Why write about the Romans and not another period of history?
For some weird reason, I’ve always had a passion for Rome. Growing up in Ireland, that is a little strange, because as far as we know, the Romans never sent a military force to Ireland, which means that unlike Britain and most of Europe, there aren’t ruins in almost every village and town in the land. It’s fair to say that the iconic YA book, The Eagle of the Ninth
, by Rosemary Sutcliff, was a major influence on me. I can also remember repeatedly taking a book out of the school library because of the amazing pictures of Roman soldiers and military equipment. It was only last year when I bought an indispensable textbook on the Roman army, that I discovered it to be this
However, I have to admit that I am a sucker for any book about military history, whether it be fiction or non-fiction. As a boy, I devoured Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, Wilbur Smith’s African sagas and every Western in the local library. One stand out historical fiction books from that time is Smith’s outstanding The Sunbird
, a standalone book which is half set in modern times, and half set in ancient times – with a Carthaginian city state in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). How funny it is that I now find myself writing about Carthage!
How do you pick the time period to write about?
It depends. Sometimes there’s a person I want to write about (Crassus, Spartacus); sometimes there’s a definite period I’m keen on (Second Punic War). At other times, I read textbooks with a definite focus on when might be good to set a book or books.
It was fascinating to talk recently to Tony Riches, author of the best-selling Wounds of Honour, and discover that we had both picked the time period 180-211 AD approx. as the basis for a good series. As it happened, my first book (set in 181 AD, on Hadrian’s Wall) was no good, and never saw the light of day after my agent savaged it. Tony’s, on the other hand, got published. To be fair to him, he had the idea in 1996, whereas I only had it in 2001. Funny though!
I’ve got a great idea for a book. How do I get started?
The first thing is very simple. Start writing! An idea in your head that’s never written down will never become reality. Simply committing it to paper (well, OK, screen) is an extremely powerful tool in realising your dream.
Two: set aside some time every day – an hour if you can – and use it to write.
Three: Write down your plot in abbreviated form, from beginning to end. Make a list of characters. Describe them.
Four: Write every day. Did I say that already?
Five: Join a writing group, either in the flesh (they’re in most towns and cities) or online. It’s only through the input of other writers, who have no investment in telling you that you are the new Dan Brown/Wilbur Smith/Bernard Cornwell, that you will learn and get realistic feedback. Family and friends make the worst critics ever, and that’s official.
Six: when reading novels, try to start understanding the writer’s style, and why you like what you’re reading.
Seven: think about joining a writing course such as the highly regarded MBA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, from which many writers jump into being published. Shorter, but still valuable courses – I did one in 2005 – are run by the wonderful Arvon Foundation