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Ruth Downie on the journey to Rome

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I am fortunate indeed today to play host to a guest post by the marvellous Ruth Downie as part of her Blog Tour, celebrating the release of her latest masterpiece ‘Vita Brevis’. As you may be aware, I’m currently reviewing the whole series of Ruth’s books, which will continue this week with Semper Fidelis, followed by Tabula Rasa and then the new book. But that can all wait for now while I let Ruth inform and entertain you in her own words. Over to you, Ruth…

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Travelling to Rome – the long way

Medicus, the first book in the series that features legionary medic Ruso and his British partner Tilla, has this printed at the front:

O diva…

serves iturum Caesarem

in ultimos orbis Britannos.

Which roughly means,

Oh Goddess…

safeguard Caesar as he sets off

for the remotest regions of the Earth—Britain.

(Horace)

Most of the stories in the series are set in those “remotest regions:” the Wild West of the Roman empire.

“Are Ruso and Tilla going to Rome?” the editor would ask from time to time, and I would keep very quiet. Anything was better than admitting, “I don’t dare, because other writers do Rome so well.” Besides, there was plenty to write about here.

What drives the first half-dozen books is the tension between Roman and Briton, occupier and occupied—all the clashes, compromises and misunderstandings that ensue when foreign boots land on native soil. All, in some way, connected to the attempts of Ruso and Tilla to forge a life together.

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We come in peace…

Even in times of relative peace, there was plenty of drama going on in Roman Britain without me having to make it up. The sale of people into the sex trade isn’t new – it’s something Hadrian tried to restrict. The use of religion to whip up violence goes back at least as far as the Druids.  The connection between power and greed comes out in a hundred subtle ways: the official traveller who bullies the innkeeper into giving him a horse he isn’t entitled to; the tax collector who demands that payments in wheat be delivered so far away that it’s impossible to avoid paying him exorbitant fees to transport them; the town councillor who tries to vote for a contract knowing one of his relatives will rake in the profit that follows. Then there’s the casual violence of soldier on civilian, and the use of false measures, loaded dice and fake coinage, some of which is on display in the British Museum.

Add in the splendid locations on offer—Chester, York, Verulamium, Hadrian’s Wall, Roman London and a brief trip to the South of France so Tilla could shock Ruso’s family—and there didn’t seem much reason to send anyone to Italy. Besides, how would the story work without the Roman-vs-Briton tension?  I’d already painted myself into enough of a corner by giving them a baby to look after.

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Ah, the family pile…

But… there are stories you can tell in cities that don’t work as well in a rural society. Stories about slum landlords with horrible agents (at last, revenge for that gruesome student flat!). Stories about arriving as an immigrant and an outsider. Stories about vast buildings that reach up to trap the sky. Stories about watching your fellow-countrymen offered up for auction in a slave market. In a city of a million people it’s quite possible that an abandoned body could remain anonymous, whereas in Britannia it’s hard not to believe that somebody would know somebody else who knew the dead person’s cousin. And then there’s Pliny’s assertion that doctors are “sharks using medical practice to prey on people” and that “only a doctor can kill a man with impunity.”

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There’s no shortage of material. So when Ruso’s former commanding officer invited him back to Rome at the end of book six, it felt as though it was time to take the plunge. Never mind what other writers had done. Rome was a massive city, and there would be plenty for Ruso and Tilla to get their teeth into in “Vita Brevis”. Provided, of course, they could find a babysitter.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Ruth Downie is the author of the New York Times bestselling Medicus, as well as Terra Incognita, Persona Non Grata, Caveat Emptor, Semper Fidelis, and Tabula Rasa. She is married with two sons and lives in Devon.

Follow her at ruthdownie.com and on Twitter @ruthsdownie.

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Vita BREVIS

A Gaius Ruso Mystery

By Ruth Downie

22nd September 2016
hardback – £16.99

Bringing both the majesty and depravity of ancient Rome to life, Ruth Downie concocts a delicious mix of crime novel, mystery, and history lesson in the latest novel in her bestselling Medicus series, VITA BREVIS.

 “Downie writes with her usual humor and depth . . . Perfect for fans of the Falco novels by Lindsey Davis, this entertaining New York Times best-selling series and its endearing characters deserve as long a run” —Booklist

“A deftly crafted and consistently compelling read from beginning to end, ‘Vita Brevis’ clearly establishes author Ruth Downie as a consummate and accomplished master of historical crime fiction” —Midwest Book Review

*****

Ruso and Tilla’s excitement at arriving in Rome with their baby daughter is soon dulled by their discovery that the grand facades of polished marble mask an underworld of corrupt landlords and vermin-infested tenements.

Ruso finds that his predecessor Doctor Kleitos has fled, leaving a dead man in a barrel on the doorstep with the warning, ‘Be careful who you trust’. Distracted, Ruso makes a grave mistake, causing him to question his own competence and integrity.

With Ruso’s reputation under threat, he and Tilla must protect their small family by tracking down the vanished doctor – and discovering the truth behind the man in the barrel.

VITA BREVIS is brimming with humor, clever plot twists, and evocative historical details, as Ruth Downie follows her beloved characters in their next adventure.

 *****

And check out the next stop on her blog tour: A Fantastical Librarian

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And a book is born…

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From time to time, I find myself discussing methods of research, planning and writing with other literary folk, and I thought it would be interesting to try and put the whole thing down on paper (so to speak.) And here it is in all its gory. It may interest you. It may not. But it’s interested me, so there!

