Peter Tonkin

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What prompted you to chose the period you wrote your first book in?

My first historical novel, The Point of Death, was set in the Elizabethan period because my MA thesis was about Shakespeare, who also influenced my second series of Roman spy stories because I was fascinated by the fact that Artemidorus, who gives Caesar a list of would-be assassins as he is on his way to the fatal Senate meeting in Julius Caesar, was an actual person who really did so. The Trojan Murders had a different starting point. When I taught Media, I had a unit on popular series (books, stories, films, TV) which posited that the most successful ones had a setting, characters and situation that hardly changed. True of the Holmes stories as it is of The Simpsons. Where better to set a series than in a war-zone where the conflict lasted for ten years? Beware of Greeks was born.

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

When I started out, research involved books and articles from libraries. The Internet changed all that. Nowadays I write with my internet access open so I can double check anything. I still use books and articles, but I’d say 80% of my research is online. And rather than waiting weeks for a book to arrive at my local library, it can be on my doorstep within 24 hours or on my Kindle in seconds.

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

My Elizabethan stories could not exist without Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning and the latest novel A Verse to Murder was influenced by Shapiro’s 1599. My Roman books could not be as they are without Rose Mary Sheldon’s Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome. The first in the series, The Ides also leaned on Steven Dando-Collins’ The Ides which recreates the fatal day almost hour-by-hour. My Trojan sources are on line: Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War and Eric H Cline’s lectures on the collapse of the Mycenaean world. I also belong to a site called Academia – and only yesterday downloaded a paper by Ian Rutherford of Reading University’s Classics Department on Hittite and Mycenaean funeral rites.

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

First and most importantly you need to write. Historical research is dangerously seductive, especially as what motivates historical novelists in the first place is fascination with particular periods; and the minute you start you are overwhelmed with the desire to get the smallest detail accurate. Secondly, my personal rule is ‘get it down first – get it right later’. And by ‘right’ I tend to mean ‘convincing’ – you need to engineer a ‘suspension of disbelief’, then you’re off. Thirdly, move with the times. Historical novels of the ‘Classic’ sort could rely on fascinating their readership with the romance of the past in a way modern writers need to be wary of. Walter Scott can start Kenilworth with a long chat in an Elizabethan inn; Lew Wallace can begin Ben Hur with three mysterious figures meeting in the desert and Dickens can famously start A Tale of Two Cities with a bit of philosophy about the historical times it is set in. Modern historical novelists tend to get on with things faster – introducing characters and settings by way of immediate gripping action.

If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period who would it be and why? Similarly, if you could witness one event from history what would it be and why?

I’m torn between Odysseus and Achilles. Of all the characters in The Iliad, they fascinate me the most, though in saying that I’m aware that I put myself out of step with a lot of modern literary thought. Almost all of the great modern novels set during my period are by and about women (details below). Not only that, but much modern commentary on The Iliad points out how fully the narrative explores the unbearable cost and damage of war, personally, domestically, socially and politically. I would love to witness the arrival of the Wooden Horse, however, if not the slaughter that followed.

Which other historical novelists do you admire?

For this period, particularly, Colleen McCullough, Pat Barker, Madeline Miller, Adele Geras, Edward Lucas White, David and Stella Gemmell and Gordon Doherty.

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

For these novels, The Iliad – but also reports/fragments of The Epic Cycle which tell more of the background and illuminate the characters as well as the narrative.

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

Up at 7; ½ hr on my rowing machine to clear my thoughts, ½ hour on Duolingo brushing up language of next research/visit. 8 – 5 on the computer with breaks for coffee, lunch, tea. I usually print from 4 so my lovely wife can read/edit the day’s work for when I reassess it next morning. My wife is the start of my support network but Historical Writers are a cheerful and welcoming bunch so I have lots of Facebook friends who enjoy a lively exchange of ideas.

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

Having gone with Odysseus in search of Achilles (Beware of Greeks)and lingered in Aulis while Agamemnon is debating the sacrifice his daughter (Vengeance at Aulis), we are now in the recently sacked city of Lyrnessus trying to discover who murdered Briseis’ husband and treacherously handed over the city to the Achaeans, thus calling into question the honour of Achilles who led the assault. (The Anger of Achilles). And we haven’t even got to Troy yet!