Richard Woodman

Richard Woodman

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

I think that it rather chose me, though nothing is that simple in life. Nor do I think that I am, as it were, wedded to one period. Although my chief interest lies in the so-called ‘long eighteenth century,’ I have written fiction set in the twelfth, the seventeenth, nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. After having produced almost seventy books, a good number of which are non-fiction, I suppose that I am rather a maverick and somewhat difficult to categorise.

I am not university educated. I am an auto-didact who went to sea at the age of sixteen and was a prodigious reader. Apart from books I took with me, the cargo-liners aboard which I served as a cadet and watch-keeping navigating officer were always supplied with excellent libraries.

I began writing in the mid-1970s out of a desire to know about the American War of Independence. The bicentenary was approaching and I had read several of Kenneth Roberts’s now forgotten but excellent historical novels, two of which (Oliver Wiswell and Rabble at Arms) took opposing views of the struggle and stirred my interest. But before all that I had consumed C.S. Forrester’s Hornblower novels, along with stories set in the Napoleonic era such as those by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle (which engaged my interest far more than his famous detective’s exploits). I had also read Tolstoy’s great epic War and Peace while travelling to and from school (probably the only favour going to grammar school did me). From such seeds my reading became that of serious history, expanding my knowledge of the period between 1793 and 1815. But when it came to the earlier conflict with the American colonists I found accessible accounts of the war difficult to find.

The upshot of all this was that I set about reading as many secondary sources that I could find and, in my off-duty periods, cobbled together a history book of my own. I was encouraged to send the typescript to a publisher or two and while waiting hopefully for a response wondered where to find inspiration for another project. The Chief Engineer of the ship aboard which I then was suggested that my first work constituted a research project and I should turn my attention to a novel set in the same period. This was the natal moment for Nathaniel Drinkwater and whilst I laboured in no great expectation, the notion  allowed me to develop my character and learn my craft. When John Murray turned my history book down, I was asked if I had written anything else, so I sent them what would turn out to be the first of a fourteen-strong series.

From time to time I turned my hand to other stand-alone novels – not all of them for Murray – and eventually Murray commissioned me to write the first of three studies of convoy operations in the Second World War. Various other commissions arrived in due course. Eventually, to my great pleasure, a revised edition of my history of the American War of Independence also found its way into the light of day (Revolution! The ‘Liberty’ War).

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

I never think of writing a novel as having a particular process. Ideas tend to come and go. One can think of something which, if it is still nagging you three months later, is probably going to end up as a finished work. But a good deal of this withers on the vine.

Normally I need an historical ‘hook’ to hang my story on. In the case of the Drinkwater series I generally tried to find some relatively obscure and poorly known incident where I could insert my hero. If the idea, whatever it was, started to grow legs, gripped my imagination and seemed  to have some promise, I would mug-up on the incident and decide how my story would end. (Fortunately when writing a series, one can hint at unfinished business and leave odd ends, although each of the yarns stands alone.)

Having got an ending, I would wait until I had that all important first paragraph worked out and committed to memory. I have no idea why, but what was to happen between beginning and end I largely left to the interplay of my characters as they reacted to the circumstances conjured up as I worked towards my goal.

Oddly, this seemed to work, with highs and lows in the narrative flowing fairly easily – though a good deal of scribbling and re-scribbling was required to make it all hang together as I wanted it to. The great reward for me was that this process was always exciting because I never knew quite where things were going to go. A good chunk of my canon was produced at sea, which in many ways is an ideal environment to work, though the interruptions of duty could not, of course, be ignored. However, being at sea and writing about the sea, gave me a powerful sense of my setting and while ships have changed a good deal since, say, 1800, the men who man them haven’t as much as you might think.

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

This is a difficult question, since my historical interests are quite wide, but if we stick to my chief interest, that long eighteenth century, the list of historians who have worked on the period are almost legion. If we narrow things down a bit more and concentrate solely on the naval/maritime side of things, then the giants of the period are Nicholas Rodger, Andrew Lambert, Roger Knight, C. Northcote Parkinson, Stephen Taylor, Geoffrey Marcus and Tom Pocock. An up-and-coming name to watch is James Davey, but there are others, quite a lot more if one goes back to an earlier era, though their books grow increasingly hard to find even with modern technology.

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

Well, first be prepared to graft, and graft hard. Although this might be seen to be a given in contemplating any project, producing a book based on fact is harder work than one might think.

As far as your period is concerned, do your back-ground reading thoroughly. Most historical novelists will recall with chagrin some unfortunate anachronism they made, usually early on in their careers – and no, I’m not confessing mine! But steep yourself in its culture, in your chosen world with its own language, values, political notions and so forth.

Much the same goes for your character. As my first very distinguished editor at John Murray’s used to say to me, ‘you need to know what your protagonist had for breakfast, even if the reader doesn’t and you don’t tell them…’ It was wise advice because not only does it facilitate your immersion in period (no cornflakes, for example) and character (a preference for collops, perhaps), but it opens your mind to those mysterious whispers in your head, when the magic of creation starts to work and an enthusiasm drives you on when you may want to do nothing more than go to bed!

