Andrew Taylor has published more than 30 crime and historical novels. They include The American Boy and The Ashes of London, both number one bestsellers, as well as the Lydmouth series set in the 1950s. His Roth Trilogy was adapted for television as Fallen Angel. He reviews for The Times and the Spectator.
His awards include the Historical Writers Association Gold Crown for best historical novel of the year, the CWA’s Historical Dagger (three times) and the Diamond Dagger (the top British crime writing award for lifetime achievement), as well as an Edgar nomination from the Mystery Writers of America.
His novels are set in a variety of periods, from the seventeenth century onwards. He is currently at work on the sixth title of his Restoration series, which began with The Ashes of London.
In 1646, a beggar-woman with a hump on her back set out from Oatlands in Surrey. She was travelling with another woman, two men and a child. One of the men was her husband, and the child was her lively two-year-old son, Pierre. The little party walked for a hundred miles along the muddy roads ...
As so often, the setting came first. The Great Fire of London raged for four days in September 1666, destroying most of the ancient walled City, including old St Paul’s, the medieval cathedral, and more than 13,000 houses. Seventy thousand people were made homeless, from an estimated population
In the 17th century, the King’s Evil was a commonly used term for the disease of scrofula. But it was much more than a disease: it was where orthodox medicine collided with a form of magic, and where political expedience ran side by side with religious belief.The Oxford English Dictionary ...
Andrew Taylor, what prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?Apart from a series set in the 1950s, and a thriller set in the 1940s and 1950s, my first historical novel was The American Boy. This is set in Regency England. Subject and setting came together: the plot concerns the young Edgar Allan Poe’s years in England. It’s a period that has fascinated me ever since reading the novels of Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and Patrick O’Brian. As a boy, Edgar Allan Poe might have bumped into Jane Austen in a London street. When this idea occurred to me, I felt a shiver down my spine which eventually turned into a novel.What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?Before I start writing, or even planning the storyline in any detail, I tend to do a great deal of ‘broadbrush’ research. I need to know the setting, both in time and place. The details of everyday life are vital – they lend authenticity to the story. It’s not only the physical nature of the past that is important. It’s also its intangible qualities. What did people believe in, and why? What was their morality? How did the class system work? What did they think of other races? What was their world like?When I’m writing and editing the book, I do specific research as I go along. For example I might find I need to know something about contemporary treatments for TB or stomach ache for a particular chapter. Or how much it would cost to hire a horse for a day in 1784.Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?It depends which period, of course – I’ve written novels set in half a dozen! For the Great Fire of London in 1666, I’d recommend Adrian Tinniswood’s By Permission of Heaven, which is an excellent and very readable account of the Fire and its aftermath; it also gives a vivid sense of its wider context.Where I can, though, I always turn to as many contemporary sources as I can. For the 1660s, for example, we have the wonderful boon of Pepys’ Diary. And there’s much more – letters, plays, poems, etc. This is how novelists and readers can gain a sense of how people actually lived and thought.What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?See above: read contemporary sources; do your research; create a world that feels authentic rather than a colourful but implausible 21st century simulacrum of another era.Write about something you’re interested in, rather than something you think will be commercial.Don’t forget the importance of narrative: if you get that right, the reader will keep turning your pages whatever you do; and in the end that’s all that matters.If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why? My first thought was Charles II, that shrewd, lascivious, and enigmatic figure who, in his terms, was a curiously effective king. My second and wiser thought is Samuel Pepys – partly because we have a head start in knowing the man, partly because he was so endlessly curious and knowledgeable, and partly because it’s much easier for me to identify with a self-made middle-class civil servant than with a king who believes (if he believes anything) that he’s God’s Anointed.Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?Maybe the burning of Old St Paul’s Cathedral in the Great Fire of London, when six acres of molten lead fell like silver rain from the burning roof into the church, and the cracking of the masonry was like cannon fire. You could see the red glow in the sky as far away as Oxford, where the distant roaring of the flames sounded like waves breaking on a beach.Which other historical novelists do you admire?Too many to name. These are just the ones that floated to the top of today’s pile – there are many others.Among the dead, Patrick O’Brian, Rosemary Sutcliff, Alfred Duggan, Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Among the living, Iain Pears (An Instance of the Fingerpost), Hilary Mantel (A Place of Greater Safety as well as the Wolf Hall trilogy), Charles Palliser, Sarah Waters (especially The Little Stranger and the brilliant Fingersmith). Names to watch include Laura Shepherd-Robinson, S.G. Maclean and Elodie Harper. To repeat: there are many more.When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first - the protagonist, plot or history?For me, it’s usually the setting. Often I don’t know much about it beforehand. Then something hooks my interest about a particular intersection of time and place. Sometimes it’s sparked by a particular detail, for example Pepys’ first-hand account of the Great Fire, or a history of New York in the American War of Independence, which mentioned that the bodies of American prisoners-of-war were buried in the barriers shoring up the city, which was held by the British, from the river Hudson. The result was The Ashes ofLondon and The Scent of Death respectively. For me, protagonists and plot usually grow together out of the setting, all the elements feeding the others.Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?I try to write something of the current book every day. Even a sentence is better than nothing and keeps the story simmering in my mind. I keep an eye on my weekly wordcount. For me this is a more effective routine than trying to write at set hours of the day.I’ve gradually come to realise how important it is to be part of mutual support networks of other writers, both formal and informal. It’s useful for the grind of promoting our books. Even more important, perhaps, is the benefit of talking to people who understand our professional problems because they have a similar one themselves. Covid has made this much harder, but thank heavens for Zoom, Twitter, etc.Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?I’m currently writing the sixth novel in my Restoration England sequence, which began with The Ashes of London and the Great Fire.Andrew Taylor is a bestselling novelist and author of the Marwood & Lovett Restoration Series.
Andrew Taylor, with The Royal Secret you're now at 45 books (at my last count) in 39 years, not including a clutch of novellas! Is there something very special in the water where you live? What’s your secret?The easy answer is that when you write for a living you need to keep the words coming. (I always think of a reply that the far more prolific Anthony Burgess made to a similar question: ‘I wrote much because I was paid little.’)But of course there was more to it than this sordidly practical reason. I realised when I was writing my first novel, Caroline Minuscule, more than 40 years ago, that whether the book found a publisher or not I had found the thing in life I wanted to do: write stories.You clearly like writing in a series, developing characters and stories as you go. You’ve stayed in the 20th Century so far, at least until James Marwood was introduced to us in 2016. What is it about the 17th century that fascinates you?Series allow you to develop the recurring characters over time, and to build - perhaps ‘explore’ is a more accurate description - the world they inhabit.Reading accounts of the Great Fire - especially Pepys’ - inspired The Ashes of London. My original plan was to write a trilogy of three novels with the government clerk James Marwood and the aspiring architect Cat Lovett as their central characters. But the more I learn about Restoration England, its brutal politics and its cultural ferment, the more I want to find out, and the less I want to leave this fascinating world.In developing historical characters, believability is key. What do you do to enable your characters to come to life to a modern reader yet stay true to the historical context?This is one of the challenges of writing of historical fiction, which exists in the no man’s land between historical fact and the novelist’s imagination.I try to endow my characters with beliefs and lives that could plausibly belong to the period. If characters are based on real people, I keep their fictional actions within the bounds of the historical record (or at least that part of the record available to me). If they are fictional, I have much more room for manoeuvre. Sometimes I choose the possible over the probable. For example, James Marwood doesn’t think twice about slavery as a concept, which is historically probable; but he feels queasy about the reality of ‘owning’ another person when a young black boy comes to live in his household, which is a possible response from a man in his historical context.Another tactic is to avoid the temptation to insert all my research into the novel. Readers (I include myself here) want a story with credible, interesting characters, not slabs of undigested historical detail. It surprises me, however, how much of the background research seems to permeate the narrative without any conscious effort on my part. It somehow integrates itself with the story, allowing the readers to join the dots and build their own view of this world. (Fortunately readers are very good at this, and like doing it!)And then there’s dialogue as an aid to authenticity. I read a lot of Restoration literature, but the language of the period is too far removed from us to be easy to use directly in 21st-century fiction. So I base my dialogue on plain, modern English - but I allow