John McKay

John McKay

The award winning novelists discusses history and his inspiration.
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John McKay, what prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?

I have been interested in the two world wars from an early age. I used to read Battle Comic and collected the Commando graphic books as a child. My interest grew with the more I read and watching old war movies TV. I visited some of the battlefields when I was stationed in Belgium with the RAF in the early 1990s, again adding to this interest in all things WW1 and WW2. My interest in this period of history has never waned and I still enjoy finding out new information, stories etc. even now.

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

I generally have an idea of what I want to write about and have developed a good basic knowledge of the period over the years. When I decide I want to write about a certain event I will then go into more depth in regards to research and read as much as I can on the subject. The internet provides a good source of information, as does the Imperial War Museum and National Archives. For Hell & High Water I also visited HMS Belfast on the Thames, to get a feel for how being onboard a World War 2 Royal Navy ship would have been like. I also interviewed a veteran of the Arctic Convoys who was the inspiration for the book.

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

Damien Lewis is probably the best out there at the moment. The level of research he puts into his books is amazing, but you are never bogged down with the detail when reading them. He is at the top of his game and his books read almost as though you’re watching a movie. It doesn’t take me long to read his books because I simply can’t put them down.

Another is Cornelius Ryan. His books are classics now, particularly The Longest Day, The Last Battle and A Bridge Too Far.

James Holland, Max Hastings and Hugh Sebag-Montefiore have also written some extremely well researched books on the period.

I also enjoy reading books that are fairly contemporary to the time, or written by veterans themselves. I recently read The Forgotten Highlander by Alistair Urquhart which was amazing.

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

It cannot be emphasised enough just how important accuracy is when writing historical fiction. So research is key to getting it right. Read as much as you can about the period and events you want to place your characters in and check, double check and triple check your work to ensure the accuracy is there.

Secondly, don’t be hung up too much on things that aren’t important – for example, if you aren’t sure on what something would have cost in say 1914 (and can’t find the information), simply write ‘he paid for it’ etc.; i.e. keep the narrative flowing. Historical fiction, like all other fiction, has to primarily be enjoyable.

Thirdly, at some point you will have enough knowledge of your subject to start writing. There are so many books out there, you could easily end up “over-researching”, delaying you getting anything down on paper.  Know when to take the plunge and go for it.

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

This is a hard question to answer as there are so many. I have more interest in the combatants and ordinary people rather than the generals, politicians, etc. David Stirling and Blair Paddy ‘Mayne’ of the SAS would be near the top, but being ex-RAF I would probably go for Guy Gibson. A very brave man and exceptional leader who sadly died way too young.

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

The raising of the Soviet flag on the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945. It is an iconic image, declaring the Nazis had been well and truly defeated, bringing an end to their evil and the utter chaos they had caused. Another, on a lighter note, would be watching Bobby Moore lift the World Cup for England at Wembley in 1966.

Which other historical novelists do you admire?

Sebastian Faulkes – I absolutely love his writing style. It’s magical. His work is exceptional and I find myself lost in his novels every time I read them. There’s not a book I’ve read by Faulkes I haven’t enjoyed or been moved by.

Robert Harris is another I enjoy immensely. His trilogy on Cicero was brilliant and his books are always thought provoking, well researched and, most importantly, highly entertaining. There’s no need for me to read the blurbs on his books, I’ll pre-order every time.

Wilbur Smith is another favourite of mine, especially his earlier work before he started collaborating with other writers. A master storyteller.

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

The history. There will be an event or period that interests me and I will want to write something on it. I will then think up a plot where I can include the event and then the protagonists will be developed from there.

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

Yes I have a routine. I will write until I become tired of it, or realise I’ve reached a point where to continue would be to produce work of a sub-standard quality. The next day I read through what I did the previous day and edit it. This then gives me the buzz to carry on. I will write again until I reach the same point.

Having the support and encouragement of other authors is very important to me as it validates what I am doing and gives me the belief that what I am writing is actually quite good. Having this support from writers I admire and respect is immeasurable in terms of giving me confidence to carry on.

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

Sharpe Books are keen for me to write a series of books following a paratroop unit from D-Day to the end of the war and I’ve agreed. This is the one I will be working on in the coming weeks/months.

Non-fiction – I am intrigued by an Australian soldier of the First World War – John ‘Barney’ Hines aka the Souvenir King. Eventually I want to write an account of his quite colourful life. Watch this space!

John McKay is the author of Hell & High Water.