With Paul Collard
Tell me your story.
I never set put to be a published writer. I have no degree or any relevant experience, either with history or with writing. I am just someone who sat down one day and decided to write a book. You might not be surprised to know that this first attempt was not really very good, but it did get me started and I received enough encouragement to keep me going and to try again. My second attempt became THE SCARLET THIEF and I was extremely lucky that my agent, David Headley, decided to give me a chance (despite a submission cover letter that I describe as awful and he kindly calls “confident”). It took a while, and some serious revisions, but eventually Headline took me on and published my debut novel in 2013.
Tell me about your latest book.
My latest book will be the sixth story in the Jack Lark series. It is called THE TRUE SOLDIER and is out in July this year. I am very excited about this one. THE TRUE SOLDIER will be the first of three books set in America. It has been fascinating to learn about a period in history that I really knew very little about. The book is set at the very start of the American Civil War and the First Battle of Bull Run (or for those from the south, The First Battle of Manassas).
Where do you get your information and ideas for your books?
I think research is critical to writing a successful historical fiction novel although I also wholeheartedly believe that it should never dominate the story. I always start researching a battle with the right Osprey book (I am addicted to collecting Osprey books!). These books give a brilliant overview, normally with terrific maps, and I recommend them without hesitation. I then try to find as many first hand accounts as I can. I never try to cover the entirety of a battle or campaign. All my books focus on one character, in my case the roguish Jack Lark, and I am attempting to portray his view of the battle. That means I cannot even begin to try to convey the whole of the battle, as the view of one man is only ever focused on what they can see and experience. That makes the first hand accounts of the battles vital. I want to know what the men who were on the ground saw and felt, what they said to one another and one they thought as the shot and shell began to tear their world apart.
Do you have a specific process when writing a book?
I have found a method that works for me. I start with a period of general research, but this quickly turns to furious note-taking. I then sketch out a rough outline for the story. With that done, I add layer after layer of notes, comments and thoughts to the outline, fleshing out the story and adding the scenes I want to see and the elements of the true history that I want incorporate into the story. When all that is done, I am left with an outline of the story that is somewhere between 25,000 and 35,000 words. I then have to sit down and bash out the first draft. For me this is often the hardest part. I have done the fun bit of working out most of the story and now it becomes a bit of a grind. It takes a good few weeks and it is always a tremendous relief when I finally type the last words to the historical note. Then the editing process begins. I go through the draft time and time again, polishing and re-writing, and adding as much “magic” as I can. This process takes at least as long as bashing out the first draft, but I think it is crucial. Only when I get to the point when I am throughly sick of reading the story that I let it lie for a few weeks. It then gets another polish and then I send it to my agent for his thoughts. For me, the whole process takes between six and nine months.
Do you have a writing/reading quirk or ritual?
No, none. The bulk of my writing is done on my daily commute to and from work. This means I have to be brutally efficient and I cannot afford to waste a second.
What is something you’ve learned about yourself through the process of writing?
That I can do more than I thought. I would never have dreamed it would be possible to be a published author. Yet here I am, six books in and contracted for two more. I still find that rather astonishing!
What do you think makes a good story?
I don’t think there is one single thing. The best novels have a wonderful combination that takes hold of a reader and draw them into a compelling story that they simply have to read. That combination comes from the characters, the setting, the style of the writing and the events in the story. It takes a beguiling mix to really succeed and that is the magic of writing, as that combination is the secret to a good story and in truth, no one can really tell you what that is. And yet it is there, in every good book.
If you could only read one book over and over, which one would you pick and why?
The Lord of the Rings. I have read it more times than I can recall and the epic scope of the tale means there is something new to be discovered in every reading.
What books are currently on your night stand?
Voices of the Civil War – Shiloh, by Time Life books.
New York Travel Guide – by Cereal
How do you organize your books?
Normally I don’t, but I recently found the energy to tidy my bookcases! I was ruthless and donated every single paperback to a local charity shop (except for my precious Sharpe and Flashman collections!) I have then grouped all my non-fiction research books onto one bookcase leaving the rest free for hardbacks and travel guides. I have very recently started to try to collect some signed first edition hardbacks. I have joined the Goldsboro books Book of the Month club and this is delivering some brilliant books I would never have discovered by myself (and I recommend joining it!) I have also started to collect some of the books from writers I most admire. I started with Christian Cameron’s phenomenal Long War series and I know have the whole set (although the first one is unsigned – if you are reading this Mr Cameron). I won’t be buying many this way, but hopefully over time I can build a small collection that is very specific to me and my tastes.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Great question! For me it’s easy. Bernard Cornwall, George McDonald Fraser and Christian Cameron. I don’t think I would say much, but I would hang on their every word and I reckon I would learn a huge amount about what it takes to be a terrific writer of historical fiction.
Thank you for joining me on Of Quills & Vellum today, Paul! It was a pleasure talking with you.