Bestselling author honed her skills at Waikato

1 December 2015

Deborah Challinor

Bestselling author and alumna Deborah Challinor has just published her 16th novel - A Tattooed Heart.

Bestselling author and historian Deborah Challinor has just finished a nationwide book tour, in support of her latest historical fiction novel – A Tattooed Heart; the fourth in the Convict Girls series and her 16th published novel so far.

Just like any other job

After 15 years of full-time writing, Deborah is no stranger to the creative process and says she treats writing like any other job – she sits down and gets on with it. “At the start of writing a book I work out how many words I need to write a week, then I sit down at my desk in the morning, five days a week, and write those words,” says Deborah.

Her methodical approach stems from her academic career, where she spent seven years studying at the University of Waikato towards her PhD in History – the perfect foundation for a career writing historical fiction.

“You can’t write the sort of historical fiction I write without a reasonably solid knowledge of research techniques and principles, which is what my masters and PhD gave me.”

Finding inspiration isn’t a problem for Deborah either, she says the ideas and words are usually in her head somewhere. “The stories are usually the same – a character faces a conflict and has to overcome it one way or another. As for specific topics, it could be anything really. My novel Isle of Tears started off just as a title I liked. Other times it might be from something I’ve read or watched somewhere – like a film or a documentary.”

A second chance

Deborah came to the University of Waikato straight after finishing high school at Huntly College.

She originally chose to study English, “but I failed miserably with Ds so swapped to History which I enjoyed far more.”

She credits her lecturers and supervisors for instilling in her the skills that have helped her forge a career in writing.

“Jeanine Graham, who supervised my Masters, encouraged me to be meticulous in my research; Peter Gibbons taught me to always think ‘beyond’ and Laurie Barber, who supervised my PhD, was constantly supportive and gave me free rein to be creative.”

Success in history

It’s fair to say hard work has paid off for Deborah. All of her historical novels have appeared in the top five of the New Zealand fiction best seller list, with six of those reaching number one.

And she genuinely loves history. Her first book, Grey Ghosts, published in 1998, was a non-fiction account of Vietnam War veterans’ experience of the war and was the basis of her PhD. In Who’ll Stop the Rain she wrote about the effects of Agent Orange on the children of New Zealand’s Vietnam veterans.

Union Belle, featuring the 1951 miner’s strike in Huntly, is the book closest to Deborah’s heart. Having grown up in Huntly, it’s the one she enjoyed writing the most. “I actually wanted to call the book Union, but my publisher was worried it would sound like a book on industrial relations. Really? Look at the cover!”