In the beginning – a historical novelist’s early influence

To begin at the beginning: why did I first become a writer of historical fiction? It seems obvious that it begins with what I read. Loved to read.

The great film editor, Walter Murch – ‘Apocalypse Now’ for one – talked about early influence. He felt that if you could make a living out of what excited you at the age of nine, you would be a happy person. He was into cutting and splicing audio tape together.

I was into in historical fiction.

I don’t know exactly why I gravitated to the genre. I know that from an early age I loved ‘the sword’. I lived in California till I was seven and there was a TV series, ‘Zorro’. There’s a photo of me aged three in mask and bandana, rapier raised. Then, from seven on I was in London. I was raised by warriors – my father was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot, my mother a Norwegian spy. There were stories. And at my traditional English prep school, history was still taught traditionally – tales of a hardy people who, from a tiny island, had run the largest Empire the world had known. My Norse side gave me a passion for the Vikings. Then, like many Brits, I always loved an underdog. Especially a gallant defeat to Johnny Foreigner. The idea of sacrifice always moved me to tears. Still does.

The first time I remember crying over a book I was ten. It was Henry Treece’s ‘Hounds of the King’, a tale of a boy who wished to be one of Harold Godwinson’s huscarles, who arrives too late at the battle of Senlac and runs to his dying king as the death chant rings out:

“Here lies our leader in the dust of his greatness

Who leaves him now be damned forever.”

It floored me. And maybe, just maybe the wish came then: to one day try to find the way to convey such a passion to others.

The biggest influence though was – is – Rosemary Sutcliff. The great stories. The perfectly captured worlds, from Celt to Roman to Viking. I read her still, sometimes, when I wish to be reminded why I sought to write what I do. A few years back, while working in a 250 year old Shropshire cottage on ‘Jack Absolute’, I found her novel, ‘Warrior Scarlet’, the tale of a Bronze Age boy in Britain, with a withered arm so he could never don the scarlet cloak of the warrior – Sutcliff conjured her worlds from a wheelchair, so knew of what she wrote. I think I cried six times in the last 50 pages. And I am not really a cryer.

So there they are, some of my early influences. The start of the journey that led me to what I write, how I earn my living.

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