Lessons I learned from The French Executioner – and friends!

Lesson One: A man (and a character) reveals himself slowly.

Jean is surrounded by colourful friends and enemies. Haakon, the huge ax-wielding Viking. The Fugger, with his one hand and madness always a reach away. Beck, the girl dressed as a boy. Archbishop Cibo, the classic debauched churchman and villain. These were all easier to write as they were so extreme. Jean – well, I was dealing with an executioner to start with. Many people would not sympathise with his profession. So I wanted to make him very closed off to the world. He lost his wife and child to plague. So he took up a trade he was good at. He’s not in any way a sadist. He does a job. But his vow to Anne Boleyn – to take her six fingered hand at the same time he takes her head and then get rid of the famous relic – begins a journey of redemption. He comes alive again. Hard to show that, fascinating to try.

Lesson Two: Courage is being terrified and still leaping into the darkness.

Jean has to go through so much – battle, enslavement, torture. But faith in his vow keeps him going.

Lesson Three: Love conquers all.

Eventually you have to stop mourning a relationship that is over and open yourself up again to the possibilities of love. Jean does this, and see his love of Beck as a reward for being true to his cause.

Lesson Four: Don’t throw your sword at someone unless your certain you’ll hit him.

Otherwise he has two swords and you have none.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lightning Strike: the idea for my first novel, French Executioner



I remember exactly what I was doing when the idea for The French Executioner hit me like a bolt of lightning. I was working out. I was living in Vancouver at the time. Making my living as an actor. I’d written a couple of plays. But my dream from childhood had always been to write historical fiction.

I wasn’t thinking of any of that, on that day in a gym in 1993. I was thinking about shoulder presses. Checking my form in the mirror.


This is what happened. (It also shows you the rather strange associations in my brain!)

I lift the weight bar.

Me, in my head. ‘God, I’ve got a long neck.’

Lower bar.

‘If I was ever executed,’ – Raise bar – ‘it would be a really easy shot for the ax.’

Lower bar.

‘Or the sword. Because, of course, Anne Boleyn was executed with a sword.’

Raise bar. Stop half way.

‘Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand.’

Flash! Boom! Put down bar before I drop it. It came together in my head, as one thing: the executioner, brought from France to do the deed, (I remembered that from school). Not just taking her head. Taking her hand as well, that infamous hand – and then the question all writers have to ask: what happened next?

I scurried to the library. Took out books. I knew it had to be a novel. I did some research, sketched a few ideas. But the problem was, I wasn’t a novelist. A play had seemed like a hill. A novel – well, it was a mountain, and I wasn’t ready to climb it. So I dreamed a while, then quietly put all my research, sketches, notes away.

But I never stopped thinking about it. The story kept coming and whenever I was in a second hand bookstore I’d study the history shelves and think: if ever I write that novel – which I probably never will – I’ll want… a battle at sea between slave galleys. So I’d buy a book on that subject, read it. Buy another, read it.

November 1999. Six years after being struck by lightning. I’m living back in England and I find a book on sixteenth century mercenaries – and I knew the novel I was never going to write would have mercenaries.

Twenty pages in, I turn to my wife and say: “You know, I think I’m going to write that book.”

And she replies, “It’s about bloody time.”

I wrote. The story, all that research, had stewed in my head for so long, it just poured out. Ten months and I was done. I wondered if it was any good. I sent it to an agent. She took me on and had it sold three months later.

I was a novelist after all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Mightier than the sword? I wouldn’t use my pen to parry!

Fun article today in the Canada’s National Post.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Plague is coming… coming… come! To TV!

Plague on the road!

That’s me, not the virus. I’ve just gone across Canada in launch week, and many people have caught the disease. I’ve had to scarify so many buboes I’ve run out of acid. (If you read the book that sentence will make sense)

Vancouver was my first launch in my fave bar, the Fringe Cafe. In Calgary, I sat in the Owl’s Nest (Bookstore). In Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan I was second in sales to the memoir: ‘I am Hutterite’ (Can’t beat Hutterites on the Prairies. It’s illegal.) And then in Toronto, well, this:


There have been some fun reviews which I shall post later. Here are some snippets though:

‘Think 48 Hours in the 17th century… Plague is almost an embarrassment of riches… the sort of book you open when you have a spare couple of minutes, and look up from hours later, only after the last paragraph is read.” Robert Wiersma, Vancouver Sun and nationally.