That’s three pieces of advice, but I would like to add a fourth, which is attitudinal and may sound an odd thing to say, but always work with a sense of absolute integrity. You need to think about that and I’m not going to enlarge upon it, but you owe a debt to your reader for picking up your book and reading it; and to the past, which has given you your raw material.

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

This is an almost impossible question to answer and I have given it a good deal of thought. I could say Napoleon or Nelson, but that would be too easy. I could pluck some rather obscure figure out of the historical record, someone has fascinated me in the course of creating a long series – and there are plenty of them.  I am seriously tempted to reply whoever it was who, at Tilsit in 1807, discovered the secret clauses of the unlikely accord between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I  (a British agent is said to have concealed himself under the ‘raft’ moored in the middle of the River Nieman upon which the two emperors met without any staff). But I am going to say my own protagonist, Nathaniel Drinkwater.

Why? Well, because when I have been writing the long story of his life – a life spent in odd corners of the world, involved with odd historical events – often late at night, I have been conscious of him and his fellows whispering to me; conscious of his presence just out of sight as though he is in an adjacent cabin. And I’d like to ask him if I got it all about right?

As I said, an impossible question to answer.

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

Oh, that is easier; I’d like to know – even if I had to swim the River Nieman – exactly how those secret clauses were known about In London with almost magical speed. I conjured up the event in my seventh Drinkwater novel, Baltic Mission, but I’d love to nail it!

Which other historical novelists do you admire?

Another difficult question because, strange to say,  ever since I began writing for publication I have read little fiction, my reading being almost entirely centred on research. It follows therefore that it is those who have influenced me, who turned my attention from reading to writing, that occur to me now. I have already mentioned the American Kenneth Roberts, but I must add his fellow countrymen Hervey Allen, and (though I suppose one would not call him an historical novelist) Herman Melville.

Others who spring immediately to mind are John Masters, Georgette Heyer, Rosemary Sutcliff, Jean Plaidy, Dorothy Dunnett, Jean Stubbs, Conan-Doyle (try his Colonel Gerard romps), and one of the most haunting writers who had a profound influence on my early ambition to write, Marjorie Bowen. She is now completely forgotten and she confused the issue of her legacy by writing under several pseudonyms (of which Bowen is one), but my mother gave me a copy of her General Crack when I was about fifteen. The book is actually historical fantasy and is written under the name of George R. Preedy; it is a deeply romantic tragedy, whereas most of her other work is linked to genuinely historical figures and facts.  Nevertheless, General Crack is a stunning piece of work which I re-read every two or three years just for the pure pleasure of doing so.

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

I think that I have partially answered this question. If one is writing a series, then the protagonist is already in the dressing-room waiting for the call to stand in the wings, so the history has to come first. This is true, I think of all historical novels because without the enthusiasm for period, any project is doomed. But, of course, such are the wandering ways of the human imagination that one could easily be first captivated by a character and this could come from anywhere, a chance encounter, perhaps; someone with some characteristic that one can steal! An ‘eighteenth century face,’ for example, if that makes sense.

Then again it could be ‘a situation’ which presents itself to you. In my novel Wager, I toyed with the notion of women aboard ship. At the time a small number of young women were embarking ln careers at sea. I wanted to write a book about tea-clippers (they interested me as much as eighteenth-century men-of-war) and their commercial success depended upon the swift delivery of a cargo of tea to the London market in perfect condition. The scenario was tempting…

The truth of the matter is, there is no right or wrong way to write a book. It’s a largely a matter of getting down to it after a good bit of thinking.

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

No, I do not have a daily routine. I have written under such differing circumstances, at sea and ashore and not until the end of the last century was I even in a position to contemplate my writing as my ‘day-job.’

When I eventually ‘swallowed the anchor’ and came ashore, I continued writing as and when I could. Juggling sea-going (with its absences) and family life had always been a challenge for all of us, and when I relinquished command, I had a strong desire to do more sailing in my own boat (long since gone, alas), so writing has always been accomplished in the margins of my life. Fortunately my wife – who paints – has been very understanding in all this, but she will tell you that, at the heart of the matter, I am an obsessive.

However, not having a daily routine does not mean I am indisciplined. Whether I seize a day or merely an hour, I get straight down to the task. And when I am doing other things – mowing the grass, domestic chores and so forth – I think about my project. That way I have never experienced so-called ‘blank-page syndrome.’   I remember at sea I developed a technique of always writing the next bit of text before knocking-off. It gave me a way back into my story away from the responsibilities of the ship.

Even now that I am retired and in my dotage I tend to stick with my knock-about approach. It is what I am most comfortable with, though it may mean a late night or an early morning.

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

No, I’m afraid I can’t! This most peculiar of years I have written a novel A River in Borneo – to be published next year) and some shorter novellas, chiefly fashioned from more modern times and all connected with the sea and ships. I have just finished one of these, An Absence of Imagination, shortly to be published by Sharpe , which immediately followed The Judgement of His Peers and Cold Truth.

At this very moment I am wondering whether another idea will appeal, or whether, after forty-one years, I should retire from my second career. Only time and our present weird circumstances will tell.