Derek Birks

Home » Author interviews » Derek Birks

What prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?

I have a longstanding interest in late medieval history – especially the Wars of the Roses period which I have studied and researched a great deal over the years. It was an obvious choice when it came to deciding what period to write about because it has everything: larger than life characters, epic battles and many twists and turns.

I’ve also produced over 40 non-fiction podcasts spanning the period in an attempt to give structure to what is often regarded as a confusing period.

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

I’ve always done several types of research: the academic study, which looks at original sources and archaeological reports where appropriate; and location visits which help to give me an insight into the events.

Academic research will often uncover unexpected anecdotes which will later form part of a novel plot.  It is essential when trying to pin down exactly where the ‘real’ characters were at any particular time.

But there is no substitute for actually visiting a site where I intend to place a scene – to be get a sense of the scale of a place, the feel of it – even 500 years later. I’ve been fortunate that people have been very accommodating in allowing me to have a private visit where a building is not open to the public.

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

As a starting point for the Wars of the Roses I always recommend John Gillingham’s book The Wars of the Rosesif you can get it. I would also recommend the late Charles Ross whose work on Edward IV is still very useful. Anything by A.J. Pollard is good and also more recent work such as Susan Higginbotham’s The Woodvilles.

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

Firstly, you are a fiction writer, so the story itself is paramount – and an engaging story is essential.

Research is vital but it must not swamp the novel – you are an entertainer, not an educator. Tiny historical mentions are helpful, information dumps are not.

Get your story edited by someone who knows what they are doing before you submit it to anyone for publication.

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

The temptation is to say Richard III and ask him the $64,000 question: did you kill your nephews? But I would prefer to meet Margaret Beaufort who lived through the whole period and had enough connections to know exactly where all ‘the bodies were buried.’ As a source of information she would be incomparable. Also of late she has undergone a lot of character assassination and I suspect it is largely undeserved; it would be great to find out!

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

Gosh. There are so many seminal moments in this period but, if I had to choose one – for its sheer theatre – it would be 22nd July 1470 at Angers Cathedral where the Earl of Warwick was on his knees before Margaret of Anjou as he pleaded for an alliance with his erstwhile worst enemy. That must have been an emotion charged moment on both sides.

Which other historical novelists do you admire?

I grew up reading Alexandre Dumas, Rosemary Sutcliffe and so on. In more recent times as a writer my inspiration, no doubt like many others, has been Bernard Cornwell. I also admire the work of Conn Iggulden, David Gilman and Ben Kane. But there are many, many others.

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

I think that for me the protagonist and the overall story arc come first. Once you have a story then you can weave it carefully around the history. The main plot elements will follow fairly naturally after that.

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

I do have a routine which is that I mainly write in the mornings – though I’m perfectly capable of writing later in the day and do sometimes do that. It’s a lifestyle choice really because there are other things to do in life apart from writing. I write on a laptop in my study and I tend to write with music in the background because it cuts out other distracting noises.

Meeting other writers has been a vital part of my development as a writer and I will be forever grateful to those generous authors who helped me in the early days and gave me the confidence to keep going. They have provided much ongoing support over the years and I hope I’ve been able to reciprocate.

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

My current writing centres upon a new period but also one that has fascinated me since my student days: post-Roman Britain. One of the few actual historical figures from fifth century Britain is Ambrosius Aurelianus who, it appears, masterminded the British war effort to hold back Saxon advances from east to west. Yet we know almost nothing about him and what we do know is shrouded in the legends of King Arthur.

I have been contracted by Sharpe Books to write three books about him. The first was The Last of the Romans, which is almost entirely fictional because we know nothing about his origins. In the sequel, Britannia: World’s End, which came out in July 2020 we find Ambrosius arriving in Britannia and getting into a dispute with the so-called High King of Britain, Vortigern. Though the book is about the dispute it is still fictional but I hope plausible within what little we know. I’ve also written a couple of short stories and novellas which feed into the narrative and the third novel will be published in the coming months.