourite TV shows. I work for hours on end whenever I can, research in-between, and never think near enough is good enough. Whoever said ‘writing is re-writing’ – yes, it is for me. I want the best product on the shelves, so I write whenever I can, as long as I can.”

You are officially a word nerd then. Be proud.
“If there’s a date given to hand in my work, I’ll make that deadline if I possibly can.”

Word nerd… So what’s next for you?
“The second book in the series, called The Destroyer’s Phantom (working title). It’s about the same group of spies, working together to reveal a Grand Conspiracy to kill Napoleon and replace him with a prince. They have to expose it to save their lives, and those of their families, but they will hang for treason if they’re found first. It’s espionage, suspense, murder and again some weird and wonderful early inventions that really were used at the time.”

Sounds like it’s already well in production!
“I’ve reworked my study to surround myself with whiteboards filled with facts and plot and character, and collages on corkboards that inspire me – faces, places, factoids. I’m a very visual person, and I need to ‘see’ what I’m doing!”

Do you have any advice for someone wanting to become a full-time writer?
“Don’t listen to the naysayers. Don’t ever say or think ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ That’s a copout … hard-work ethic and refusal of arrogance – write, revise and revise again. Find that unique story and work your butt off. Write it, revise it, revise it again and again. And do courses! As many as you can!”

Haha, let’s elaborate on that part shall we?
“I’ve never understood the thought that writing is natural – it’s an art, a craft. If you needed brain surgery, would you want the kid who thinks he’ll be a great surgeon one day to do it, or the professional? If you need a lawyer, would you hire the school kid who’s read a few how-to books? It’s the same with writing. Few make it to the top without a deep respect for the craft. My point is, writing is a profession.

“Good writing doesn’t come naturally to most people. And to reach the top, you have to respect it the same way doctors and lawyers do. I know I wouldn’t be where I am now but for the many courses I’ve done… I sign up for all the workshops I can. I don’t go there to network. I go to make myself a better writer. I never want to sit on my laurels.

“As the famed romance writer Emma Darcy says, ‘If you think you know everything about writing, it’s time to get out of the game. You never stop learning’.”

Nice. And finally, what would you say is your writing superpower? Actually, give us three.
“For me it’s finding that one odd nugget of history or life that fires my imagination. In the case of The Tide Watchers, it wasn’t just the history, but the characters’ backgrounds that inspired me.

“I also try to find a unique scent for each book, and a soundtrack. I download songs on iTunes and make my own soundtrack out of them. That works for me every time. I try to get one song to represent each character and play it as I write.

“My final superpower is ‘Deep Point of View’. That skill helped me sell all my books. Deep POV can be used in setting, plot, character … it’s an incredibly powerful tool for strong, emotive writing, when it’s used properly. I wouldn’t be where I am now without it.”

And on that intriguing note, we’ll leave it.

Lisa’s book The Tide Watchers will be released in June. You can pre order your copy right here.

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