On the afternoon of Saturday 5th September, I think there were probably many of us who would have really loved to be at the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s York Afternoon Tea, meeting up with friends, making new ones, and sharing the excitement around this year’s Joan Hessayon Award. Instead, we were huddled around our computer screens (I do hope there was no-one still in their pyjamas…), watching the awards ceremony through Zoom.
It really was no less exciting though – an unprecedented 21 contenders, all authors whose debut novels have been accepted for publication after passing through the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers’ Scheme. The winner – although every author was without question a winner just by being on that prestigious list – was Melissa Oliver with The Rebel Heiress And The Knight, published by Mills & Boon Historical, available both as an e-book and in paperback.
Let’s take a closer look…
She must marry the Knight
By order of the King!
Widow Eleanor of Tallany Castle knows her people are broken by the taxes demanded by King John. So when she’s ordered to marry Hugh de Villiers, a knight loyal to the king, she’s furious – even if he is handsome! As gallant Hugh begins to heal the scars of Eleanor’s abusive first marriage, she’s even more determined to keep her secret: she is the outlaw the king wants to send to the gallows!
Do read the excellent report on the RNA website to find out more about the award itself, the judging process, and the reasons why the judges chose this book as their winner. But today our focus is all, and rightly so, on Melissa Oliver: I really thought it was about time I started to pull my weight as the winner of the RNA’s Media Star of the Year award, and when Alison May suggested I might like to interview their winner, I was really delighted. So, without further ado…
Melissa, I’m delighted to welcome you to Being Anne – and many congratulations on the award. Would you like to introduce yourself? Tell me a little about your life – and where that interest in history came from…
Hi Anne, thank you for having me on your blog. I’m Melissa Oliver and I live in south-west London with my husband, and our three daughters. Apart from writing, I’ve worked as a tutor in clothes-making at a local college and a designer of wedding dresses, of all things! I enjoy days out with my family, going for long hikes and baking.
My love of history has been with me, for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories was at Edinburgh Castle, and I remember being completely fascinated by Mary, Queen of Scots’ death mask – I know that’s quite macabre but I seemed to understand, even from a very young age, that someone with real feelings had lived, breathed, loved and lost behind that mask. I was one of those children who loved nothing better than being dragged around museums, old castles and stately homes – anywhere packed with history. I didn’t see it as being dusty or old but something that linked with people from the past. That has always stayed with me, and I revel in those stories in the hope to understand more.
And how about the writing – what made you first sit at your keyboard (or pick up your special notebook!) and decide you wanted to be a writer?
I have always loved writing stories but like many authors, I was riddled with self-doubt as well as the dreaded, imposter syndrome. It was only when I had children that I knew I had to try and do something about it. The idea of failure became less daunting as I got older and I had nothing to lose. So, I learnt my craft, wrote, and wrote some more, which followed inevitably with rejection. I wrote different genres, switched things up and even got a radio play through the commissioning rounds at Radio 4, only for it to get knocked back. But I never gave up. Each time I learned more, and strangely gained confidence to keep going. Eventually, I did what I had always longed to do but never believed I could – I began to write romantic historical fiction.
It looks like joining the RNA – and particularly enrolling for the New Writers’ Scheme – was just what you needed. I’d love to hear more about your experience… and whether you’d recommend it to others…
The Romantic Novelists’ Association is such a wonderfully supportive professional organisation. It’s a fabulous place to meet new like-minded friends and talk about books as well as every facet of the writing process. It’s great to be able to carve out the time, when life can otherwise get in the way. You can join your local chapter, attend talks, seminars or congregate at the summer conference (this year being an exception, however).
As for the NWS or New Writer’s Scheme – I cannot recommend it highly enough! It allows unpublished members who qualify for the scheme to send full-length manuscripts to be critiqued by the RNA’s team of experienced, published authors. It has to be said that not only is this a unique selling point for the organisation but the feedback can be hugely invaluable for the writer.
I understand the RNA had a hand in bringing you together with your lovely publishers too – do tell me more about how that happened…
It was only last year that I had booked a one-to-one session at the RNA conference in Lancaster to meet with Charlotte Ellis, a Harlequin Mills and Boon editor. I had already sent one chapter along with the synopsis of the story beforehand, so this was a great opportunity to gain valuable feedback from an industry professional. It went surprisingly well and I was asked to send a further two chapters with a few additional scenes and from there it progressed quite quickly. Initially, I had been told that it would take up to twelve weeks to hear back, and since I hadn’t finished the book, this gave me the time to do so.
However, a couple of weeks later, I received an email requesting the full manuscript, which really threw me. We eventually came up with a date to have the book finished and I started writing and editing, like never before. Incredibly, I got a call from Charlotte last November offering me a two-book deal and needless to say, I was over the moon about it!
Let’s look at the book itself a little more closely. It’s set in 1215, the age of King John and the Barons – and the judges specifically commended the way that “the history was beautifully woven into the story”. Tell me more about your research. Was everything you needed available on the internet, or did you spend hours in dusty libraries?
Historical research is important to convey the backdrop of a particular era, allowing the reader to feel immersed within it, so yes research is vital as long as it doesn’t overshadow the story.
