Q1. How did you discover your passion for writing, and what inspired you to write about Ancient Rome?
I’ve always been something of a storyteller, but I’m not the after-dinner, raconteur type. Instead, I’ve always found escapism in being alone with my thoughts, then bringing them to life in different forms: as a boy it was cartoons and short stories, as a teenager it was more short tales, songs and poetry, and now, as a thirty something man, it’s (hopefully) epic tales of History.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve had a thing for antiquity and the Middle Ages. Again, I suppose it’s escapism that draws me there. I remember reading tales of Vikings, Crusaders and Romans as a lad, and watching and re-watching the swords and sandals epics from the 1950s and 1960s. These things stoked a fire in my imagination that made me feel like anything was possible.
As it turned out, I ended up pursuing a career in science and computing, and my writing hobby fell by the wayside for a few years. But it only took a few years of work to realise how unfulfilled it left me. Indeed, I was studying the history of late antiquity and visiting the Roman sites of Britain in my free time to keep my imagination alight. Nothing quite beats walking Hadrian’s Wall or the Antonine Wall on a freezing, foggy afternoon, wondering if the roiling mist before you is about to reveal a ghost of the past.
Then, one day on a holiday in Greece, when I had just finished reading an excellent historical novel (set in the fall and aftermath of the Trojan War), I put the book down and realised I had been reading for hours, utterly oblivious to the world around me. More, I noticed that my mind was still there, in the tale, taking the characters on and keeping the story alive. It was then that I had the epiphany moment: why did I ever stop writing?
So I went back to my lost love, spending nights and weekends writing stories once more. Soon, the late Roman World I had been reading so much about came to life in the form of ‘Legionary’.
|Hadrian’s Wall – Scotland|
Q2. Your experience as a professional writer started in the world of self-publishing. Can you tell us what you think about it and how this led to your work being picked up by a traditional publishing house?
I submitted early drafts of ‘Legionary’ to numerous UK publishing houses only to end up with a thick pile of rejection letters. In hindsight, I had more chance of winning the EuroMillions Lottery than getting a publishing deal out of this approach! My writing was very raw and I knew little of the industry. But I took this to mean writing would never be any more than a hobby for me. This wasn’t a big problem – I was glad I had tried, and knew I would never give up writing, even if my tales were never to be read by anyone but me.
A few years passed, then my wife bought me a Kindle one Christmas and I discovered the whole self-publishing revolution that came with it. I was extremely nervous about trying this – putting myself up before the whole world to be shot down – but I knew I had to try, even just as an experiment. So I spent a good few months editing and polishing Legionary, then published it to the Kindle Store, and waited . . .
Within a few months, I was pleasantly surprised to find nice reviews and unexpected sales figures. This lit the touchpaper to my efforts. Within a year, I had a second book out. After two years, my third book came out, I made the move to reduce my day job to part time hours and devote the rest of my time to my writing. It was shortly after that when I was approached by a literary agent who had read and liked my self-published books. This was very quickly followed by the Italian publishing house, Newton Compton, offering me a deal for the foreign rights to ‘Legionary’. Since then, a Russian publishing house have also bid for the foreign rights.
In summary, there’s a lot of stigma surrounding self-publishing, but in effect, it has brought to me everything that the traditional route (write a manuscript, submit to a publisher and wait for acceptance) did not. It has given me a career that encourages me to be as creative as my imagination will allow. There has been a lot of blood, sweat and tears in the process, but I am indebted to all the things that came together to bring me to this path.
Q3. What would you recommend to those who want to become writers?
Write about something that you love. Crafting a novel is hard going at times. It can take many months or years of your free time, so make sure that in those taxing late nights of editing and redrafting that you’re working with a subject matter that is more than just a passing interest.
The thought of writing an entire novel can seem exciting but equally daunting. My advice would be to start small – a short (5k words or less) is a good way to get to grips with a story and have the satisfaction of seeing it through to completion. Experiment with styles until you find one that flows for you. This is sometimes called ‘finding your writing voice’. Once these things come together, you’ll find that tackling a novel feels a lot more ‘natural’.