There are two ways I write books, and it depends on what I’m writing. Essentially, if I’m writing a Marius’ Mules novel, it begins with reading the appropriate year of Caesar’s diary and that gives me the historical events and the bare bones of a plot to work around. Essentially, MM novels are defined closely by what I can do to play with the events in Caesar’s diary, so they do not fit so well with the rest of my works.

For anything else (the Ottoman books or Tales of the Empire, for example – or other works I’m presently keeping hush about) it works like this:

  • An idea/theme/character/event piques my interest. These vary greatly. The discovery of a wonderful, strange – and hardly historically mentioned – event sparked The Thief’s Tale. The exotic Barbary pirates sparked The Priest’s Tale. The terrible effects of revenge upon its perpetrator sparked The Assassin’s Tale. Interregnum was born from a game of chess. Ironroot from the idea of a dead man solving his own murder. Dark Empress from the the idea of how divergent and truly altered friends can become, dependant upon events. Often I will worry around the subject like a wobbly tooth for a week or so and gradually the framework of a plot will evolve around it.
  • I examine the historical and geographic framework of the story, selecting any historical characters or events or real places that will impact on the plot. I will then go and purchase appropriate research materials for them, making my bank manager shed a tear and book stores buy party favours for the fourth-quarter-upturn celebration, and I will bookmark half a million websites (badly indexed, of course, so that I will only find half of them when I need to. I am not half as organised as I like to think I am…)
  • I sit down for a week with all my info and write, re-jig, plan, and then tidy it all into a single series of events, including anything historical in the appropriate position. This is the point when a pile of papers, books, websites and dictaphone notes becomes a viable story. At this point I create an extra file that contains details of the characters, locations, themes I want to bring out, and story arcs that will thread through the tale. From this point on until the book is finished, the office gradually clogs up with piles of books which periodically get tidied away only to come out the next day and block out the light from the window as they tower threateningly above me.
  • Around here (sometimes one point earlier, sometimes one later) I plan and embark upon a research trip. It is important to me to understand not only the geography and physical layout of any locations in my books. I also like to know what they smell like. What they sound like. How they feel on a hot day (or cold, rainy, etc.) How tired it makes you walking up it. I like to check the flora and fauna. While there I take a thousand photographs and make endless dictaphone notes. Anything that happens to me there almost always makes its way into the story (tripping on tree roots, getting drenched in downpours etc.) This often ends up with me taking Tracey and the kids on a 300 mile round trip so that I can walk up a small mound and photograph it from a hundred angles while I sniff a lot!
  • Another week and I will take that long text file and break it up into chapters of appropriate length, with cliff-hangers in appropriate places, making sure that I try to spread out the action, the plot reveals and the slow, deep character stuff so that there’s a little of everything in every chapter if at all possible. This is the week my wife doesn’t like because I get grumpy when I’m interrupted. As often as not this week actually ends up, rather than everything tightening, with an increase in chaos and clutter.
  • And then… I write. I try to set  myself goals. These vary depending upon circumstances, but might be a daily wordcount of 5,000, or five pages of text in 10pt arial. It might be to complete two chapters in a week. You get the idea. I will have a schedule on a calendar on my office wall. Regularly this will be tweaked depending upon how often the kids come into my office with armfuls of toys and drive cars across my keyboard. It may also be coffee-or-beer-supply dependant!
  • Each time I complete a chapter, I go back over it with a fine-toothed comb for grammar, spelling, typos and the like, but also for anything I’ve missed out, anything that’s blithely superfluous or anything that doesn’t quite fit or sound right. Since my actual book writing happens over a short time (usually less than 3 months for the first draft including by-chapter edit) I find it easy to check whether the theme, pace and plot threads are staying in line as I do these edits. Plus, this way, when it comes to the post-draft edits, half the work is already done for me. Speeds up the editing process and takes a lot of the pain out of it.
  • Also, at the end of every chapter, I run it past two proof-reading friends, who pick me up on anything they find. So I guess you could say that every chapter has had three edits  before the draft is complete.
  • Invariably, as I write I will find the plot drifting off course. Sometimes this is unhelpful and has to be put right in the chapter edits or even a full re-write if too bad. It’s just simply that I leave room for variation in my planning so that if I am hit by inspiration and epiphany as I write, I can allow it to influence the plot. You see, sometimes the accidental drift actually improves the plot. And once, in my past, it has been so good it has actually caused me to rewrite the whole chapter plan and change the ending completely! Characters have a tendency to take on a life of their own and that makes them fight their destiny, you see?
  • Some time in the last week of my schedule (which is several weeks past the original end date as it keeps getting set back and back on account of kid-based jollity) I write the word ‘Epilogue’. That is the best moment in the world. Much better than ‘The End’. Because if you’re at ‘Epilogue’ the plot is complete and all you’re doing is wrapping it up in the nice emotional part (or the dreadful unforeseen violent end part, of course.) I thoroughly enjoy this part. When you hit ‘End’ conversely, the drawn out process of editing begins, crushing the joy a little.
  • End. Bottle of something fizzy to celebrate.
  • Edit. Plus potential hangover. Now begins the process of going over the whole book, reading it as best I can as if I were a genuine reader and not the writer. I will mark whole sections that need to be changed, removed or explained with extra text. The writing gets tidied. Extra description added as necessary. Bumf gets removed. I gather that it is common practice for writers to pare down their wordcount heavily through this process. I generally find I add 10%. Ah well. Can’t have too much of a good thing, eh? 😉
  • After a major edit, I am left with pretty much the finished article. It’s had four edits by now, three during the writing and one after. I will then have a really quick last read through, checking for anything glaring.
  • Then, with a sigh of relief and a lip-bite of tension, I send the finished work to perhaps half a dozen test readers, who will undoubtedly find the odd typo or error, but mostly will point out anything that needs to be changed for the good of the story and its flow and arc. A couple of weeks will pass and I will get the results, which will resulty in another feverish week of editing.
  • And lo and behold: the book is ready.

