How Long Is a Piece of String?

Sounds like a question for quantum physics, doesn’t it? But I can assure you that I am wholly unqualified to talk about string theory or Schrödinger’s’ Cat, and I’m sure that you’re pretty relieved about that too!

So what am I talking about? Novels. How long should it take to write one.

I have lately been rather bothered by a series of books being trotted out with variations upon the theme of ‘How To Write A Novel In a Year/Month/Week/3 minutes”. Ok, so I was joking about the last one. Can a really good novel be penned in such a short time? Maybe there are a few prolific authors who can do it, such as Terry Pratchett and Stephen King, but on the whole, I think a good novel has to have a little time to brew and mature. For many of us authors, write-quick books like above can make us feel a little… inadequate.

The reason I am writing this, to be perfectly honest, is that I have been feeling guilty of late about how long Despenser is taking me to write. I know that I could easily knock out a  reasonable novel a year if I wanted to, and probably a more than reasonable one every two years. Yet this novel, from its first idea, has so far taken me around seven years. Most of that time has been taken up doing research, often from original sources, and immersing myself in the history of the period. The last three years has mostly been spent in the writing – drafting, redrafting, rejecting scenes… lots of rejecting!

I know the characters, I know the history and I know the subplots, so why is it so difficult? I think it is because, out of everything I’ve ever written in my life, I really, really care about this book. I care about getting the facts right, and I care about representing each character as a real human being with both good qualities and flaws, rather than having two-dimensional heroes and villains. And I care because there have been so many badly researched and badly written books about Edward II, which have Hugh Despenser as a character. Actually, Hugh rarely gets a book to himself (apart from Susan Higginbotham’s excellent The Traitor’s Wife ) but instead tends to appear as the convenient scapegoat for all things bad in Edward’s reign (Ok, I know he was responsible for some of them – but not all!).

Because of the tendency for Hugh to be overlooked when Edward II is around, research was also difficult. There are no biographies of the man, so everything has had to be gathered from disparate sources*, and primary sources searched again for the things historians have conveniently overlooked because they were so blinkered on studying Edward alone. As such, a lot of my research is on my blog Lady Despenser’s Scribery – although not everything. And those blog posts take time too!!

Also, as so much is now missing from the records of that period, I have had to try to speculate why Hugh may have done something, based on the circumstances and the reality of that time. Many fiction writers for this period have relied upon chronicles – both contemporary and written long after the event. The majority of these were written by chroniclers hostile to Edward II anyway, and so prove to be unreliable narrators. Even the pro-Edward chronicles (which are few) should be read with caution as to their accuracy, although they often fill in useful little details.

Currently I am on what I hope is the last main rewrite of the whole novel before editing is done. I have given up with trying to fit it into a certain word count as it is a book that needs to evolve organically – and maybe be pruned at a later date if necessary. But I hope that, with so much time and care taken with it, it will turn out to be a book that readers will enjoy, and hopefully learn something about the period from too.

*One of the best being Kathryn Warner’s excellent Edward II blog.


  1. I am sure it will be an excellent novel and I look forward to reading it. My novel has taken me about 25 years to write and I have just started the third chapter…….

  2. Thank you for the mention and link, Jules! I’m so looking forward to reading the novel (but you probably already knew that…;)

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