Ottawa Writers Festival: The journey of a novelist with Kate Heartfield

Ottawa author Kate Heartfield will be at the writers festival this weekend. Photo: John W. MacDonald

Ottawa writer Kate Heartfield has a new e-novella, a new novel on the way to bookstores in the not too distant future and a pair of Nebula Award nominations. What’s not to like?

Her e-book Alice Payne Rides ( is the second featuring a time-travelling heroine and it’s an example of the many potential outlets for writers these days.

The book is a sequel to Alice Payne Arrives (nominated for one Nebula).

This latest book is an example of writing a book on contract.

“With the first one, nobody was expecting it. It was me having fun with an adventure story.”

But the task at hand for Alice Payne Rides wasn’t too onerous. The novellas are short, about 30,000 words. Heartfield says she can write one in a couple of months. “They don’t eat your life the way a novel does.”

This second one was mildly more rigorous. She had to provide an outline and meet a deadline. As a former journalist with the Ottawa Citizen, she knew all about deadlines. (A note: Heartfield and I were colleagues at the newspaper for many years.)

But having an outline: did it limit her imagination?

“I’ll write an outline but it changes as I am writing it. Some people can write by numbers … write an outline and fill it in, but not me. As I go through I realize something may not be working about a character or things just change.” 

So her outline was basically a paragraph indicating what she wanted to happen with the book.

“I did have a lot of latitude to just hit the basic themes and basic shape of the story.”

There was one major plot change that she warned her editor about and he was fine with that.

“The editors have worked with enough writers to understand they all have a process and you both want it to be the best book it can be.”

In the Alice Payne books Heartfield plays with time and with the history that interests her.

In Alice Payne Rides, she was interest in the treatment of the disease smallpox. 

“The novella picks up the story a year later which is a complicated thing to say in a time travel book,” Heartfield said with a laugh. “But the book opens in 1789. The main conflict in this one is that Alice and some of her friends have inadvertently brought a guy from 1203 AD who has smallpox into their house.

“I wanted to explore the initial science around Edward Jenner, the British scientist who pioneered smallpox vaccination. It had a huge impact on the course of history leading to global eradication of the disease.”

She wanted to play with that in the course of asking how could changes to these events affect history overall. She also wanted to move the story into Revolutionary America. 

And then she added in the mystery of Arthur of Brittany, a claimant to the British throne who disappeared in 1203 AD.

“If I were a time traveller,” Heartfield said, “I am nerdy enough to think that’s the kind of historical mystery I’d want to solve. I like to make things complicated for myself.” 

Time travel allows the writer the ability to do almost anything. But, Heartfield says,  “you still have to have cause and effect or you can’t tell a story.

“Smoothing out the storyline can be a headache. You end up having all these plot holes.”

Will there be a third Alice Payne?

“I do have an idea for one. My agent is running it past the editor. At this point it really depends on the sales for the first one. When you do a series, sales typically drop for each book, so book one sales need to be strong enough to make sequels worth doing.”

But Heartfield has other irons in the fire.

She has one novel Armed in Her Fashion published by Chizine with a second coming out in 2020. That’s called The Humours of Grub Street, a horror story set in 18th century London. 

After many years of writing speculative fiction at night while spending her days at the newspaper, Heartfield is pretty happy to be published.

“That was always the dream. There was a point in my career where I didn’t care about sales, I wanted a book that I could hold in my hands and say that I wrote this.

“Now that has happened and I feel good about that, but I do also feel that if I want to keep doing that I need readers and sales. I want to spend more of my time on fiction.” She also makes a living as a freelance editor and a teacher at Carleton University.

Part of the evolution of her life as a fiction writer has been a book tour. 

“It came together almost accidentally. I had been talking to different groups holding different events in Quebec and Ontario. There were several happening in March and I had a new book out.

“It happened that a couple of my writer friends were at the same events and so it turned into a book tour.”

They all hopped into a car and made a trip out of it with readings in Montreal, Toronto and Peterborough.

‘I met a few fans. It’s still surprises me every time I meet someone I don’t know who has read my books. I’m thinking, ‘Are you my mom in disguise?’

“A lot of times it’s an online contact via a tweet. That’s nice. And I’ve talked to people at events who have liked my work. That’s also nice.”

At this point in Heartfield’s writing life, it is a grassroots hustle all the time. And in this scenario recognition is important.

Being nominated for two Nebula Awards in one year is exactly the kind of boost you need as a self-doubting author, she said.

“I’m floating on a bit of  high. Now I can I say have been nominated a Nebula award.” The winners will be announced May 19 in Los Angeles and Heartfield will be there in a new dress. 

“My agent will be there and my editor will be there. I’ll be sitting at my publisher’s  table with other writers. Some other nominees are friends so it will be nice to go and have a good time.” Alice Payne Arrives grabbed a nomination and the other is for the game writing category for an interactive game called The Road to Canterbury published by a company called Choice of Games.

The game allows readers to decide the plot which means Heartfield wrote a lot more than any single read through will actually show.

She applied to an advert on the company website looking for authors and made it through an elaborate process. She likes working with the company.

“They pay well and they pay on time. It’s a lot of work but it’s a nice chunk of my life.”

Speaking of something new: Heartfield will be a featured author at this years Ottawa International Writers Festival on May 4.

The former festival board member and host now is finding the idea of being on the other side of the table “pretty neat.”

“When I was a host I did dream about being there as a fiction writer it’s nice to see that happen. It’s also nice to be able to show my kid and young writers that it can happen.”

Success as a writer also depends on luck, she said.

“You need the one editor who wants to buy your book. That means you have to put enough stuff out there for the luck to find you. I had rejections. You have to chalk it up to a learning experience and keep going. For me, I liked the writing thing too much to stop.”

In Town: Kate Heartfield will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on May 4 at 6 p.m. on a panel with S. A. Chakraborty. It’s at Christ Church Cathedral. For tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.