And then begins the hard bit! For a first time, or an agent manuscript, printing, promotional stuff, letters, synopses, recommendations sought etc. For those self-published works, a cover, formatting for release, dealing with the various publishing companies etc. And then: promotion, promotion, promotion. After all, book sales are competitive. Readers can only afford to buy so many books, and while I will always direct fans to those other writers whose works enthrall me, I want to try and make sure I don’t sink to the bottom of the current release pile. 🙂

So that’s it. That and the fact that I always have the plans for at least the next half dozen books floating around in my head and/or laptop.

Hope that if you’re a budding writer this helps in some way. To be honest, it helps me no end!

As an old friend used to say: ‘see you in the funny pages…’

Written by SJAT

July 29, 2014 at 10:59 pm

Gordon Doherty – July Author Interview

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This month’s author interview is my good friend and comrade in fictitious gore, Gordon Doherty, the man behind the acclaimed Legionary and Strategos series. Gordon’s work is renowned and has been well-received in many countries, and if you’re a fan of late Rome or Byzantium, you cannot do better than delve into his work. Just have a look and judge the books by their covers! 😉

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And just to add to the joy of that, yesterday saw the release of the final tome in the Strategos trilogy, Island in the Storm. Get it HERE

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And now, on with the interview.

Your two series that have hit the shelves thus far (Legionary and Strategos) are both based in the Late Roman/Byzantine world, for all they are many centuries apart. What has drawn you so strongly to that eastern region and that complex time that it has dominated two series?

In a word; mystique. There is a certain something about the Eastern Empire and Byzantium that feels unattainable. Some buried knowledge that, no matter how many layers I sift through and peel away, will always elude me. It is a perpetual source of intrigue.
Militarily, I am fascinated by the gradual decline of the legions of old and the subsequent rise of the armies of Byzantium – the tagmata and the themata (ironically, the latter played a similar role to that performed by the early republican legions, both being soldier-farmers raised to fight in times of peril).
Culturally and politically, the empire changed drastically too, becoming an amalgam of ages recent and long past: the populace shunned Latin and spoke Greek, the Byzantine Emperors adopted the attire of and behaved in many respects like ancient Persian Kings, and the old pantheon was consigned to history as the Christian God became the empire’s new patron.
From the time of Legionary, in the 4th century AD, to the era of Strategos in the 11th century AD, the empire was compelled to adjust and adapt as the world changed around it. This, of course, could be said of the earlier Western Empire, but in that era, Rome was a burgeoning force, a rapidly expanding power, whereas the Eastern Empire of late antiquity onwards embraced change more often than not purely to survive. And it is that visceral concept of survival that inspired me to write the tales of Pavo and Apion.

How do you research your books? I know people who make heavy use of reenactment, people who walk every inch of their locations, people who research deeper than any mainstream academic, and, of course, there are people who rely heavily on imagination, it all being fiction after all. All of these seem viable routes in their own way and for their own types of work.

I’m not a reenactor, though I do have a few bits and bobs of kit, including the rather magnificent 4th century intercisa helmet, below, that has become the talisman (I tried really hard not to say ‘brand’ there) of the Legionary series. On a tough writing day, it’s nice to glance across the room and see the kit, imagine the legionaries marching to war in it . . . then try it on and pretend you’re one of them. [Gordon’s Top Tip #237: always remember to check your neighbours are not in their garden and in full view of your living room window when you’re strutting about in just your underpants and this helmet.]

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I wouldn’t say I’m an avid explorer, but I do get out and about. It particularly helps that I love the region I write about, so my regular trips abroad to Turkey and Greece are great fun and highly informative. Waking up to an Anatolian sunrise, eating fresh bread and local honey then going for a run or a walk through the burnt-gold countryside is inspirational stuff.

Overall though, I would say that the bulk of my research centres on reading the primary and secondary sources. They also usually serve as the spark for new novel ideas, prosaically (amusingly so, sometimes) unveiling some savage twist in history that sets my imagination aflame. However, I think that a novel spawned purely from historical texts could be pretty dry. So a combination of the previously mentioned factors – the first-hand experience of handling kit or travelling to historical sites – really help to breathe life into a work of fiction. For me though the ‘magic’ really comes when you add imagination to the mix.

Despite being strong, controlled and martial characters, both of your protagonists – Pavo and Apion – did not start their lives as military heroes, but as rather innocents thrown into a world for which they are perhaps not initially suited and finding a path regardless. Do you find this aspect makes the character stronger? And consequently was it a very different concept when you came to write the sequels and the characters had grown into their military roles?

