The Future of History

Monday, 17 March 2014

My Writing Process (blog tour)

I was "tagged" to take part in this blog hop by the wonderful Margaret Skea, whom I have known since the Authonomy days, and who posted about her writing process on her own blog last week.

Margaret passed on to me the four questions that writers are invited to answer as part of this blog tour.

So, here goes ...

1. What am I working on?

Right now, I'm finishing one project and starting another.  The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Tradition has been occupying my time now since January 2013.  I was looking to do something of a follow up to The King Arthur Conspiracy, partly because I had been doing some more research - especially into the location and circumstances of Arthur's last battle - and partly because I wanted to address some of the (very minor) objections to Artuir mac Aedain having been the original Arthur of legend.

Thanks to Trevor Greenfield of Moon Books, I was given the opportunity to write The Grail in an unusual way.  Each month, from January to December 2013, I would write a chapter, which would then by uploaded onto the Moon Books blog.  That meant that, each month, I would send my draft chapter to my associate, John Gist, in New Mexico, who would read it and comment on it for me, and I would visit my friend Lloyd Canning, a local up-and-coming artist, to discuss the illustration that would accompany the chapter.  There would be a final rewrite, and then I'd submit the chapter and the image to Trevor at Moon Books.

It was a long process, and an odd one (I wouldn't normally submit anything less than a complete manuscript).  I've spent the last couple of months revising the full text and adding a few more illustrations.  And, well, it's about finished.  John contacted me from the States last night to say that he had read through one of the more recent drafts of the full thing and he really liked it.  It's not all about the distant past - there's a lot about how our brains work, and how a certain type of mind tends to ruin history (and other things) for everybody else.  That type of mindset seeks to prevent research into figures like Artuir mac Aedain so that the prevailing myth can be maintained.  The same type of mindset will cause us no end of problems in the immediate future, and the book ends with something of a prediction.

Coming up ... Sir William Davenant.  I published a piece on The History Vault, a couple of days ago, about Shakespeare's Dark Lady.  It could be read as a sort of introduction to my biography of Sir William Davenant.  I've only just signed the contract for the Davenant book, and it's due to be handed in to The History Press in June 2015.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

History for me is an investigative process.  I lose patience very quickly with historians who do nothing more than repeat what the last historian said.  It's a major problem: a consensus arises, and woe betide any self-respecting historian who challenges that consensus.  But the consensus is often based, not on historical facts, but on a kind of political outlook.  It tends to be history-as-we-would-like-it-to-be, rather than history-as-it-was.

There are similarities with archaeology.  Dig down anywhere within the Roman walls of the old city of London and you'll hit a layer of dark earth.  This was left behind by Boudica when she and her Iceni warriors destroyed Londinium in about AD 60.  But if you don't dig down far enough, you won't find that layer.

Too much history - certainly where Arthur (and the Grail) and Shakespeare (and Davenant) are concerned - gets down as far as one layer and stays there.  In the case of Arthur, that layer is the 12th century; with Shakespeare, it's the late 18th century.  In both instances, that's when the story changed.  New versions of Arthur and Shakespeare arose, reflecting the obsessions of the particular era.  When historians dig down to that layer, and report on what they've found, they're not writing about Arthur or Shakespeare - they're writing about what later generations wanted to think about Arthur and Shakespeare.

You have to go down further.  Otherwise, you're just repeating propaganda.

I'm also a bit fussy about how my books read.  That's my dramatist background, I reckon.  But I read a great many books - history, mostly, of course - and too many of them are, frankly, boring.  I seek to write exciting, accessible history that has been more diligently researched than the norm.  I don't seek to shock, but real history often is shocking.  Maybe that's why so many historians prefer to keep telling the "consensus" story.

3. Why do I write what I do?

The work I do now started because I was intrigued and inquisitive.  The familiar legends of Arthur are all well and good, but I was more interested in the man who inspired them - who was he? what made him so special?  And the same with Shakespeare - how did a Warwickshire lad become the greatest writer in the English language?  (My own background is not too different from Shakespeare's.)  And what was the inspiration for the character of Lady Macbeth.

I'm still intrigued and inquisitive, but over the years I've found myself more and more determined to see justice done - to right the wrongs of the past.  Those wrongs are perpetuated by historians who don't ask questions.  And that's a betrayal, not only of the actual subjects (Arthur, Shakespeare) but also of the reader today.  It's a kind of cover-up, designed - I believe - to reshape the past so that it justifies certain policies today.  If you're a monarchist, for example, or an old-fashioned imperialist, you're going to want to believe that Queen Elizabeth I was marvellous.  And then you're going to have to believe that Shakespeare thought she was marvellous.  Which means that you'll have to turn a blind eye to what was going on during her reign, and to the criticisms which Shakespeare voiced.  Before you know it, you're ignoring the facts altogether in order to write a history that supports your own prejudices.  I can't believe how often that happens.

Both Arthur and Shakespeare were killed, and their stories were subsequently written up by their enemies.  Their real stories are much more interesting - and they deserve to be told.  If we cling to the myths, we allow demagogues to dictate our history to us.

4. How does my writing process work?

Well, it's not quick.  The research can take years.  Then there are usually a number of false starts.  Fortunately, I tend to have some sort of agreement with a publisher, these days, so when I say I'm going to write something, that means I have to get on with it.

I'll start at the beginning, with the long, slow process of getting words down on the page (it's long and slow because I have to go hunting for the information before I put it down).  But I always have a carefully worked out structure in my mind, and day after day a kind of rough draft takes shape.  It's usually fairly messy, and at some point I'll stop and go back to the start, smartening it up and giving myself enough momentum to plough on and get a few more chapters drafted.

After that, it's an ongoing process of revision (never less than three drafts).  For several months, I'll be revising the early chapters while I'm still drafting the later ones.

I have to work pretty much every day.  For a finished manuscript of, say, 100,000 words, I'll expect to write anything up to 500,000 words, which will be sifted and boiled down to fit the appropriate length.  I'll keep going back and revising different sections, here and there, and often, in the latter stages, I'll rewrite the chapters out of sequence (partly to keep them all fresh).  Then there's endless, obsessive tinkering, as I fuss over every full stop and comma.

The King Arthur Conspiracy took seven months to write (and rewrite).  Who Killed William Shakespeare? took nine months, and then some for the illustrations.  The Grail took me a year to write (a chapter a month) and another 2-3 months to revise (with illustrations).  With Sir William Davenant I want to create something special, so that'll take ages.

There are two things I couldn't do without.  One is coffee.  The other is my fantastically loyal, supportive and organised wife, Kim.


I now get to tag a couple of authors who will pick up the baton and run with it, and I've chosen two great writers who are part of the Review Group on Facebook.  I'll let the first introduce herself:

I’m Louise Rule, my first book Future Confronted was published in December 2013, and I am now researching my next book, the story of which will take me travelling from Scotland to England, and then to Italy. I am on the Admin Team of the Facebook group The Review Blog which I enjoy immensely.

Louise's blog can be found here.

My other chosen successor on this blog tour is Stuart S. Laing.  Stuart writes about Scottish history - his posts on the Review Group Blog covering fascinating moments in Edinburgh's past are a joy to read, but it's his historical novels - the Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries - which really deserve attention.

Stuart's blog can be found here.

Finally, it remains for me only to thank Margaret Skea for inviting me to take part in this hop.  And to thank you, dear reader, for perusing my musings.


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