Then and Now: Jenny Barden, author of ‘Mistress of the Sea’

Mistress of the Sea pbk

This month I am thrilled to invite historical fiction author Jenny Barden to ‘Then and Now’ to share her story of an extremely busy past twelve months. Be warned, you will be exhausted after reading this – Jenny is a woman who only believes in the phrase ‘there are not enough hours in the day’ because she would like a few more of them in which to do more stuff!!

Over to Jenny (and her chickens ….)

Can you give an overview of where you were at with your writing this time last year.

In June 2012 I was unpublished as a novelist. I had a few short stories in anthologies, and a few contributions to magazines in print, but that was all. Having said that, my agent, Jonathan Pegg, had sold UK rights for my novel MISTRESS OF THE SEA to Ebury Press the January before, and I had a release date for the hardback of 30 September. (Later that publication date was brought forward to 30 August and I had a moment of blind panic since I knew I’d booked a research trip for the next book at about that time.Fortunately I was able to launch ‘the Mistress’ the night before I flew out to Puerto Rico!).

By June 2012, all the revisions, copy edits and proofreading had been done and I’d finalised the outline for my next book, THE LOST DUCHESS, with my editor, Gillian Green. The manuscript for that book was due to be delivered in June 2013, i.e. now! I was also busy with the co-ordination of the Historical Novel Society Conference in London (a big event with nearly 300 attending and a cast of around 60 including Philippa Gregory and many other stars). In a nutshell, I was very busy and feeling my way a lot, but life as a writer was on the up!

What was causing you the greatest challenge with your writing?

The biggest difficulty I faced at that time was really getting to grips with the historical background for my second book whilst not getting bogged down in the detail! It may help to understand that my novels are epic romantic adventures set in the Elizabethan era. MISTRESS OF THE SEA has Francis Drake’s first significant raid on the Spanish in the Caribbean at its heart. THE LOST DUCHESS is centred on the ‘Lost Colony’ of Roanoke: the first attempt at founding a permanent English settlement in America. The ‘Duchess’ of the title is a fictional lady-in-waiting to the Queen, and the story begins with her deflowering at court by the infamous Lord Hertford. (There really was one at the time, notorious for ‘seducing a virgin of the blood royal’, who was the son of the executed Duke of Somerset).

Since Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Walsingham feature at the start of the story, all well-known historical figures, along with lesser-known characters such as Lord Hertford, it was important that I got everything right about them as far as I could, from their dress to their preoccupations at that time. I also had to be completely sure about the backbone to the story: the factors leading to the mounting of an expedition, including woman and children, to establish a colony in the New World. Having absorbed all this information, I had to use it judiciously and not let it clog up the dynamics of the plot in my writing, or the development of the key fictional characters.

I have to say I was quite relieved once the story progressed as far as America and the number of primary sources and authoritative texts thinned out!

What important decisions did you make in the last 12 months?

I moved house at the beginning of February this year from suburbia in Hertfordshire to a farm in Dorset. That was probably the most important decision, though it was rather thrust upon me by my dear husband! The big plan was that he’d stay most of the time in London and I’d stay on the farm with our dog and cat, a pig and three chickens. At first the move was pretty grim, mainly because things didn’t work or I didn’t know how things worked. There was no heat and no hot water for nearly a week during one of the coldest periods of the year, the main shower drained into the hall ceiling, and, when it poured (which was often), the rainwater came into the bathroom by the bucket-full. Everything needed top to bottom cleaning, moreover the house was on a farm that horses had reduced to a sea of mud – I couldn’t even walk around it without sinking into a quagmire that came over the top of my wellies!

None of this is directly about writing, but it affected my writing drastically because for two months I couldn’t progress with ‘the Duchess’ at all. I was either clearing out and packing, or unpacking and trying to make the house habitable. Once I eventually got settled, the move led to a huge amount of pressure because I was then up against a tight deadline. But once the last of the books was put away (enough to fill a village library!) I soon got back into the flow. The farmhouse became home and I discovered the delights of the countryside on my doorstep. I now see the sun rise over fields which are golden with buttercups and count my blessings.
Jenny (Portrait 1) pix

What was the pivotal moment for you in the last 12 months?

