Andrew Taylor, what prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?
Apart from a series set in the 1950s, and a thriller set in the 1940s and 1950s, my first historical novel was The American Boy. This is set in Regency England. Subject and setting came together: the plot concerns the young Edgar Allan Poe’s years in England. It’s a period that has fascinated me ever since reading the novels of Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and Patrick O’Brian. As a boy, Edgar Allan Poe might have bumped into Jane Austen in a London street. When this idea occurred to me, I felt a shiver down my spine which eventually turned into a novel.
What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?
Before I start writing, or even planning the storyline in any detail, I tend to do a great deal of ‘broadbrush’ research. I need to know the setting, both in time and place. The details of everyday life are vital – they lend authenticity to the story. It’s not only the physical nature of the past that is important. It’s also its intangible qualities. What did people believe in, and why? What was their morality? How did the class system work? What did they think of other races? What was their world like?
When I’m writing and editing the book, I do specific research as I go along. For example I might find I need to know something about contemporary treatments for TB or stomach ache for a particular chapter. Or how much it would cost to hire a horse for a day in 1784.
Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?
It depends which period, of course – I’ve written novels set in half a dozen! For the Great Fire of London in 1666, I’d recommend Adrian Tinniswood’s By Permission of Heaven, which is an excellent and very readable account of the Fire and its aftermath; it also gives a vivid sense of its wider context.
Where I can, though, I always turn to as many contemporary sources as I can. For the 1660s, for example, we have the wonderful boon of Pepys’ Diary. And there’s much more – letters, plays, poems, etc. This is how novelists and readers can gain a sense of how people actually lived and thought.
What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?
See above: read contemporary sources; do your research; create a world that feels authentic rather than a colourful but implausible 21st century simulacrum of another era.
Write about something you’re interested in, rather than something you think will be commercial.
Don’t forget the importance of narrative: if you get that right, the reader will keep turning your pages whatever you do; and in the end that’s all that matters.
If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?
My first thought was Charles II, that shrewd, lascivious, and enigmatic figure who, in his terms, was a curiously effective king. My second and wiser thought is Samuel Pepys – partly because we have a head start in knowing the man, partly because he was so endlessly curious and knowledgeable, and partly because it’s much easier for me to identify with a self-made middle-class civil servant than with a king who believes (if he believes anything) that he’s God’s Anointed.
Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?
Maybe the burning of Old St Paul’s Cathedral in the Great Fire of London, when six acres of molten lead fell like silver rain from the burning roof into the church, and the cracking of the masonry was like cannon fire. You could see the red glow in the sky as far away as Oxford, where the distant roaring of the flames sounded like waves breaking on a beach.
Which other historical novelists do you admire?
Too many to name. These are just the ones that floated to the top of today’s pile – there are many others.
Among the dead, Patrick O’Brian, Rosemary Sutcliff, Alfred Duggan, Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Among the living, Iain Pears (An Instance of the Fingerpost), Hilary Mantel (A Place of Greater Safety as well as the Wolf Hall trilogy), Charles Palliser, Sarah Waters (especially The Little Stranger and the brilliant Fingersmith). Names to watch include Laura Shepherd-Robinson, S.G. Maclean and Elodie Harper. To repeat: there are many more.
When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?
For me, it’s usually the setting. Often I don’t know much about it beforehand. Then something hooks my interest about a particular intersection of time and place. Sometimes it’s sparked by a particular detail, for example Pepys’ first-hand account of the Great Fire, or a history of New York in the American War of Independence, which mentioned that the bodies of American prisoners-of-war were buried in the barriers shoring up the city, which was held by the British, from the river Hudson. The result was The Ashes of London and The Scent of Death respectively. For me, protagonists and plot usually grow together out of the setting, all the elements feeding the others.
Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?
I try to write something of the current book every day. Even a sentence is better than nothing and keeps the story simmering in my mind. I keep an eye on my weekly wordcount. For me this is a more effective routine than trying to write at set hours of the day.
I’ve gradually come to realise how important it is to be part of mutual support networks of other writers, both formal and informal. It’s useful for the grind of promoting our books. Even more important, perhaps, is the benefit of talking to people who understand our professional problems because they have a similar one themselves. Covid has made this much harder, but thank heavens for Zoom, Twitter, etc.
Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?
I’m currently writing the sixth novel in my Restoration England sequence, which began with The Ashes of London and the Great Fire.
Andrew Taylor is a bestselling novelist and author of the Marwood & Lovett Restoration Series.