Re:Fiction - The Fiction Writers' Magazine

Interview with Mary Balogh

About Mary Balogh

Mary Balogh started writing in the evenings as a hobby. Her first book, a Regency love story, was published in 1985 as A Masked Deception under her married name. In 1988, she retired from teaching after 20 years to pursue her dream to write full-time. She has written more than seventy novels and almost thirty novellas since then, including the New York Times bestselling ‘Slightly’ sextet and ‘Simply’ quartet. She has won numerous awards, including Bestselling Historical of the Year from the Borders Group, and her novel Simply Magic was a finalist in the Quill Awards. She has won seven Waldenbooks Awards and two B. Dalton Awards for her bestselling novels, as well as a Romantic Times Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Interview

Re:Fiction: Tell us a little about your earliest days of writing. What age were you? What kind of fiction did you write? How was it received?

Mary: Ah, my very earliest days of writing happened when I was a young child. I always wanted to be a writer. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be an author. My favorite Christmas and birthday presents were lined notebooks, which I filled with long stories of children who had marvelous adventures and always ended up successful and triumphant. Even in those days I had a romantic mind. Only happy endings would do! I remember when I was ten having a class assignment to write a story that was to begin with the sentence “Rat-a-tat-tat went the postman’s knock on the door.” All the other children wrote their half page stories and were finished by the end of class. I had to be given a whole week of extensions before I finished my 25-page story. My teacher and principal were so impressed that they entered it in a competition and I won a large box of Cadburys and Bourneville chocolate bars. This was in Wales in the decade following WWII when food rationing was still on and having even a single small chocolate bar to share among the family was a rare treat. So that was some prize indeed! I think I probably felt like the heroine in one of my stories.

Re:Fiction: When did you realize you’re serious about pursuing a writing career?

Mary: I was in my early thirties. The thing is that one does not finish school or university and say to oneself, “Okay, it’s time now to earn my living as an author.” One has to eat! When I graduated from the University of Wales with a degree in English language and literature, I sailed away to Canada on a two-year teaching contract (I am still there exactly fifty years later) and taught high school English for twenty years and married and had three children . The old dream of being a writer lay dormant until my children were old enough not to need so much of my attention and I started to read more—and to feel dissatisfied with some of what I read, particularly endings. I always felt I could do so much better myself! Then I discovered (surprisingly late in life considering the fact that I had always been an avid reader) the novels of Georgette Heyer and was totally enchanted with the Georgian and Regency worlds she created. I wanted to create a world of my own in the same eras. I wanted to set stories there. I wanted to write again. And that is exactly what I did—writing longhand in notebooks during the evenings after my children were settled and my classes prepared and papers marked. That was over thirty years ago and I have not stopped since.

Re:Fiction: What was the first piece you ever got published? How hard was it to get your first acceptance?

Mary: My first published book was A MASKED DECEPTION, a Signet Regency romance (now available again as an e-book). I had written two contemporaries, which Harlequin rejected (as they ought—the books were drivel). I sent A MASKED DECEPTION to an address in Canada I found inside the cover of a Signet Regency. It turned out that I had sent it to a distribution center (greenhorn blues). However, someone there read it, liked it, and sent it on to New York. Two weeks later I had a call from the Regency editor, who offered me a two-book contract. That was the point at which I realized I had to do it all over again—write another book.

Re:Fiction: How do you approach a new writing project? What kind of preparations do you make?

Mary: It is very haphazard. I will start with a hero or heroine. If I am working on a series, this part is usually easy as the character is already established. Then I will search around in my head for a suitable heroine or hero. This part is not always easy. Sometimes I end up asking myself what is the most unlikely sort of person the hero/heroine would come to love, and when I have my answer I have my other character. I like to make my own life difficult! Then I usually dream up a situation for their first encounter. If I am lucky, I can get a lot of mileage out of this opening circumstance. It can run for a few chapters. Unfortunately, there has to be a rest of story to follow, and that part is always difficult or nearly impossible for me to plan. I have to get my characters coming alive and interacting with each other and with other characters and their world before I can move them onward into a real story. My initial idea of that story is usually very vague and often changes vastly as I write. This can be inconvenient. Sometimes I do have an idea of a marvelous plot point to come, but by the time I get there, it is no longer something the main characters would do. If is it a question of sticking to my plot or giving way to the characters, I always opt for giving way. Characters become real people. I feel more like a facilitator than a creator as I write. Was it Michelangelo who said that when he sculpted, he did not create something out of a block of marble but rather released the form that was already there? I know what he meant.

