I write stories set in exciting periods of history, in places and times where emotions run at their highest. These are periods of great change, uprisings and wars, in which the characters find themselves embroiled. I want my readers to feel as if they are going on a trip to a strange and different place. Today, you can book a trip to just about anywhere in the world and be there inside 24 hours, but my books take you to places you can't go, places that have vanished forever - the worlds of the past.
The only way I can take you there is to create an alternate reality that is satisfyingly authentic. I feel I've succeeded if the world I've described is all-consuming, and that you are sorry to leave when come to the end of the book. I felt like this when I read James Clavell's "Shogun." What impressed me most was how mindful he was of his readers' pleasure. He really was a writer who wrote for his readers, and I was determined to do the same.
My hope is always to write about dramatic circumstances that have arisen in history, and to make them as factually correct as possible. This means that my books can take many months to put together because you can’t write about the opulence of Peking's Forbidden City in the 19th Century, or describe Queen Elizabeth I's court unless you know a great deal about it. Many of my readers are experts in these fields and sometimes they write to me to congratulate me, which is gratifying, or to point out an error, which is also gratifying, but in a different way!
Research has got a lot easier with the arrival of the internet, but you don't get much detail on Wikipedia. Fortunately I have an extensive library of research material, collected over the years. I search out histories and biographies in second-hand bookshops, and I visit the places where my books are set and take notes, photos and even video footage. But its the people who fire my imagination. Some individuals accomplish amazing feats, feats that seem incredible and that simply humble the rest of us. As the excellent Mr. Tom Lehrer once put it. "It's a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age, he'd been dead two years." Never forget that the truth is stranger than fiction. This can pose difficulties for a writer of fiction, historical or otherwise, because the contract between reader and writer is one of belief: the reader agrees to suspend his or her disbelief, and the writer agrees not to strain it too hard. But how to handle situations that are literally incredible? If you report things as they actually happened, the reader will often put the book down saying, "That's way too far-fetched." So the writer has to find a way to convince, and that's a skill long in the learning.
When I decide to write about a particular piece of history, I start to read widely around the topic, then I'll write an outline of the story I want to tell. After that, I'll research again, this time more closely to the tale. I like to write about people who were extraordinary in some way, mavericks usually, and sometimes difficult personalities, but people who made a difference to how things turned out. Frederick T. Ward in my novel Barbarians was just one of those people. He was a Salem Yankee who happened to be living in Shanghai at the time of the Taiping Rebellion. Now, not many readers have heard of that war, even though more people died because of it than died in the First World War. This was because it happened at the same time as the American Civil War and the Crimean War, so it garnered comparatively few column-inches in the U.S. or Europe. Ward was an extraordinary man whose actions changed history, and I wanted his personality to come across strongly. Then there was Yehonala. At the age of 16, she was chosen as a concubine for the emperor, Hsien-feng. At the start of Barbarians, she has progressed to the title of Empress of the Western Palace amid the scheming and intrigue of the Celestial Realm, and she is giving birth to her first child ...
My latest book, Death Valley Scotty – which will be launched on 1st October, is set in California in the early 20th Century – which could not be much more different to Barbarians! Walter E. Scott -- Scotty to his friends -- was passing through Death Valley, California, when he happened upon a dead man. Beside the corpse was a dog dying of thirst, and in the man's pocket was a piece of rock glittering with pure gold ... I approached Death Valley Scotty in a very different way. It is a much shorter novel and written in a style which is more fitting to the subject. The story follows the life of a loveable rogue through more ups and downs than you'll find in the Sierra Nevada. See how his luck changes as his plans start to unravel. Follow him as he works himself out of yet another tight corner and stays one step ahead of the law. Who knows what will happen next? "Death Valley Scotty" is reminiscent of "True Grit." It has the uplift of "It’s a Wonderful Life."
The principal characters in my books can be actual or fictional. My goal is to write about them in such a way that the reader can't tell which was real and which is not. It's up to the writer to know the world of his novel as well as God knows this one, for in a way the writer is a sort of god.
I'm a student of human nature and a keen observer of human behavior, mainly because I want the characters who inhabit my books to be as real as you or I, and that's impossible without a certain amount of psychological insight. It's also important that the reader cares what happens to them, so it helps to make a central character reasonably likeable. In my novel Armada, which was set in Tudor England and Spanish Mexico, in certain regards I based the character of Sir Francis Drake on the Captain of the England cricket team. Why? Because Mike Gatting came across as a competent and uncompromising leader. Sometimes, I observe traits in people I know or I hear someone talking in the street, or I see something on the TV and I store it away for future use. It always helps for a writer to carry a small notebook around!
It also helps that I've always had a love of travel, and so have first-hand experience of my settings. After college, my first proper job was working for a Texan oilfield services company, and apart from spending time in West Texas (which I enjoyed tremendously), and in other parts of the U.S., I've worked in the Middle East and Africa and experienced tough, exciting and sometimes horrible situations. I've also travelled widely across Asia, the Far East and Europe - fifty-nine countries at the last count. Hard work, but someone has to do it!
There is a sexual divide in the reading of historical fiction, but I aim to write books that appeal to both men and women. A love story set in hard times, especially a time of war, has heightened tension. Nobody hates war more than a seasoned soldier, regardless of rank, because war is unpleasant and those close to it find that out very quickly. But war does create the conditions in which emotions run at their highest. Barbarians is set in Shanghai in the mid-19th Century in an extraordinary period in Chinese history, and follows the exploits of two real-life figures, one an Englishman and the other an American, in Shanghai, while the politics of the Manchu court are centered upon the Yehonala, who rose from concubine to become an all-powerful empress who was eventually to become known as "the Queen Victoria of China."
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As a child I lived in Sydney, Australia. I was twelve when we returned to England aboard the P&O liner Orcades. I studied Astrophysics at Newcastle University - the famous font of knowledge for students who like to drink! I loved Newcastle from the moment I arrived. I loved the university, loved the city and I especially loved the Geordies. I was reading a lot of science fiction – and began to write my own stories and launched the university's first science fiction society.
After that I worked in oil industry in the USA, and was posted to parts of the Middle East and into the war-torn heart of Africa. It was both dangerous and well-paid. More than once I came close to being killed - and plenty of good men I knew never came home. I went to some very remote places like the Rub al Khali and the Congo, and I saw things most people don't see, or ever want to.
I travelled a lot in my 20's, visiting dozens of different countries. I travelled to East Berlin and Warsaw, then on to Moscow and Leningrad during the reign of Czar Brezhnev. Shortly afterwards I took the Trans-Siberian railway to Japan. I worked in Hong Kong and entered China proper as part of a project to develop that country's communications with the outside world following the hand-over. I took tea with the heir of the last king of Upper Burma near Mandalay, and on the road to Everest base camp I just happened to run into Sir Edmund Hillary. After travelling around most of India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia , I returned home and got a job with the BBC. Then after about four years, I felt it was time to follow my ambitions and I left the BBC to write.
I have had four historical novels published as print books: Armada, Talwar, Courage and Barbarians and these are all available as e-books. I also have three mythic history/fantasy novels: The Language of Stones, Giants’ Dance and Whitemantle which are also available as ebooks. I am now working on a new material and will be publishing from time to time.