What prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?
In my case, I was following the old strategy of ‘write what you know’. I’d been researching and teaching this period for years and it seemed fertile ground for trying fiction. Once I knew I wanted to write about Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley, the choice of characters dictated the period.
What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?
A great question! My approach is generally to start with a setting or event and then narrow research down to books and articles which cover those days, weeks, or months in depth. I try to also dip into research material which covers lifestyles in the period more generally. I’ve always tried to approach researching fiction in the same way I approach nonfiction (though I can get away with more in the former!). Academic study really teaches you to narrow in when researching.
Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?
Thankfully, the early modern period is well covered by historians; in addition to Alison Weir, Tracey Borman, and Leanda de Lisle, whose works are always engrossing, I’d recommend Catherine Fletcher, Roger Lockyer, Caroline Bingham, Antonia Fraser, Linda Porter, John Guy, James Daybell … I could go on!
What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?
Firstly, write more than one book – don’t just write one and wait around hoping it will go somewhere. Secondly, try and do as much proofreading as you can (however boring and demoralising that can be). Thirdly, I’d have to give the always useful ‘don’t give up’!
If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?
I think it would have to be Mary Queen of Scots. I’d love to find out exactly what she knew of her husband’s murder (and what she really looked like – for the same reason, I’d love to get a glimpse of Anne Boleyn!).
Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?
The sinking of the Titanic. It’s out of my period, but I’ve watched so many YouTube videos each depicting different theories of how it went down, and the eyewitness testimony was all so confusing and contradictory… I probably need to get more mainstream hobbies, but watching the Titanic sink over and over got me through lockdown.
Which other historical novelists do you admire?
There are loads. My friend Marie Macpherson (who has worked wonders in bringing John Knox to life), E C Fremantle, Paul Walker, John Pilkington, Patricia Finney, Anna Castle. And of course my favourite author, Daphne du Maurier, was no mean historical novelist.
When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?
Protagonist and broad plot usually come had in hand (sometimes one or the other skipping ahead) and history last. Once I know what’s going to happen and to whom, I fit it into specific historical contexts.
Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?
I don’t have a daily routine per se, but when I have a book on the go, I tend to write every day for a few hours. Each book seems to bring its own routine!
Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?
I’m working on the third book in a series of early Jacobean thrillers, featuring the self-absorbed anti-hero Ned Savage. In this one, Assassination, he is tasked with investigating a secret society’s assassination plot during the state visit of Christian IV of Denmark in August 1606. Luckily, historians have also suggested that this visit coincided with the first (admittedly unrecorded) courtly performance of Macbeth, and so William Shakespeare gets another small role.