5 minutes with author Karen Brooks
In 5 minutes with author, Over60 asks book writers about their literary habits and preferences. Next in this series is Karen Brooks, a writer, columnist and academic based in Hobart, Tasmania. She has written 13 books and appeared on the ABC’s The Einstein Factor, Channel 9’s 60 Minutes and Channel 7’s Sunrise and Today Tonight as a social commentator. Her latest novel, The Darkest Shore, is out now.
Over60 talked with Brooks about writing historical fiction, bad writing tips, and dealing with critics.
Over60: What is your best writing tip?
Karen Brooks: Best writing tip is just keep writing, even when you know it’s dreadful and think it won’t work. The reason being, it’s easier to have something on then page or screen to correct than nothing at all. I don’t think I have ever received a bad writing tip – they’re all given with great intentions, even when they might not work for you.
What book(s) are you reading right now?
I am reading Daughter of Victory Lights by Kerri Turner. A work of historical fiction set in London during the Blitz and after. It’s marvellous.
Have your past jobs as an academic and a columnist influenced your writing work?
I think they have in both good and bad ways. The bad way is as an academic, I love the research and find it hard to tear myself away from it. I become lost in the past and follow all these amazing trails and keep digging up wonderful nuggets of information that I just want to include in the book. That cannot always happen.
The good result is, as a columnist, I have strict word limits and pare back my writing, so I am not afraid to cut and delete – so sometimes those nuggets, as golden and glistening as they are, don’t end up in the finished work. I’m also not afraid of deleting sections, chapters or just sentences, as well as being edited – as an academic and columnist it happens all the time, and I know my novel editor is working hard to help me shape the book into its best possible condition.
What do you think makes for a good historical fiction work?
Respecting the past and any details included as much as you can, while never forgetting that your role as a writer is to entertain, move, delight and even shock the reader. History needs to serve the story, not dominate it.
What does your writing routine look like?
I rise early, go for a run, then shower, dress and work six to eight hours, five days a week. Longer days and more when I am nearing the end of a book or trying to meet a tight deadline. I take my writing seriously and treat it as a business – so I dress for work, retreat to my study space and, as much as I can, stay focused and try not to get distracted. It doesn’t always work!
How do you deal with critics, both external (from other people) and internal (from yourself)?
Great question! I always take criticism to heart – but in a good way... mainly. Sometimes, what someone notes about your book can be personal to them, but that’s no reason not to reflect upon it and see if what they’re saying can improve future work.
But there is a difference between critiquing a work and just criticising it for the sake of it. I don’t understand people who do that – you know, go searching for all the things “wrong” with a work when there is so much “right” about it too. But you can’t please everyone. It’s hard not to be devastated if someone really doesn’t like what you’ve done – after all, writers never set out with the intention to have people react in a bad way to their novels, but it can happen. Again, I think about why they have responded in that way and move forward.
The internal critic is much harder to deal with than external ones though! No one can critique their work and believe it’s never as good as you wish or as others might think than the writer her or himself!
What trope grinds your gears?
I don’t think there’s any trope that grinds my gears... yet. Like cliches, I love seeing how writers incorporate and use them. I am constantly impressed with original spins on old cliches, like romantic encounters and interests, or in crime fiction with detectives working a case.
Oh, wait, there is a trope that grinds my gears after all! The stupid police boss who doesn’t respect or listen to his or her subordinates... Even when what they’re saying is smart and obvious. It can be overworked sometimes.
Which author, deceased or living, would you most like to have dinner with?
Can I nominate enough for a dinner party? LOL! Geraldine Brooks (no relation, sadly), Elizabeth George, Michael Connelly, Shirley Hazzard (I did meet her once before she died, and she was wonderful), Bruce Pascoe, Elly Griffiths, Jane Austen, Bram Stoker, Margaret Atwood and Shakespeare... oh, and Geoffrey Chaucer – my next novel features him, and I have a few questions I’d love to ask him! I could have a few dinner parties, with different authors at the table each time... wouldn’t that be sensational (and intimidating)?
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