On Writing Historical Fiction
Interview by: Profile Editorial Team, 01/03/2020
Bernard Cornwell was born in London in 1944 – a ‘warbaby’ – whose father was a Canadian airman and mother in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
He was adopted by a family in Essex who belonged to a religious sect called the Peculiar People (and they were), but escaped to London University and, after a stint as a teacher, he joined BBC Television where he worked for the next 10 years.
He began as a researcher on the Nationwide programme and ended as Head of Current Affairs Television for the BBC in Northern Ireland. It was while working in Belfast that he met Judy, a visiting American, and fell in love. Judy was unable to move to Britain for family reasons so Bernard went to the States where he was refused a Green Card. He decided to earn a living by writing, a job that did not need a permit from the US government – and for some years he had been wanting to write the adventures of a British soldier in the Napoleonic wars – and so the Sharpe series was born. Bernard and Judy married in 1980, are still married, still live in the States and he is still writing Sharpe.
The 12th book in the Last Kingdom series – Sword of Kings – was published in October 2019
On writing historical fiction
Bernard, could you take us through your writing process?
Bernard: I wish I could dignify it with the word ‘process’, or if it is a process it’s capricious, unplanned and sometimes chaotic. It obviously starts with research, though it’s easy to get bored with that because the joy of writing is writing - not researching - and for me the great pleasure of writing a book is the same as reading one - the desire to know what happens next! In 40 years of writing I have never managed to plan a chapter, let alone a book. So each year, usually about September, I open a clean page on the computer and start. Just that. And over the next few days I discover what actually happens in Chapter One, and so on through until May when, with any luck, the thing is finished. There are huge drawbacks to this ‘method’ . . . as often as not you find something in Chapter 5 that demands the first four chapter be rewritten and, usually, somewhere about Chapter 9 I get an epiphany - ‘so that’s what this bloody book is about!’ - and have to rewrite again. It isn’t a method, it’s crazy, but in my defence it’s usually enjoyable and it does seem to work. On a banal level there’s no option but to write - meaning it’s a job - do it every day, 9 to 5, or 5 to 9, whatever.
The biggest tip is to do your research, then throw most of it away
You’ve made historical fiction your domain. That must apply some constraints to the creative process? Could you talk a little about the pros and cons of using real historical contexts for a fiction writer?
Bernard: I’m not really aware of any ‘cons’. I suppose history doesn’t always provide the endings a novelist might want, so choose another episode that does! I think every writer writes what they want to read and obviously I have a huge affection for historical novels . . and the pros of that are enormous. History, by its very nature, is a rich seam of stories, and almost always gives the writer a ready-made world as his background. And it is fiction! The history in that background has to be authentic, but the story itself is made up. There was no-one called Richard Sharpe who served as a rifleman in Wellington’s army but by inventing him I give myself an enormous freedom to let him do whatever I want. I do feel a need to confess my sins in an historical note - revealing what is made up - but I assume the reader doesn’t mind. If you want to read a brilliant history of the Peninsular War then I’d recommend Charles Esdaile’s masterful ‘The Peninsular War’, but Professor Esdaile doesn’t have the freedom I have to invent. That’s the joy of it - inventing the story!
Could you talk a little about how you keep research in its place? Your books are clearly meticulously researched, but they don’t read like textbooks - the relationships between the characters come through as the driving force. Any tips for writers working in this genre?
Bernard: The biggest tip is to do your research, then throw most of it away. Or at least ignore it! We’ve all read historical novels where whole pages read as if they’re being copied from the writer’s research notes. I remember, years ago, reading a book that started with a slave girl walking past the Colosseum in Rome and she thinks to herself how it was begun by Vespasian and finished under Titus, then remodelled during . . . . . . and I threw the damn book away! All the writer was doing was showing off knowledge that was irrelevant to the story, and that’s the key. If it doesn’t move the story along then you don’t need it. What drives the story are the various characters’ motivations; their desires and ambitions. The rest is authentic background. That said it’s amazing how often a good story idea emerges from research, so it has to be done even if much (most) of it is wasted!
In 40 years of writing I have never managed to plan a chapter, let alone a book
Sharpe has had many screenwriters who worked to bring your novels to screen. The Last Kingdom, I think, had a single screenwriter? Do you enjoy handing over the reins? Does it make you tense? And how does it feel to see the end product?
Bernard: I think you’ll find The Last Kingdom has various screenwriters, though the magnificent Stephen Butchard seems to be the top dog. Does it make me tense? Good God, no! I don’t want to do it! The men and women who write the TV episodes are experts and they bring their own expertise, imagination and improvements (yes! Improvements) to my stories. That’s true of everyone involved; the directors, producers, make-up artists, technicians, costume angels, camera operators, lighting wizards, construction crews and yes, the actors. They add value! My story comes to life in their hands and I love the results!
You’ve covered quite a span with your books. Is there an historical or archaeological period you’re still yearning to write about?
Bernard: Yes, but I’m superstitious and never talk about future ideas, so that’s all you’ll get, sorry! Yes.
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