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Posts tagged ‘UK historical novelist’

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’s author website: www.julianstockwin.com

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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)

Writing Historical Novels
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Historical Research And Accuracy In Historical Novels, by Tim Willocks

All that research. Years of it.

What’s the point? How much does it matter? Who cares? Who even notices?

Much more often than not, those who appear to notice or care (they looked it up on Wikipedia, but not in the Bibliotheque Nationale) are wrong.

Personally, as a reader or viewer, I really don’t mind pure fantasies of the past. If anything, the purer the better. I love The Iliad and Richard III. I was actually quite upset to discover that Blood Meridian was precisely based on real events: up until then I had I been in awe of McCarthy’s imagination. I think it’s great that Shakespeare made most of it up. The fact that in La Reine Margot both Isabelle Adjani (39) and Daniel Auteuil (44) played historical characters who were less than half their own ages did not undermine my enjoyment in the least; and since Dumas’s magnificent story is absolute tripe in terms of historical accuracy, there was no point in letting it do so.

The truth is that it is simply not possible to create an accurate portrait of the past. No one can faithfully reproduce the reality of the 1970s, let alone the 1570s. Speaking for myself, I couldn’t recreate last week. If one is rash enough convey the fact that there were no sewers in 1570s Paris, which meant that the streets were asphalted in excrement, readers and reviewers complain about the smell. Just about every great historical fiction ever created, from The Iliad to War and Peace, would fail as an essay from a History undergraduate. Charlton Heston’s Moses – or Michelangelo – is essentially just as good as anyone else’s, in historical terms. All that matters is that the fictional work in question achieve what we hope for from any good art. Since when was art in any form supposed to be ‘accurate’ in such a depressingly pedestrian sense?

So why, I ask myself, have I spent years of grinding toil on research that is, in essence, irrelevant? More to the point, as I contemplate doing it again, can I avoid it? Can I throw wide my window and scream: “I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Re-enter, once again, the truly great Charlton Heston.

Would many historical novelists of a certain age be writing historical novels if not for him? For what it’s worth, I don’t care that he waved a Kentucky rifle at NRA meetings; it’s a small price to pay for Chrysagon and Major Dundee.

I once met Gore Vidal, whose ‘Lincoln’ provoked a fantastically funny (and lengthy) exchange of letters in the NYRB, in which he blithely humiliated a squadron of bleating historians (well worth Googling). Imagine Gore’s horror when, some years after the novel was published, convincing evidence emerged to the effect that Lincoln was bisexual, and wasn’t too careful about concealing the fact. Anyway, Gore told us a story – I suspect one of his party pieces – about working on the script of Ben Hur. One day at Cinecitta he saw an art director who was dressing the set for a feasting scene by putting a bowl of tomatoes on the table. “So I asked if Mrs. Hur was planning to make Ben a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.” His point being, of course, that tomatoes came from the New World and didn’t exist in Palestine in 30AD. (Apologies, but ‘CE’ holds no grandeur for me).

This story has haunted me ever since. Did they eat potatoes in Malta in 1565? It’s cutting it fine, I know, but not impossible – and would Gore Vidal review my book and humiliate me as he did the professors from Yale?

Thus at a certain moment I found myself wondering if there was a chiming clock in Paris in 1572, because it would be very useful, plot-wise, for my hero to hear it. After some hours of research I discovered that not only did the clock of the Conciergerie chime, it was in the perfect location to be heard at the moment I needed it. I wrote the scenes. The chimes worked marvellously. A month later I discovered that the chimes were not installed in said clock until 1573, under Henri III. Do I take the chimes out of the novel and re-write three chapters? Is there a single living soul among the few who will ever read the book that will know this exceedingly obscure fact? If they do, will they forgive me?

Gore’s tomato story returned to haunt me, along with the ghost of Charlton Heston and his BLT. I took the chimes out. I struggled to find a way for the hero to see the clock instead of hear it. A convenient gap – a wharf? – between the buildings crowding the right bank of the Seine? Knock the buildings down? (Who would know that they were ever there, except the odd art historian who might remember the paintings thereof?) Have him climb on the roof?

I rewrote it. But should I have? You multiply that kind of problem by at least a hundred time per novel and it becomes a recipe for insanity. Or at least for the urge to write a novel about last week.

Any advice would be welcome.

The illusion of historical ‘realism’, and the whole question of ‘history’ itself as a vast and shifting work of fiction/propaganda, are topics that will have to await future posts.

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Tim Willocks’s author website: www.timwillocks.com

Tim Willocks’s bio page

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

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

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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Paul Fraser Collard’s author website: www.paulfrasercollard.com

Paul Fraser Collard’s bio page

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     Hannibal: Enemy of RomeEscape by Moonlight

Writing Historical Novels
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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

Ben Kane’s author website: www.benkane.net

Ben Kane’s bio page

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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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Writing My Historical Novel ‘The Kirilov Star’, by Mary Nichols

They say you should write about what you know, especially when you are feeling your way as a writer, but that can be dreadfully restricting and, if you did that, you would never write books with historical backgrounds. Think what opportunities you would be missing!  The story is the thing. As long as your research is thorough, there’s no reason why you can’t attempt something a little more adventurous.

