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Writing Novels Set In Different Historical Times And Places, by Julian Stockwin

My two current historical novels are set in very different time periods, over a millennia apart. Pasha is the lastest in my ongoing Kydd Series, one man’s journey from pressed man to admiral in the Great Age of Fighting Sail. The Silk Tree is a standalone, an epic adventure to unravel China’s most guarded secret and set in the time of Emperor Justinian. So why did I tackle two such very diverse writing projects?

The genesis of The Silk Tree lies in the magical city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). On location research there for the Kydd Series my wife Kathy discovered a rather lovely silk scarf in the Grand Bazaar. While she was chatting with the merchant I idly wondered just how silk was brought from China to the West. Intrigued, I did some ferreting around and the creative juices started flowing – and I knew I had another story I just had to tell…

My Kydd books are based in the Georgian era, 200-odd years ago. I now know that period pretty well and can mentally go back in time there with reasonable ease. However, when I decided to write The Silk Tree I faced a huge challenge: I would need to get my head around a time not 200 but 1500 years in the past, and across two very different great civilisations – China and Byzantium! I have to admit I was somewhat nervous as to whether I could pull it off. But I do have a secret weapon: my wife Kathy. She’s an ex-magazine editor and we work together as a collaborative team.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since becoming a wordsmith it’s that all life’s experiences are grist to the mill for a writer. For The Silk Tree I was able to call upon my knowledge of Chinese calligraphy which goes back to the time I lived and worked for some years in Hong Kong. All those hours of dry study of ancient Greek and Latin at grammar school also came in handy!

I guess the hardest part of getting a historical mind set for The Silk Tree (which I believe is vital in writing historical fiction) was to internalise the perceived boundaries of the known world in those far far away times. I had to strip away the trappings of modernity and develop an empathy with my main characters – a canny Greek merchant, Nicander and a fearless Roman legionary, Marius – and understand their personal horizons. This demanded deep research but I always especially enjoy this part of the writing process.

In all fiction, however, there are constants that a writer must bear in mind. The first, I believe, is the centrality of the characters. The reader has to connect with the characters – either love ’em or hate ’em – but feel an emotional nexus of some sort. At least one of the characters must change and develop over the course of the book in a satisfying way. In all my books to date I have had ‘double acts’ in terms of characters. For the Kydd series, it’s Tom Kydd and Nicholas Renzi and in The Silk Tree it’s Nicander and Marius. This is an old literary device, but it’s a useful one.

Another imperative is that the reader needs to be able to pick up on the stakes in the story, otherwise it might as well be non-fiction. A compelling tale sets out the stakes, throws in challenges and then resolves matters to one degree or another at the end of the book.

So what advice would I give to aspiring historical novelists regarding which time to write about? Historical period fashions come and go – some seem to stay quite a while – others are more transient. An established author once told me to write from the heart, not try to follow current trends. He cautioned that if you try to jump on a current bandwagon by the time your book comes out (maybe in two or more years time by the time you actually write it and it gets into print) that particular bandwagon may long since have disappeared.

In the end, of course, it all boils down to passion and commitment. Go with your heart – but be mindful that being a successful author, especially in these challenging times, demands professionalism at all levels.

I feel very privileged to be able to write both an ongoing series set in the Age of Fighting Sail and now, as well, pen an occasional standalone when I come across a story about a pivotal point in history that I just have to tell.


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Julian Stockwin was a monthly contributor for Writing Historical Novels during 2013. Click on the link to see his previous articles.


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     The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)

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Tell Me A Story, by Paul Fraser Collard

It may seem odd that I should bother to take the time to write a blog piece with such a title. I am, after all, attempting to write things of interest to other creative minds that are involved in the world of writing historical novels. But it was one of the first subject titles that came to my mind when I first thought of writing this series of blogs. I shall attempt to explain why.

Historical fiction is a hard genre to get right. Not only must we create wonderful stories with characters that can grab a reader’s attention and a plot that will leave them gasping for more, but we must do this against a historical background that we know intimately enough to bring to life in a reader’s mind.