Re:Fiction: What are your writing habits? Do you have daily or weekly goals? Do you have regular hours? A regular workspace?

Mary: I have answered this below (I did not answer these questions chronologically).  Yes, I am a very disciplined writer. Although I adore my job, it IS a job. When I am working on a book I write every morning, seven days a week. I write 2,000 words a day except when I have stopped to revise. I have a monthly goal of 34,000 words, one-third of a book. During the summer I write out on our screen verandah, surrounded on three sides by green lawns and trees and birdsong—and squirrels running along the power lines. During the winter or on wet or chilly summer days I work from an armchair. I no longer work at the desk in my study—too hard on the back.

Re:Fiction: How do you slog through the challenge of writing a full-length novel? What keeps you going? How do you keep the passion alive?

Mary: When I am working on a book, I write every day, seven days a week, though usually only mornings. I have a daily quota of 2,000 words except for the numerous times when I have to go back to read through and revise. I have a monthly quota of 34,000 words (I write 100k books). I am strict and disciplined. And the need to move forward keeps the passion alive. I write from deep within the points of view (alternately) of my hero and heroine. I become them as I write. I get to know them soul-deep and write from that place. I don’t have stories fully planned. The plot takes shape as I get to know my characters and have them interacting. So the writing process is also a process of discovery. I never lose interest. Whenever I get the feeling that I am merely writing plot, moving the story along from here to there, I know something is wrong and stop and go right back to the beginning to find out where I lost control so that I can make revisions and gain command again. Writing is never a slog! It is work and it is a challenge, but those very things are endlessly exciting.

Re:Fiction: Do you ever run into writer’s block? If so, what do you do to overcome it? How well does it work?

Mary: I don’t. I have every sympathy for those who do and will readily admit that for them it is a real problem and perhaps cannot be easily solved. But I have never allowed myself to suffer block. It would be very easy. Every morning when I sit down to write (and I mean almost every morning for more than 30 years) my mind is a blank and I don’t think I can start. Or, rather, my mind is not a blank. It is teeming with thoughts, none of them relating to my story! I tell myself to focus in, and after a few minutes I start writing, even if I don’t feel ready. Usually, the focus comes almost immediately once I do start to write. Just occasionally I realize after a few minutes that I have gone off in the wrong direction, but by then I know which direction I should have gone so can simply go back, start again, and be on my way. Writing has to be considered a discipline, I think. If you wait for inspiration to strike, you may wait forever. Inspiration comes via hard work.

Re:Fiction: What do you consider as success in a writer’s life? How do you recommend getting there?

Mary: Well, it varies from time to time and person to person. For me the ultimate dream was to get published. Then it became to see my numbers and readership grow. Then it became to make the bestseller lists. Then it was to make them again—and again. Oh, and somewhere along the way success was being able to give up my day job (teaching)  to write full time and earn a living. Also it’s always lovely to have one’s name recognized in bookstores and at conferences, etc. How to achieve all these dreams and goals? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. For me the answer has always been to keep on writing and producing more than one book a year, and to keep up the quality and to try to be original each time. It would be very easy to fall into a groove and write basically the same story with the same character types every time. Success ought never to be taken for granted, or the loyalty of readers. In fact, there is more responsibility to readers once one knows that a large number of them will buy your book on trust alone. My career began and grew before the time of the internet, and how thankful I am of that! Yes, the opportunities are greater now for getting the word out there, but doing that take a great deal of time and hard work and ingenuity. I can’t advise on that, I’m sorry, because I have never had to do it to any great degree, but I have friends who seem to spend more time on promoting themselves than on writing. I think maybe this is why medieval artists of various kinds had wealthy patrons!

Re:Fiction: What is the best tip you can give to new and intermediate writers in general?

Mary: Only one: just write! Don’t feel you have to wait until you have attended every conference and workshop on offer or until you have read every how-to book ever printed. And don’t wait until you have your life in order and everything quietens down. That never happens. Just write! And write and write and write….

Re:Fiction: What is the best tip you can give to new and intermediate writers in your genre?

Mary: The same as above with the addition of research! We all make mistakes, even those of us who have been writing Regency historicals for longer than 30 years. I am always learning and sometimes realize I made some blooper in already published books. But make every effort you possibly can to get it right—and that includes historical facts, manners, morals, mode of speech, social attitudes and conventions. etc. If you are American, try to find a Brit who will read through your manuscript to weed out Americanisms like “gotten” and “block” (for a section of the street) and “sidewalk” and “cookie.” Although they are relatively minor points, they can grate on readers who know better.


Mary Balogh, thanks so much for sharing your experience and wisdom with us writers!

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