Written by JJ Barnes
I was delighted to interview Jane O’Connor about her new novel, The Trial of Gwen Foley. She tells me about her career, her motivation, and offers writing advice to inspire others.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
In my day job I am an academic in the School of Education at Birmingham City University. I am mum of two boys aged 5 and 10. I also write fiction and my second novel ‘The Trial of Gwen Foley’ is coming out on 6th July 2021.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I always loved writing as part of my academic research and PhD but only came to fiction writing a bit later in life when I was on maternity leave with my youngest son in 2016 (at the ripe old age of 43!). During that year I wrote ‘Needlemouse’ a women’s fiction novel about a lonely middle aged woman who volunteers in a hedgehog sanctuary. This book was runner up in the Tibor Jones page-turner prize and went on to be published by Ebury/Penguin.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I just started writing a few hundred words a day when my baby was having his afternoon nap and it grew from there. The main character of Needlemouse, Sylvia, was a character I had been thinking about in the back of my mind for a few years and writing in the first person in a journal format really helped me to capture her story and her voice. It was so exciting how she came alive on the page and the story grew from there.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
It took 12 months to write the first draft which I finished at the end of 2016. It was published in 2019.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
I took a few months thinking about and researching my latest book before I started writing as it is a historical novel so I needed to make sure I understood the period (1700s England). I wrote the first draft in about 6 months but then took a while redrafting and editing it before I submitted it to agents and independent publishers.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write The Trial Of Gwen Foley?
My latest book ‘The Trial of Gwen Foley’ is set in Lichfield, Staffordshire in 1723. I live near Lichfield and have always been fascinated with the history of the city. One of the main tourist attractions in Lichfield is the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum and Bookshop in the market square. This is housed in the original building where the famous writer Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first English dictionary, was born and brought up. I knew I wanted to include the bookshop in the story and also have a fictionalised version of Samuel Johnson as one of the characters.
What were your biggest challenges with writing The Trial Of Gwen Foley?
Getting the historical details right was a challenge. In a way the big things about a historical period are easy to get right – who was on the throne at the time, the architectural style of buildings, common jobs and religious beliefs – it was the little things that proved harder, such as did people in England eat oranges in 1723, did they use postage stamps? Thank goodness for google!
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
My protagonist is a 43 year old woman called Hester Albright. I always like to have a more mature woman as the protagonist in my books as I think they have such interesting stories to tell and so much life experience and yet they are still quite rare as main characters in novels. Hester is a mother and grandmother and is seen as quite old even though she is still young by today’s standards. She is clever and kind and wants to protect Gwen Foley, as she does her own daughters. Hester is a character I love because she is brave and dares to speak out against the injustices she sees against vulnerable women in the city.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
The antagonist is in the form of two cantankerous arrogant men. The first is Lord Aston who accuses Gwen Foley of witchcraft and murder and wants her to hang. The other is Hester’s brother in law Philip who is the Lichfield magistrate and who cares only about pleasing Lord Aston. I think the power of men over women at the time, and the way the law favoured the rich over the poor is reflected in my protagonist and antagonists.
What is the inciting incident of The Trial Of Gwen Foley?
The inciting incident is the public execution of a local woman who is hanged for murdering her violent and abusive husband, leaving her children orphaned and destitute. Hester realises she can’t stand by and ever watch such an injustice happen again in her city.
What is the main conflict of The Trial Of Gwen Foley?
The main conflict is between Hester and her friends who form The Lunar Society to fight for justice for Gwen Foley, and the powers that be in the form of Lord Aston and Philip who want Gwen to be hanged.
Did you plot The Trial Of Gwen Foley in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I did plot the basic story of the book in advance as I knew how I wanted the story to end and I had several key pivotal scenes that I needed to include. There was much that emerged as I wrote however, which I didn’t know about before I started. I think that journey of discovery you go on with a story is one of the pleasures of writing so I would never plot a book out in detail before I began, although I know that works best for some people.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Trial Of Gwen Foley need?
I edited the first draft of the book myself using a guide that was recommended to me by a fellow writer. It’s called ‘Save the Cat! Writes a novel’ by Jessica Brody. It really helped me to make sure the story was paced correctly and that the characters all had a clear story arc ie they had all changed in some way by the end of the book. The subsequent edits were done by an editor at the publishers, but were fairy minimal.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
For me it always start with character. Find out whose story you want to tell and why and just begin!
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I have another two historical crime novels planned featuring Hester and the Lunar Society in Lichfield. I also have an idea for a children’s book that is slowly taking shape in the back of my mind!
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Yes, I am proud of my accomplishments as it takes courage to put your creative work out in the world whatever form that may take. Having the opportunity to share my writing is always worth the effort, although like all authors I have had my fair share of disappointment and rejection. I love the process of writing though so I try to focus on that rather than dwell on the difficulties of getting published.
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