What prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?
I’d always had a love of history, but my fascination with the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (or British Civil Wars) was sparked when I was 10 years old and my parents took me to Helmsley Castle, North Yorkshire. Like most children, I couldn’t wait to explore the gift shop and bought a pack of cards that displayed images of the monarchs of England on one side, and some details about their lives and reigns on the other. Some of the early monarchs and their grey tombstone effigies were rather dull, but above all others, the card relating to the life and times of King Charles I stood out. The portrait was Van Dyck’s Charles I at the Hunt and I was immediately struck by the King’s image, the artistry, clothing and colours. When I found out that he had been executed, it really did spur me on to learn more. It was like a historical whodunnit and I was eager to discover how and why something so monumental had happened.
Not long after this I stumbled across the film, Cromwell, starring Sir Alec Guinness and Richard Harris. Although it isn’t historically accurate in many respects, I immediately recognised this newfound era and was captivated as it was brought to life on screen.
Part of my quest to find out more about the civil war, and get closer to it, naturally led me to re-enactments. Whilst on holiday we visited events organised by The Sealed Knot and The English Civil War Society and these battle displays fired my imagination. The sight and smell of them was – and still is – very atmospheric and the re-enactors do a sterling job. When I was seventeen, I joined The Sealed Knot (the Marquis of Newcastle’s Whitecoats) as a pikeman. The sight of having cavalry ride straight at us, of being able to look down the length of my pike at the faces of oncoming opponents, the exertion as well as the smoky confusion and blur of action, were all priceless experiences.
What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?
My research began in earnest from the time I first found out about the civil wars and started reading library books about it. At first, I went for those that gave general overviews, but after I tried my hand at writing, I started to purchase books about more specific aspects. The more I read, the more I was able to put battles, sieges and characters into context with the wider conflict.
As my writing has developed, so too has the detail and scope of my research, such as exploring archives and contemporary sources, and so much of this has become available online. I also like to vary what I write – whether it be a social media post, blog, article, podcast episode or a book – and these bring differing approaches to research, which keeps it all interesting. I note down all facts I come across that might be appropriate for any forthcoming project I have in mind. In a similar way, I build character profiles of civil war personalities by grouping together details that crop up during research. Another aspect of research that I love, and find essential where possible, is visiting historic sites to get a sense of the place. Marston Moor in Yorkshire, and Naseby in Northamptonshire are two of my favourite battlefields.
Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?
There are too many excellent historians to list, but I would recommend this selection:
Prince Rupert of the Rhine, by Patrick Morrah.
Black Tom: Sir Thomas Fairfax & The English Revolution, by Professor Andrew Hopper.
Cromwell, Our Chief of Men, by Antonia Fraser.
Royal Renegades, The Story of the Children of Charles I, by Dr Linda Porter.
The King’s Peace, The King’s War and The Trial of Charles I, by Dame C V Wedgewood.
Edgehill 1642, Marston Moor 1644 and Naseby 1645, by Brigadier Peter Young.
Cavaliers and Roundheads, by Christopher Hibbert.
The Cromwellian Gazetteer,by Peter Gaunt.
An Atlas of the War of the Three Kingdoms, by Colonel Nick Lipscombe.
The first non-fiction civil war book I bought was Christopher Hibbert’s Cavaliers and Roundheads. It’s great because it is ‘narrative history’, which is both engaging and factual. There are personal snippets and anecdotes that help the reader relate to the events, and for me, it’s these facts that can bring a battle, campaign and an entire era to life.
What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?
Write, write and then write some more. Not just your first book, but articles, blog posts – anything. I find that the more I write about the War of the Three Kingdoms, the more I learn about writing itself and the period. It really helps me develop my writing style and gives me variety.
Engage with all those who share your passion for history; readers, fellow authors and publishers. Share your journey, support others, discuss the era, join groups, set up a website and social media accounts. Be a part of the book world and keep up with news, new releases and opinion. Collaborate and make friendships.
Keep going. If you want to write and publish your first book, you need to remain focussed but also enjoy the writing and publishing process, however hard and challenging it can be. Look at every step as a learning curve. Don’t give up.
If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?
