A Conversation with Historical Fiction Author Joan Schweighardt

Joan Schweighardt is the author of several novels. In addition to her own projects, she writes, ghostwrites and edits for private and corporate clients. Her latest novel is The Last Wife of Attila the Hun



What’s inside the mind of a historical fiction author?

I liken researching for historical fiction to spelunking. You enter a cave and begin to search for those exquisite details that will really bring your story to historical life. Most caves are not simply linear chambers that lead you from an entrance to an exit. There are sub-chambers, and sub-sub chambers and so on. You never know where you’re going to wind up or what you’re going to find. You can get lost. And most fun of all, in many cases the chambers you discover will not only enrich your story but they will actually impact the plot in ways you didn’t imagine. I count on the process to direct me to plot points I might not have thought of on my own.

What is so great about being an author?

If you love to write, being an author is great, just the way that it’s great if you love horses and get to ride all the time.

When do you hate it?

I complain a lot about how hard it is in these times to draw attention to books that are not published by one of the five big publishing houses that are able to throw money and clout behind their titles. I’d love to have a wider audience for my work. Not having the audience I want sometimes makes me question why I bother. But then I think about all the reasons I bother and go back to writing again

What is a regular writing day like for you?

I am at my desk every weekday by 8:00 a.m. But I don’t work on my own projects until I’ve finished client work. Sometimes I have no client work for a few consecutive days and can really focus on my own projects.

Do you think authors have big egos? Do you?

When I’m actually in the process of writing, I kind of feel ego-less, because I am concentrating on the thing I am doing and not on myself. I assume other writers feel the same.

How do you handle negative reviews?

Nowadays most of the reviews a body gets are from the public at large, as opposed to professional reviewers. Some people are used to reading very uncomplicated books with unrealistically happy endings. So, if they accidentally purchase something a little darker or more challenging, they may say bad things about it. That can be hurtful to an author. 

Everyone loves to get a positive review. But in these times I think some people are more interested in the number of reviews they get than in whether they are negative, positive or somewhere in between. If you have 600 reviews on your Amazon page, readers will think they’re missing out on something and to jump on the bandwagon. That’s why lots of people “buy” reviews. I still can’t get my head around the idea of ever “buying” a review, but I understand where the people who do buy them are coming from. We all want to sell books.

What is the usual response when you tell a new acquaintance that you’re an author?

People are more interested to know I am a ghostwriter for clients than to know I write my own books too. They always want to know how the ghostwriting process works, how I get the information from my clients and whether I include my name on their books. (I don’t.)

What do you do on those days you don’t feel like writing? Do you force it or take a break?

Since I write for a living as well as for my own pleasure, I am pretty much always writing. I take a break on weekends. Sometimes if I have having trouble with a project, whether for a client or myself, I tell myself that if I want I can get a book and go lie down on the sofa and read until I fall asleep. That’s my escape valve. Knowing I can do that if I want to keeps me from ever actually doing it (mostly).

Any writing quirks?

I’m sure I have plenty but I don’t know what they are. When I’m writing fiction, I do the dialogue between characters out loud, often saying the words with the intonation they would. That doesn’t feel quirky to me, but if my husband is home and happens to overhear me, he’ll raise an eyebrow and give me “the look.”

What would you do if people around you didn’t take your writing seriously or see it as a hobby?

I’m happy to say the people who mean the most to me take my writing seriously, probably because they are mostly writers—or painters or photographers or musicians, etc.

Some authors seem to have a love-hate relationship to writing. Can you relate? 

I’m shrugging. I never “hate” writing. I do dislike many things about the publishing process, such as the need to market your work on social media and the fact that there are so few professional reviewers these days, and the ones that exist are inundated with review requests. But as for the writing process, I have no complaints. I love the process.

Do you think success as an author must be linked to money?

We all need money to pay the bills. While you can derive immense pleasure from doing the thing you love—whether it is writing or knitting or making flower arrangements—if you can sell your book or sweater or bouquet to someone who appreciates the love you put into it, so much the better.

What has writing taught you?

Writing taught me to think at another level. I don’t know if it’s a deeper level or just another level. I do a lot of lucid dreaming, where I am asleep and awake (or at least aware) at the same time. I think that comes from writing all my life, from trying to grasp the thoughts behind thoughts before they slip away.

Leave us with some words of wisdom.

My best advice for first time writers and writers who just want to write better is read, read, and read. And don’t just read books in your genre of preference. Read everything, all the time.