Stronger? I’ll let the readers be the judge of that . I’d say that their difficult beginnings make them easier to write about. This might sound like the strapline for the latest novel from the Twilight Universe (“A teenager who didn’t fit in . . . ”) but I can empathise with the feeling of being swept along by life, finding yourself in awkward places and rather crap circumstances. It’s not a unique concept, but both Pavo and Apion face some pretty brutal episodes early on, and from there, it’s up to them as to how they handle it: their choices make them who they are.
Once a character has ‘come of age’ and found their place in martial life, it certainly is a different prospect to write of them again. Apion, for example, is a very different man between books 1 and 2 in the Strategos series. By the time of ‘Rise of the Golden Heart’, twelve years have passed and he has little of the emotional fragility he suffered as a boy. No longer could I have him frozen by acute fear or doubt – or at least I certainly couldn’t have him letting the armies he led see this. I really had to work hard to change my perception of him for that book.

Your books are solidly rooted in the physical world, and yet there is a necessary leaning toward the religious, given that both of your series revolve around a Christianised Empire fighting strange, pagan enemies with old Gods and beliefs. Strategos even dips heavily into mystical overtones. Do you feel that a little religious context and mysticism adds something to a peek into past times?

Absolutely. The transition to Christianity and the slow death of the old pagan gods presents an irresistible crucible for tension all across the Roman world. In Legionary, Pavo and the men of the XI Claudia are stationed on the empire’s borders, where they practice Mithraism (a cult thought to be loosely based on a Zoroastrian deity, Mithra). Mithraism was the cult of the border legions for many years – well into the 5th century – after the inner empire and the major population centres had long eschewed pagan worship in favour of Christianity. I can only imagine how they felt, standing on the edge of the Roman world, facing barbarian hordes, defending an empire that had shunned their faith.
Then, as the Eastern Roman Empire morphed into what we now call the Byzantine Empire, the pagan gods were left behind for good. It became God’s realm, and the people saw it as God’s vision of Heaven recreated on Earth. There was no concept of a holy war, only because there was no other type of war to require the definition. Soldiers marched to battle only if they believed it was to protect God’s Empire. This absolute mindset might seem foreign to us in the present day, but it was the cornerstone of Byzantine life. In fact I’d readily admit that I have kept the religious aspect of my books relatively light simply because I think it would be almost impossible to authentically convey the dominance of religious thought in those times.
Mysticism really comes to the fore in the Strategos series, and has a vital part to play when Apion, a staunch Christian at the outset of the trilogy, loses his faith. One can only wonder what kind of crutch a man might fall back on in a world where, unlike today, there was no alternative to religion.

If a reader asked me ‘Why should I buy Gordon’s books? What’s different about them? What’s the hook?’ I know what I’d say. What would you say to that?

Because they are ace! Better than a crème egg that is unexpectedly chocolate the whole way through!
Seriously though, I won’t claim there is one ‘silver bullet’ factor that makes my books different. I think it’s all in the blend: my style of writing, my (at times unhealthy) fascination with the underdog and my overactive imagination.
I aim to tell stories that will hook you from the off, whisk you into the past, thrill you throughout, neither bore you with too much history nor neglect it. I target adventure, action and intrigue in equal measure. And you’ll get some rather mucky dying as well (Quote from GoodReads on one character’s demise: “Urgh – that was rank. It put me off my tea!”).
But most of all, I try to take you to my character’s side. Long after you’ve finished reading, I want you to remember Pavo and Apion, their comrades and the choices that made them who they were. I want you to remember the march to war, the campfire where the legionaries were bantering on the eve of a battle in which they knew most would fall, the front line where they stood side by side with you, moments from clashing blades with the onrushing enemy. That, in a nutshell, is why I started writing: so I could commit my imagination to paper, live out the adventure, bring together and build upon the flashing thoughts and ideas and create a world in which they could thrive.

Simon says: My two penneth, incidentally, is that Gordon’s books are unrelenting, action packed and breackneck in pace. You will never experience a lull or ennui in the process.

Both of your protagonists so far are very much a ‘civilized force’ in a world of chaos and barbarism. Given that you have become somewhat noted for the brutality and savagery of your bad guys and the scenes of violence they instigate, are you not tempted to write a tale from that point of view? An antihero series in which civilization is the enemy?

Tempted? Yes, definitely. It would make perfect sense for me to do this, given my aforementioned love of the underdog. In fact there might well be a project coming up where the protagonist’s roots are firmly planted outside of the ‘civilized’ world. It would require a huge shift in perspective, but yes, I would wager that this will happen at some point.
Regardless of the protagonist’s origins in any such tale, I can guarantee you this: there will be brutal, violent savagery on both sides

In movies, the creator often gets to release a director’s cut and tweak things after release. Authors get no such option. Have you ever written a scene that you wish you’d done another way? That you think was too violent, or too tense, or too languid (or of course not violent enough!)

I always re-read the previous books in a series before working on the next volume, and the pattern is usually the same: I scan a certain line or scene a couple of times, scratch my head and wonder something like: ‘Why on Earth didn’t I make that guy fall into a ravine and have his eyes pecked out by vultures?’
I think it’s natural as I develop as a writer to consider things I wrote last week, last month or last year and wish I had written them differently, but I could drive myself mad if I thought about it too much. If you ever write the perfect novel, then, effectively . . . you’re done. Where do you go from there? How can you top perfection? Also, there’s no guarantee that a seemingly ‘perfect’ tweak will actually improve things: I always remember in English class at high school when I got an A for a short story (a low key tale involving a time machine and Armageddon if I recall correctly). The teacher said I was a hair’s breadth from an A+, so I went off and rewrote parts of it, tried to vamp it up, resubmitted it . . . and got a B!
So when I look back on my existing books and have thoughts on how I could have made an emotional scene more poignant, a battle scene more frantic, or a villain’s end more gruesome, I just smile and store those ideas for the future. When they have had a chance to mature, I’m sure they’ll stand me in good stead for some new project (so the bloke about to stop for the night and have his dinner by the nice, friendly-looking ravine had better beware!).

