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In the days leading up the 2013 Historical Novel Society conference, HNS is featuring speakers and special guests. I am honored to host two interviews this month for one of my favorite organizations. Today’s author is Gillian Bagwell, who will speak on three panels, including “The Feisty Heroine Sold into Marriage Who Hates Bear Baiting: Clichés in HF and How to Avoid Them.” Here, she talks about fact vs. fiction, her influences, and her latest release, Venus in Winter. – Kim

For you, what is the line between fiction and fact?

Gillian Bagwell

Gillian Bagwell

When I have the facts, I use them, and for me one of the most interesting parts of writing historical fiction is researching my characters and making discoveries about them – both major events and odd little facts – that will help bring their stories to life.

But inevitably, there are gaps in the record about historical figures, especially before they became well known. That was certainly the case with the heroines of all three of my books, Nell Gwynn, Jane Lane, and Bess of Hardwick. In each case, I invented their early lives, based on what I knew, what seemed probable or possible and would make a good story.

Ultimately, we’re writing fiction, and writing a great story is more important than providing facts.

Do you have an anecdote about a reading or fan interaction you’d like to share?

Well, the two readings from The Darling Strumpet for the Saturday Night Sex Scenes at the 2011 and 2012 HNS conferences were pretty sensational. Chris Humphreys suggested we read the scene between Nell Gwynn and the Earl of Rochester as a scene in San Diego, and I was thrilled when Diana Gabaldon agreed to read the narration.

My agent taped it, and it got about a zillion hits on YouTube. I was pretty nervous, and it showed! The scene was such a success that we did it again in London last fall, with Bernard Cornwell taking the part of Rochester. I was much more relaxed and having a good time! Bernard and Diana were both wonderful, and the audience was peeing themselves laughing. The links to both readings are on my website, www.gillianbagwell.com.

I like readings, and I teach workshops and coach individual authors on giving effective readings, combining my years of theatre experience with my love of books.

What are your favorite reads? Favorite movies? Dominating influences?

I grew up around theatre, and started acting in my early teens when both my parents were working in administration for the original Renaissance Faire and Dickens Christmas Fair. Being immersed in living history certainly deepened my fascination with the daily lives of people in past times.

Around that time there were several films and TV shows that I found compelling and which influenced me strongly: Upstairs Downstairs, Zeffirelli’s Rome and Juliet, The Lion in Winter, Anne of the Thousand Days, and Elizabeth R with Glenda Jackson as the queen. (I still think of Glenda Jackson when I think of Elizabeth!) I’ve acted in a lot of Shakespeare and other classical plays, and eventually began directing and producing, founding the Pasadena Shakespeare Company and running it for nine years, which has certainly helped my writing, both in terms of seeing and feeling the sensory aspects of scenes as I’m writing, and by immersing me in period language, which is one of the things I enjoy most about writing historical fiction.

Can you tell us about your latest publication?

Venus in Winter coverVenus in Winter covers the first 40 years of the extremely eventful life of Bess of Hardwick, a Tudor-era lady who was married and widowed four times, becoming more wealthy and powerful with each successive husband. She built Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall, and is the ancestor of many of the noble families of England, including the current queen.

Bess knew just about anyone who was anyone in the second half of the 16th century and had a close-up view of some fascinating and terrible times. As a young girl, she served in the Grey household, and Jane Grey was like a little sister to her. Later, she was a lady of the privy chamber to Queen Elizabeth. Shortly after her fourth marriage, she and her husband became the keepers of Mary Queen of Scots, an arrangement they expected to be temporary, but which lasted 17 years, contributing to the ruin of their marriage. But that story will have to wait for a second book.


Gillian Bagwell’s third novel, Venus in Winter, will be released on July 2, and will be available for early purchase at the HNS conference.

Venus in Winter follows on the success of Gillian’s first two novels, The Darling Strumpet, based on the life of Nell Gwynn, 17th-century actress and mistress of Charles II, and The September Queen, the first fictional account of the extraordinary adventure of Jane Lane, who risked her life to save Charles II and the future of the monarchy after the disastrous Battle of Worcester in 1651.

Please visit Gillian’s website, www.gillianbagwell.com, for links to her research blogs and more on her books and upcoming events.