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Mary Wood

Q & A With Top Magna Author Mary Wood

3 January 2017

Mary Wood signed her first book deal at the age of 68 and quickly became a Sunday Times Bestseller of gritty historical sagas.

As the thirteenth child out of fifteen, her early life could be likened to some of her novels. Born as World War II came to an end, she lived in an ex-army hut and shared a double bed with three of her sisters. Mary met her husband at the age of 14. She spent her early career juggling family and various jobs to make ends meet. It was while caring for her mother full-time that she began to pen her first book. She now spends half the year writing in Spain.

How did you start writing? Can you tell us about your journey to becoming a writer?
Like most authors, I wrote a lot as a child and had my head constantly buried in a book and dreamed of being the one who one day would write the books. I was in my forties before I finally penned a full novel. I was nursing my mother and writing gave me a distraction. Of course, it was going to be the next best seller - film even - but I came down to earth once the rejections plopped onto my welcome mat. One agent told me that I was a great storyteller, but that I needed to learn the craft of writing as my characters were flat. What did she mean? Well, I set out to learn and was amazed and excited to see how, applying the craft of creative writing to my work, made it jump off the page and lift it from a flat story being related, to a living breathing passionate reality.

You started out in self-publishing. Would you recommend this to other budding authors?
Yes, most definitely, but with advice attached. Make sure you have learnt your craft. Then, once you have produced the very best work that you can, engage an editor. My maxim is, that an author is nothing without an editor. The two disciplines are very different to each other.

Next, make sure your cover is eye catching and professional. It's easy to make your own if you cannot afford to engage a designer. Pricing is important. Unless you are well known and revamping backlists, or self-publishing another genre, then always price at the lowest possible price that allows you to claim 70%. Remember, you are only selling words. If you are just starting out, and your book looks appealing, then readers will give you a chance if the price is right. I'd say under £2. Next: Promote, promote, promote. Build your audience. There are many ways to do this. And, most importantly, write your next book. By self-publishing, you will be giving yourself the very best chance to progress. Each book will gain you more readers, and more credibility. If you want to progress to traditional publishing, you will have a proven track record to show to prospective agents. Though, always approach them with a new, unpublished book.

Or, you might get lucky like me. One day, Author Diane Allen messaged me out of the blue. At the time, Diane was the manager of Magna Print. She expressed an interest in my work, which she must have seen on Kindle. She asked if she could send my manuscript to her agent. Within days, I was so excited to receive a call from the great Judith Murdoch offering to become my agent. But the shocks didn't stop there. Not many days later, I found a PM on my Facebook from an editor working with Pan Macmillan. She had seen my books in the charts, become curious and had downloaded Time Passes Time, loved it, and wanted to sign me!

How many books have you written to date?
Twelve, counting my very first two that will probably never see the light of day again. Though I have used bits of them in later books.

Where do you get the ideas for your books?
Many, many sources. It can be something I read, that triggers an idea, something I see, or experience, and often researching a work in progress can throw up ideas for another book, but mostly, they just come. I know not from where. I just have to sit with the intention of producing a proposal for a new book and ideas flow. For instance, when first approached by Pan Macmillan, I was asked if I had any intention of writing more books like Time Passes Time. Pan were looking for books written about the war from the point of view of the involvement of the women of the time. Not knowing this, I said: "I'm a northern saga writer really." The editor I was speaking to said: "Oh, if you ever do consider writing books with a war theme, contact me" and then said her goodbyes. I was stunned. Had I just missed the best chance I would ever had? Well, I wasn't about to lose it, just like that. So, I sat down, and in five minutes had the outline of a book set in France, London, and the North of England. The story linked three girls who had never met each other, but were brought together by their war work to a man who had been shot as a traitor in the First World War.

Within an hour, I had emailed my proposal to the editor. She loved it and asked for 100 pages. The book was accepted, and a seven-book deal was the outcome. The book was entitled, Proud of You. I can tell you, I was very proud of me.

You had a tough childhood, as the 13th child with 15 siblings. Do you think this has helped you to become a better writer?
I think that having been poor, gives a natural empathy with the poor, and an understanding of hardship and how pulling together can make a difference. I know what it feels like to go to school in foot deep snow with nothing more than plimsolls on my feet, to have no toys and to make dolls out of coats, and then to undo the dolls and use the coats to lie under at night to keep warm. Thankfully, I never went hungry. My dad was an amazing gardener and produced fresh vegetables and fruit in abundance for us. My brother kept chickens, and supplied eggs, and my mum preserved vegetables and fruit in jars, and made jams and marmalades. She could make a banquet out of veggies and a scrag end, or a couple of sausages. Often, she made her own bread, too.

So, when writing about characters who are poor, I can write from experience. But, I'm not sure this qualifies me as a better writer. Authors write about many situations we have never experienced. It is the power of our imagination, coupled with our research that helps us to feel what the character feels. It is the craft of writing that helps us to express that feeling in such a way that the reader can feel it too.