I’ve been fascinated by Russian history ever since I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment as a schoolgirl – in English, I hasten to add. Then later when Dr Zhivago was made into a film it renewed my interest, especially in the Revolution and the terrible fate of the Tsar and his family, and the rumours that the Grand Duchess Anastasia had survived. A film was made about it and for a long time it was believed, but this has since been disproved with DNA tests. It was a time of such upheaval that people simply disappeared. The idea for a book simmered in my mind for a long time and, though I planned it out, I hesitated to begin writing for fear of biting off more than I could chew.

When I told my family about it, I began receiving books about Russia for birthday and Christmas presents. That set me collecting books to help with my research, until I had dozens of them. The more I read, the more I became immersed in the history and eventually I couldn’t put it off any longer and The Kirilov Star was born

My aristocratic family, distant relatives of the Tsar, are separated when trying to leave Russia during the civil war in 1920. The only survivor is four-year-old Lydia Kirillova, too young and too traumatised to tell anyone what happened and where she comes from.  She knows her name but the only other clue to her identity is a fabulous jewel sewn into her petticoat. She is taken to a British diplomat who has been instructed to oversee the evacuation of the refugees and then leave himself. He is left wondering what to do with her.

He could send her to a Russian orphanage, but they were notoriously dreadful places and for someone who appears to be of aristocratic stock, it would be worse. He and his wife are childless, something they both regret, could Lydia fill that gap? He could give her a good life, but would his wife accept her? Would Lydia later blame him for taking her from her homeland?

He decides to risk it and Lydia grows up in the privileged background of a stately home and seems content. But Kolya, another Russian émigré, sows the seeds of her discontent and persuades her to marry him and go back to Russia with him to look for her real parents. It is the biggest mistake of her life. Russia under Stalin is a dangerous place for an ex-aristocrat to be. Her husband leaves her for another woman, taking their son, Yuri, with him and she is trying to track him down when the second world war breaks out and her situation becomes desperate. She has left a good home and loving family to chase a dream which turns into a nightmare. She is forced to abandon her search and return to England and only much later when Stalin is dead and it becomes easier to travel is she able to resume her search for her son, helped by the man who has always been in the background of her life and has loved her for years. But when Yuri is finally found, the years apart and the different cultures are not so easy to bridge.

Having written it, I wanted someone who was familiar with the country and the times to look at it before I submitted it to my publisher. I was lucky. Two of the books I had used for my research were Moscow 1941 and Across the Moscow River, both by Sir Rodric Braithwaite who was British Ambassador to Moscow from 1988 to 1992 and I wrote to him asking if he would take a look at the manuscript. It was a long shot but to my delight he agreed to do so and, besides making some very pertinent comments for which I was very grateful, told me my research had been very thorough and he had no quarrel with it. It just goes to show you should never be afraid to be adventurous. Most people I have approached with queries have been happy to oblige. Taking a chance paid off.

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Mary Nichols’s author website: www.marynichols.co.uk

Mary Nichols’s bio page

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The Girl on the BeachEscape by MoonlightThe Summer HouseThe Kirilov Star     The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)

Writing Historical Novels
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Using Language Specific To The Setting Of Your Novel, by Anne Perry

I agree with Alice from Alice in Wonderland: I don’t like a story that has no conversation.  But in what sort of language will your characters speak?  Will it be correct to the time and place of your story?  Well we can completely forget those set in ancient Egypt for a start, and countries where people speak a language other than our own.

The question really is, how about those who spoke our language (in my case only English, I’m afraid) but in a different period of time?  Vocabulary, references, even grammar change over a few years, never mind centuries.  And dialect changes from one area to another, over a very short distance in older countries.  And what do you do if your characters travel?

The choice is between being accurate and being understandable.  My belief is that if the reader doesn’t understand, if not exactly then at least approximately, then you will lose them.  Writing is, above all, an art of communication.  Some meanings can be guessed at.  In other places meaning doesn’t matter, it only adds colour, and if not understood will not spoil the story.  This might be the case with dialect words, and they can add a great deal of individuality to a setting or a character.  The same can be true of accent.  I suggest just a few altered sounds as enough to indicate difference.  You don’t want a reader stopping every few lines to try to work out what the word is.  Never break the spell, if you can help it.

Actually that just about sums it up.  If you confuse the reader or make them leave the story to look up a word, then it isn’t going to work.  You are trying to involve them, make them think and make them care.  You are not trying to confuse them and impress them with your scholarship.  If you want to do that, write a text book.

You need variation in vocabulary from one character to another.  Sometimes it takes a few re-writes to secure that – at least it does for me.  Some people use few words, some many.  People have favourite expressions, and so on.  (For heaven’s sake, don’t pepper it with ‘Gadzooks!’  or such phrases.  Did anybody ever say that?  With a straight face?)