I have noted that in the Strategos series, there is a great deal of ‘blurring of the lines’ between good guys and bad guys. It would obviously be easy to label the Byzantines as good and the Seljuks as bad from the protagonist’s point of view (something that might be applied to the Legionary series), and yet you have created a complex background in which it is at least as easy to sympathise with the Seljuks as the ‘Roman west’. Do you deliberately try to show the humanity (and lack thereof) on both sides?

Strategos started as a look at the lives of ordinary people caught between two great, warring empires. I always envisioned some of the core characters, particularly in the first volume ‘Born in the Borderlands’ to be non-partisan. Indeed, Mansur – Apion’s Seljuk mentor – is the epitome of this: a Seljuk living in Byzantine lands, a man who has shunned his faith, a man who tries to lead the life of a pacifist despite the brutality going on all around him. I did have a notion of the Seljuk Sultans being something of the enemies/villains of the piece, but not far from the outset, I realised I couldn’t bring myself to represent them as such without the tale becoming both trite and unfaithful to history. Yes, there were some grim individuals in the Seljuk armies and courts, but also many noble men. Equally, Byzantium’s courts and lands had a delicate balance of good and foul people. Thus, the notion of blurring the lines blossomed naturally to cover not just the core characters, but the entire world of Strategos. It’s a tale of people, some bad, few good, and many somewhere in between.

What are you reading at present?

I’ve just finished David Drake’s ‘Belisarius: Thunder at Dawn’. It’s a fascinating alternative history of the Byzantine general’s adventures. It is more than a tad overwritten, but beautifully so (if that makes sense). So, to counterbalance that with something more pacy, I’ve just started ‘The Lost Ark’ by J.R. Rain, an adventure novel about a quest to find Noah’s Ark. The reviews said it was hugely cheesy and a bit ‘Indiana Jones’. It is both. And it is cracking fun too!

And finally, can you give us any clues or hints as to what your next project is? Strategos III is your current new release, and I gather it is to be the final part of the series, so what we can hope to see on the shelves in the next few years? (note for G: I think it would be best to look further ahead than our joint project and gloss over that)

‘Strategos: Island in the Storm’ is indeed the end to the trilogy. The likelihood is that the next two years will see me working on Legionary 4 & 5, and a covert joint project with a certain Mr Turney.
After that, I have a shortlist of what to tackle next. I have taken advice from my agent over what would be ‘box office’ and from friendly readers who have pitched ideas to me. I also have my own personal cravings as to what part of history I should immerse myself in next*.
There’s a chance I might be staying in the late Roman Empire, a possibility that I’ll be moving west from my beloved Byzantium and there’s a prospect that I’ll be shooting back through time into the Bronze Age. There’s also a slim chance that I might try my hand outside historical fiction too.
Having spent the last three or four years writing for a living, I know how much time and emotional investment goes into creating a novel and the world and characters that go with it. I’d hate to spend either unwisely, so my choice will be crucial.

*And I have midlife crisis notions of buying a campervan and going off to explore the world for a few years, but that’s not what readers want to hear 😉

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So all that remains is for me to send you off to buy Gordon’s books, which you should so clearly already have done, and to say thank you to him for his time and insight in this interview.

Gordon’s website

Gordon on Facebook

Gordon on Twitter

Gordon on Amazon

Next blog up: Angus Donald’s Iron Castle

Written by SJAT

July 9, 2014 at 9:00 am

May Author Interview: Paul Fraser Collard

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Starting  today, I will be interviewing an author on the 1st of each month, and I am absolutely delighted to say that my interviews begin this morning with Paul Fraser Collard, author of the excellent Jack Lark series.

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A lover of history and the military, Paul debuted as an author with the superb ‘The Scarlet Thief’ in May of last year, and followed quickly upon that with a  sequel ‘The Maharajah’s General’ in November. The Scarlet Thief made it into my top ten reads of 2013, and the sequel will probably do the same this year (read it in January.) Links of my reviews, purchase sites and more will follow at the end but for now it is my pleasure to pick Paul’s brain. Sit back and enjoy…

What inspired you to write historical fiction, and the eras you write in particular? Also what other authors’ works have influenced you?

I loved history as a child but it was not until I discovered the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell that I really started to read historical fiction. The first one I read was Sharpe’s Honour and I simply devoured it. I cannot think of any other book that captured my imagination in the same way and from there I was inspired to find out more about these men who fought in the red coats. Around the same time I saw Zulu for first time and I was hooked.

I have read every book Bernard Cornwell has ever written and I still think he is head and shoulders above every other writer of historical fiction. The day when my agent, Dave Headley, told me that Bernard Cornwell had provided a quote for the cover of The Scarlet Thief is far and away the pinnacle of my writing career to date!

When I sat down to give writing a go there really was no other type of novel that I could even imagine starting. It just had to be redcoats. The Crimean War seemed to be rather an unknown series of events and it seemed ripe for a new writer and a character like Jack Lark to start their adventures.

Your protagonist in the first two novels, Jack Lark, is one of those loveable rogues, like Han Solo or Jack Sparrow, or Spike from Buffy. Those types of character are renowned as hard to write well, so that they are not dislikeable. How difficult was it keeping Jack in that narrow band between ‘safe’ and ‘dislikable’?