This is no easy thing. Research can be overwhelming. It can consume you. The effort we put into discovering every detail of the past taking us longer than it takes to write the actual novel we are planning. Yet it has to be done. Research is crucial and details simply have to be correct. If we want to be taken seriously then we have to convince everyone that we know what we are talking about. We need to breathe life into the dusty, dry words of history, giving it a life force so that readers can not only see the world we are describing but they can smell it, hear it, feel it and, hardest of all to achieve, understand it.

But (you must have known that this was coming) there is a central tenet that we must never forget. We are writers not historians, entertainers not teachers. We are there to tell a story.

Now for a confession; I pillage the past. There, it is out in the open and I hope you are not too shocked. I take history and thrust my fictitious character, Jack Lark, into its midst, using his eyes to see the events of the past whilst taking him on a journey through what actually happened to real people. I do not do so lightly but I am trying to do one thing, and one thing only; I am trying to tell a story.

I like to think I am honest about my dreadful act of robbery. I will always include historical notes that should explain where I have deviated from the real history or whose stories I have stolen for my Jack to enjoy. I feel bad for using the past in such a way. This is why I could never write a novel around a real character from history. That would feel too impertinent. I feel that I would be claiming that I know what a real person felt, said or thought, when I am sure they alone know exactly what that might have been. Still I take the past and adapt it for my own use, and for that I always feel the need to apologise.

It has been said that I am a writer “who wears history lightly enough for the story he’s telling to blaze across the page”. This is a wonderful line that, to my mind at least, has two meanings. A few people have read it and come up to pat me on the back to console me and to tell me to ignore the nasty man who wrote it. After all, I am a historical writer and wearing history lightly may not be a good thing at all. I take it as a great compliment (and I hope to goodness it was meant this way or I shall look a hopeless fool). I have set my stall out to write fast, pacy and punchy fiction. I want my story to blaze across the page. I long for nothing more than to set a reader alight with my passion, for my characters to be so real that they leap off the page and into their mind.

I want this because I see my job as being to tell a story. I shall try incredibly hard to get every last historical detail correct, yet I shall never be a grand historian. My stories will run fast and hit hard, and if you enjoy that, well, then I am doing my job. For I am a storyteller and I have no ambition to be anything more.


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Researching The Trojan War For My Novels, by Glyn Iliffe

Research is all about getting a feel for the period, place and people you are writing about. Get the research right and not only will you convince your reader they’re in Byzantine Rome, Napoleonic France or the middle of the Korean War, you’ll convince yourself. As a writer, there are few feelings more uncomfortable than writing out of your depth, so having confidence in the characters and scenes you’re creating is essential.

It helps, when choosing the period you want to write about, to have a passion for it. This makes researching it a joy rather than a chore. If you love Jacobean Scotland reading about it will be easy and you’ll hoover up the facts; if you don’t, it’ll be hard work and the little details won’t stick. It’ll show in your writing. That isn’t to say you can only write about eras you’re familiar with. A basic fascination with history should be enough to drive research for a book about the past.

There’s also the old adage write what you know. If you intend to pen a novel set during a specific period in history, having a baseline to build on will serve you well. This can be a simple interest fuelled by years of reading around the subject. Such interests are often sparked in childhood, perhaps from listening to granddad’s war stories or watching films on TV. My love of the ancient world started with Jason and the Argonauts and Spartacus, and re-enacting the battles with my Airfix Romans.

The single greatest advantage I had in writing books about the Trojan War was studying Classics at university. Being steeped in a topic for three years is invaluable. You feed off the knowledge of others – from lectures, seminars, books and commentaries – and are surrounded by people who share your passion. All that exposure to a single topic gives you more than just head knowledge. It leaves you with an instinct for your subject. The same deep appreciation is gained by those in re-enacting societies or other historical focus groups.

Whether you have a deep knowledge of the period you want to write about, or just plenty of enthusiasm for a new era in history, you’ll need to establish that feel for period, place and people that I mentioned at the start. When I planned my series of books on the Trojan War, as seen through the experiences of Odysseus, I had already studied Homer and Greek mythology in detail at university. So, from the perspective of retelling the Trojan myths in a single narrative, I re-read many of the texts I was familiar with and tried to come up with ways of bringing the disparate sources together. I also looked at modern summaries of the legends – Robert Graves’s Greek Myths was particularly useful for this – to give me an overview.

