I was born in Glasgow in 1968, and I’m an archaeologist by profession: I currently work for a medium-sized commercial archaeology unit in the West of Scotland. I started out as a prehistorian – my Ph.D. research was on the Later Bronze Age metalwork hoards of south-east England – but these days my work is much more eclectic, including all sorts of things including historic building surveys and industrial archaeology. That’s certainly not what I anticipated when I graduated from uni!
As a reader, and to some extent as a writer, I was always interested in science fiction. I wrote a lot of Star Wars fan-literature as relaxation during my student years, but I knew at the time that I was serving an apprenticeship and that sooner or later I’d start writing ‘proper’ (if that’s the right way of putting it!) fiction when I felt ready to move on.
My first literary success was with a science fiction short story called ‘Busman’s Holiday.’ Set in a fictional 21st century independent Scotland, it was inspired by pre-Roman Iron Age society, in which I replaced the warrior elite with a bus-driver elite. The concept must have worked, because it won the Glasgow Herald/Albacon New Writing in SF competition in the late 1980s and has since been reprinted 4 times.
When I’m not writing, I enjoy horse-riding, cycling and gardening, and I’m a big fan of the Lake District, where I indulge in a spot of ‘Wainwright-bagging’ from time to time. I also enjoy exploring historic buildings and ancient monuments.
Why did you choose to write historical fiction?
It all started out as a bit of fun. I’d never really had much interest in the genre, though I’d been fond of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books as a kid. But as I was just coming to the end of a temporary contract with a local authority archaeology service my then-boss said, “The only way you’ll ever make a decent living from the past is by writing historical fiction, like Nigel Tranter.” So I replied with, “Alright. I will.”
We were, of course, both joking. But I was looking for a new writing project, so I started reading examples of the genre. Naturally, I was most interested in historical fiction set in the west of Scotland (where I lived and worked), and soon I found myself getting increasingly frustrated because I felt the standard fare didn’t properly convey the past as I knew and loved it. I wanted something lived-in, and active (as opposed to passive): I’d been trained in post-processual archaeology, and that I think created different expectations as to what the presentation and interpretation of the past should be about. This school of thought stresses the importance of human agency in the past – human beings act upon the natural and cultural world around them, and in doing so they shape it, while at the same time they are being shaped by it. I found this sense of agency lacking – a lot of narratives feature characters swept along by history, but these characters don’t physically create history through their own actions. That was something I was keen to try and address from the very beginning.
The late 15th century was a period of extraordinary transformation. Not only was it a period where the superstitious fear and self-loathing of the medieval period was giving way to the classically-inspired humanism of the Renaissance, it was also a time where many aspects of society were being radically and irrevocably changed. The era of the knight was more or less over, with artillery playing an ever-more important role in the battlefield, and yet the myth of the chivalric ideal was becoming ever more important to the courtly elites who were in power at the time. Perhaps this was because their own roles were becoming ever more precarious with the rise of career lawyers and politicians, of low birth, perhaps, but equipped with sharp intellects and honed by good educations (for a slightly later example, think of Thomas Cromwell as an excellent example). Strength of arms was increasingly marginalised by the rule of law, and as rationalism increased its hold throughout society, so the church found itself under attack. With so many areas of tension and change, it’s a period in history which is a marvellous source of plots and narratives, and when I was writing Fire and Sword, I found the point of transition between the reigns of the Scots Kings James III and IV particularly rewarding in this respect.
Tell us about the concept behind your books. How did you get the idea?
The inspiration for Fire & Sword came when I was searching the local historical accounts of west Renfrewshire for potential story fodder. There I found an intriguing reference to John, 1st Lord Sempill. It stated how his father, Sir Thomas Sempill, had died defending King James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488. King James III was murdered that June night, and in the ensuing power vacuum, his son ascended to the throne. James IV was at this time in his minority, which meant that the country was ruled by the faction which had been opposed to the Sempills: in spite of this setback, John Sempill was made a Lord of Parliament a year later.
The local account wasn’t strictly correct – Sempill wasn’t made a lord until the early 1490s – but this was nonetheless a dramatic change in fortunes, and it was one which could only be explored so far by using standard historical investigative techniques alone. By moving beyond the records and the available data, I was able to suggest what ‘might have been.’ As someone who works with the past in my professional life I found this exercise particularly rewarding and I was soon hooked on the accompanying creative process. Hopefully, my work helps bring the history of this particular time and place to life, so improving everyone’s collective knowledge and appreciation of the built heritage and the landscape which forms such an important backdrop to the story, and to the material culture objects in our museums which form the accompanying props to the narrative.
