Today I’m delighted to be speaking with James Aitcheson. James is the author of three novels set during the Norman Conquest of England: Sworn Sword, The Splintered Kingdom, and Knights of the Hawk (forthcoming). The US edition of Sworn Sword will be published on August 6th. I was fascinated to talk with an someone who is writing about the same times and sometimes the same characters and events as I do in The Lost King novels.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was there a specific event that made you decide?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was very young. There isn’t a single event that set me on that path – it’s just something I’ve always aspired to. I was forever writing stories when I was growing up, although I didn’t necessarily always see myself penning historical ficton. As a teenager I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and so I used to write a lot in those genres.
What made you write historical fiction and why this period?
It was only when I went to study History at Cambridge that I began to think about turning to historical fiction. The idea for a novel set in the years after 1066 came to me while I was in my final year, putting the finishing touches to my dissertation on the Norman Conquest. I wanted to explore what it would have been like to live during those unsettled years when the English were still coming to terms with their new foreign overlords. Of course the novel in its final form was very different from the one I set out to create, but that still remains for me one of its central themes.
What’s been your favourite moment in your writing career?
Seeing my first book, Sworn Sword, in hardback for the first time. That was a very strange feeling! Up until then I’d only known the novel as something that existed on my computer screen and as a collection of typed A4 sheets, so to see it in its final printed form was a real thrill.
How do you research your novels?
When I started out writing the novel that became Sworn Sword, I had the advantage that, as a result of my studies into the Norman Conquest, I already had a good grounding in the period, the principal actors and the sequence of events.
Since then, however, I’ve had to read up on a great many topics that I didn’t previously know much about: the design of Norman longships; the various stages in the production of parchment; musical instruments; food and drink; fashions in hairstyles in in clothing. Absorbing that level of detail was necessary to understand how it would have been to live in eleventh-century England. For each novel I also make sure to return to the relevant primary source material: the chronicles, annals and other contemporary accounts, and even the poetry of the age. Not only do these sources provide us with the voices of the past, but they also often reveal surprising and intriguing nuggets of information.
As well as doing book-research, I like to tread the same ground that my characters would have walked. For that reason I’ve visited many of the places featured in the novels, including York, which features prominently in both Sworn Sword and The Splintered Kingdom, and the site of the battle of Hastings. Of course these places have changed enormously since the eleventh century, but nevertheless I find that it helps me gain a feel for the lie of the land, and helps me to bring these places to life in the novels.
Which research tools, sources and web-sites did you find most useful?
A large number of resources for studying British history are now freely available online, which is great. One that I often refer to is the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE), a searchable database containing information on every single inhabitant of England from the sixth to the eleventh century, which has recently been extended to cover Domesday Book. Another is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), a reference work containing biographies of notable figures from British history, which can be accessed by anyone with a library membership. I find both resources immensely useful.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
Novel-writing is about as far from a nine-to-five job as it’s possible to get. It’s very difficult to regulate inspiration, so I don’t keep to particular routines or set myself strict working hours. Discipline is important, though, so I aim simply to write one thousand words each day, and I just keep going until I reach that target. Sometimes that will take only a few hours, which allows me time to add new material to my website or update my followers on Twitter and Facebook with my latest news, while on other days I’ll still be writing late into the evening.
Which authors have had the greatest influence upon you?
My reading tastes are incredibly varied, and I take my influences from a wide range of genres. In terms of historical fiction, authors who have particularly inspired me include C.J. Sansom, Barry Unsworth, Bernard Cornwell, Robert Harris and Kevin Crossley-Holland. In fact Crossley-Holland’s evocation of the Welsh Marches in his book The Seeing Stone was so powerful that it encouraged me to set my second novel, The Splintered Kingdom, in that part of the country as well.
Outside the historical genre, meanwhile, I’m a huge fan of Chuck Palahniuk, Douglas Adams and Margaret Atwood, who is undoubtedly my favourite author. Her facility with language and metaphor I find quite incredible, while her breadth of vision never ceases to amaze me.
If you were to give advice to someone thinking of writing a novel what would it be?
The best piece of advice I could offer to any aspiring writer is simply to practise, and then to practise some more. Whether it’s a novel or poetry or scriptwriting, the more you produce the better it’ll get. You can have talent, but to get published you also need persistence and determination. If possible, find a community of writers or someone whose opinion you value and trust, and see if they’ll give you some friendly and constructive feedback on your work, but only when you feel it’s ready to show.
What is your next writing project?
I recently finished writing the third in my series about the Norman Conquest, Knights of the Hawk, which is due to be published in the UK on 24th October. Set in the autumn of 1071, it sees my protagonist, the proud and ambitious knight Tancred, waging war in the Fens as part of William the Conqueror’s campaign to subdue the rebellion instigated by Hereward. Battles and underhand dealings abound, and there’s also a touch of romance – something, I hope, for everyone!
I’m currently weighing up several options for my next novel. I have a number of ideas that I’m keen to pursue, so the difficulty is going to lie in deciding which one of those to take forward. The beginning of a new project is always an exciting time, and I’m looking forward to delving back into the books and starting my research again.
Thank you for talking with me today, James and good luck with your American release and the next novel, Knights of the Hawk.
You can find out more about James by clicking on the links below.
- Talking with Carol McGrath. (martinlakewriting.wordpress.com)