You started publishing your books in your 60s. Do you think being older is an advantage for a writer?
I started self-publishing at the age of 65. I was a wannabe 20 years before that. And if at any time an agent had taken me on, I would have jumped at the chance. I think that opportunity is the key. And there is much more of that now than when I was younger. A book that was rejected when I was in my forties, went on to sell in its thousands on Kindle and has just made me a Sunday Times Top 20 best seller! We have some wonderful young writers, of all ages. I recently met Emma Hornby, who has her debut novel out. She is being compared to Catherine Cookson, and yet, she is a young mum of three children.

So, no, I don't think age makes us any better, and am pleased to find myself part of a community where age isn't a barrier to success. We are all judged on our ability. And that is a wonderful thing. Being older - I am 71 now - I come across many incidences of ageism. I am proud of our industry, as that doesn't exist within it. Opportunities are open to all.

Maybe, there is one advantage we older writers do have, and that is more time. My life is hectic, especially around book launch times. I cope because I'm retired from 9-5 and from bringing up a family. How I would have done when I was a lot younger, I'm not sure. So, for me personally, older is better.

Do you know how your stories are going to end before you start writing them?
I didn't used to, but mostly I do, now. And that is because I write a proposal for my agent and editor that gives an outcome. But the journey to the end is still an unknown wonderful experience. My characters take me along many paths that I didn't plan for them. They grow and take on a life of their own. Sometimes it seems they have lived the lives that I think I am making up for them and that they are telling their stories through me. I know, I'm sounding weird now!

How do you go about researching your books?
I take many routes. Internet, books, and travel. The latter, I love the most. I toured Picardy in a caravan and explored where The Somme battles took place, visited many museums and places of note, even camping on the edge of the great river that once ran with blood. I have been down coal mines in the north of England and scoured museums and libraries, and census reports. For my latest book, I drove through five European countries to reach Krakow in Poland. There, I went to Auschwitz, a harrowing place. Events in my new release: In Their Mother's Footsteps, are set in these places.

For a book coming out next year, Reach Out to Me, I visited Bletchley. A wonderful day out that I can recommend, if you like wartime history.

You spend half the year in Spain and half in Lancashire. Do you find it easier to write while you're abroad or in Britain? And what are the advantages of living in two different countries?
Yes, Spain is my writing retreat. I find that when there I can write the first drafts of two books in the time it takes me to write one here in the UK.

The advantage of living in two countries is that you can divide your time into two manageable pieces. With launching two books a year, one in May and one in December, a lot of time and effort and promotion has to be put in while I am here. In Spain I am free to write, though do keep up my social media. Day-to-day is more difficult in England. The house needs more maintenance and cleaning it takes hours.

In Spain I benefit from the warm climate. No winter blues. Sitting on the terrace, with the sun warming you, writing away, is better than being huddled in the little bedroom with the central heating on. There are very few distractions. The phone doesn't ring and even cooking is kept to a minimum, it is so cheap to eat out. And the time it saves gives us more time together. At home, meals are often hurried, and even served on the side of my desk at times if I'm behind with a project. I think we both benefit from the relaxed way of life, in health and in having time to fulfil our own pursuits, and yet enjoy lovely times together. Highly recommended.

You're now writing a thriller. Do you find it easy to switch from family sagas to a totally different genre?
Yes. Once I'm writing any book, I can lose myself in the character's lives. There is a difference though. A lot more plotting needs to be done for a thriller. With sagas, events happen in the lives of the characters that are driven by their circumstances, or because of having no rights as a woman or child in the era the story takes place. But in a thriller, a writer plots out what is going to happen and has to have a resolution to events. All have to be plausible, and backed by knowledge of procedures. And there have to be many cliff-hangers.

Scenes in sagas, are more heart-tugging. Scenes in thrillers have the reader on the edge. A different skills-set comes into play. I worked as at the Probation Service for ten years and I learnt a lot about police procedures and how a criminal mind works. The material I handled and the cases I was involved with have filled my head with ideas. I was bursting to write my thriller. When I did, my agent didn't think she could place it, so I self-published, The Sweet Taste of Revenge, a gangland thriller, under the pen name of Molly Kent. I haven't looked back. The book hit the top ten of genre within days of being published and is still in the top ten in thrillers/organised crime. I plan to write more in the future.

What's the best advice anyone's ever given you?
This is to do with learning the craft of writing. After the rejection, when the agent told me that my writing was flat, I was complaining to my brother-in-law how difficult it was to become a published writer. He read the rejection letter and then said this: "You need to learn your craft. Yes, you have talent, but then, so does a DIY man, who sets out to make a table. He makes a very good table, fit for purpose, but it wouldn't be fit for retail. A time-served carpenter could make a table that would have the correct dimensions, bevelled edges and a nice finish. Others would want to own it. But a craftsman would make a thing of beauty, the legs would be superbly carved, the edges shaped and pleasing to the eye. People would clamber to commission him to make them a table. You, Mary, need to become that craftsman. Learn the skills needed for your craft, then use them and then you will be a writer."

I have never forgotten those words and use them often to help other writers.

Interview by Nicky Solloway at Magna Large Print Books.