Alistair Tosh

The author of novels set in Roman Britain discusses his inspiration, latest novel and writing process.
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Alistair Tosh, what prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?

 I have always been fascinated by the ancient history of southwest Scotland and northern England. Much of it is only written in the landscape rather than in any document. Burnswark Iron Age hillfort is a case in point. It was his visits, as a boy, to the site with its two Roman siege forts that first fired my interest in Roman and Dark Ages history and is the inspiration for my first book, Siege. It is now believed by some to be the location of the opening battle of Governor, Quintus Lollius Urbicus’s campaign in southern Scotland that concluded with the building of the Antonine wall. Despite its historical significance almost nothing is known of this period in Britannia outside of the archeological record. Fertile ground for historical fiction authors.

What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?

I always start by walking the ground at the locations planned for the story. Some very successful authors don’t do this, preferring to use GoogleMaps and other online resources, which is fair enough. But I always get a lot out of it. Google won’t tell you if some of the ground is boggy, or how changes in the weather affects the ground around it and the feel of the place. You don’t get any of the real sites, sounds or smells that can stimulate ideas for the book by staring at an image on your laptop screen. I then do the grunt work of researching the period and people I am writing about, using online resources as well as published works of historians and archaeologists in the era. I would now call myself something of an armchair expert in Roman ballista mechanisms for example. Inevitably, once I commence the writing phase other bits and pieces will pop up. Such as, was a certain type of tree native to Galloway in the second century? Usually this is just a quick Google search.

Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?

 I have two ‘go to’ historians, who between them have forgotten more about Rome and Roman Britain than I will ever know.; Mike Bishop and Simon Elliott. Their published works are excellent.

What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?

Love the period that you want to write about, immerse yourself in it. Invest in your writing, do the creative writing courses, there are plenty around, so your book is the best product that you can make. Finally, landing an agent/publisher can be a long and frustrating process. Never give up.

If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?

 Quintus Lollius Urbicus, Governor of Britannia between AD139 and AD42 under Emperor Antoninus Pius. He was a veteran of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in Judea, sent as a legate by Emperor Hadrian, and was the man Pius turned to when he wanted to extend the province of Britannia into the lands of modern day lowland Scotland. He was also a Numidian, and would have had a complexion similar to the people of modern day Algeria, so would have been a striking sight to the celtic peoples of second century Caledonia. We know a fair bit about his career but it would be good to know the man.

Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?

 The battle of the Teutoberg Forest in AD 9, Varus’s defeat and probably imperial Rome’s greatest military disaster. At the hands of the forces led by Arminius, the Germanic officer of Varus’s auxilia, who betrayed him. It would be intriguing to watch how the combined tribes gradually wore down and destroyed the might of three legions over a period of several days. Although, perhaps in reality,  I’m not sure my senses could really bear the sight of days of terror and butchery.

Which other historical novelists do you admire?

In my own sub-genre I love the writing of Rosemary Sutcliffe, who really got me hooked on historical fiction with her Eagle of the Ninth novels. Also Anthony Riches, who like me, writes about an auxiliary unit, rather than the more glamorous legions. I also like a good Western and there are some great writers out there, like Larry McMurtry and Philipp Meyer.

When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?

For my first book it was the history, or rather the archaeology that initially drove the idea for the novel. As I began my research and discovered some of the historical characters of the era the plot itself began to take shape. For my second and third books it is the characters, shaped by the history and geography of the lands that have driven the plots.

Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?

I usually start by walking my dog Hurley for an hour first thing in the morning, this really has the effect of clearing my head setting me up for the day. I’m usually sitting at my desk by 9.30 and will generally finish by 5pm. I aim to write 1500 words a day. Sometimes I write more, sometimes less, but having the target helps give me focus. I never work on the weekend.

The wider writing community has been invaluable to me as a support network and I have developed some real friendships too. It’s often a lot of fun engaging with fellow writers. My network has helped me understand the world of publishing, encouraged me that my writing is good and given pointers on areas to improve upon. Often simple things like what should be included in a query letter or providing feedback on a piece of dialogue. Importantly, the community can be part of your marketing campaign for a book launch, through retweets or reviews. I have met fellow writers socially on several occasions and it is always enlightening in some way.

Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?

I have just finished Hunt, book 2 in the Edge of Empire series. It is now running through my publisher’s editorial process. It is very different from the first novel Siege where great, bloody battles bookended the story. Hunt sees the protagonists, Lucius, Tribune and Roman citizen and Cai, the veteran Nervii Prefect of Cavalry, along with a small band, journey deep into the remote and hostile lands of the free tribes. Travelling through dark forests and mountainous regions in search of Alyn, Cai’s lover, who has been kidnapped by the barbarians in the aftermath of their cohorts victory over them. Old enemies and new come to the fore.

There is less raw bravery of the sort needed to stand in a wall of shields and more of the courage of a personal nature that will test our heroes and their bonds of friendship to the limit.

My research for Hunt took me into many beautiful parts of Scotland. Including; western Galloway where I walked amongst the remains of ancient fortified farmsteads of the Novantae tribe, as well as  their capital close to modern day Stranraer. Then northwards deep into stunning Argyll, home to the Damnonii and Epidii tribes where I visited the enigmatic Iron Age hillfort of Dunadd. It is most famous for being the royal centre of the early Scots kings of Strathclyde. I have attempted to bring all of these locations to life. I hope readers enjoy it.

Alistair Tosh is the author of the Edge of Empire series of novels. His latest is Hunt.