What is it like when your novel just isn’t working? EC (Elizabeth) Fremantle had the perfect ingredients for a historical thriller: murder, sex, secrets, danger – but why did her first draft turn out to be unreadable?
The Honey and the Sting is my sixth novel. I had the idea that writing would become easier with experience. This turned out not to be the case. If I include the three novels that were universally turned down before my first was published, I have completed nine novels, which is a lot of words, a lot of time at the desk – I’ve certainly done my ten thousand hours, so why is it then that I became so lost with this novel?
I had wanted to write a companion piece to my Jacobean thriller, The Poison Bed, as books about a pair of infamous Stuart murders involving two prominent favourites of James I: the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury (allegedly by Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, and his wife, Frances Howard) in 1613, and the assassination of Carr’s successor as favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, in 1628.
I had a very clear idea about how I would fictionalise the Overbury affair and its protagonists, a husband and wife both in the frame for the murder and though it had its challenges the general shape of the story was fixed from the outset. But when it came to Buckingham things became so much more complicated.
I had initially intended to focus on the fascinating testimony of a royal doctor, Eglisham, who claimed to have witnessed the murder of James I by Buckingham and had written it all into a tract designed to bring the Duke down.
It was such an outrageous notion: regicide, a secret tract, scurrilous goings on, I was determined to make it work as part of my novelistic scheme.
But I had also intended to tell the story of Buckingham’s sister-in-law, the heiress Frances Coke – forcibly married off to Buckingham’s insane brother as a way for him to grab her lands and titles. She was pursued by Buckingham on a charge of adultery which forced her into hiding with her young son. I had imagined she had the Eglisham tract and was going to use it to blackmail her ruthless brother-in-law and bring him down.
Excited by all this intrigue, my research done, I began to write. The different timelines between the two threads of the story made for a complex structure, reliant on many explanatory flashbacks.
But I’d done this before and told myself I knew what I was doing. The draft completed, I let it sit for a few weeks but when I returned to it, it was as if someone had turned it inside out while I wasn’t looking – it was almost impossible to follow.
The thing about writing a thriller is it needs jeopardy, intricate plotting and pace. I had the first, I had an overabundance of the second – which was the main reason why the pacing was all off. I girded myself, realising I had to start again and write a new draft from scratch.
I set to work and sent the finished new draft to my editor, who came back with a somewhat lukewarm response and dauntingly long editorial notes. She was right; it still didn’t make sense. It became clear that I was trying to shoehorn too many historical stories into one narrative – Eglisham’s, Frances Coke’s, Buckingham’s and his killer’s.
I cogitated and after lengthy discussions with my long-suffering editor we realised the two narrative threads were working against each other. ‘Can’t you bring the them closer in time?’ she would ask.
But when you’re writing about real historical figures this simply can’t be done. James I’s death is a date firmly fixed in history, as is Buckingham’s assassination.
After much tearing out of hair, I realised what needed to be done – I would have to abandon one thread and replace it with a fictional story.
So, I began from scratch once more. With Frances Coke and Eglisham on the cutting room floor, I created three fictional sisters and my story miraculously began to take shape.
I’m not saying it was easy from then on, and I did have to do something I’ve never done before: create a colour-coded spreadsheet containing every detail, to keep myself from going off-piste. I managed to turn it into a novel that made sense.
The final draft of The Honey and the Sting only contains about five per cent of material from that original first draft. I’m hoping my next project will be a breeze!
The Honey and the Sting by EC Fremantle is published on 6 August, 2020.
The Poison Bed was first published in June, 2018, and in paperback a year later.
Her short story, The Sum of Me, appears in Royal Blood, the new HWA collection of short stories set in the Tudor period.
Browse though her other Historia features.
George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham by Paul van Somer: via Wikimedia
Duke of Buckingham by Michiel van Mierevelt, 1625-6: via Wikimedia
Title page of Prodromus Vindictae by George Eglisham: via Wikimedia
Frances Coke, Viscountess Purbeck, 1623, by Michiel van Mierevelt: via Wikimedia