This helped me to form the structure of the story and plan all six books in the series. Next came my research about the Bronze Age itself. This was not something I had studied in detail as part of my degree course, so the first thing I did was to look for books that would provide a good historical outline of the period. The best was Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War: a well-written, readily digestible introduction to the available information about the era. From here I was able to follow threads into specific areas of importance for the story I wanted to tell, such as details about sailing, agriculture, religious practice etc.

One point of note here is my reliance on books, rather than the internet, for research. Personally, I think that taking the time to read a book pays dividends in increasing your understanding of a subject or period. This is because books form structured arguments that explore topics in depth, usually backing themselves up with references and evidence. Internet research, on the other hand, frequently involves a trawl of different sources, sometimes with conflicting viewpoints and often based on conjecture or personal opinion. Where the internet comes up trumps, I find, is when topping up research that has already been carried out – a quick fact here and there, useful images or just for refreshing something half-forgotten.

Another important – and enjoyable – aspect of research is to travel to the places you are writing about. This isn’t always an affordable luxury, but I think a book benefits hugely if the writer has visited the place he or she is depicting. Although I have taken a few liberties with my depictions of Ithaca, Delphi and the Peloponnese (based partly on the fact they would have looked different three thousand years ago), having been there, smelled the air, felt the warm wind on my cheek and seen the sun setting over the mountains is something that has helped me to fix those places in my imagination.

Finally, despite advocating the benefits of research, there are a few get-out clauses when writing about the Trojan War. The first is mentioned above, namely that the physical geography of places is very different now to then. Second is that historical facts about the Bronze Age are still limited, in spite of the achievements of archaeologists in recent years, so you’re not writing in a strait jacket – there’s room for a bit of imagination. Another is that what we know about the Trojan War comes from myth, which by its nature goes against the factual approaches of history and archaeology. The most celebrated source of these myths is Homer, who is known for being a mismatch of different eras. So if a Classical era temple suits your needs more than a Bronze Age cave, then you can always say you’re just being “Homeric”!


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Historical Novels You Shouldn’t Miss, by Gary Worthington

In a current literary climate that tends to emphasize the latest works, it can be easy to forget that so many good historical novels were published years ago. They may no longer be prominently displayed in your local bookstore but they’re still definitely worth seeking out and reading.

This is likely my last posting in this series, so I wish you the best of luck. I’m always on the lookout for additional unique, well done historical fiction, so I look forward to seeing your own published work!

Here are a few historical novels that have inspired me over the years. I learned something about writing from each, and I’d bet that you will too.

Balogh, Mary. Truly. 1996. An historical romance set in 1840s Wales. The hero returns after a ten year absence to claim his estate but finds that his tenants hate him because of his ruthless managers. He takes up the cause of the tenants and the poor in general by assuming the disguised role of “Rebecca,” who leads the peasantry in various acts of rebellion against the power of the gentry. The romantic details and complications are sometimes from stock romance fiction, but those flaws are more than compensated for by an exciting plot with plenty of suspense.

Barber, Noel. Sakkara. 1984. A novel of 20th Century Egypt, narrated by the son of a wealthy  British envoy growing up in Cairo and in love with an Egyptian neighbor’s daughter who is promised to his brother. Impressive for the detail and flavor of the times and Egypt’s struggle for independence.

Brooks, Geraldine. Year of Wonders. 2001. Realistic-feeling experiences of the inhabitants of an English village that quarantines itself during a period of bubonic plague in 1665. Narrated by a young widow and mother, the challenges and suffering of the residents result in compelling reading with an added dimension of religious conflict.

de Bernieres, Louis. Birds Without Wings. 2004. Outstanding depictions of villagers and their daily lives in Turkey during a challenging period of change at the beginning of the 20th Century and World War I. A remarkable cast of strong characters, all very different, with encounters between ethnic Greeks and Armenians and Muslim Turks.