For this book, my research involved reading as many factual books as I could lay my hands on, published articles and visiting sites and seeing first-hand primary sources. I also went to see a copy of the Magna Carta (or the Great Charter of Liberties) at Salisbury Cathedral, since it’s apparently one the best preserved out of the surviving four examples held in public view. It really was amazing to see it, even though I couldn’t decipher much from it. As well as that, I went to Runnymede, just outside of Windsor, to the location of the famous signing of the Charter by King John. Although neither the signing nor the Charter itself actually feature in the book, it forms the basis of where my characters stand on the opposing side of the Baron’s conflict. I wanted to gain more of an understanding about it and get a sense of these key moments.
The judges also praised your “very real characters” – I’ve only read the first couple of chapters (so far) but I’m already fascinated by both Lady Eleanor and Hugh de Villiers. I always think it must be so difficult to make your characters true to their time and its conventions – was that a particular challenge?
Well for me, the characters I create become real to me, as they live in my head for such a long time. But it can definitely be challenging, getting the period right, especially as there are always gaps in primary sources from that time, and what there is quite ‘dry’, impersonal with few accounts left of what life was actually like. Yet, I doubt that human emotions and the way people connect with one another have changed that much. Besides, it would be impossible to keep the story totally rooted in historical fact – otherwise Hugh and Eleanor would be speaking in old French, as (middle) English was not commonly spoken at court at this time. The main thing is that readers believe in both the historical backdrop of the story and relate to the characters who inhabit them.
The romance in the book has enchanted everyone who’s read the book – when you came up with the initial idea, what was more important to you, creating the world your characters inhabit or the romance at its centre?
I’m really delighted that readers seem to have had this reaction to Hugh and Eleanor but the characters really wouldn’t work if they didn’t feel real and from their time period. However, once I get a sense of the events from that era, and complete related research, my focus shifts to developing and fleshing the characters out. I need to know everything about them – from where they were born, who their parents were, to what makes them behave in the way they do. From this, the internal and external conflicts can evolve, with the characters coming together and connecting as the romance unfolds and blossoms organically.
And I have to ask – did you fall in love with Hugh as much as your readers have?
Haha, yes! I love both of my main characters but Hugh is quite wonderful and I’m really happy that readers seem to like him. He’s honourable, loyal, and yes, gorgeous- a powerful warrior with a big heart and a wry sense of humour but he does have his flaws and he’s not afraid to be wrong. It’s what I like about him and it certainly makes him more real.
I must mention the book’s gorgeous cover, as quite a few readers have – did you have any influence over its choice, or did the publishers get it absolutely right on their own?
It’s quite distinctive isn’t it? The input authors make is to complete a detailed description of our characters, setting, time period as well as including a couple of key scenes and a short synopsis. From there the inhouse art department do their magic.
And I’m delighted to see that your second book – Her Banished Knight’s Redemption – is due for release in January. Different characters, same historical period?
The Rebel Heiress and the Knight is part of linked series of books called the Notorious Knights (although they can be read as stand-alone novels as well). The 2nd in the series is Her Banished Knight’s Redemption and it follows the story of Hugh’s best friend – William Geraint. It is two years on and Will is now living in exile, as a mercenary sword-for-hire in France. He is quite embittered and different to the affable knight whom we met in the previous book. Yet, a mission to find and reunite lost heiress Lady Isabel de Clancey with her family is Will’s chance to finally atone for the torment of his past. As they journey back to England, they work together to uncover the secrets of Isabel’s past but with every rushed mile, their intense attraction becomes dangerously thrilling.
It’s a medieval historical romance infused with mystery & adventure and I hope readers like it. I’m so excited about this book, although come publication day – the nerves will definitely kick in!
I’m always interested in finding out whether an author is also a reader. If so, do you stick with historical romance – or is what you enjoy reading something quite different?
I love reading for pleasure. However, I can’t seem to read a lot of fiction when I’m writing. After finishing a project, it’s a real joy to have the opportunity to dive into books I have been meaning to read for some time. I enjoy many genres from contemporary romance, romcoms, time-slips, cozy mysteries, heartwarming reads, to poignant family dramas. My taste in books is very varied and there are some amazing stories being written currently. But yes, my first love is historical romance and it has to be said that there are some outstanding historical romance writers at Mills and Boon.
Watching the awards ceremony on Zoom – and what a shame you didn’t get your “moment” at the York Afternoon tea! – you seemed so surprised (and rather thrilled!) by your success. Tell me what it meant to you – and then tell me where you’re going to display your trophy…
Yes, I was so thrilled that I won this prestigious award! I honestly thought that I would be cheering the winner and was ready to do so, when the incomparable Katie Fforde opened that envelope to reveal that the winner was in fact…me!! It still continues to amaze me that the judges picked my book as the overall winner when there were so many fantastic books on the list this year. I’m slowly making my way through each of these and can’t wait to finish them all.
As Alison May – chair of the RNA – said, every single contender is a winner as we have all achieved getting our books published, which is a difficult feat in itself. As for the trophy, it will to take centre stage on its own shelf, in the kitchen/ living area. I really can’t wait to see it and run my fingers on the names of so many amazing authors who won it before.
And yes, it would have been wonderful to have celebrated together at the York tea but with everything that has happened this year, it’s good to keep a perspective on things – I feel blessed that we’re safe, my kids are back to school & university and my elderly father is in good spirits. All we can hope for is that things to improve, normality to resume and that we can all see each other again soon. And then just maybe, I’ll get to have that cream tea and glass of bubbly to toast with everyone!
Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Anne. It’s been a real pleasure.