Alan Bardos, what prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?
My first book The Assassins is set just before the First World War and is about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I chose that period because the events around the assassination were truly incredible.
The assassination was the pivotal event of the 20th century. It led to a war that changed everything, toppled empires and had a profound impact on mine, and millions of other families, which is still felt to this day. Much of the world we live in was shaped by the First World War, especially if you live in the Middle East and Eastern Europe and it all stemmed from a car taking a wrong turn in Sarajevo.
What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?
This is something I’m still developing and refining, but my starting point is to try to read as many books as I can on the subject I’m writing about. I whittle that down to a few key books that are my guiding lights and others which I use for specific details such as memoirs and firsthand account books like Gallipoli: The Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers’ Words and Photographs, by Richard van Emden and Stephen Chambers. The reading room of the Imperial War Museum and the National Archive are also a great source for this kind of material. My favourite part of research is to go to the places I’m writing about and to visit museums.
Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?
In terms of my first novel I thought The Archduke and the Assassin, by Lavender Cassels, was a particularly good biography of both Gavrilo Princip and Franz Ferdinand. Thirteen Days: The Road to the First World War, by Clive Ponting gives a great account of the July Crises.
My key books when writing my second novel, The Dardanelles Conspiracy, were Gallipoli by Robert Rhodes James, Gallipoli by Peter Hart, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth by Robin Prior and Blinker Hall Spymaster, by David Ramsay.
What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?
The secret is just to write. Get into the habit, do it every day and grow a thick skin. If you’re writing Historical fiction try and develop an idea for a series and approach independent publishers, who are generally willing to take the risk on new writers.
But when it comes to writing and how to be successful, to quote the late great William Goldman ‘no one knows anything.’
If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?
Winston Churchill which I’m sure is what most people say. First and foremost because I think he’d be great company on a night out. Secondly because his career spans the period I want to write about. He was involved in many of the great events of the twentieth century. From the laying of the foundations of the welfare state, the decision to go to war in August 1914, the Second World War and the start of the Cold War. To get his insights into all that would be amazing.
Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?
That is an incredibly difficult question. The first thing that pops into my head is D-Day, but I’d have to witness it from a Longest Day perspective and see it from multiple points of view. If I had to choose one it would be Lord Lovat and his commandos fighting off Sword Beach to relieve Major Howard at Pegasus Bridge.
Which other historical novelists do you admire?
My favourite historical writers are Ken Follett, Bernard Cornwall, George Macdonald Fraser, Alan Furst and Robert Harris. I think Charles Cumming and John le Carré could also squeeze into that genre as they often write about past events.
When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?
I’m not really sure, it all comes as a sort of jumbled rush of ideas. When I first started my series I knew I wanted to write about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. My first step was to develop a lead character, Johnny Swift, which is the most important thing. If people don’t like your characters they have nothing at stake in the story; even if they’re a bit of an anti-hero like Johnny. Once you have the characters they dictate the plot and it’s a matter of trying to fit it around the historical facts, which can be a bit tricky.
Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?
I generally write for a few hours after I finish work and four hours or so in the mornings at the weekend.It’s really important to know other writers, writing can be isolating so its good to chat with people who are going through the same thing.
Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?
Following Johnny’s escapade in Constantinople in The Dardanelles Conspiracy, he comes to the attention of ‘Blinker’ Hall the Head of Naval Intelligence. A man who knows how to use Johnny’s talents for duplicity to their fullest and sends him to Paris to flush out a spy undermining the Allies. Johnny becomes caught up in a web of deceit as he follows the trail of the spy through the arrest of Mata Hari, the catastrophe of General Nivelle’s Offensive and the ensuing mutiny of the French Army; uncovering a conspiracy that could cost the Allies the war.