Grieseman, John. Signal & Noise. 2003. Epic in scope, depicting influential engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs during major events in the 1850-60s such as laying the first trans-Atlantic cable and solving London’s “Great Stink” with drainage and sewers. Some minor flaws in that characters’ motivations aren’t always entirely clear and shifting points of views can slow momentum. But still impressively done.

Harris, Robert. Pompeii. 2003. A young roman aqueduct engineer goes to Pompeii in AD 79 to try to restore water flow to the nearby cities, where he faces mystery and danger culminating in the massive eruption of the volcano. A romance element and the excessive power of a newly wealthy man seem somewhat improbable, but on the whole the work is suspenseful and intriguing.

Mackin, Jeane. Dreams of Empire. 1996. Mystery novel of the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt, with a French woman artist heroine and her philanderer husband accused of trying to poison Napoleon. The pursuit of a major artifact from the time of Alexander the Great adds to the adventure. Excellent for the flavor of the time and romance and intrigue.

Michener, James A. The Source. 1965. This huge tome, a bestseller in its time, firmly established the template (similar to that of Michener’s earlier Hawaii) for that author’s later historical novels and for those of James Rutherfurd. It also was the inspiration for the format of my own India Treasures and India Fortunes. A series of novellas set in various historical periods let the reader experience an overview of the historical evolution of the land that is now Israel. The stories are focused especially on the site of the ruins of a fictional ancient town, and the excavations of the various layers by an archaeological team in the 20th Century tie together the tales from the earlier eras. Not a fast read, but well worth the investment of time for an understanding of the roots of this area of the Middle East.

Rufin, Jean-Christophe. The Abyssinian. 1999. Translated from French. In 1699 the young hero is sent on a mission from Egypt to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) to establish a French mission there despite the ruler being hostile to Westerners. The lowborn hero also hopes for success so he can win the hand of the French consul’s daughter. Though somewhat heavy on narrative, the extensive details of caravan life and of sights on the route and in the capital are impressive.

Wood, Barbara. Virgins of Paradise. 1993. Novel of women in a wealthy Egyptian family living in a huge joint family house and gardens in Cairo. Excellent for the details of life in a Muslim household from the women’s perspective, and how the changing political climate severely impacts the family over half a century.


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Using Catherine The Great’s Memoirs When Researching My Novel ‘The Winter Palace’, by Eva Stachniak

For a writer of historical fiction, period memoirs promise to be the ultimate primary source, a treasure trove of inspiration for a novel’s scenes and the language in which those scenes are couched. But memoirs are not always entirely reliable and need to be read with caution. It may be that what they do not mention is far more important than what they do. The Memoirs of Catherine the Great provide an illuminating example.

Catherine the Great started writing her memoirs a few times in her life, but none of these attempts were ever finished. The longest attempt and her final one – abandoned in 1794, two years before her death – begins with the following sentence: “Fortune is not as blind as people imagine. It is often the result of a long series of precise and well-chosen steps that precede events and are not perceived by the common herd….” To a careful reader, it quickly becomes quite clear that the memoirs themselves constitute one of these well-chosen steps. For what Catherine is giving us is not an act of confession – so popular in the 18th  century – but a carefully woven story produced by a savvy politician who knows what she wants.

I’ve read and re-read these memoirs many times in the course of doing research for my own novel and, every time I reach for them, I’m awed by the perfect pitch of Catherine’s reasoning and her guiding objectives. Her writing is lucid, straightforward, and logical. She assumes that the reader is familiar with the facts of her reign, so what she provides are the intimate details behind the facts and her thoughts, all carefully chosen to justify why she had the right, moral if not legal, to claim the Russian throne. Before we learn of her orderly habits, her work ethic, and her readings, she makes sure we learn that her late husband was inept, slovenly, and fond of drink. That instead of accepting the Orthodox religion as she did, he “took it into his head to dispute every point”. That he was childish and “resistant to all instruction”.

In contrast to Peter III, we read, Catherine II did everything to be a good wife to her inept husband and a loyal subject to empress Elizabeth Petrovna. Bit by bit she produces further evidence of his unstable character. Peter III, we learn, once executed a rat; he also tortured her, his long-suffering wife, with his fiddle playing. Incidentally – in a telling admission – Catherine also confesses to being tone deaf and finding all music to be an infernal noise.