To be honest I didn’t worry too much about making Jack likeable or not. I had a firm idea of exactly who he was going to be and I was determined that he would be his own man. For better or worse, he was going to be Jack Lark and no one else!

I did know that if Jack was going to take centre stage in a long-running series of novels then he had to be an incredibly strong character. I spent an age working on him before I had even finalised the details of where he would start his adventures. I was certain that he had to capture my readers’ imagination enough to bring them back for more. I hope (I still hope!) that I can create each book in such a way that my readers can never be sure where Jack will turn up next and what challenges he will face when he gets there. As I am not tied to a regiment, a campaign or even to a single war, I can take Jack all over the Victorian world and, as he is a rogue, he can take on a role and a life that I could never have created if he was a more traditional fellow.

How do you research your books? I know people who make heavy use of reenactment, and people who walk every inch of their locations, and people who research deeper than any mainstream academic. And, of course, there are people who make things up, it all being fiction after all. All of these seem viable routes in their own way and for their own types of work.

You are right that these are all viable routes and I am a strong believer that in writing there is no “right” way of doing things; there is just “your” way.

I am definitely an armchair writer and for my research I rely heavily on books and on the Internet. I start any research by reading some very general overviews of the period or the event that I am covering so that I can work out the sequence of events and the main players involved. From there I try to find as many primary sources as I can and this is where the Internet is so fantastic. I doubt I would ever be able to find as many old publications had not so many of them been digitised. There is a great thrill in searching online and discovering a first hand account of the events I am writing about. It is the experiences of the people who were there that really add the detail about what it was really like; from what the weather was like, to what people were talking and thinking about.

I start to write all of this information into a story plan so that I know exactly what goes where. It is only then that I start to weave Jack into these events, plotting his story against the backdrop of the actual things that happened. All of this research finishes up as a 30-40,000-word story plan that I break down into rough chapters and sequences. Then all I have to do is work my way through, fleshing this outline plan out into the full story. Simples!

Given that your main character relies heavily upon deceit and subterfuge to survive and is now a past master at assumed identities, how difficult is it to find a new angle to attack his particular traits and tendencies without seeming stale? I wondered how a second book for Jack could possibly be anything other than a broad repeat of the first, and yet it was thoroughly fresh and different.

I decided early on that Jack would be an imposter. I was fascinated by the tale of Percy Toplis, a rogue and a charlatan who spent a lot of time masquerading as an officer during the First World War. It seemed such a fabulous way of taking a character on a rollercoaster of a journey that I knew I had to make it central to the plot.

However, I am very aware that if the series became just a procession of new identities that happen to be left lying around easily to hand just when Jack needs them, then it would not last very long as I imagine any readers would be put off by such a trite approach. So I have plans for Jack that will see him pulled in all sorts of directions but which do not rely on him simply stealing identity after identity. I will not reveal how I plan to do that. You will need to keep reading the series to find out!

If you could live in any time period and location, which would you choose? And as a counterpart to that, what historical character would you most like to meet and talk to?

I can think of a hundred periods that I would like to experience but only if I was rich! It seems to me that the best experiences in the past were only available to those born with a silver spoon in their mouths (something that the young Mr Lark finds so very frustrating too!) I know that my own ancestors were almost entirely farm labourers and as romantic as that occasionally sounds I am not sure I could handle working so hard!

If a reader asked me ‘Why should I buy Paul’s books? What’s different about them? What’s the hook?’ I know what I’d say. What would you say to that? 

I would have to say that Jack sits at the very heart my books. No matter how well I tell the history, no matter which fascinating backdrop I set the story against, my series will live or die on the success of Jack as a character. I like to think he is unique and although I am sure he shares traits with many other fine protagonists I will try incredibly hard to make sure he is always his own man.

The other key feature of the Jack Lark series is that each book will be set against new events. I will never plod through a single campaign but will flit from country to country, even from continent to continent! I want readers to wonder where the next Jack Lark novel will be set and to be intrigued when they find out that he makes it to Persia, or to India or even to America.

Oh and then there are the battle scenes! I love writing battle sequences and I want them to really grab a reader by the throat. I promise that every book will be full of them!

* For reference, my own thoughts on this are that Paul’s novels are the perfect mix of action, humour, danger, history and intrigue. They hit the spot on numerous levels at once, while being set in little-used milieu, so that they feel refreshing. *

Time for the obvious question, I guess. If your books were ever optioned as a movie or series, who would you like to see play Jack Lark? I’m sure a name must have crossed your mind at some point.

I’m not very good at answering this question, as I cannot think of anyone who matches my mental picture of Jack. I do know I would like to find out! So if anyone reading this wants to make my books into a film or TV series then I will be ready to come to the casting to see who gets the part!

How would you describe your process as a writer? I know people who have every last crease in a supporting character’s face documented and his entire family back four generations to make sure they don’t miss anything. I know people who are intuitive writers and don’t truly know how the book will end until they get there. I know people who write carefully with lovely fountain pens on pads and then later transcribe and I know others, who hammer at the keyboard whenever their distractions leave them alone for a minute. How do you work?

Well, either fortunately, or unfortunately, I am still just a part-time writer. Working 50-60 hour weeks really cramps my writing time! So I have to work where and when I can and the vast majority of my writing is done on the train to and from work. Writing novels on a train can be a little challenging but it does make me very disciplined at simply sitting down and getting on with it and making the most of every single minute that I can find. I simply don’t have time to plan each session in great detail or to agonise over what I am going to write. I find a seat (not always easy!) and then hammer away. On a good day the writing gushes out of me but even on the days when every word feels like it is being ground out I still plough on knowing that I can always re-work and improve it later.

