Before I Sleep, the final book in my Settlement trilogy, went to some very dark, icky places. A character I loved had done a lot of rotten things, but I loved him anyway and wanted my readers to love him anyway, too. I kept adding stuff to make him more sympathetic—and it didn’t work. Scenes fell apart. In the end, the reader has to make up her own mind about a story, and the author can’t control what decision the reader comes to. That was an important lesson.
Who’s your favorite character you’ve written so far and why?
Alexander Smith, the hero from my Settlement trilogy. You never forget your first. Alex was everything that gets my juices flowing about a hero: he was strong and well-intentioned, but suffered first from a lack of courage and then from a surfeit of it. He needed love, he needed hard work, he needed help from the heroine. And he liked to knit.
What’s been the most memorable piece of research that you’ve turned up?
Ugh. I emailed an M.D. friend about trephination [interviewer’s note: trephination is drilling holes through people’s skulls] when I was researching my first novel. She sent back a PDF pamphlet about how to drill burr holes in the field—with photographs.
What’s the craziest story idea you’ve ever had? And did you write it?
I generally don’t start out with story ideas. I’m a pantser, when it comes to plotting. All my stories have begun with a session of spontaneous sensory writing. The world appears almost without my participation, then characters show up in it, then they start doing things. If I’m lucky I like the characters, they do something interesting, and the story takes shape.
What about your most recently published work?
The Bear’s Wife is a novel in seven parts. It takes place in the same world as my Settlement trilogy, but several hundred
years later. The planet has been fully colonized and our world, which colonized it, has been forgotten. Perry Drinkwater, the heroine, comes from a breakaway settlement that is practically Stone Age in its technology. She ends up in a bigger place that’s a delicious mixture of Flintlock and Medieval, and things go on from there. It was enormous fun to write her naïve innocence and all the scrapes it gets her into.
What project are you looking forward to next?
Can’t make any promises about what’s coming next. I keep starting stories to see if they’ll “take”. I have half a dozen great beginnings, and one thing that I think will be It, but it’s still in a very early stage.
Who are your writing heroes and why?
I grew up reading the Victorians, and I’m glad I did it while I was young, because they influenced me enormously but I no longer have the patience to read them. I enjoyed all three Bronte sisters, Hardy, Burnett, and Dickens’ later works especially. Then I went through a literary fiction phase. I gobbled up Gabriel Marquez, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, and Michael Ondaatje. They gave me a love of magical realism.
The books that got me started on writing, though, were the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon. I tore through the whole series, read it again, and needed more. Victorians and literary fiction hadn’t shown me that books could be . . . well, so much fun. After finishing Gabaldon’s books for the second time I wandered for a couple weeks, trying to figure out what to do, then sat down and began to type. I have written every day since, and plenty of readers see Outlander’s influence in my novels.
Any basic writing philosophy or tips?
Only that nothing works for everyone, and you have to find your own groove. I do encourage new novelists to finish at least the first novel before seeking out critique and advice, because there’s a magic and enthusiasm in you that exposure to the outside world will dampen. You need to have a whole novel (or three) under your belt to boost your confidence before you start to see the flaws in your own writing.
Once you have that first book or three, though, it’s crucial to get feedback, and to get it from people who know a thing or two about writing and who don’t care about hurting your feelings. Much of the craft of writing doesn’t come instinctively, no matter how well-read you are.
To find out more or to contact Katharine Tree, her website is at http://www.katharinetree.com.