And finally, reach out! There are loads of budding writers out there who can help you improve rapidly by critiquing and sharing ideas. Certainly, my writing improved dramatically after working with a small and friendly group on the (now sadly defunct) website YouWriteOnline.
Q4. How important would you say historical research is in writing a novel of this genre?
Research is vital. Not just for the reader to ‘feel’ like they are in the world of my novel, but also for me to ‘be there’ when I’m writing it – because that’s what makes it fun! Let’s take ‘Legionary’ for example. There are many factors to research and comprehend when writing about the 4th century Eastern Roman Empire:
Understanding the historical topography is vital when it comes to engaging the senses of the reader. Upon reading a scene where the legionaries of the XI Claudia are marching to war, I want the reader to smell the sweet, damp earth in the green woods of Thrace, to see the ice-capped Haemus Mountains, to feel the hot eastern summer sun on their skin and to hear the crunch-crunch of hobnailed boots. To achieve this, I need to know everything: the landscape of the march (what would the legionaries see if they looked left, right or straight ahead?), the temperature at that time of year (sweating and thirsty or freezing?), the kit and armour the soldiers would be carrying in that era (leather, mail or scale armour? Spatha or gladius? Flint hook or bow drill to light a fire?) and the marching songs they would sing (usually extremely rude!). There are the broader issues too: the political situation in the imperial court (is the empire in an offensive or defensive phase? Is the emperor a lout or a wise man? What kind of shady characters might have influenced his decisions?), the equivalent position in enemy lands (who was Rome’s real enemy in the years before the Battle of Adrianople – Athanaric or Fritigern? Were the Gothic armies likely to have outnumbered the legions in Thrace in 376 AD?). And there are many, many more factors that can only truly be understood by good, solid research. I like to visit the sites of my books when I can to answer these many questions, but the bulk of my research comes from the bookshelf.
For my Legionary novels, I usually have a story premise or two in mind, and I then look to my history bookcases to see how I can weave this into the events of the era. I’ll settle down to sift through a few staple primary (or fairly close to primary) sources – such as Jordanes, Zosimus, Ammianus Marcellinus – to provide me with a good backbone of authenticity. I’ll then read through the secondary and modern sources – Gibbon, Kulikowski, Lenski, Heather – to supplement this. I’ll then spend time blending all I have found, juxtaposing various coherent or – more often – contradictory accounts of the same event until I have a rich and treacherous backdrop to pitch my characters into.
Q5. Your “Legionary” series is set in the period of the late Roman Empire and the story takes place in its dominions of the East. Why this choice?
Ha! Yes, it might seem strange that a man born and raised in Scotland might choose to write about the opposite end of what used to be the Roman Empire. After all, there is plenty of Roman heritage (not to mention rich Scottish history and legend) right here where I live.
But there is a certain something about the Eastern Empire and Byzantium that feels unattainable. Some buried knowledge that, no matter how many layers I sift through and peel away, will always elude me. It is a perpetual source of intrigue.
Militarily, I am fascinated by the gradual decline of the legions of old and the subsequent rise of the armies of Byzantium – the tagmata and the themata (ironically, the latter played a similar role to that performed by the early republican legions, both being soldier-farmers raised to fight in times of peril).
Culturally and politically, the empire changed drastically too, becoming an amalgam of ages recent and long past: the populace shunned Latin and spoke Greek, the Byzantine Emperors adopted the attire of and behaved in many respects like ancient Persian Kings, and the old gods were consigned to history as the Christian God became the empire’s new patron.
From the time of ‘Legionary’, in the 4th century AD, to the era of ‘Strategos’ in the 11th century AD, the empire was compelled to adjust and adapt as the world changed around it. This, of course, could be said of the earlier Western Empire, but in that era, Rome was a burgeoning force, a rapidly expanding power, whereas the Eastern Empire of late antiquity onwards embraced change more often than not purely to survive. And it is that visceral concept of survival that inspired me to write the tales of Pavo and Apion.
