The Seeker: S.G. MacLean Interview

S.G. MacLean is the creator of the Captain Damian Seeker series of novels set during the English Civil Wars. Interviewed by author and academic Steven Veerapen.
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S.G.MacLean, The ‘Damian Seeker’ series marked a departure from your other novels in that you tackle the aftermath of the wars between the kingdoms. What drew you to the Cromwellian period?

I came to it by accident. My first series was set in Scotland in the years preceding the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and my editor was very keen that I should send the main character (Alexander Seaton) to London. I resisted this for several years because although I had a PhD in Scottish 17th century history, the English aspect of the Wars was largely outside my field of study. In addition, I hardly knew London at all – for example, before starting work on the Seeker books, I could not have told you the least thing about how Whitehall, St Paul’s or the Tower related to one another on a map, or where any of the parishes of the City were. The idea of setting a book in London seemed like a horrendous amount of work, but worse than that I felt no ‘spark’, and my main character, a Scottish university teacher, absolutely refused to go. BUT then I saw a documentary, presented by Dan Cruickshank, on 17th century London, and when he came to talking about the arrival of the first coffee house in London in the 1650s I was absolutely hooked. Coffee houses were amazingly egalitarian institutions where men from all sorts of walks of life could meet to consume this stimulating new brew, smoke their pipes, indulge their mania for news (assisted by the breakdown of censorship during the Civil Wars) and conduct business and illicit exchanges of information. Coffee houses seemed absolutely perfect for a tale of intrigue. The fact that they only came to London in the Cromwellian period forced my hand, but of course gave me the opportunity to involve republican intelligence handlers and royalist spies. So now I had the spark, but I had to do a lot of reading, constructing maps and ‘physical’ research – walking London’s streets.

Does the period of the Commonwealth need more understanding, given its reputation as a dour period that was best forgotten once Charles II returned?

Definitely. To me it seems to be the period when the English people most come alive, find their own voice. London and other parts of England, and Wales, seethed with radical religious and political sects, there was a huge growth in the printing of news books and the circulation of propaganda, women found themselves in the position of printers, preachers, prophetesses and spies. The experiment of the major generals was an attempt at an exercise in control which we have seen play out in other societies over time, after other revolutions. Techniques in espionage and code-breaking were developed incredibly quickly. I have never been very interested in kings and queens – it is the man and woman in the street and the ‘middling sort’ that have always interested me more, as they try to negotiate their time in history. There are huge questions to be asked about what happens when a movement brought to power in the name of ‘liberty’ has to begin to exercise control in order to keep itself in that position. Aside from being, for me, the most exciting period in English history, I think modern western society might learn much from studying the period of the Commonwealth.

A lot of research has gone into this book and there is a wealth of material out there on the civil wars and the republic. Could you recommend a favourite fiction and nonfiction book on this period?

Because I spend so much time reading historical material, I read comparatively little historical fiction, but for the Civil War period I would recommend Michael Arnold’sStrykerbooks. Although Andrew Taylor’s Ashes of London’ series is set in the Restoration, they deal with many of the issues that arose in the Commonwealth. Miranda Malin’s The Puritan Princess takes an interesting look at the Cromwell family in the last days of the Protectorate.

In terms of general non-fiction, I think Charles Spencer, with Killers of the King and Prince Rupert: The Last Cavalier, is hard to beat for sheer readability. I found Julian Whitehead’s Espionage in the Divided Stuart Dynasty very useful – lots of interesting stuff. Paul Lay’s Providence Lost, and Margarette Lincoln’s London and the 17th Century, are two that have come out since I finished work on the Seeker books but which I’m looking forward to reading.

This is Seeker’s fifth adventure, and he has developed his own personality. When you first created him, did you base him on any real historical figures?

