Writing Superheroes: Annie Whitehead

Meet ‘The Eavesdropper’! Read on and find out more…

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If you were to write the ‘origin’s episode’ of your writing what would be the most important scenes? What did your early efforts look like? Are they still around to be used as bribes and blackmail material?


The opening scenes would be set mainly in classrooms around the world, in Singapore, in Kuala Lumpur, in the Netherlands and Germany. You’d see a little girl at slumber in daydreams. My father was in the armed forces and frequent moves gave little opportunity to make lasting friendships. I would drift away in lessons to a world full of stories. There are not many of my early efforts still around, because they were all in my head. And when I say in my head, I was actually living them. I wasn’t walking down the school corridor; I was a secret agent walking the corridors of an underground bunker. I wasn’t on the school bus, I was a great lady being driven from castle to castle. The later chapters would show me, as a history undergrad, in London in the 80s. A pale-skinned creature clad in black and with back-combed hair, I would take notes about a particular figure in history and think “one day, I will write this story as fiction.” Part III would focus on my child-rearing years when I finally had the time to dredge up those characters who lived in the back of my mind and start pinning them down on pages of notebooks. Those first efforts read like whichever novel I had been reading at the time, but gradually I learned to use my own writer’s voice.


        All super heroes have their mild-mannered secret identity, what is yours? I promise we won’t tell.

I don’t put on glasses like Clark Kent’s, and I don’t work at the Daily Planet. My role in ‘Metropolis’ is to visit pre-schools and primary schools where I deliver music and singing lessons and sessions to children from 0-11 years. It’s all a far cry from my Superhero persona where I become “The Eavesdropper.” I position myself stealthily on the fringes of groups of people and then listen to what they are saying. There is no hiding from me; if you are on a train, be sure I am observing your habits – scratching, fidgeting; that funny way you adjust your spectacles every time you turn the page of your newspaper. You are being watched and you are being bugged!headshot


        Who are your partners in crime? What are their superpowers?

They are my husband and three kids. Their superpowers are the innate ability to sense when a cup of tea is required and when to walk past my doorway without speaking to me. The younger members of the clan also have the (to me) superhuman power to harness the beast that is internet technology and tame it long enough for me to feed it!


        Where do you get your superpowers from?

Are superpowers inherited? If so, I can only point to my grandfather who was an English teacher and then, later in his career, the headmaster of a boys’ Grammar school.  Otherwise, they have grown from a lifelong boredom with the real world and a constant yearning to live in another time and place.


        Where is your secret lair and what does it look like?

By night, it is an innocuous dining room, with big family table centre-stage and piano, guitars and bass recorder in the corner. By day, its walls close in a little and we see that they are filled with shelves of books, files, and boxes of pens. With the noise of the family dinner, you might not have noticed the prints of renaissance art on the walls but in daylight they become prominent, placed perfectly so that they can facilitate a bit of productive day-dreaming every so often.


        Granted, you probably don’t’ get to wear your superhero costume a lot, but if you did, what would it look like?

Can I have thick glossy hair – I’ve always wanted that! More relevantly, my costume would have the magical ability to change according to where I am and who I’m with – the more I can blend in, the more I can ‘research’. This would especially apply when I finally manage to master the art of time-travel and get myself back to the places and times that at the moment I only visit in my novels.


        What is your kryptonite? What are the biggest challenges faced with in your writing?

Kryptonite is hard and rocky, isn’t it? Mine is more soft and fluffy and has two forms – a sunny day and my (now almost grown-up) children. The arrival of either sounds a death-knell for any writing but I really don’t mind too much. Setting a novel in Anglo-Saxon England presented its own unique difficulties. I had to decide how much of the dialogue would use words with Old English origins, and how many modern words I could get away with. Authenticity versus readability: it became quite a balancing act. The other challenge is less benign and it’s not a physical force; it’s that little voice that says “I’ve just looked at your pages and you know what, this is rubbish. Start again. Actually no, don’t bother, delete it all and stop believing that you can do this”. I claim no ownership of this nasty fellow, I think he visits every writer of every genre on a very regular basis and he’s quite pernicious.


