What prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?
I’ve always loved history from an early age – all those holiday trips to the castles of Wales must have had an impact. However, it was not until I went to university in the late 1980s that I really became familiar – and fascinated – with the Anglo-Saxon period: the time between when the Romans abandoned the island in the early fifth century to when the Normans arrived in 1066 have traditionally been known as the Dark Ages but treasures like the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the Lindisfarne Gospels show they were anything but.
What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?
My studies have given me a solid grounding in the period which is a great foundation from which to begin. From there I try to surround myself with books that focus on the specific area in which I’m interested from which I can build up my knowledge before trying to map out the high-level framework for the novel. I think I am fortunate in that I have enjoyed reading history books, so much so that I see research as less of a chore than I might otherwise. My main problem, however, is holding myself in check long enough to complete the research. I am usually way to keen to put finger to keyboard.
Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?
For me, the historian I’ve most enjoyed reading for the period leading up to and beyond 1066 is Marc Morris. His book, The Norman Conquest, is very extremely well researched, detailed but also eminently approachable. It’s a really easy read which is also hugely informative and entertaining. He has a new book out this year on the Anglo-Saxons. I cannot wait.
What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?
First and foremost is to keep going. The temptation is always there to go back and read what you wrote the day before. I find though that you can easily become bogged down, trying to perfect every sentence or paragraph if you’re not careful. For me, it’s far better to complete the first draft and then go back. The sense of achievement is not to be underestimated.
Secondly, don’t worry about what others are doing. At first, I thought I couldn’t write about the 7th century as there were other authors in that space. Find your own story and tell it your own way and let everyone else take care of themselves.
Finally, do your homework. Opinions may differ but I like my historical fiction to transport me to the era I’m reading about. I want to imagine myself in the scene, rather than sat on the sofa on a drizzly Sunday. And for that, the writing must conjure that sense of realism in my mind. I once read a review of a historical novel set in the eleventh century which highlighted that the author had described the main character as awaking “at 06.48”. I could almost hear the klaxons going off in my mind.
If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?
That is a great question and really difficult to answer. I think I would probably choose Edward the Confessor. Firstly, so I might ask him exactly what he intended to happen to the throne when he died, childless, in January 1066? Had he promised it to William of Normandy in the 1050s or did he offer it to Harold on his deathbed? If we could sort that out, the whole mess could perhaps have been avoided. I’d also like to ask him what he thought about being canonised and called the Confessor in 1161. I am not sure that he spent his life in quite the pious way we are led to believe.
Which other historical novelists do you admire?
There are so many to choose from. Bernard Cornwell must feature in my list but more for his Arthurian Warlord Chronicles trilogy than the Sharpe novels. Those three books, charting the adventures of Derfel Cadarn are among the best I have ever read.
A more recent figure to arrive on the stage – and who rivals Bernard in many ways in my mind – is Matthew Harffy. His series on Bernicia in the 7th century is so evocative and beautifully written.
When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?
I think it is the history if I am honest. I find a story that really fascinates me and then I start to think about how to weave a plot around it to bring it to life. A great example is the novel I have most recently drafted (yet to be titled even). I was listening to a podcast while out walking the dog (The British History Podcast by Jamie Jeffers – recommended to all fans of British history) when I came across an episode which talked about how a Saxon Earl’s wife had murdered her stepson and how the Earl’s beard had fallen off when he swore on it in a court of law that she was innocent. I was hooked right there and then and the plan for a story began to form. The dog was most put out that we then hurried home so I could start scribbling notes before it went out of my mind.
Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?
It’s more weekly than daily, but yes, I try to. I still work full time as an IT Manager for a major UK financial institution so I don’t get to write every day, however much I would like to. So, I try to set myself weekly goals – around 5,000 words a week, if I can. That said, I don’t beat myself up if I don’t make it. Finding any amount of time to spend on what I love doing in my spare time is a bonus.
Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?
My 11th century murder mystery which I mentioned above is crying out for attention. The first draft is complete, and I am desperate to get back to editing it. For now, though, my time is focussed on polishing my Huscarl Chronicles series. Book 2 is scheduled to be republished in March 2021 or so and then I hope Book 3 will follow on soon. I have a bunch of notes from my editor to work through, after which I hope it will be ready to go.
Once those are all done, I hope to either regress to the 7th century (I have a story in mind, based on a book I read about the archaeology of a Saxon burial ground in Bamburgh), or give Thurkill another outing. There’s plenty of life left in the old Huscarl yet.