Questions and Answers
Speaking over the years at various forums, the same questions seem to arise and here is a selection:
What made you want to become a writer?
I have always been a story teller, from school days, through my attempts to entertain my two children as a young parent, to the present day, when, thank goodness, I am paid to weave word webs. I loved being a daily newspaper reporter – loved the excitement of the life, the endless variety of the tasks I was allocated and the challenge of writing up the stories for the news columns and feature pages, against strict deadlines . I also loved reading novels from an early age and vowed that, one day, I would write them. I thank my lucky stars every day that I have succeeded.
Why do you set your stories in the past, rather than the present?
I love history, so Fonthill had to be in the past. The Napoleonic wars had been well trammelled by Forester, O’Brian, Cornwell et al and I wanted to find a setting that was different. I was attracted to the Zulus and I had done a lot of research on them for a previous non-fiction book (including having lunch with Chief Buthelezi, the Zulu leader and his cabinet in Ulundi to talk about the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879), so starting off the young Fonthill in that time seemed obvious. A bonus was the fact that, apart from the odd expression or word, I didn’t have to worry too much about finding the right dialogue for the period. No “gadzooks” or “by my troth.” And I do hate when authors consciously modernise, as when a Roman legionnaire calls his comrade “mate.” In this context, O’Brien is the master. His ear for early nineteenth dialogue seems impeccable to me.
How do you create the plots?
It all started with my Uncle Alf (well, of course!). He was one of seven brothers of a late Victorian working class family in Birmingham. They all fought in the first world war, as rifle and bayonet men in the trenches. Had they been born higher up the social ladder and gone to public school and university, they would probably have won commissions and been killed, picked off by the German snipers as they led their men across no man’s land, revolver in hand, whistle at lips. In fact, they all survived. Alfred won the Victoria Cross, Bernard the Military Medal and Ernest (made a temporary Regimental Sergeant Major at nineteen “because there was no-one else left”) the Distinguished Conduct Medal. My father Leonard went over the top at the Somme as an infantry sergeant and was immediately wounded by a shell blast and spent nearly two days in a water-filled shell hole. He eventually died of his wounds in 1945. These men were all iconic figures to me in my childhood and I wondered if I would ever have the courage to do what they did. I was never put to the test, thank goodness, but at Rorke’s Drift a trooper did ride away from the Zulus and was court martialled for cowardice. As a result, I put the two thoughts together and decided that my first novel would be an examination of the nature of courage, with Simon Fonthill as my slightly flawed hero. In fact in the writing, “The Horns of the Buffalo” turned out to be a rollicking adventure story, with only a nod towards the deeper theme. The stories have continued in that vein ever since. (Vanity urges a footnote. I am no spring chicken but I am not quite as venerable as my reference to my Victorian uncles would seem to indicate. My father was the youngest of the seven and was well into early middle age when I was born.
How important is research to you and is it a drudge?
Love it – and it is vital. If my early training as a journalist hadn’t instilled it into me (“facts are sacred son – get ’em right!”), an early experience with “Horns” would have reminded me. On the first page of that first novel I made a reference to “General Lee’s Army of Virginia,” in the American Civil War. A reader wrote: “I liked the book but I will never read another one of yours. Everyone knows that General Lee’s Army was Northern Virginia…” He was right, of course, and I was grateful for the correction. We changed it for the paperback. I rely on three main sources: the London Library, where, as a member, I can withdraw books published in or near to the period, so getting contemporary detail and a sense of national feeling at that time – and I can keep the books for reference while I am writing; the internet, of course, although much less so these days; plus visits to the country where the action takes place, usually tramping over the old battle grounds. It work but it’s also such fun!
Do you write every day and do you ever get writer's block?
More or less every day when a novel is on the boil. Roughly speaking, I spend four months researching, six months writing and re-writing and two months worrying about the next one and whether the bloody trout are rising on the river over the hill. I never wait for the Muse to arrive – she will probably be in the pub drinking with some swine who has just received a £500,000 advance, anyway. The twists of the plot often demand agonising blank periods staring out of the window but I rarely “block out.” A good tip if you are stuck is just to write something – anything. For me, the story begins to flow again and the words become more appropriate once something appears on the screen.
Does everyone have a book in him or her?
NO!! Unless you have an interesting job such as tight-rope walker, SAS warrior, politician (sometimes), courtesan, explorer, or spy, the old adage about writing about what you know doesn’t apply. Even then, you must possess the talent to write and few are lucky enough to have it. Writing fiction demands the imagination to create another world and the skill to put it down on paper entertainingly so that strangers will pay to read it. Do you think you have that talent? If the answer is an honest yes, then give it a go and good luck! But don’t pretend.
I honestly feel I can do it and have finished a novel. What's the best way of trying to get it published?
Find an agent. Publishers these days usually don’t keep slush piles of unpublished MSs on their desk. They rely on independent literary agents whose judgement they trust to be the first sieve in the machinery of selection. Buy a copy of the Writer’s Handbook and select an agent who operates in your genre and who doesn’t charge for reading. Send her (it’s usually a her) a simple one page synopsis and the first three chapters, typed in one and a half spacing on one side only. Don’t forget the stamped and addressed envelope for return.
Were you rejected many times?
Yes, exactly 40. I counted!
So what’s next on the production line?
Well, with some reluctance, I have called it a day with the Fonthill series, at “Distant Clouds of Dust.” I felt that to end it on the round dozen number seemed right, particularly as the fabulous trio were all betting a touch old for adventuring. I wanted a change and “The Black Rocks of Morwenstow” provided it. So what’s next? Not quite sure. I fancy a break, though, after more than twenty years of writing more or less non-stop. We shall see.