        What was the supervillian that threatened to stop your latest project and how did you vanquish it?

See above! But the real nemesis was technology. Having an idea, doing the historical research, plotting and writing the book – all these things were hard work, but fascinating and rewarding. The process of uploading/downloading documents, layout, back-up, formatting; these are the things that often threatened to defeat me. But as with any undertaking, doing is learning, and by trying things out, pressing buttons to ‘see what happens’ I gradually learned how to present my manuscript in a way that meant others would actually be able to read it.


        What important lessons have you learned along the way?

I’ve learned to stop every now and again and make sure my knowledge of historical fact is not getting in the way of the story-telling. I’ve learned that it’s a long way from a story in one’s head to a story on the page and that the crucial thing to develop is a sense of objectivity. Devising, plotting and writing a novel is not exactly like ‘painting by numbers’ but there are certain rules and formulae that need to be acknowledged if you are going to produce anything that’s easy and enjoyable for others to read.


        What have been the best/most memorable experiences along the way?

Meeting Fay Weldon (twice) and hearing her wonderful positive comments on my writing. Being awarded Editor’s choice on the HNS Indie Reviews website and discovering, quite by chance, that my book had nudged into the top 20 on my publisher’s website. Perhaps one of the most memorable, for different reasons, was being told by a stranger at a funeral how much they had enjoyed reading my book!


        If you did this again what would you do differently and what would you not change?

I’m not sure I would change anything about the creative writing process – I enjoyed getting lost in the time period and writing the story so much that I would love to keep replicating that experience. What I would change, though, is the formatting and layout to save myself a lot of time at the end of the process, turning it into a document fit for professional consumption.


        What is the best (writing or otherwise) advice you have ever gotten and why.

Write for pleasure, not profit. Of course, everyone wants to sell their books and everyone wants to know that others are reading and enjoying what’s been written,  but it helps to remember that writing is an act of pleasure in and of itself. I get so absorbed in what I’m doing, I look up and hours have passed and it’s like the best kind of mindfulness.


        Tell us about you new book and why we need to drop everything and get it now.

There are so few books written about the period of Anglo-Saxon history between the pagan settlements and the Norman conquest, and even fewer with a female protagonist. A friend once said that she thought the Anglo-Saxons all went round wearing sacks for dresses and she couldn’t have been more wrong! I’m passionate about telling the stories of this golden age and, in particular, about Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, who was Alfred the Great’s daughter and came to rule a kingdom in all but name. Her life was a long series of challenges, each of which she overcame with strength, courage and sometimes deviousness. This book began back in my student lecture hall when a tutor said of Aethelflaed’s husband, “no-one knew where he came from.” Intrigued, I knew that one day I would write her story. As the HNS review said, she is “a believably strong character – one to care and root for.”


        What’s in store for you in the future? Do you have any other big projects on the horizon?

I’ve two completed manuscripts: one is a sort of sequel to To Be a Queen and the other is set earlier in the Anglo-Saxon period and tells of kings, queens and the riches of the age – the building of the monastery at Lindisfarne and the opulence of the court in East-Anglia and the famous Sutton Hoo burial. I’m now working on the novel which won praise from Fay Weldon who encouraged me to finish the book – trouble is, I have the character, I have the plot (ish!) but I just can’t decide whether to set it in the past, the present or even the future. You’ll guess from this indecisiveness that I’m dealing with some pretty universal themes! Whichever period I opt for, I know the setting: my home turf of the English Lake District – at least I won’t have any trouble with the scenery!


 You can find Annie at:

www.sheilland.co.uk~Facebook~Twitter @ALWhitehead63  

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  1. […] I was honoured to be interviewed by Maria Grace for her Writing Superheroes slot and you can find out about my alter-ego HERE […]

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