Catherine presents further evidence of her credentials. She doesn’t spare the details of how she was mistreated – her aunt-in-law left her unattended after childbirth and refused to allow her to see her newborn son – but she also makes sure the reader knows she is not vindictive and doesn’t indulge in self-pity. Yes, she tells us, I was mistreated but I raised myself up and worked with whatever life brought my way. She makes sure we learn of her fortitude, her cheerful disposition, but most of all of her good sense and judgment. For this captivating account is Catherine’s way, not just to elicit our sympathy, but to sway us to her way of thinking. After putting the book down, the reader must be convinced that Catherine deserved to become empress because she was wise and enlightened, a just monarch who had the right to the absolute power she had seized.

Yet, as we read these memoirs we can see how Catherine writes herself into a corner. It soon becomes clear that no matter how enlightened, just, and reasonable she is, she cannot justify her husband’s murder. Yes, he was immature, silly, inept. But was he a threat? Was he the monster she wants us to see in him?

In the end Catherine gives up. The memoirs end in 1759, when she is still Grand Duchess and empress Elizabeth Petrovna is very much alive and in charge of the Russian court. The last few pages are notes for the subsequent chapter, ending with the following words: “… things took such a turn that it was necessary to perish with him, by him, or else to try to save oneself from the wreckage and to save my children, and the state.”

A tall order.

I can imagine her staring at these notes, wondering how on earth she is going to convince the reader that this was the case. And at the end abandoning the whole project altogether.


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The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)Necessary LiesGarden of Venus     EquinoxTrue Soldier Gentlemen

Writing Historical Novels

Tips For Writing Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell

As a final entry for these 2013 blogs, here’s what I’ve learned from two decades of writing about history, taking writing classes and writing for Writing Historical Novels.

If you can, visit the places you write about

I know this is impractical for some readers of this blog, but for stirring the imagination, nothing beats the experience of walking in the footsteps of your characters. When I wrote Powder Monkey, about a boy in Nelson’s Navy, I got half a book worth of ideas from a single afternoon aboard an early 19th century frigate. (HMS Trincomalee, in Hartlepool, UK.)

Stray from the mainstream at your peril

My most successful novel (Auslander) is set in Nazi Germany. My least successful (The Cabinet of Curiosities) is set in Renaissance Prague. I loved writing them both. Trusted critics (family members who don’t just say ‘that’s nice’, my editor, my agent…) were very positive about both. The plain fact is that lots of people in the Young Adult market (where I work) enjoy reading about the Nazis. They’re history’s baddest apples after all. On the other hand, most people in this demographic don’t give a fig about the Roman Emperor c.1600 and the first stirrings of the Scientific Revolution.

Don’t be too pedantic in your regard for historical accuracy

‘Chillax, Romulus. Remus is a jerk but there’s no need to waste him.’ That’s plainly wrong (!).

Calling Stalin’s NKVD the NKVD when they were actually the NKGB for three months in the time you’re writing about (April to June 1941) is a calculated decision based on not trying the patience of your reader. It’s a novel you’re writing, not an academic text book.

Not everyone gives a hoot about historical accuracy

Personally, I dislike novels and films that are cavalier about historical accuracy. I know this is a subject many readers and writers of historical fiction care about. I think it’s essential to the credibility of your story. But vast swathes of readers/viewers don’t care. One successful seller in the field I write in has two 12 year old German refugees parachuted back into Nazi Germany ‘on a top secret mission’.

Political correctness is a minefield

We wrestle with this all the time. I’m all in favour of not offending people and I’m happy to avoid historically accurate terms that were fashionable and/or acceptable 200 years ago (or even 30 years ago), but which aren’t now. But the whole PC subject is so sensitive that even discussing it is almost impossible. So, to borrow an awful Americanism ‘Don’t even go there.’ (I like lots of Americanisms too, in case anyone thinks I’m being snooty about Americanisms.)

Publishing is a business

Writing to purge your inner demons, or air your pet interests, is fun and/or therapeutic. By all means do it if you enjoy it. But don’t expect a publisher to want to publish it. (Unless you’re an especially brilliant writer.) Publishers need to publish books they think will repay their investment in:

– your advance

–  the wages of their editors/designers/marketing/publicity/sales people who work on your book, and

– production and distribution costs.

