We are proud to introduce Virginia Heath in the interview below. She is also the judge for this month writing contest "The Woman" on LifeOfWriters.com. Virginia Heath writes for Harlequin Mills and Boon and has been commissioned to write ten books for their Harlequin Historical series. Her 3rd book, The Discerning Gentleman's Guide was shortlisted for a RONA (Romantic Novel of the Year Award).
Can you tell us how you started writing your first book? And how did you manage to keep going not knowing if it would be published or not?
I suppose the need to write a book overshadowed any doubts I might have had about getting published. I mean, you can’t get published until you’ve written a whole book but starting something that you see through to the bitter end is hard. I had several false starts over the years. A few chapters here and there and then life got in the way. I used to be a teacher, and as I am sure any teachers out there reading this will know, the workload of a teacher is ridiculous. I was also the head of department, so my to do pile was always crazy. I planned to write in the school holidays, but by then I was so zonked my brain had nothing left over to be creative. Literally years flew by with me hoping to write my book and never finding a moment, until one day I decided the moment would never come unless I created it. So I did. I quit my job. Not completely. I did some substitute teaching part time for eighteen months and left myself two clear days a week to write. I appreciate it was a bold move. Probably stupid had my gamble not paid off, but doing something so drastic certainly gave me the impetus to write a book. When I finished it, I was so proud and stupidly thought it was only a matter of time before somebody published it. I sent it off to everyone- agents, publishers- and received a depressing slew of either rejection letters or silence. There was a lot of silence. It dented my confidence but as I had quit my career I knew I had to pick myself up, dust myself down and try again. So I wrote two more books which I never sent to a soul. They were my training course. I found my writing voice, played around with structure and dialogue, learned that I can’t plot for toffee and grew in confidence as a writer. The fourth book felt different from the outset. It flowed and once it was finished I had a good feeling about it. I only submitted it to one publisher, and as I had no agent at the time, prepared myself for a long wait languishing in the slush pile. They came back to me in two weeks! Six weeks of tweaking later and I signed my first two-book contract.
What does your typical writing day look like and do you use a word count?
Writing is my only job now, so I treat it like one. I work Monday to Friday. No evenings and no weekends. That doesn’t mean I find it a slog or an inconvenience. I have the best job in the world- but discipline and routine is important. With deadlines I don’t have the luxury of waiting till I feel in the mood, so I’ve continued with the good habits I created when I was an aspiring writer with only two days a week to write. I get up early to drive my husband to the station, walk my dog Trevor and then do all my daily chores before 9am. Then I head upstairs to my little office with a cup of tea and turn on my computer. I usually spend about an hour every day doing the social media side of my job and answering emails, then I re-read the words I wrote the day before. I learned early on that over-editing my work during the first draft wastes a great deal of time and takes the heart out of the words. I simply go through the previous day’s writing, sharpening and improving it as I go along, to put my brain back into the zone. I watch the story unfolding in my mind you see, so once my brain has been reminded where it was, off it goes again. I break for lunch and another dog walk, then continue until around 3pm when the words stop coming. I do some admin- emails, more social media, then turn into mum again as my family return home. Word count is tricky one and I try not to judge myself on it. At the start of a book, because I’m learning the characters and their quirks, the words come slowly and I’m lucky if I manage 1500 a day. By the last few chapters I cannot type fast enough as I see the end in sight and I still have so much to say. On those days I can easily write 6000 and not notice. I suppose if I average it all out, I do about 3K a day. 15K a week.
What is it that you like so much about regency romances that you write?
I write what I call Regency Romantic Comedies. Bridget Jones in a corset. To be honest, aside from the historical backdrop, I like to think I write stories about characters who would work equally as well in any setting. But I write Regencies because I adore the time period and can have fun with rigid social structure of the time. I used to be a history teacher, so I have a wealth of knowledge I can draw on. That means my research is always spot on. However, I don’t like the crusty and grandiose historical romances some traditionalists write. Why do I need to sound like Jane Austen? I’m not writing for an early 19th century audience. If I did, then my heroines would do nothing but embroider and do as their husbands tell them and my heroes would be misogynistic and infuriating! Like Dickens, Shakespeare and Austen herself I’m writing to entertain the readers from my generation. I love to write feisty heroines who do things and multifaceted heroes who think deeply about things. I love to put them in historic situations and throw chaos at them and I love to get inside their heads and see exactly what they are thinking. Take Mr Darcy for instance, one of my all-time favourite characters. On the outside he is emotionless and staid- but on the inside… I’m swooning just thinking about all those suppressed emotions. And of course, I get to dress me heroes in tight breaches and boots. Which is nice.
What is your favorite thing about being an author?
The freedom to allow my vivid imagination free reign. To create characters and worlds I see in my head, consign them to paper and share them with my readers. I get such a kick out of people’s reactions to my stories. I’m in the middle of a four-book series at the moment, my Wild Warriners, based on four very different brothers. There is a debate on social media about which brother is the favourite. That tickles me. It also reminds me of how lucky I am do to the job that I do. I always respond to emails or social media comments from readers because I appreciate that they have taken the time to read my stuff, and I get a warm, fuzzy feeling when they tell me that something in one of my books has touched them enough to want to tell me about it. Being Virginia Heath is cool. Yet on the surface I live this normal life in the suburbs of London. My neighbours have no idea what I do. We chat about the weather and local gossip whilst I’m out walking Trevor my Labrador, and I never say a word. It’s like having a secret identity. That’s pretty cool too.
What is the best writing advice you can give to aspiring writers?
Two things really. Firstly, learn how to take constructive criticism. Writing is a solitary and intensely personal pursuit so it can be hard to listen when somebody suggests parts of your story aren’t working. However, once you are blessed with an editor you have to trust their judgement and you have to be ruthless with your precious words to make them better. Believe me, once that book is out in the ether, everyone is a critic anyway so it’s best to develop that thick skin early. Secondly, be persistent. Keep writing. Keep trying. It might take years, but if you are tenacious and keep honing your craft, you will get published. You have to persist in trying to be better because only when you are good enough will those magic doors open. Blimey, I sound like Yoda…