Book Festival review: Kate Mosse’s masterclass on bestsellerdom
Writer Kate Mosse lets her characters take the lead as she explains the success of her bestselling Languedoc trilogy. By David Robinson
WHICH is the easiest subject to write a historical novel about – a) someone who really existed, b) an already famous fictional character, or c) someone you’ve completely invented and plonked down in a time and a place that you already know a lot about?
If you haven’t already answered c) it must be because you haven’t yet heard Kate Mosse talk about Sandrine Vidal, heroine of her novel Citadel, the final instalment in her Languedoc trilogy. And as this has already sold enough books to paper the planet, Ms Mosse is therefore a fine guide to bestsellerdom. So if you sincerely want to be rich, here’s what you have to do.
First of all; be sparky, engaged, pleased to meet your readers. This was the 70th time she had talked about Citadel, but you wouldn’t have guessed.
Secondly, turn your story into a story all of its own: the off chance of buying that second home in Carcassonne; how you immediately felt at home there, wanted to immerse yourself in its history. Those street signs named after Resistance heroes: why were they all killed on 19 August 1944? Why were they executed so messily (with a grenade in the mouth)? Why did the Germans do that when they were pulling out the next day? Hooked? Of course you are.
Third, have a mission. Make women heroes. Sandrine Vidal, that sparky, engaged 18-year-old Resistance leader, could be just the person to lead an all-women unit (there weren’t any, but no matter). Be inspired by the Carcassonne war memorial dedication to “two unknown women” as well as all the Resistance heroes.
If you know the history, by now, the book will be writing itself. You’ve set the stage and the characters will turn up. “They’ll stand beside you,” explained Mosse. “And when they do, don’t look at them, or maybe just from the corner of your eye. But then, if you’re lucky, they’ll look straight at you and say ‘Follow us.’ And instead of having your hand in the small of their back, you’ll find yourself doing just that.
“Sometimes, characters just stride on and tell you what they’re going to do. The first time Raoul came on, he said to me, ‘You think I’m a supporting character, but I tell you, I’m a leading man.”
Clearly it must be a lot easier for the writer having characters tell them what they’re going rather than having to work it out for themselves. But the technique obviously works. Ms Mosse thinks Citadel is her best book yet, and who am I to disagree?
Somebody should tell Maurice Leitch and Ronald Frame, who were on just before Mosse. Poor suckers, they’d have answered a) (a novel about William Hare after Burke was executed) and b) (a novel about Catherine Havisham, from Dickens’ Great Expectations) respectively. Gentlemen (I’ll tell them next time we meet), you’re doing it all wrong. Cut out the pin-sharp descriptive passages, drop those unpleasant central characters. Get new ones who answer back. And simplify!