In movies, the creator often gets to release a director’s cut and tweak things after release. Authors get no such option. Have you ever written a scene that you wish you’d done another way? That you think was too violent, or too tense, or too languid (or of course not violent enough!)

This is definitely something that I refuse to let myself think about. I find it difficult to go back and read either The Scarlet Thief or The Maharajah’s General as I always see bits that I would now do differently. I try to accept that my writing ability and taste is changing as I go along and so I try to be proud of what I have done without agonising about how I could now do it so much better.

I would say there are bits from The Scarlet Thief that I wish hadn’t been cut! There are a few scenes still sitting quietly on my hard drive that I may just recycle at some point!

What are you reading at present?

I am currently reading all sorts of books about World War Two, from fiction to non-fiction. I love Ospreys (from any period) and have half-a-dozen on my desk at home waiting for me to dip in and out of in the coming weeks. I am also completely fascinated by the Forgotten Voices series that was put together by the Imperial War Museum and which record the stories of the men and women who fought in the Second World War. I think that these are utterly compelling reading and I find them nearly impossible to put down.

One of the downsides of being a writer is that I now don’t have a lot of time to read fiction. My to-be-read pile is now huge and I cannot wait for my next holiday so I can start to make a dent in it. I am also quite obsessed with apocalyptic fiction and my son and I are working our way through the entire series of The Walking Dead graphic novels. There is nothing better than a zombie apocalypse for a last thing at night read!

And finally, can you give us any clues or hints as to what your next project is? What we can hope to see on the shelves in the next few years?

I have so much that I want to do; there are just not enough hours in the day! I am working on more Jack Lark novels alongside some short stories set before The Scarlet Thief. I don’t want to jinx anything so I won’t reveal more about any of these for the moment but I hope to be able to soon! All I will say is that there are plenty more Jack Lark adventures to come.

I have also embarked on another series, this time one set in World War Two. The first novel is now on its second draft and the project has my agent’s backing which is incredibly exciting. I have quite a lot to do, including working through some fantastic suggestions from the brave souls happy to help me out by reading my work at the first draft stage (thank you Robin and Jamie!) I am having a blast writing it and I am really looking forward to seeing if this one will make it anywhere.

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My huge thanks to Paul for taking the time to answer my questions and enlighten us as to what makes him tick as a writer. I cannot think of a better author to have kicked off the interviews. If you have not read his novels, I seriously urge you to go pick one up and get started. Shuffle it to the top of your list.

Visit Paul’s website here, follow him on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. Then check these out:

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The Scarlet Thief (Jack Lark 1) available at Amazon and all good stores, and read my review here.

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The Maharajah’s General (Jack Lark 2) available at Amazon and all good stores, and read my review here.

All that remains is to say once more a huge thank you to Paul Fraser Collard and to look forward to his next work. In the meantime, go buy, catch up and enjoy the adventures of Jack Lark.

My writing has a process?

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I was invited by the lovely and talented Prue Batten to take part in a writing process blog tour. For any of you who’ve not listened to me blather at great length about Prue before, you might like to check out her work: the fay fantasy Chronicles of Eirie and the medieval Gisborne saga. Her words are like silk. They are like a fine wine. They are beautiful. Check out Prue’s writing process here: Am I Unique?

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The tour requires that I answer several questions, and I find them to be sharp, complex ones on the whole, but we start with the easy one:

1. What am I working on?

And yet even that is far from simple. You see unlike most writers, who are sensible and logical and not clearly barking like me, I am apparently unable to concentrate on one project at a time. My imagination constantly runs riot and hurls thoughts at me that begin with phrases like ‘But what if…’ or ‘And what about…’ and I find myself branching out and adding another tandem project to my roster. And so… what am I working on?

Well, the simple one is The Assassin’s Tale, which will be released in less than 2 months. This is the third book in the Ottoman Cycle, following the adventures of Skiouros, a Greek former thief at the end of the Fifteenth century as he journeys around the Mediterranean on a quest for vengeance. For those of you who’ve read The Thief’s Tale and The Priest’s Tale, you might be interested to hear that the action here moves from Spain to Italy in the hunt for the exiled Turk.

But then there’s another project. A secret project. Shhhhh! No details, hints or teasers for you here, I’m afraid, but this is a project that is taking place intermittently between the others, alongside the talented Gordon Doherty. Yes we are working together on something, and I love it. 🙂 News on that will follow in due course.

And then there’s the OTHER project! This third one is a joint project with the superb Dave Slaney, the man who has designed most of my book covers and done other wonderful sterling illustrations here and there. Dave and I have joined forces to create a childrens’ book based on the Roman military, with my story and Dave’s amazing images. Having seen some of the early sketches, I can only say it’s going to be a belter of a book! 🙂

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2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm. ‘Which genre?’ I would have to ask. I’m mostly known for writing in the Republican Roman era, but I’ve also written Roman principate stuff, 15th century Turkish/Byzantine, epic fantasy with a classical feel, a few contemporary short stories, and so on…

I suppose, then, that I simply have to try and answer ‘what is different about my work?’ Probably nothing is my answer. After all, such a question can only reasonably be answered by the readers. I can tell you what I think might be different, or perhaps what I hope is different:

I think I hit a nice mix. I have a tendency towards graphic violence in my work (hard not to when dealing with ancient warfare) but I think it is tempered by my general avoidance of sexual content beyond suggestion, my sparsity with bad language and the general idea that my books are suitable for all ages, so long as they don’t mind a bit of blood & guts. They’re also tempered with a bit of humour. I do feel that Historical Fiction is often lacking a sense of humour, and I like a little lightness of mood in my work.