the occasional 17th-century word or phrase or speech rhythm to creep in when the context allows it. I try to avoid clanging anachronisms.Likewise, how much do you feel that you are an historian? What do you have to do to ensure that history and geography (especially the highways and byways of 17th century London) are accurate to the historic record?I realised at the age of 15 that I was not cut out to be a historian in the scholarly sense, despite a frankly insatiable interest in the subject. But I am absurdly obsessed with trying to make sure the details are right. I browse contemporary maps, newspapers, diaries, letters and plays. I check the price of hiring a hack from a livery stable for the day or the probable layout of long-vanished buildings.As an illustration: I have just spent the last three days trying to reconcile the use of both the Gregorian and the Julian calendars with the fragmentary documentary evidence available to me, in order to construct what I think is an accurate chronology of a two-week period in a particular place. Most of my readers couldn’t care less and wouldn’t notice if I made a mistake. But I care.I think it was Hilary Mantel who suggested that historical novelists can ‘interrogate’ history in a different way from historians, by trying to inhabit the past imaginatively. That struck a chord with me.Now, to Marwood and Lovett/Hakesby. Where did the idea for this combination come from? Is the development of their relationship just something that happens intuitively, or is there a master plan?There is no master plan for Marwood and Lovett. I’m not very good at planning. At the beginning, I knew the characters would run for at least three novels, and that their relationship would often be stormy, if not downright antagonistic, and not romantic in any predictable sense. I wanted Marwood to be what we’d now call a civil servant, a sort of low-grade Pepys, struggling to survive and prosper in the Whitehall jungle. And I imagined that Cat would have been too damaged by her upbringing to envisage her future in the traditional wifely terms of the period.Since then, their relationship has evolved over the series with very little conscious help from me. They are getting to know each other, and I’m getting to know them, over a period of years. As I write this, I’ve reached the last quarter of the current book, the sixth: I’ve no idea what will happen to Cat and Marwood in the final chapter. I hope they’ll let me know when the time is right.I think you know that I’ve been a fan of your books for many years. I am a complete sucker for historical fiction, but as an historian myself I am always looking out for inadvertent howlers. How do you protect yourself from these?This question is the stuff of nightmares. I try very hard to make sure the factual details are accurate (see above) but I’m sure I make mistakes. Given time and endless resources, I’d be delighted to have a panel of expert fact-checkers at my disposal.The Royal Secret includes the Secret Treaty of Dover in 1670, one of the terms of which was Charles II would convert to Catholicism. How seriously do you think he took this?Charles II was a wily man who played his cards close to his chest. He would have known better than anyone that there would be an enormous political price to pay if he announced his conversion to Catholicism during his reign. But he did keep the promise on his deathbed when it no longer really mattered, in this world at least, and when he and everyone else knew that his heir, his brother James, was already a Catholic.My own theory is that Charles might well have been personally inclined towards Catholicism, which provided a sort of theological backbone to Stuart ideas of hierarchy and the divine right of kings. Moreover, many of those he particularly loved or admired were or had been Catholic.By nature he was a pragmatist, however, not a fanatic. In 1670, I suspect that he crossed his fingers when he agreed to the treaty, and added the proviso to himself that he would announce his conversion only when the time was right for himself and for his kingdom. On his deathbed it was.Charles’ sister, a key participant in the negotiations of the treaty, died soon after, amidst rumours of poisoning by her cruel husband. How seriously should we take these rumours?On balance I think it’s unlikely that Minette was poisoned, either by the husband or by anyone else. She had a long history of ill-health. According to Nancy Goldstone in Daughters of the Winter Queen, Minette’s symptoms can be attributed either to intestinal tuberculosis, which was then widespread in France, or to a peptic ulcer. Either of those could have led to intestinal perforation and peritonitis, which was the probable cause of her violent pains and rapid death.The autopsy, which was witnessed by both French and English observers in an atmosphere of rumour and suspicion, found no evidence of poison.With The Royal Secret we now have the fifth chapter in James and Cat’s adventures. Can you assure your fan club that they have many more scrapes to experience yet?I hope there will be more. It would be nice to reach the Glorious Revolution. And why stop there?Andrew Taylor is a bestselling novelist and author of The Royal Secret, his latest novel of the Marwood & Lovett series. Robert Lyman is a historian and author of A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma & Britain - 1941-45.Deborah Swift Deborah Swift Deborah Swift