2. How has that realization changed you as a writer?
Well, to the extent that I know my own foibles, it’s useful. And as a professional writer–particularly during my journalism days–I know that I will procrastinate till the cows come home, then I will stay up all night if I must, and I will file on time and to word count. Always. And during the time I am working, genuinely working, I will force myself to be as disciplined as I always was as a pianist, and I will work like stink until it’s perfection. However much that takes out of me.
3. What made you chose to write about your subject matter? What was your inspiration?
Well, I was a medievalist to begin with. And I strayed.
I was living on this great estate with a great house, and I started to become engaged in the architecture of the house and then I started looking at the creation of Georgian London, and I was enraptured by the squares…and bearing in mind that I was there musically already with Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart…and the poetry of Keats whom I rather liked.
4. Where/how did you start with researching your premise? Tell us a bit about your novel. Who were your favorite characters and what made them appealing?
I was in Paris having an utterly wretched time. It was chucking it down with rain. Every blooming bit of clothing I’d brought with me was in a wet or damp heap somewhere and wouldn’t dry. My shoes were all soaked. And naturally, I had a stinking cold.
So I went walkabout and ended up in the Isle St Louis at this minuscule restaurant (I am a foodie!) that was just this one low-ceiled room with trestle tables and benches in this medieval building, with the kitchen just at the back of the room, and it wasn’t what I expected of Paris–it was as anti-sidewalk cafe cool as one could find. And after this amazing dinner, I just walked for hours through the streets there–and was sucked into this world of old Paris. And it lodged itself in my mind forever–the smells, the barred tiny windows, the thick ochre walls, the uneven narrow streets…
Then, a few days later, I was in Rye in Sussex and again was walking and found myself immersed in that world–Mermaid Street there isn’t made with cobbles or macadam, it’s made of pebbles and they are wobbly-bobbly to walk on and there were all the stories of the smugglers there, (and it rained) and from those two places, the contrast of the two worlds of England and France circa 1812 began to ferment in my imagination. So I wrote some of it down…and it grew.
The writing began, the research took over. I knew there were spies–always a thrilling and intriguing premise–but everything kept evolving as the research uncovered more and more of the period and took me deeper and deeper into the murky world of Napoleonic Europe.
I don’t really have favourite characters though. I’m not a planner. (As we’ve seen.) A book grows organically–line upon line–out of the collection of individualities who come together in it and if one allows them to be who they are rather than forcing them to fulfill some pre-ordained role, their interactions aren’t going to necessarily be what one envisioned.
And then there are those characters who introduce themselves rather rudely with, “Oi! I’m here! Not going away.” So quite often I write in a state of surprise.
But I will say, one thing I really did want to do was create ambivalent characters, because I love that in a novel–the thing where you meet the character and think, “Yuck, skanksome!” But then as the character faces the challenges, as he grows and the reader begins to understand and perceive him not as one thing or another, maybe one thinks less of him or perhaps more, through observing him in action…until by the end, possibly the ‘hero’ isn’t whom one thought he was at all…
5. What spoke to you about this plot line?
It just happened. The research kept rewriting it. I’d think I had this tidy plot. I’d write my charming little precis. I thought I knew everything. Wrong. So wrong. And then I’d discover something so essential or so antithetical to what I’d thought was important. Or even worse, I’d discover that this actual chap who I thought was here, wasn’t here, he was elsewhere…so that precis would go onto the floor over the shoulder (for dog to mangle) and off I’d go…
6. What made you want to tell this story for others to enjoy?
I had to. So much of it was unacknowledged and unknown history…we think of the Napoleonic wars as this glorious episode of brave soldiers in tight breeches with great sideburns, wearing very sexy uniforms whilst their women live at home near Jane Austen…but the reality of it drove me to write what I discovered. I couldn’t not. Though I do hope with the greatest sincerity that it is enjoyable.
7. For those reading – what advice can you give to other historical writers?
It’s the same as I would give to any writer. Learn the tools of your trade. We don’t hire a builder to build us a house who doesn’t know how to use the hammer, nails, saw, spirit level or pour the concrete or put on the roof. So–grammar, punctuation, spelling, character development, description, pace–these are your tools. Learn them. Use them. Master them.
Build that house so that it stands. Because what so many writers miss is that if there’s a typo or a spelling or punctuation or grammar mistake in the first sentence or paragraph of the covering letter, the letter and MS go in the agency’s or publisher’s or the news editor’s bin. It doesn’t matter how amazing that work is on pages 44-193. Those pages will never be read… And if it means that much to you, then it’s worth doing properly and well.
For an historical novelist–keep checking your dates and your facts. It’s always helpful and then when some troll swats you, you’ll at least know that they’re talking vermin dander and it won’t bother you so much.