Mark Ellis

The bestselling author chats about his career and inspirations.
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What prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?

World War Two loomed large in my life for the significant reason that my father died when I was quite young (7) because of it. While on naval service in West Africa during the war, he contracted a wasting lung disease from which he eventually died in 1960. For this reason alone I developed a keen interest in the war, but my mother also used to tell me many interesting stories about her experiences as a young woman living on the Home Front.

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

Before every book I spend around 3 months researching its particular historical setting. For my current work in progress, Frank Merlin 6, that period is Spring 1943. The routine has been pretty similar for each book except the first, which as my first major literary effort of any sort, required a much longer research and writing  period. For my research I consult my own now fairly extensive library of wartime literature, and new ones as the need arises. I read histories, biographies, diaries, novels of the period, and anything that might bear on the plot. I search out information online and at libraries as needed. With each book, the specific time period is my starting point. Usually my research of the period gives me ideas for my plot, although occasionally I have already got one or two advance ideas.

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

Winston Churchill, Philip Ziegler, Andrew Roberts, Juliet Gardiner, Antony Beevor, William Shirer, Laurence Rees

I’m sure there are many other wonderful ones but these are the ones I’ve most read. I would also mention the following very helpful diarists:

Harold Nicolson, Chips Channon, Viscount Alanbrooke and Jock Colville.

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

The first advice I give any aspiring writer, historical novelist or not, is the value of persistence. If you believe in your writing you must persist with your ambitions, whatever brickbats may be thrown at you.

The second advice to a budding historical novelist is to make sure you get your research right.

The third advice would be not to swamp the reader with all the clever historical facts you’ve learned in your research. People are interested in learning new and interesting historical facts but the most important thing is your story. Historical detail must not be allowed to drown the plot.

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

Inevitably, I suppose, I would love to meet Churchill and any of the other 3  major players in the war – Stalin, Roosevelt, Hitler. On a less exalted level, I’d like to meet the film producer, Sir Alexander Korda, on whom I based a character in A Death In Mayfair.  Other real characters who feature either directly or in fictional garb in my books and I’d appreciate meeting include Joe  Kennedy, Rex Harrison, Beria, Goering, Eisenhower and George Formby. An eclectic group!

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

The London Blitz, preferably from a safe vantage point as it is a key event of the period about which I write. I did Classics for A level and outside WW2  I’d quite like to have been in Rome at the time of Caesar’s assassination or in Golden Age Athens to see an Aristophanes or Euripides play.

Which other historical novelists do you admire?

There are a number of current novelists writing in my space. I haven’t read them all but I particularly like John Lawton and James R Benn. Other current historical writers I admire include Hilary Mantel and CJ Sansom but there are so many wonderful historical writers around at the moment it feels invidious to mention names. As for authors no longer with us, what can beat Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Robert Graves’ I Claudius? I love the American Empire series by Gore Vidal and also love the wartime books of Ben Macintyre which are factual but read like novels.

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

I already have my main protagonist in Frank Merlin so I guess he comes first. As mentioned above, the plot ideas usually come when I am researching the book. So the answer is protagonist, history, plot.

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 do. Generally speaking I get up and go to the gym first at say 7.30. Then after a light breakfast, I get to work at around 9-9.30. I work steadily through to lunch at 1 then usually do a couple of hours in the afternoon. I set myself a word target of 1500 to 2000 words daily. If I fall short I try and make it up the following day. I work a 5 day week and seldom write at weekends, though I may do some additional research then. It is useful to get together with other writers occasionally and I am a member of Crime Cymru which is a collective of Welsh crime writers. I also go to book events like most of my brethren. I seldom discuss work in progress with other writers though or indeed anyone. When I have a final draft of course, that changes.

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

As mentioned I am currently  researching Frank Merlin 6( no working title as yet) which will be set in Spring 1943. Ideas are beginning to come and I shall begin writing the first draft in a few weeks.

Mark Ellis is the bestselling author of the DCI Merlin series, the latest of which is Dead in the Water.