What prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first historical novel in?
I set my first novel, Traitor’s Gate, in 1938, just before the Second World War. The Second World War was an epic struggle of good against evil, when the stakes were as high as they could ever be. That’s clear to anyone living after it. But what did it feel like just before the war? People could see the rise of Fascism, the growth of militarism, the coming of war. Yet the First World War was fresh in everyone’s mind; everyone had lost friends or relatives in that conflict. So although the stakes were high, and people knew the future of Europe was in the balance, it wasn’t at all clear what to do about it.
If you were a patriotic Englishman who believed the first world war was a disaster, what should you do? If you were a patriotic German who believed the first world war was a disaster, what should you do? The answer probably wasn’t to kill each other, but how would you avoid doing that?
What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?
I developed my research skills researching foreign countries which were settings for my financial thrillers. Historical fiction is different. The past is another country, yet you can’t really visit it, or sit someone down in a pub and ask them about it, as I have done with Brazilians and Icelanders for my other novels.
Novelists are trying to understand how people feel, either about themselves, or other people, or the places they inhabit. I think that a good description of a location in a memoir will tell me much more about it than a photograph. So I read a lot of biographies, autobiographies, memoirs and diaries, taking careful note of descriptions of places, people and daily habits.
I then cut and paste these notes into a massive document split by subject and place. The subjects might be dress, manners, organizations (such as the GRU, or the Gestapo, or the Apostle’s club in Cambridge). The places will be specific restaurants, clubs, hotels, streets, cities and villages. Then, when I am writing, I will have a description at hand upon which I can base my own story.
Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?
As I mentioned, the best place to go to understand a period is not necessarily the history book, but the memoir or the biography. Some particularly observant examples shedding light on the 1930s are Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford (1930s aristocratic rebels), The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg (married to a “good German”), Foley by Michael Smith (MI6 officer in Berlin) and Blunt, by Miranda Carter (spy for the Russians).
What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?
- Write about a period that you will enjoy finding out about, and inhabiting in your mind for a couple of years.
- Don’t be afraid to fictionalize some of the history. No one will mind as long as you make clear that’s what you are doing, and trying to wrangle real history into a tense plot structure is a nightmare.
- Write and rewrite and rewrite again. It’s in the rewriting that you will improve; if you don’t rewrite you won’t learn and you probably won’t be published.
If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?
Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr – the German secret service – from 1935 to 1944. He was charming, cultured and subtle. He also navigated expertly the tightrope between genuine loyalty to his country and serving Adolf Hitler. And perhaps I would be able to discover whether he was working for the British throughout the war.
Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?
The discussions around JFK during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. That’s when the stakes were at their absolute highest. Mind you, the 1966 World Cup final is history now, isn’t it?
Which other historical novelists do you admire?
Robert Harris, who always manages to inject humanity into his well-researched thrillers. William Boyd, who seems to like to write about the span of someone’s life against a twentieth-century historical backdrop. Antonia Hodgson, because her books are infused with a sense of humour that somehow seems to be both of the eighteenth century and today.
When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?
The period, then the question who might be doing something interesting then? That takes a long time to find a good answer to. Then comes the question what kind of difficulties/problems might that person have? And you’re away!
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 try very hard to keep the mornings free for writing, come what may. When I am actually writing, I read through the previous two days’ writing to make corrections, then write between 1,000 and 2,000 words, often with a break in the middle to walk or go to a coffee shop and think about my next, or my last scene.
I think it’s very important to meet other writers. As with any occupation, it’s sometimes good to talk about what you do all day with other people who understand it. Writing can be lonely; it’s good to get out and meet like-minded people. And it’s fun.
Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?
I have just finished The Diplomat’s Wife, which is about a young woman who is a committed communist, and yet is married to a diplomat in pre-war Europe. And I am just starting one of my Magnus detective novels set in Iceland. I like the change of pace and of scenery.