Just one? That’s a tough decision! I will go with Sir Thomas Fairfax, so that I could understand what he was really like. Despite being Commander-in-Chief of all Parliament’s land forces from 1647, he was a rather reserved man whose character, actions and legacy have been somewhat overshadowed by Oliver Cromwell, who went on to take his place. Cromwell is so well-known that he can often eclipse the historical narrative of the wars, which side-lines many such as Fairfax.
Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?
So many to choose from. I had considered the Battle of Edgehill, the first encounter of the war. But I’ll pick the trial of King Charles I, and in particular, the meetings of the commissioners chosen to sit in judgement of him. There were 135 commissioners, but around fifty refused to take part, and I’d like to shed some light on this very sketchy gathering. Exactly what was said, what was considered and decided upon, and what were the motives and justifications at play from each of these men as they were closeted away behind the scenes? After the King’s execution, many played down their own parts and betrayed their colleagues, so it would be enlightening to discover the truth and whether the guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion after all.
Which other historical novelists do you admire?
I must admit to a preference for reading non-fiction. However, the fiction books I read are all set in the 17th century and there are many fantastic novelists out there, but again, too many to list here. Two that I have read and admire most are Michael Arnold and Giles Kristian. Michael’s Stryker chronicles really gave the civil war some much-needed limelight and I discovered Giles’ two books after that.
The first 17th century fiction I came across as a teenager at a church jumble sale was Margaret Irwin’s, Royal Flush, which is the story of Minette, King Charles I’s youngest daughter. It’s an aged book of a different style to those available today. Nevertheless, the 1948 novel drew me into the period and helped me begin to appreciate descriptive writing and storytelling, as well as fuelling a growing desire to attempt a novel of my own.
Speaking of admiration for novelists, I would like to mention a story about Andrea Zuvich The Seventeenth Century Lady who brings the period to life on social media through her weekly themed ‘Stuarts Saturdays’ which generate interest and discussion. Andrea mainly writes non-fiction. Her latest book, Sex and Sexuality in Stuart Britain, has just had a fabulous review by Deborah Swift, a novelist who Andrea had admired even when she was still dreaming of writing her own book. Inspiring, indeed!
When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?
I begin with the protagonist. Once I’ve decided on the name, along with family members and their basic personality, next up is history. I like my books to stick to the facts and to the chronology of events, therefore plotting the date that the book starts, the historical events that lead on from there, and the people who would have been present at those events gives me the blueprint I need. After that, I begin deciding upon some of the major checkpoints in the fictional character’s life and weave them into the history. For Allegiance of Blood, I put together a long-term plot in this way and found that it often took a different course as the novel progressed, even leading to a death, which I had not initially planned for. However, in the novella I am currently writing, I began by only planning the initial plot, which gave the book the freedom to take its own course. This was quite exciting and took me to places I had not envisaged, such as Raglan Castle, Worcester and Hereford. One of the most amazing things about writing is when the world you’re creating begins to live and breathe and takes you along with it, meandering down paths of its own making.
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 not to be rigid about how many words I write each day, or when I will write, as that would be stifling. I simply keep in mind the current word count before and after my writing sessions and that gives me the perspective I need. I usually write in the evenings, so that it doesn’t affect spending time with my family, and I also find that this helps me focus. I do balance writing with other work such as my podcast CavalierCast – The Civil War in Words which looks at anything and everything related to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. This is great because it gives me variety, and apart from the fact that the podcast helps to raise the profile of the 17th century, it also allows me to meet other authors and promote their work.
Chatting to authors, forming friendships, and sharing our passion for history is wonderful and mutually supportive. Having a support network is vital – it allows you the chance to bounce ideas off each other, ask advice and share experiences of the writing and publishing journeys, which are fascinating and enlightening, but also challenging.
Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?
My immediate focus is centred on a novella series I am writing for Sharpe Books. I am getting on well with book one out the three and should have that completed by early 2021. Like all of my writing, it’s set in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. It follows a fictional character through the latter part of the English Civil War. I have several ideas for other books and projects, one of which I have almost finished, which explores the opening of the English Civil War in each region of England, as well as in Wales. I’m also planning a sequel to my first novel, Allegiance of Blood.