Is that a good answer? I’m afraid it’s the best I have. 🙂

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3. Why do I write what I do?

Ye Gods! Because I love it. Anyone who reads this blog will be aware of what I read from my book reviews. If you note the sort of books I read, you’ll be left in no doubt as to why I write what I do. I am inspired to ever greater heights by people like Guy Gavriel Kay, Manda Scott, Anthony Riches, Ben Kane, Angus Donald, Giles Kristian, Doug Jackson and so many, many more. And, of course, I am obsessive over ancient history. I cannot spend enough hours wandering among ruins or visiting the most far-flung and exciting archaeological sites. And when I’m not visiting, writing, or reading other people’s novels, I am reading non-fiction. Incidentally, in that regard check back early next week for a mega-review of one of the giants of Roman non-fiction, Mike (MC) Bishop.

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4. How does my writing process work?

Ha. Like a gaudily-painted runaway steamroller!

Actually, I start with an idea, often based upon a specific tiny event. These are usually unknowns, such as the event at the heart of the Thief’s Tale (no spoilers.) Equally often it is because I just want to write about a certain place that fills me with awe, or a character who fascinates me.

ThenI pick a concept. A theme. Brotherly strife. Irreconcilable political divides. Civil war. And then build a plot based around the concept and the hook. It rarely takes long. Terry Pratchett in his Discworld novels explained the concept that inspiration sleeted through the universe like shooting stars. Most people get pelted occasionally, but the really lucky (unlucky) ones get battered by them like a soggy cardboard box left out in a rainstorm. I am the latter. If I wrote every hour the Gods sent and subcontracted to four people I would still end up with ideas backing up!

Once I have my basic plot, I write it out, change it, tweak it, alter it, hate it, change it, rewrite it, bin it, start it, alter it, write it out, spill coffee on it, change it, give up on it and eat cake, have a beer, have an epiphany, have another beer, and then at 2am with a mad glint in my eye, I have the story.

The I break the plot down int0 sections, and then into subsections and turn it into a chapter plan. Then I assign a rough word count to each part based on its content.

Then… I drink several coffees, crank up the volume on a little Pink Floyd or Anathema in my office and…. WE’RE OFF!

I write each chapter and – I know this is unique to me, so here’s a helpful hint – at the end of every chapter I run a close edit of that chapter. Then, periodically, I go back when I reach critical moments and run another edit. I also have grammar nazi’s running edits for me throughout. Then, when I’ve finished it, I have one final edit and then send it out to a few trusted test readers. Then it’s a last edit based on their findings, and then it’s ready.

Tales of Ancient Rome

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Ok folks. I’ve given you an insight into the randomness and craziness that is my process. Now, the next part of this tour I am supposed to recruit 3 others to pass on the torch to. However, due to time constraints and the fact that I was abroad for a chunk of the planning of this, two of the people I have asked simply did not have time to take part. I can sympathise with that, in truth. But I have managed to secure for you two more writers to investigate. Go check out their blogs now and watch for their own responses on Monday.

ELAINE MOXON:

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Elaine Moxon is a Birmingham-based Historical Fiction writer and former Holistic Therapist. Her grandfather’s tales of his youthful adventures in rural Italy gave her a love of storytelling, inspiring her to write from an early age. She has a passion for languages, travel, art and history, her favourite eras predominantly the Saxon and Viking ages. She has contributed articles, short stories and poetry to online magazines ‘Birmingham Favourites’ and ‘Crumpets & Tea’. Her Grime-Noir Thriller short film ‘Deception’, produced and directed by Lightweaver Productions, has been nominated for the 2014 American Online Film Awards in New York. She is also a frequent speaker at Letocetum Roman Museum in Wall, Staffordshire, giving historical talks and readings from her forthcoming debut novel.

On a personal note, I have read a large chunk of Elaine’s forthcoming Saxon epic, and it’s a tale with style and oomph. I look forward to the full thing, and I urge you to keep an eye on her. Her responses to these prying questions will go live on Monday 14th on her blog at: http://elainemoxon.blogspot.co.uk/

 

aaaaaannnnnddddd….

A J (ANTHONY) ARMITT

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A fab fella, engaging writer and sometime partner in crime of mine, here’s Tony’s bio in his own words:

‘I live in Manchester, England with my wife, three kids and two cats. In our household hierarchy, I figure just beneath the felines.

On moonlit nights I can be found looking under the bed or checking the back seat of my car. I have an over-active imagination.

I write dark, twisted fiction, and have an irrational fear of zombies, and, thanks to Stephen Spielberg, I’m also terrified of sharks. My biggest fear would have to be zombie-sharks. (Damn that over-active imagination!)

My first book ‘Entwined – Tales from the City’ has been the #1 bestselling horror anthology on numerous occasions. I hope the follow up book ‘Entwined – Tales from the Village’ will do equally as well when I finally get around to finishing it.’

… Tony is a man with a cruel, vivid, stunning imagination and when he puts his tales into words they will shock and thrill you. Look his work up on Amazon, including his many contributions to the ‘Inkslinger’ compilations from which the funds go to charity. Tony’s responses will also be up on Monday 14th, and his blog can be found here: http://ajarmitt.blogspot.co.uk/

Written by SJAT

April 11, 2014 at 8:00 am