Moving with the times
Interview with Freda Lightfoot
Sunday 23 October 2011 ~ Romance Matters Autumn 2011
Freda Lightfoot in her olive grove in Spain.
Freda Lightfoot has always been surrounded by words and by books, firstly as a writer of children’s articles for Guide and Brownie magazines, ‘when I got bored with the nappy routine’, then moving on to ‘grown up’ articles for women’s magazines. ‘I thought writing was going to be easy, then found it wasn’t.’
Having worked as a primary school teacher, she wrote a career book on primary teaching, ‘but that only earned me £20 before the publisher went bust!’ When her children were small and the family moved to Kendal in the Lake District Freda became physically surrounded by books as she opened a children’s bookshop. But ‘like Topsy the children and the shop grew,’ so there was no time to ‘knock off the odd novel’ as she’d once dreamed. ‘For one thing I was overwhelmed by the brilliance and success of the books on the shelves. For another it expanded into a general bookshop and I was also busy giving talks in libraries and schools.’
During a period of ill health, while living in a semi-derelict cottage on Shap Fell in several acres of quiet, peaceful countryside Freda dreamed of ‘the good life’ among the sheep and hens but gradually the urge to write grew stronger and she wanted to get back to the novel. Fortunately it rained a lot and she had to spend much time indoors so she did start writing again. Humorous articles for specialist magazines about life in the country, children’s articles and short stories. ‘The first was published in My Weekly. Overall I published about 40 in Yours, Woman’s Realm, My Story and many others. I tried to get them out faster than they came back. The post man would say – “I’ve got a nice fat one for you today.” I didn’t like to tell him I really wanted a thin one.’ At that time she also wrote a couple of Mills & Boon contemporaries.
Freda had her first Mills & Boon Historical, The Madeiran Legacy, published after a move to Cornwall in 1988, and it was then that she joined the RNA. ‘I wrote notes by hand while sitting behind the counter of our gift shop in Fowey and had to be dragged out of the eighteenth century by the customers.’ Eventually she hired an assistant so that she could continue writing on her typewriter. ‘When I finally got the call “we want to buy your book” I ran to all the neighbouring shopkeepers I was so excited.’ She wrote the next four in odd spare hours.
Her first cheque bought an Amstrad 9512, Freda’s first flirtation with computer technology, though certainly not her last.
By this time the plots in her novels had become too complex for Mills & Boon and she pitched the idea of a Victorian saga to Darley Anderson. He showed no interest. She then spent the next nine months writing a saga about a woman in WWII who wanted to be a sheep farmer. This time Darley Anderson sold it in three weeks and in 1994 Hodder published Luckpenny Land and offered her a three-book contract. Freda went on to write 26 regional, family sagas, set around the Lake District and the environs of Manchester.
So, has everything been wonderful since being published? ‘The first book was perhaps the easiest, because I had nothing to lose, but the second was very scary. However, I pushed on. You need faith in yourself, and people were very supportive, particularly after a family trauma in 1998 which stopped me writing for a while. It was my friends in the RNA that got me writing again after that, and my next book, Polly’s War, became a Sunday Times bestselling paperback in 2001.’ This was followed by A Favourite Child, which was among the Sunday Times top 20 hardbacks. It wasn’t long before Freda was one of the top 50 most borrowed authors from libraries. ‘I’ve always done a lot of self promotion, running creative writing workshops, giving talks. I’ve been to more WI meetings than most members.’ She has done lots of radio interviews and had a TV lunch time interview, thanks to the PR work of her supportive husband.
‘I’ve always been very productive. I was writing two 120,000 word novels a year at one time.’ But mid-list writers are usually the ones to suffer when there are retail problems. ‘They drop through the cracks.’ Despite having won book club and supermarket deals, these eventually fell away. And, like many mid-list authors Freda suffered when sagas went out of fashion for a while. But this proved to be grist to the mill for Freda. Her response was to change with the times, something she has often shown herself capable of doing. She changed her style. She changed her publisher. ‘I now write time-zone sagas.’ The latest, The Promise, about family secrets, to be published in September by Allison and Busby, is set partly in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 earthquake and partly in post-war Lakeland.
Another new direction is the biographical historical trilogy about Marguerite de Valois, published by Severn House, Hostage Queen, The Reluctant Queen, and the forthcoming The Queen and the Courtesan.
‘During this period I also began to think about how I could revitalise my backlist. I got the rights back and began to investigate e-books. We do have to embrace new technology and mostly I’ve had to teach myself. I read more websites and nerdy forums than is healthy but the books had to be properly edited and formatted. My first effort appeared in italics. But I resolved that. I learned to use Photoshop to make the covers look professional and found it was fun. Then I did promo via blogs, Twitter etc. It was very satisfying.’
Before Christmas 2010 Freda had ten books on Amazon and sales began to take off. Now, 21 are available on Amazon, Sony, Apple – and sales are steadily rising.
Since moving to Spain, Freda now does most of her publicity and promo online. ‘There’s a danger in doing your own promo that publishers will stand back and let you get on with it. But you get a chance to build your name, not just the book.’
She writes for approximately five hours each morning and edits for another two hours in the early evening aiming for 10,000 words per week for sagas, 8,000 for historicals. For Freda, writing is a great therapy that has helped her through some difficult times. ‘Don’t believe things are always as wonderful as they appear. But it’s how you deal with them that counts. You have to find the positives in life. You have to be excited about the future and whatever you’re writing next. People want to read fiction as a means of escape and it’s the same for writers. It brings me much pleasure and has brought me many friends, particularly through the RNA , which is such a great resource.’