Aspects of my Historical Fiction

Aeneas' flight from Troy, by Federico Barocci
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In many ways I came to writing historical novels late in my literary career; strangely so, for I have always been fascinated by history. The first book I ever wanted to never end was Carola Oman’s Robin Hood the Prince of Outlaws. A little later, a childhood accident put me in hospital for 6 weeks. My parents brought me books and toys. I still have the Robin Hood annuals for 1956 and 1958, though the toy ballista that fired paper balls across the ward is long gone. At Prep School I was fascinated by stories of ancient Rome, of the wonders of how Tyrian purple was made, how Julius Caesar fought his campaigns – a staple of Latin lessons. I still remember the sigh of relief when I realised that when Caesar removed his enemies’ arms he was taking weapons, not limbs. When I went to Senior School, also as a boarder, my parents sent me Classic Comics regularly and, again, I still have them – Ivanhoe, The Talisman, The Three Musketeers… Before long I was wading happily through the school library, reading Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas, C S Forester and all. Out of school, alongside Carola Oman and Rosemary Sutcliff there were Rafael Sabatini and (especially) Dennis Wheatley. These were the days before I discovered Harry Sidebottom, Colleen McCullough, Conn Iggulden and Richard Foreman, of course.

Both at ‘O’Level and at ‘A’Level, History was my favourite subject – but when I went to University it was to study English. Even so, my minor thesis, expanded into my Master’s, examined the effects of Traditional English Medieval Drama on Shakespeare, firmly grounded in History again. Such historical accuracy as my Elizabethan novels have is based on books like Charles Nicholls’ The Reckoning and The Lodger and James Shapiro’s 1599; the Roman stories owe a great debt to Stephen Dando Collins, Barry Strauss, Adrian Goldsworthy and (most of all) to Rose Mary Sheldon’s Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome. The Trojan books owe everything, of course, to Homer, Euripdes, Sophocles, Herodotus and many others whose work is extant – or long lost, existing only as scraps and commentaries, such as much of the Epic Cycle.

During my 35-year career as a teacher I published a novel each year – but they were action adventures in the style of Alistair MacLean, Hammond Innes and Clive Cussler. It was only as I approached retirement that I decided to branch out, and, almost inevitably, I fell back on the research which had underpinned my Master’s degree – and so Tom Musgrave, swordmaster, sleuth and friend to Shakespeare the struggling playwright, was born. To be succeeded in due course by the Roman Artemidorus, who actually gave Caesar a list of his assassins moments before they struck – which he never read; and Odysseus, the man of thought (and cunning) almost alone amidst those thousands of men of action, as unique as Sherlock Holmes in Victorian London.

Everything about my writing changed during those years; and not just the subject matter. Research moved out of libraries, and the slow acquisition of vital facts from books, and online instead. This fact has been important in letting me move further, into the realms of Ancient Roman espionage and detective work during the siege of Troy. I still use books, academic articles and You Tube videos such as Michael Woods’ In Search of The Trojan War as well as texts on Kindle. I use the latter especially when I’m working during my regular research visits overseas; real book are heavy – those on Kindle are not. The physical act of writing and editing in Word facilitated – and became a vital part of – my ability to have two careers at once. I retirement, my routine is simple. I tend to write between 7am and 4pm during the day, print out in the evening and ask my wife, who is also my editor of first resort, to proof my work; then I incorporate her thoughts next morning as I push on. Corrections, changes, indeed major rewrites are relatively simple onscreen. I still have my lovely old Adler 45 typewriter but I haven’t used it in several decades and shudder at the memory of trying to get a clean copy using messy carbon paper – not to mention rewriting entire pages to correct a word or two and presenting to long-suffering publishers manuscripts where pages had been made almost hilly with changes typed on strips of paper and pasted over each-other. Nightmare.

I love research, but I have not chosen to move from one historical period to another and then to another still simply for the fun of it. All of my series have been written about time-periods I am passionately interested in so that even the most arcane study becomes a joy and the characters I deal with are almost friends. Would I like to meet Will Shakespeare, Kit Marlowe or Robert Poley – who engineered Marlowe’s murder? Yes. Would I like to spend time with Caesar and Antony? Yes – even though like Will I have ‘small Latin and less Greek’. Golden Achilles? Perhaps! Cunning Odysseus? Probably – though he is a slightly kinder character in my books than he is in the originals. These are the characters who started my stories and the plots all grew around them, often dictated by historical record, which is where most of the research comes. I am currently, for instance, trying to work out convincing ways for Mycenaeans to function during a period in the Bronze Age where money and writing (for any purpose other than record-keeping) had yet to be invented – despite Euripides’ assumption that Agamemnon communicated with Clytemnestra by letter.

Each series has come with an underlying narrative arc. I have planned the last Tom Musgrave novel – The Man Who Murdered Shakespeare, set in April and May 1616 but there’s a long road to go before I get to write it – or the half-dozen or so more that precede it. I’m hopeful that I might soon write the next one planned, though, An Axe for Murder, (February 1601) about the Essex Rebellion which famously started with Shakespeare and his actors putting on Richard the Second as a ploy to rouse London in revolt against Elizabeth – a mistake they were all lucky to walk away from; those of them that did. After that Tom moves into the Jacobean era. The Roman books have reached a logical resting place, however. They have told the story of events from the day Caesar was murdered to the day that Brutus killed himself. Were the series to continue, it would move into Antony and Cleopatra territory. (Though Death At Philippi ends as Antony sends Artemidorus to summon her to that fateful meeting at Tarsus where her golden barge will burn on the water of the River Cydnus and even the air will rush to admire her). The Trojan stories are so designed that the first three deal with adventures in the build-up to the actual Trojan War while introducing all the major characters needed should the series continue further beneath the walls of Troy itself, as I certainly hope that it will.