It’s always worth remembering that publishers want a book they think will sell to a readership.

Thank you to the readers of this blog who have taken the trouble to respond to my articles and I wish you all a happy New Year and a successful 2014.


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Writing Historical Novels

How I Became A Bestselling Historical Novelist, by Ben Kane

I worked as a veterinarian for sixteen years, from 1992-2008. Like many people who dream of such a career, I started off with a childhood love of animals. Dogs, cats, rabbits, cows – as a boy, it didn’t matter to me. I loved them all. Discovering the gentle, life-affirming James Herriot books helped build up a mental image of being a ‘doctor for animals’, as did the fact that my dad was already in the profession. Alongside my love of all creatures great and small ran a deeply rooted love of history. Don’t ask me where it came from, but I devoured any book I could find about the Romans, the Vikings, the Crusades, the Napoleonic wars, World Wars One and Two – in fact any conflict at all! I still ended up putting veterinary medicine number one on my university application form though. The main reason, from what I can remember, is that although I loved history, I couldn’t see myself as a teacher. There was certainly no concept in my mind of being a writer.

As with most people starting out on a career, my job as a veterinarian took over my life. Straight out of college, I worked in ‘mixed’ practice for nearly three years, which meant dealing with cattle, sheep, horses, dogs and cats. Stints in purely ‘small animal’ and ‘exotic’ (snakes, birds, fish) practice followed in the UK, before the need to travel struck home.

In 1997, I went on a solo trip to the Middle East, following part of the ancient Silk Road. During this trip, I visited many of the ‘stans’, countries which were formerly part of the USSR. In Turkmenistan, I walked the ruins of Merv, an enormous walled city which was attacked and demolished by the Mongols in the 13th Century. As I wandered through the vast site, nearly a mile square, in temperatures of more than 110F, what became evident was that the city’s history was far more ancient. Merv had originally been founded as Antiochia – by Alexander the Great – in the 4th Century BC. Furthermore, Roman prisoners of the battle of Carrhae had been taken there by their captors, the Parthians. Fascinated by this, I did some research upon my return. This confirmed what I had read in Merv, and the seeds of The Forgotten Legion were sown in my mind, and I had my first thoughts of writing a military fiction novel.

After a prolonged (nearly three years) trip around the world, including a period working in Sydney, I returned to the UK in early 2001. The devastating outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease had just started, and believing it was my duty to help, I volunteered soon afterwards. The job took me to Northumberland, where much of Hadrian’s Wall is situated. During the terrible months of slaughtering animals that followed, I was able to visit many amazing Roman sites on the wall. The stunning locations and little museums fired up my imagination as never before, and I decided to write a novel about the Romans at last.

Over the next six years, I went back into normal veterinary practice, bought a house and settled down somewhat. Crucially though, I also started writing, a process which I quickly grew to love. Despite the long hours – 60+ per week – and ‘on-call’ nights and weekends of my veterinary job, it became an obsession. I wasn’t happy unless I could write every day. During my lunch break, I’d use my laptop in the staff room, my car or a cafe. Several days a week, I’d get up at 5am to do a couple of hours before going to work. For years, most weekends were non-existent except for 12 hours a day of writing.

In early 2006, I was fortunate enough to get signed by my literary agent, whose input and help with my writing skills was enormous. Discarding what I had written up till then – until another day – The Forgotten Legion emerged into the light. In Summer 2007, I signed a 3 book deal with Random House in the UK. By the time of the book’s release in May 2008, I had gone part-time as a veterinarian. By the beginning of 2009, I had given it up altogether. The pressures of family life, writing and a high-octane job were too much to continue forever without the risk of burnout. Now, I find myself ever busier, but as my own boss, doing a job that I utterly love, it’s a much easier thing to manage.

***Write with Ben Kane near Hobart, Australia with Novel Writing Retreats Australia in February 2014

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The Forgotten Legion (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)Hannibal: Enemy of RomeSpartacus: The Gladiator     Fortress of Spears (Empire)Auslander

Writing Historical Novels

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