The difficulty is to avoid neologisms, i.e. modern phrases we now use naturally, reference to events that have not yet happened, and the language that will come from them, inventions and discoveries not yet made, dishes not yet invented, music not yet written, countries not discovered (or re-named) fabrics and materials not invented – you get the drift.

I remember having someone’s heels click on linoleum – then wondering if it was even invented at the time, or, if it was, that it would be too new and expensive to be in the income level of the house I was referring to.  I looked it up and it was fine – but it might not have been.

My agent draws a little skull and crossbones sign on my manuscript where I have used a modern turn of phrase.  It happens now and then.  They are in my thoughts.  There is also the issue of modern grammar.  (There is no such word in English English (as opposed to American English and other forms of English) as ‘gotten’.  (Well-bred Victorians would say ‘I have’ rather than ‘I’ve got’.)

They are small things, a word here and there, but then an extra teaspoon of salt in your food is a small thing – but it ruins the flavour.  It is the sort of error you take care of when you re-write.  Polishing, tidying up can be fun.  Make it the best it can be.

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Anne Perry’s author website: www.anneperry.co.uk

Anne Perry’s bio page

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A Christmas HomecomingAcceptable LossSlaves of ObsessionThe William Monk Mysteries: The First Three Novels     Wounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)Quest

Writing Historical Novels
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My Novel Writing Habits, by Anthony Riches

The creative  process is a bit of a strange thing for yours truly. I’m the sort of writer who writes to empty the cistern of words that build up in his head, then waits for it to fill up again (often overnight) as the subconscious does its thing and invents the next bit of plot. I never have that (I guess) luxurious feeling of having the whole book plotted out to the last twist in my head – I’m far more likely to sit back and slap my forehead when I’m 9/10ths of the way through a story, with the revelation that should have been blindingly obvious from very early on. I am, on the whole, a bit slow on the uptake, although I usually get there in the end. Of course those revelations tend to require something of a re-write to make the twist/revelation/thingamajiggy make sense, and for the reader to be able to either spot it from the breadcrumbs I lay for them or, if they’re like me, to slap their foreheads as they realise what it was I ‘had in mind all the way through the book’ but was too mean to share with them. My daily progress, when I’m at it full time, tends to be of the 1,500-2,000 words a day variety, which is OK but hardly stunning, as I sit, scratch my head and generally noodle off into la-la land for portions of the day.

Sometimes the muse bats me round the head, says ‘you have been a good boy, Tony Riches, so here’s a juicy idea to play with’, and, like all those sci-fi moments in the films when the spaceship goes to ‘jump speed/warp/circumventing the laws of physics drive power’, my mind leaps into frenetic word on word action as if it’s been cattle prodded. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does…

Case in point. I sat down to write on Saturday morning after the first few days in my new job (I have to work for a living you know, I have a house full of children and dogs to feed), musing on an idea that you and I shall call ‘The Centurion’ for the time being, regarding a character in the Empire series. Intrigued by this line of thought, I put fingers to keyboard in a tentative manner – and dropped 6,938 shiny new words out of my brain (and I’m still surprised and gratified by that number, having just gone back to check it) in about five hours. Now, to be honest, I did spend the rest of the weekend working on it – editing, tweaking… gloating… mostly gloating – but the creative process was done in an afternoon. To put it in context, if I could write at that speed routinely I could absolutely nail a novel in three weeks, no sweat. Which I clearly cannot. Where it came from, I have no idea. Should I be getting on with book eight, rather than mucking around with side projects? Yes I should. Could I have resisted it’s siren call, once the seed was planted by something I read about a certain year in history? Not likely.

So, 7,000 words of standalone short story now sit proudly in my Dropbox account. Those words don’t easily fit into book eight, so their value to the ongoing process is low. I am prouder of the result than you can imagine. I’m sure I’ll find something to do with it. That’s not actually the point of today’s observations on writing (it’s mainly gloating, as it happens). The point (or the question) is this:

I write full time on occasion, for weeks or even months, while prospective employers look at my cv and laugh. I average 1,500 words a day, do a lot of dog walking and cooking, and generally have a lovely, relaxed time.

I then get a job, in London, involving two hours travel a day and ten hours of fairly intense thinking, on subjects a million miles away from ancient Rome. At the end of the first week, I bang out 7,000 words in an afternoon. Some weird accelerated subconscious creative process seems to be at work, beneath the surface of all that professionally focused thought. Question: I would like to ‘retire’ to a life of full time writing – but, if I can afford to do so, should I?

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Anthony Riches’s author website: www.anthonyriches.com

Anthony Riches’s bio page

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United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Wounds of Honour: v. 1 (Empire)Arrows of Fury (Empire)Fortress of Spears (Empire)The Leopard Sword (Empire)     EquinoxThe Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

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