“This novel screams “summer reading.” – Susan Cole, Now Toronto.

“With kings and cripple, rats and rotters, Highwaymen and loose women, you’d never think a lethal virus could be so much fun.” Jon Wise, Sunday Sport UK

Stand by all. Plague is coming… to a city near you!


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Action! Making a movie trailer for my new novel ‘Plague’

“I need … Caravaggio! Give me chiaroscuro. Light the candle! Camera ready? Now… Action!”

OK. So I got a little carried away. But it was my directorial debut, after all.  And the  cameraman –  my friend, the Emmy award winning documentary filmmaker Dan McKinney – just sighed and shot it brilliantly.

I will give you more details of ‘the making’ later. How my vision was shaped. For now, here’s the video. (There’s a very slight difference between the UK and Canadian versions, in the pack shot, so click on whichever is geographically closer.)

See: ‘pack shot’! I’m ready to shoot my first commercial, Ridley!




Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

‘Scarify that Bubo?’ I wish I hadn’t had to write that!

Contrary to popular belief, I am not an especially gruesome person. When people look at me in horror – like when I describe proper impalement (see novel: ‘Vlad, The Last Confession’) or the actual conditions on a slave galley. (See: ‘The French Executioner‘). I tell them that its just part of the job. Doesn’t put me off my supper.

I have to admit though that my latest novel, PLAGUE (Click on title to learn more. If you dare) did push a few boundaries. Some of the stuff that went on! Having to imagine what it was like to have the plague – bad enough. But then the treatments!

plaguedoctoruImagine you had it. The so-called doctors – there’s one there, if  a century out, same costume though – would arrive and this bird like horror creature would loom over you and inspect your bubo (remember: bubo -nic plague) This often looked like a black tennis ball, a swelling of your lymph glands that would thrust out, especially at armpit or groin. It was stretched skin and flesh, so distended and painful you didn’t want anyone looking at it, let alone touching it. Yet what does our quack do? (You can see where the term comes from with that mask!) He doesn’t just touch it. Oh no. He scarifies it. To draw forth the poisons, he slashes it with a razor, or pours acid on it – the tenderest piece of flesh on your body!

Happily for most the pain didn’t last long. Because the treatment killed you.

So, Thanks, Muse! I now have that in my head. Still, I have one consolation: now you do too!





Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

So this is weird – did a fundamentalist thief just burgle my house?

I come home and my wife is annoyed. “Something’s wrong with the stove. Look, at the LED. It says ‘sab BATH.’ What the hell is ‘sab BATH’?”

I look. “Uh, that’s ‘sabbath’.”

“Oh.” Pause. “What?” She looks at me. “Did you lock the front door when you left?”

“Of course.”

“Because it felt open when I put the key in.” She points. “Then… ‘sabbath’?”

It comes to me. “Jewish orthodox people can’t use machinery on the sabbath. Maybe it has something to do with that.” I go to my laptop to look it up. “Oh.”

The screen is cracked all over. As of someone picked it up and dropped it.

We find the cooker manual. Indeed there is a setting, a way of bypassing the automatic cutoff that would turn the cooker off after 12 hours. “Orthodox Jews can set it so it doesn’t automatically cut out. So they can preset the cooker so they don’t have to ‘turn it on’ during the sabbath.”

“There’s a sabbath setting?”

“Apparently. You have to press and hold ‘clock’ for five seconds.”

“So you’re saying a Jewish Orthodox thief broke in here, cracked your computer screen and reprogrammed our cooker?”

“Or…” I consider. “Of course, it’s not only the Jews who revere the sabbath. Many Christians do as well. Especially the fundamentalists. And I have given them a hard time in my latest novel. Especially the Fifth Monarchists.”

“Ah. So an angry fundamentalist broke into our home and smashed your computer in vengeance for your portrayal of them in a novel that’s not out yet?”

“It’s out in a month.” I smile uneasily. “It’s the most logical explanation.”

“Logical???” My wife yells at me. “I thought that living with a crazed author couldn’t get weirder. But it just did.”

“Er, perhaps I’ll just call the police.”

(So watch out for those Fifth Monarchists! Especially if you have a Whirlpool stove!)

51YkitiHUoL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-48,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_ HumphreysV8L








Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment