I am delighted to be talking today with historical novelist Giles Kristian.
When I was fourteen I suffered a bout of glandular fever. I was off school and bored out of my mind, so my mother bought me a book. There were warriors with axes on the cover and she knew me pretty well. That book was The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore and it changed my life. There in my hands was the key to another world and that was what probably started the whole thing off. In more recent times Bernard Cornwell has been without doubt the biggest influence. His were the books that first put the crazy idea firmly in my head that I could be an author. I find his writing so fluid seemingly effortless and am able to immerse myself completely in the worlds he creates. This, I think, is testament to his mastery of the craft. But I also find inspiration outside of the historical fiction genre. I can read Stephen King and marvel at his imagination. I can tear through Lee Child and admire the author’s ability to make you crave the next page.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was there a specific event that made you decide?
Perhaps it was the poetry of Seamus Heaney, who was introduced to me by my 6th form English teacher Ed Thorpe. I remember reading ‘Digging’ from Death of a Naturalist, aged about seventeen, and feeling the words so keenly. The poem resonated with me utterly. It still does. I think that even back then, when I read the words:
‘Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.’
I somehow knew that my path was to be a writer, too. I remember Seamus Heaney’s poems, the likes of Mid Term Break about the death of his four-year-old brother, and I feel the power of his craft, the emotion of it balling hot in my chest.
‘He lay in the four foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.
A four foot box, a foot for every year.’
Since then I’ve wanted people to ‘feel’ my words as I ‘felt’ Heaney’s.
You write historical fiction. Why this genre in particular?
I have always been drawn to the past. Everywhere I go and in everything I do I am confronted with the past and with an almost overwhelming sense of history. I catch glimpses of it in a thatched roof. I smell it in the smoke of a wood fire. I hear it in the languid sigh of waves on the shore and I touch it when I lay a flat hand on a rock at the fjord’s edge. I get enormously frustrated that I cannot go deeper, that I will never experience the past as it truly was and can only interpret it from a great distance. Truth be told, I should probably be grateful (can you imagine life without antibiotics or anesthetic?) but nevertheless, history fascinates me. This is why I love historical fiction. A good historical fiction novel is a time machine, or the closest thing to one.
Your RAVEN saga novels are set in the 9th Century and The Bleeding Land novels in the English Civil War of the 17th Century. Why the change of period?
The Viking stuff is in my blood and writing it is a joy. But after three Viking novels I felt I needed to flex my imagination and stretch my ability. It seemed to me that there weren’t many (or any) highly visible, full-on action adventure novels set against what is such a rich historical backdrop. However, the English Civil War is a Gordian knot and maybe that accounts for the dearth of fiction about it. It was a highly complex and nuanced affair and between you and me, the research is a pig. Nevertheless, I don’t really think The Bleeding Land novels are about the Civil War. Rather they tell the tale of one family which is ripped apart by the conflict. We follow Mun (Edmund), Tom and their sister Bess as they fight for their lives and deal with their own inner demons. I wanted to write about love, honour, duty, revenge, hatred and fear. The books are about the Rivers family, and the English Civil War provided the ideal canvas upon which to paint their tale.
Which research tools, sources and websites did you find most useful?
Fortunately, there is plenty of non-fiction about the English Civil War, and whilst writing I usually have four or five books open on my desk. Sometimes, especially when writing about a historical battle such as Edgehill or Marston Moor, writing can be like trying to piece together an enormous and complex jigsaw puzzle. Far from some flamboyant, keyboard-rattling stream of consciousness, it is often laborious and difficult and slow. But if you get it right the reader will never know the work it took to create. They will be drawn into the moment and the period. If that happens, I’m happy.
Do you plan your ideas carefully or just follow your ideas and see where they lead?
You could say I write from the hip. With the RAVEN saga it was more like hoisting the sail and seeing where the wind and waves took me. That can be very liberating but invariably there are times when I scratch my head and think, where on earth is it going to go now? Sometimes, reader’s reviews will talk of the twists and turns and that makes me smile because they’re rarely planned. It’s just me making it up as I go along! But with the Civil War stuff I have a vague idea where it’s going because I follow a chronology of actual events. The major battles of the conflict provide a skeleton around which I build the flesh of the story.
Do you do a lot of editing, or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Only once (in RAVEN Blood Eye) have I ever cut a passage of writing from my first draft. I don’t really know why but maybe it’s because I write slowly to begin with and perhaps this means it’s more or less right by the time I submit it to my editor. Of course, he will then make suggestions such as adding character motivation, more explanation or filling in some backstory to remind readers what happened in the previous book, and that’s very much appreciated. When you’re so close to the story things might seem obvious to me that are not obvious at all to the reader. Then there’s the copy-editor without whose incredible skill our books would be far less readable. She spots the continuity errors, chronology and timing problems, geographical mistakes and generally tidies things up. Having a publisher like Transworld behind me is a real privilege and the book you see on the shelves is absolutely the result of a brilliant team effort.
If you were to give advice to someone thinking of writing historical fiction what would you say?
You must, MUST concentrate on the story and the characters, not the history. Your job is to entertain, not inform. Yes, you’ll put the work in to get the details and the history right and to create that sense of time and place – but nothing is more important than giving the reader an enjoyable experience. Also, when you finish your first draft and think it’s ready, it’s not. Put it away. Resist the urge to seek validation and praise. Come back to it with a clear head and you’ll be amazed how much it can be improved.
If there was one thing that you would change about your writing career, what would it be?
I’m very happy with how things are gong. I feel enormously privileged to be able to make a living from my imagination, and I can’t currently think of anything I’d rather be doing. I think I’ll write a contemporary novel at some point, perhaps a thriller. I want to write more short stories for ebook publication. I want to write more film scripts and explore that world a little more, having recently sold the movie option for the RAVEN series. I’d like more time to read, but having two small children (a girl of three-and-a-half and an eleven-month-old boy) means that spare time is not a luxury I have at the moment.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
I write in a cosy cedar wood cabin where the only distractions are birds, rabbits, the occasional weasel bounding past….and Twitter. I have recently started using a stand-up desk because I don’t like being someone who sits down all day. Sitting at a desk just seems so at odds with what I write that I wanted to try being more active whilst creating. I haven’t yet gone in for the miniature treadmill some people use at their stand-up desks (seriously) but I’m considering it (seriously). I start around 9.30 and finish around 4.30-5.00pm and set myself a daily word count target of 1400 words. Sometimes I’ll listen to film scores, especially when writing battle scenes, but mostly there is just the silence and the occasional but obligatory authorial mutterings.
What’s been your favourite moment in your writing career?
My then editor very kindly took me to see my first book, RAVEN: Blood Eye, being printed. Anyone who aspires to become an author of physical books can perhaps imagine what an incredible moment it was to see what began as a daydream manifested into a beautiful hardback book. And not just one but thousands upon thousands, wending their way along conveyer belts and stacked here and there in glorious, angular mountains.
Tell us something about your most recent book.
My new book, BROTHERS’ FURY continues the story of the Rivers family and their struggle to survive amidst the turmoil of war. The brothers Mun and Tom still fight on opposing sides, driven by anger and honour and the need for vengeance. Their sister Bess faces no lesser peril by leaving the safety of their home and taking to the road on a quest to find Tom and re-unite her family. This is quite a savage tale in places, dealing with people’s base instincts and the realistic horrors of a nation at war with itself. When you read this book I want you to feel as though you have ridden into the fray. I want you to feel breathless when you turn the last page.
The Bleeding Land book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_0st-526hM