Inspiration seems so much more creative and worthy than the structured and methodical act of planning, and it’s tempting to emphasise the former in any success as a writer I might enjoy. But looking back, there is no doubt that writing the William Constable historical thrillers was more the result of planning over years than a sudden whoosh of inspiration.
My mother was an early influence on my reading. She was a member of the Richard III Society and devoured all fiction (and some non-fiction) that covered Medieval Britain, especially the Plantagenets. She later expanded this to include Tudor and Victorian periods. Following her encouragement, 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 Aubrey/Maturin novels of the English Navy in the early nineteenth century. 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 planted the seed of an ambition to write historical fiction.
In mid-2016, some 15 years after my first encounter with O’Brian, I retired from full-time work. Within a month I had enrolled on two creative writing workshops. I had done plenty of academic and business writing, but had never made a serious attempt to write fiction. I found support and momentum in the company of other aspiring writers in the workshops and within three months had started to write a novel. Very little research was involved, with the plot of a contemporary thriller unfolding as I wrote. It was finished in four or five months, I had enjoyed the writing and, although it wasn’t very good, I had the experience of storytelling spread over roughly 100,000 words.
One of the best decisions I made was to get a professional critique. No matter how hard they try to be objective and critical, friends and family just can’t do it. I learned a lot from the critique and there was enough encouragement in there to suggest if I reworked and edited thoroughly, it may be taken up by a publisher. But I didn’t want to go down that road. I put my first attempt at a novel to one side as an apprentice piece. Despite my inexperience, I had the audacity to imagine I was now ready to tackle what I really wanted to write – historical fiction.
I had already decided it was to be set in sixteenth century England, even though I was advised the Tudors had been overdone and interest in the period was waning. I’m not a historian, but the Tudor period was the one I was most familiar with, so the research would be easier. Also, I wasn’t convinced that the market was saturated. Surely, the fabulous books by Mantel, Sansom and others had strengthened interest in a period full of intrigue, peril and opportunities to fire an author’s imagination. My protagonist would be fictional with the plot woven around real events and characters. An interest in Doctor Dee led to the choice of my hero as a scholar, rather than a swashbuckling adventurer.
So far, so planned with little in the way of ‘light bulb’ inspiration. I also knew I had to research and structure this book in meticulous detail. I couldn’t write flying by the seat of my pants. Errors would be pounced on and reported, damaging reputation and branding. Of course, I underestimated the time it would take to do the research and with my first book, State of Treason, the research took twice as long as the writing. But, for the most part, I enjoyed the preparation, consoling myself that it would be worthwhile if book one turned out to be the first of a series.
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. State of Treason is a spy thriller, so maintaining a good pace was essential. But I also wanted the reader to feel immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of Elizabethan London. I had to experiment with the balance between readability and authenticity in language before I settled on what I thought might work. Writing historical fiction in the present tense has its critics and I dithered before taking the plunge and choosing to write that way. The book is also written in the first person, from William Constable’s viewpoint, as it felt the most natural way to write the story.
I’ve taken a long and winding route to describe how writing the William Constable historical thrillers series was the result of inspiration from reading Patrick O’Brian and the somewhat uneven process of planning in the 15 or so years that followed. I was fortunate to find a publisher and enough readers who liked the book to consider producing an audio version – something I never envisaged when I started writing. And how was it creating an audio version of State of Treason? That’s a whole different story.
By Paul Walker