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Bestselling author Ann Victoria Roberts talks about history and inspiration

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Bestselling author Ann Victoria Roberts has built a solid career writing historical novels, including “Liam’s Story” set (in part) during World War I. In time for the centenary of the First World War, the book is now available online as an e-book. The author graciously agreed to an interview with NY Books Examiner Eleni Sakellis to talk about history, inspiration, and writing.

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Eleni Sakellis: A diary from 1916 inspired you to write “Liam's Story”; do you often find inspiration for your work in history and/or historical documents?

Ann Victoria Roberts: In effect the World War I diary, written by a young Englishman who’d emigrated to Australia in 1913, inspired two books. I had intended to write about his experiences fighting with the Australians in World War I, but his story had to wait. Research into his family background revealed so much, even on the first attempt, it set my imagination working overtime. It was so extraordinary, I knew I couldn’t write his story effectively until I’d written about his parents. That first novel, a triangular love story set in York and Dublin 1892-99, was “Louisa Elliott”, which became an international bestseller in 1989-90.

“Liam’s Story”, published as “Morning’s Gate” in the USA, was directly inspired by the 1916 diary. A dual-time novel, it’s set in the mid-1980s, during the first Gulf war, and the World War I era. It concerns two sets of lovers, with family history and the tragedy of world conflict linking the strands. A lot of World War I research went into that, but I was able to draw on my husband’s experience as the captain of an oil tanker in the 1980s, for the Gulf War.

Later, living for a while in the little port of Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast, I kept seeing the work of Victorian photographers, and wondering at the stories behind the pictures. The author of “Dracula”, Bram Stoker, had also spent time there in the late 19th century, which answered a question I’d wondered about for years; why did Whitby feature in his novel? I connected the two in “Moon Rising”, another bestseller from 2000, which will be re-published in 2015.

The Master’s Tale” the story of Captain Smith of the Titanic was published independently in 2011, and inspired directly by one document. Thanks to my husband (then a marine pilot in Southampton) I was privileged to see the Dockmaster’s Log Book from 1912 and the entries there set both of us drawing in our breaths. We both knew what those entries meant – and it was not good. I knew at once that I had to write Captain Smith’s story and it had to be in his own words. So it’s a ghost story about Time and Coincidence told from beyond the grave.

ES: Where else do you find inspiration for your writing?

AVR: Places inspire me. Mostly I visit and spend time in the place I’m writing about – talking to local people, absorbing the atmosphere, mentally fitting old photos or paintings into what I’m seeing around me. It helps to ‘inhabit’ the place and its history, so that when I’m writing, I am the character, seeing the place as it was then.

I once likened writing a novel to being the director of a film – one in which the director has also written the script and has a starring role in the production. Except that in a novel, the author gets to play every part as well as painting the scenery… No doubt the perfect outlet for a control-freak!

ES: What is your writing regime? Do you outline?

AVR: I do a rough outline – shaped mostly by initial research. The detailed stuff comes as and when needed. But always I have a beginning and an ending before I start. Inevitably, the journey between the two diverts and changes as the story progresses – this certainly happened with the first two novels. The characters also develop wills of their own and don’t always turn out as I’d imagined at first. But I try to keep the ending in sight and the plot roughly on course. It’s a great feeling when you know the ending is close – and nothing beats writing that last line!

ES: Thank you, Ann Victoria Roberts for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this interview.

For more information on Ann Victoria Roberts and her work, click on her website. Her books are available online, in bookshops and at your local library.

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