No. When I came up with the idea for the first book in the series, he wasn’t in it at all. I thought the story would just ‘evolve’ and the mystery reveal itself! My editor pointed out the need for a detective type character. Quite genuinely, I put on my wellies and took the dog out for a stomp in the woods to try to solve the problem, and suddenly, in my mind’s eye (I knew I wasn’t actually seeing this person), a very tall individual in a helmet, boots, and long black cape emerged at a fork in the path in front of me, and I knew that he was my lead character and that his name was Damian Seeker. I made him a Yorkshireman because I wanted him to be an outsider to London like myself, and to be uncompromising. When I learned of the wandering Northern religious sect, ‘the Seekers’, it was a huge bonus in terms of suggesting to me more about his background. My favourite historical figures in the books are Pepys, Marvell, and Prince Rupert.

Without giving anything away, do you have any favourite relationships in The House of Lamentations

Oh, I think that would have to be Seeker and Sister Janet. I don’t think they’re in that many scenes together, but I really think they have the measure of each other. There is another character in the book with whom he has that sort of relationship, but that would be giving too much away.

The House of Lamentations takes Seeker into a city that might be unfamiliar to readers, but which was of huge importance to the period. How did you research historic Bruges in order to bring it to life in the book? 

I started with basic guide books, because I found it difficult to find anything specifically about 17th century Bruges that was written in English. I noted anything I could find in my other reading about the period and the Stuarts abroad, and as ever, I was a slave to old maps. Then, as I try to do with all the locations in my books, I went to Bruges. I had every day planned out, and I walked and walked and walked round each area of the city I had set scenes in. I visited any buildings that were open to the public in which I set scenes – I especially loved the Jeruzalemkapel, and the Gruuthuse is just a fabulous museum. We cycled along the canal path to Damme, which is a wonderful small medieval town where I was able to spend ages in the museum now housed in De Grote Sterre, in which the climactic scenes of the book are set. Being able to go to Bruges made the world of difference to how I was able to write about it.

You have a background in history and all of your novels depict lush historical environments. Did you come up with the plot and then fit it into the historical timeline, or did your plot emerge from historical research? 

I tend to get the pivotal plot idea first, and then I look at the timeline and what was happening in the particular year in which I plan to set the book. This is why Seeker tends to find himself investigating a murder at the same time as being involved in events dictated by the bigger historical picture. For Destroying Angel, I wanted to kill someone using poisonous mushrooms. I decided this would work best in a rural setting, so being able to send Seeker home to Yorkshire in preparation for the rule of the major generals was the obvious solution. One reader criticised the assassination plotline in The Bear Pit, as being ridiculous, whilst having no problem with a man getting eaten by a bear. I was tickled by this as the bear bit was the bit I made up – the (admittedly unbelievable) assassination plotline was true.

In writing, are you a planner or do you let the story emerge as you write? 

I try to plan, but things I discover in the course of my research shape how the story develops. My original plan might have a 12-chapter structure, and the finished novel have about 26. There have been times when I’ve been quite a way into a book before I know who the murderer is or why they did it.

Damian Seeker has a huge fanbase. Do you envision returning to him or his world in the future? 

I think I may well return to his world in some way. Because the books were such a departure for me, in terms of setting and, originally, subject matter, I felt with each of them that I was taking a huge leap out of my comfort zone, to the point that I felt a bit emptied out. I’m very fond of the character and his circle, but I really felt that he and I needed a break from each other. Increasingly though, I feel I will be able either to return to him and see how he’s been getting on in my absence, or possibly one or two other characters from the books. I really don’t think Seeker could function in England under the restored Stuarts!

S.G. MacLean is a bestselling author and has a PhD in history from Aberdeen University. She is the Crime Writer Association’s Historical Dagger winning writer of The Seeker and Destroying Angel. The House of Lamentations is her latest novel.

Steven Veerapen is a writer and academic and the author of novels set during the Tudor and Stuart periods, the latest of which is The Queen’s Gold, a Christopher Marlowe spy thriller.