Q6. In your novel there are thoroughly described military strategies, battles, weapons, and their use in historical battles. Is this a passion that goes beyond writing or is it a simple search for historical accuracy?
I do enjoy a good blood and guts clash (it’s often a perfect way to let off steam after writing several chapters of building tension). And in terms of planning a battle scene, I love to draw out maps of the conflict that I’ll be writing about. I can sketch out manoeuvres, unit placements and terrain based on the descriptions from the source texts. This is not only very enjoyable, but it also helps ensure my battle narrative comes across clearly to the reader – far too often battle scenes in books can become tangled and confused.
I also like to build up ‘profiles’ of the types of soldier or artillery I will be describing. For example, I have a document that describes every facet of a late 4th century legionary, from which parts of his body would be rubbed red from marching (ankles and inner thighs seem to get the worst of it!), to the rations he would carry – including descriptions of the texture of hard tack biscuit! – to his duties in camp and on the march and his expected position on the battlefield. Likewise, I have a profile document for the ballista (the great bolt or stone throwing device employed by the legions), detailing the loading and shooting process and the damage these weapons could do to massed ranks of men.
So, yes, I do love a good battle scene! That said, I think I find personal, reflective scenes most rewarding – scenes where I manage to articulate some theory or notion that has been swimming about in my head for some time, or that I have struggled to communicate verbally. For example, my ‘Strategos’ series has some of the bloodiest and most brutal battle descriptions I have ever written, but the scenes that linger longest in my memory are those where the protagonist, Apion, does nothing other than speak with an ethereal crone.
Q7. Let’s talk about the characters. Are your protagonists inspired by real-world people?
Pavo, of the Legionary series, starts out as the adolescent me. He thinks he’s more clever than he is, he’s somewhat rash in his actions yet he manages to come through some turbulent times alive, a little wiser, and a fraction less reckless. As the series has gone on, Pavo has grown beyond this premise. Now, by book three, he is doing things I wish I was wise or brave enough to try.
Apion, of the Strategos series, is a far darker individual. There is a dash of me in there, but I’ve never had to deal with a fraction of the things he has! He’s something of a dark hero, perhaps exhibiting some of the idealised views I held of people in my life at certain times.
Those who surround my protagonists usually always start as some caricature of people I know or have known, or sometimes of vivid fictional characters I have read of and never forgotten. Almost always though this is just a useful starting point – before long they have become characters in their own right.
Q8. Have you already outlined the plot for the “Legionary” series, or is the plot being developed along the way?
I have a broad outline for the series. The major events of the time period are all there as signposts for me to follow. Those of you who know the history will be well aware that 378 AD is just around the corner . . . and it is a brutal year for the Roman Empire.
I try not to get too hung up on specifics of how the plot will develop through the series. This might result in me killing off a character in book 2 that would have been perfect for book 4 for example, but I trust my imagination to bridge any such challenges.
Q9. What would you like to remain in the readers, when they finish one of your books?
Long after you’ve finished reading, I want you to remember Pavo and Apion, their comrades and the choices that made them who they were. I want you to share their dreams and feel their fears. I want you to remember the march to war, the campfire where the legionaries were bantering on the eve of a battle in which they knew most would fall, the front line where they stood side by side with you, moments from clashing blades with the onrushing enemy.
Q10. What are you working on now and what are your future plans?
I’m just putting the finishing touches to the concluding volume of the ‘Strategos’ trilogy. ‘Strategos: Island in the Storm’ tells the tale of the Battle of Manzikert and the fate of Apion and the Byzantine Empire. (This novel has just been released on Amazon, click here). After that, I’ll be working on Legionary 4, which will see Pavo and the men of the XI Claudia return to Thrace, where the Gothic War threatens to swamp the empire and her armies. I’m also working on another Roman-era series with my partner in crime Simon Turney. Hopefully this should bear fruit in the next year or so. After that, I have a shortlist of ideas to mull over. Plenty to keep me going!