Were the plot and subplots completely planned from the start or did they change during the process, and if so, how?
I love reading books which feature a number of interweaving plots and subplots, so I was determined to create something which had a similar multi-layered texture.
Actually writing the novel proved to be a very complex process which took several drafts. As I mentioned previously, the germ of this particular novel was inspired by a passing comment in a local history account. Once I selected this as the starting point, I initially read up on the life of John, 1st Lord Sempill, then I started to undertake research into his contemporaries, men like Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie.
I started to build the characters first. I mapped marriages over several generations, so I could see how families allied themselves with one another. I also paid attention to siblings and spouses. Did certain individuals have many children with one spouse, for example, or did they have children out of wedlock? Were they one son in a family of daughters, or vice versa? All these little details went into the mix and from this nutritious soup I was able to populate the novel with recreated versions of the various historical figures who played a role in the political intrigues of the time, from King James IV right down to the barons. Farmers and burgesses were more difficult to recreate, but thankfully a very detailed document of the 1520s listed around 500 armed followers of William, 2nd Lord Sempill (John Sempill’s son and heir) by name, and I was able to use these to try and populate the individual farms and tenancies.
In the end, the local historical accounts weren’t particularly helpful in broadening my understanding of the wider picture. All they did was list which families were at feud, giving the impression that the entire countryside was peopled by petty, small-minded thugs who cared only for family honour and social standing. It was only when I started to read up on the wider history of the period that I realised that our local lords and barons were in fact active on the national stage, and it was often goings-on at this level which turned the provinces into powder kegs. For instance, I discovered that John Sempill’s mother, Elizabeth Ross, was the daughter or nephew of John Ross of Montgrennan, who just so happened to be James III’s Lord Advocate. Montgrennan was exiled and charged with treason in the aftermath of James III’s murder at the Battle of Sauchieburn – to be a close relative of such a hated figure would have meant walking a dangerous path for those left behind, and yet John Sempill managed to recover from this and rebuild his fortunes within a couple of years.
Once the framework was established, it was a case of teasing out all these little details and then recombining them in a way which created a narrative which was both plausible, and engaging to the reader. As I drafted and redrafted, I kept on reading and learning new details which could be woven into the fabric, and as the characters grew and developed, I found new possibilities and links. Eventually, after much simmering and percolating, the book was finished – it’s very long, but thankfully I found a publisher who was happy to take it in its entirety rather than demand the removal of any of the narratives, which would, I think, have brutally diminished the whole. And the wonderful thing about writing a series is that you can pluck threads from one novel and develop them more fully in the next.
I think I only really had confidence in how I’d created the characters when I realised that they were, of their own accord, recreating history as it had actually happened. Now I can relax and let them get on with it themselves – I tell them to make sure they’re attending Parliament in Edinburgh on the 15th March, and sure enough, they’ll be there!
What song would you pick to go with your book?
I’m one of these writers who habitually writes to a soundtrack. Fire & Sword was written over a period of 10 years or so, and in this time, I found several pieces of music which resonated with the story. The album Aeon, by Dead can Dance conjures up the right atmosphere, to the extent that I still invariably listen to it when I’m trying to get myself in the right mood for giving a reading. But I also found inspiration in a diverse range of tracks: Fait Accompli by Curve always reminds me of the king’s horse charging off the battlefield at Sauchiburn, while various tracks on the album ‘13’ by Blur (a very wintery album) accompany the bleakest parts of the book, which just so happens to unfold in winter. Then there’s the New London Consort’s recording of the medieval Cantigas de Santa Maria – I can think of several scenes which spring to mind when I hear some of these cantigas. And last (but not least), is Burning Down the House by Talking Heads which is horribly appropriate because the hero, the anti-hero and the villain each carry out acts of arson at various points in the book!
How do you balance marketing one book and writing the next?
I’ve found the first few years of being a published writer quite frustrating, because it’s difficult balancing the need to earn a living and the desire to write. I’ve learned in this time that the rate of progress is much, much slower than might be the case if I was writing full-time, but that’s something you just have to deal with and view philosophically. Yes, it’s frustrating when you’ve got a whole load of books in your head waiting to be written, but sadly, writing novels is not a good way of earning a living for more than a handful of very lucky individuals.