The pivotal moment came post move, a few weeks after I’d got the house sorted: that would be around mid-March this year, with less than three months to go before the manuscript was due to be submitted for the second book. I had written only about one third, though I’d done most of the research and planning. It looked touch and go as to whether I’d ever be able to get the book finished even remotely on time, but somehow I knew I would because I had to, and a strange kind of calm took over – the kind that you get in emergencies when you know that the moment for screaming has already been and gone and all you can do is knuckle down and get on with whatever is really necessary. Everything else went out the window. Social interaction of all kinds took a big hit: Twitter, Facebook and email communication included. I just did the minimum necessary to assure people I was still alive, got my head down and cracked on with it.

Some things I had to do, such as walk the dog and shop for food, but I used those times to plot and plan scenes in detail. Work on essential farm maintenance continued to be a trial, but I tried to seal myself away as much as possible, and, when days were lost to roofers or whoever, I’d write into the small hours. I didn’t go to pieces and I found out things about my own capabilities as a writer that I hadn’t realised before.

The first was that my best writing isn’t constant, it flows in fits and starts. For me, the creative engine functions like a pump, not like turning on a tap. A lot of the advice about keeping to daily word counts that’s often given to new writers wouldn’t be much use to me. Some days I need to think hard and let the next scene crystallise in my mind and I won’t write a word; other days the the writing just gushes out. Most of all I found that there was an inner element deep inside that knew what to do and how to knit everything together so that the book was delivered in reasonable shape and on time (albeit by the skin of my teeth!). I’m still waiting to hear from my editor before I know how well I’ve succeeded; I’m quite sure I’ll have more to do, but the book has passed my agent’s scrutiny and, when I last heard, my editor was ‘enjoying’ the read: so far so good! I’m hopeful I’ll now be on the downward slope with revisions. Over the last year I believe I’ve made the transition from someone writing for love and hoping to be published to a professional author – at least in spirit!

What was the high point of the last twelve months?

The high point was being published as a novelist for the first time, holding my launch party at Daunt’s, Marylebone, and signing the first copies of ‘the Mistress’ in hardback. That sort of experience is like the loss of virginity: it only happens once and you’re never the same again!

What is the most important thing you have learnt about your writing during the last twelve months?

The most important thing I’ve learnt is not to flap, not to force it, and not to fiddle, fuss or faff around either (though not to alliterate too much seems to have passed me by!)

What is happening in the next twelve months?

On the immediate horizon I have the release of the paperback for MISTRESS OF THE SEA, due out 20 June, and then the launch of THE LOST DUCHESS on 7 November this year. There’ll also be much more to do in the way of bringing both books to readers. Maybe I’ll begin another novel before the year is out. At the moment I’m not sure about that, but I’d certainly like to!

Any other good news, inspirational or positive experiences to take away from the last twelve months?

I was pleased to hear recently that MISTRESS OF THE SEA has been selected for a Sainsbury’s summer reading promotion, and I’m about to head off to Florida for the next Historical Novel Society Conference which should be great fun.

But the story I’d like to leave you with concerns our chickens. Not long after moving onto our farm we found an old manger where the hens must have been laying for months and the eggs had been left uncollected. We began bringing in the new eggs and enjoying them for breakfast. Then we decided to try incubating a few to see whether any would hatch. Out of 16 we attempted to incubate (often getting the temperature or humidity not quite right), 13 hatched, 2 were too weak to survive and 11 went on to grow into strong healthy chicks. The original hens are still happily laying. I think writing is a bit like that. The potential to write probably lies in most of us, but it takes a lot more than raw ability to produce a book with legs (and wings!); some of the extra is down to the writer’s grit and a constant determination to improve, some is down to factors beyond the writer’s control, but when it all comes together the result is a complete delight – quite magical – like the miracle of life.


Thank you so much to Jenny for this fascinating, hectic, honest insight into her writing year. I am now going for a lie down!

Follow Jenny on Twitter @jennywilldoit or visit her website at

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jenny Barden (@jennywilldoit)
    Jun 19, 2013 @ 15:22:00

    I’d like to express my appreciation to Hazel for putting these questions and giving me the opportunity to talk about the last hectic year – just published, just moved, and just about survived! Thank you Jx


  2. Trackback: JENNY BARDEN: Author Interview: Mistress of the Sea | Novels Now
  3. Trackback: The Lost Duchess, by Jenny Barden | Whims & Tonic
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