Before welcoming this week's guest author and blog, I am delighted to share an announcement that has brought me great joy this week. My debut novel, Antonius: Son of Rome was selected as a finalist in the Chanticleer International Book Awards/Chaucer Division. To have made it this far is a great honor in such a prestigious competition, and I feel blessed and humbled to have received this honor. The awards presentation will take place in early June, so I will look forward to the announcements, knowing that many fine books have been selected, and so everyone wins when it comes to enjoying them all.
This week's guest--Paul Walker--has crafted a fascinating suspense novel taking place in the Elizabethan period. I've asked Paul to share a little with us on why he enjoys writing historical thrillers. Sit back, kick up your feet, and let's delve deeper into this author's mind as he tells us all about the blessings and curses when it comes to plotting a thriller taking place so very long ago.
Why Write Historical Thrillers - Challenges and Joys?
by: Paul Walker
I read historical fiction because it transforms history from a dry list of dates, events and names into experiences, adventures and an understanding of life in past times. How I came to write historical thrillers is more difficult to express in a few words.
My mother was an early influence on my reading. She loved history and devoured all fiction set between early Medieval and late Victorian Britain. I started reading historical fiction as a teenager. Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time and T H White’s Once and Future King were memorable early reads. In common with many others, reading for pleasure took a back seat while I worked my way up the greasy pole of career advancement, made a home and raised a family. It was later in my working life, commuting into London, that I rediscovered the joy of reading fiction again. My taste was eclectic. I read widely, quickly and, during this period, discovered what remains my favourite series of books – Patrick O’Brian’s novels of the English Navy in the early nineteenth century featuring Jack Aubrey and Steven Maturin. I was entranced by his depiction of life aboard a man-of-war, the ambience he created and, above all, his writing style and use of language, which conjured an acute sense of period. It was my admiration of O’Brian that renewed my fondness for the genre and planted the seed of an ambition to write historical fiction.
It was over 15 years before I was in a position to begin tentative steps towards this ambition. I retired from full-time work at the University of London in 2016 and more or less straight away joined two creative writing groups. I had done plenty of academic and business writing, but had never made a serious attempt to write fiction. I wasn’t sure if it would be for me. I found support and momentum in the company of other aspiring writers in the workshops and, in a short time, I was hooked. Within a year I had written my first novel. It wasn’t very good, but it had given me an understanding of what was required in planning and writing 100,000 or so words – a very different experience from writing short fiction.
I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to attempt historical fiction. I knew there would be months of research involved, whichever period or style of writing I chose. My first thoughts had settled on a Tudor thriller in the reign of Elizabeth. After 4 or 5 months, I was tiring of research and decided to start writing. I wrote the first 3 chapters and sent them off for a professional critique. The feedback I received was conflicted. My writing was commended, but I was advised to choose another era as interest in Tudor fiction was on the wane – too many other writers had trod the same path.
I ‘ummed’ and ‘aahed’ for a while, considered rewriting in another historical period and toyed with the idea of introducing fantasy into the story. In the end I decided to stick with my original plan and write an Elizabethan spy thriller. I had chosen the main protagonist as William Constable, a physician and scholar, had started to get into his head and the storyline was taking a more positive and concrete shape.
The most difficult part of writing the book was finding a style of writing to suit the period, the main characters and the pace of the plot. I wanted the reader to feel immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of Elizabethan London. Recalling my admiration of O’Brian’s prose, I sought to capture the sense of time and place in my writing. I knew language too faithful to the period wouldn’t work, especially for a thriller. It would slow the story and readers would give up. On the other hand, I dislike phrases and words with a too-modern chime and recalled a recent shudder when I came across, ‘See you later,’ as a line of dialogue in a novel set in the fourteenth century. I had to experiment with the balance between readability and authenticity in language, before settling on what I thought was a fair compromise.
Writing historical fiction in the present tense has its critics and I dithered before taking the plunge and choosing to write that way. I started writing in the third person, but after six chapters I rewrote them in the first person. Writing from William Constable’s viewpoint felt the most natural way to write the story. I could imagine myself as William riding through the slop and stink of sixteenth century London streets, meeting with Sir Francis Walsingham at the Palace of Whitehall or visiting a dead house in Southwark to examine the corpse of a suspected plotter.
Writing historical thrillers doesn’t feel like a chore or a laborious process; it heightens the type of experience I get from reading. While I’m writing, planning and researching, I’m there experiencing that time through William Constable’s senses.
Paul is married and lives in a village 30 miles north of London. Having worked in universities and run his own business, he is now a full-time writer of fiction and part-time director of an education trust. His writing in a garden shed is regularly disrupted by children and a growing number of grandchildren and dogs. Paul writes historical fiction. He inherited his love of British history and historical fiction from his mother, who was an avid member of Richard III Society. The William Constable series of historical thrillers is based around real characters and events in the late sixteenth century. The first three books in the series are State of Treason; A Necessary Killing; and The Queen’s Devil. He promises more will follow.
William Constable is a scholar of mathematics, astrology and practices as a physician. He receives an unexpected summons to the Queen’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham in the middle of the night. He fears for his life when he spies the tortured body of an old friend in the palace precincts.
His meeting with Walsingham takes an unexpected turn when he is charged to assist a renowned Puritan, John Foxe, in uncovering the secrets of a mysterious cabinet containing an astrological chart and coded message. Together, these claim Elizabeth has a hidden, illegitimate child (an “unknowing maid”) who will be declared to the masses and serve as the focus for an invasion.
Constable is swept up in the chase to uncover the identity of the plotters, unaware that he is also under suspicion. He schemes to gain the confidence of the adventurer John Hawkins and a rich merchant. Pressured into taking a role as court physician to pick up unguarded comments from nobles and others, he has become a reluctant intelligencer for Walsingham.
Do the stars and cipher speak true, or is there some other malign intent in the complex web of scheming?
Constable must race to unravel the threads of political manoeuvring for power before a new-found love and perhaps his own life are forfeit.
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