For example, being a writer who holds down a full-time day job, I find it quite hard to generate new material in the evenings, but I find editing quite therapeutic, so I mainly write ‘properly’ when I’m on holiday. So far, this has suited me just fine, but in this respect I’m lucky because both my first and second books were largely completed when I was employed in the downtime between a succession of temporary contracts – since my second book was completed before my first book was published, I’ve been working with one book in hand, so to speak, which makes things a whole lot easier.
I find the marketing side of things very much like editing – it’s something which can be done in the evenings in periods of creative downtime. More difficult is the task of trekking around local bookstores and heritage centres physically telling people about the book, and also organising and taking part in events. This eats up most of my weekends, but so far it has proved rewarding – I’ve sold a number of books this way, and above all, it’s raised awareness of my work.
Now, however, I’ve naturally reached a plateau as far as the marketing is concerned, so while I wait for the publication of my second book, the best thing I can possibly do to occupy my time is to write my third novel. This is where things get difficult, because I find myself more committed to the writing than anything else, even though it’s important to maintain interest in the title that’s already out there…
The follow-up to Fire & Sword, titled The Gryphon at Bay, is currently lodged with my editor, Eric Reynolds of Hadley Rille Books, and while I await its publication, I’m keeping myself busy with working on my third novel. Its working title is A Black Ship into Hades, and it’s a time slip/time travel novel which is more like speculative fiction than historical fiction. It follows the trials and tribulations of a young man named Lysander who is brought from 5th century BC Sparta to modern England, and ends up, in effect, a refugee seeking political asylum from the Past.
What is your advice to new writers?
Join a writers’ group, learn to accept constructive criticism, and above all, learn to be self-critical. Don’t rush into the next level until you’re good and ready – whether it’s submitting to an agent or publisher, or self-publishing your own work, take your time, and make sure that you can do nothing more to improve your writing before you present it to a wider audience. Otherwise, you’re in danger of throwing away everything you’ve worked for because you’ve been willing to accept sloppy grammar, pacing or whatever as part of the territory. Your readers have a whole lot of titles and authors to choose from out there – they are less likely to be forgiving!
Once you’re published is when the hard work really begins. Your book does not sell itself- network with other writers, do what you can to spread the word, and above all listen to others and learn from them. We’re all at different points on a trajectory – experienced writers are usually more than willing to share their advice and offer moral support to those who are just starting out in the trade. And accept that not everyone will enjoy your work – reading is very subjective, which means that some may read your book and discover that it’s not for them. They are perfectly within their rights to say this- unless you’re peddling shoddy, poorly-written or poorly-edited work, then any less favourable reviews should be amply balanced by those which are more supportive. Above all – enjoy the experience! It might be a bit of a Nantucket sleigh ride, but once you have readers telling you how much they enjoy reading your books, you suddenly realised why you started out on this path in the first place.
Who are your favourite authors?
In the world of historical fiction, my all-time favourite has to be Hilary Mantel. Yes, I’m a fan of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but my personal favourite is definitely A Place of Greater Safety, which I find mind-bogglingly brilliant. I’m also a big fan of Linda Proud’s work, in particular her series of novels set in Renaissance Florence (A Tabernacle for the Sun, Pallas And the Centaur, and The Rebirth of Venus). The scope of her knowledge is breath-taking – she takes the reader from the highest realms of human achievement to the worst excesses of violence and despair in a roller-coaster ride which is compelling, brutal and at the same time, spiritually uplifting.
As far as historical fiction set in Scotland is concerned, I’d single out Reay Tannahill’s Fatal Majesty for Honourable Mention – I particularly enjoyed this book because it treats a very serious subject (the reign of Mary Queen of Scots) with a wry sense of humour. However, I may have to add a new name to this list in the near future because I’m currently reading Dorothy Dunnett’s novels for the first time, and she’s rapidly joining the list of favourites. I’ve read the first four novels in the House of Niccolo series so far – The Unicorn Hunt comes next, which is, I believe set in Scotland…..
Outwith the realms of historical fiction, I think my favourite reading matter has to the Union Alliance universe of C J Cherryh, with Ms Cherryh’s space opera being second to none. Her novels have always been an inspiration to me as a historical novelist – she writes on an epic scale, with characters actively creating their own history in an internally consistent universe which is massive in its scope and vision.
What book are you currently reading and in what format (e-book/paperback/hardcover)?
I’m currently reading a very old and venerable hardback edition of Old Mortality by Sir Walter Scott. I’m not the biggest fan of his work, but I find that reading his novels makes me understand the roots of the historical novel in Scotland more fully, and I’m increasingly realising that his work colours how history and to some extent archaeology is perceived in modern Scotland.
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