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Friday, 10 February 2012

Blending Historical Fact with Fiction - an interview with Terence Morgan

Hello Terence, lovely to have you here. 
Tell us a little bit about your research and how you weld the real history in your books to the fictional elements.

It's a bit like building a wall; you have these known historical facts, which are the bricks, and they have to be laid in a certain sequence. The stuff you make up is the cement that holds them together, and that can be thrown in where it fits. As long as it doesn't make the wall unsteady, it can go anywhere.

I start with the big scenes, writing things that I know have to appear in the book somewhere and developing them, sometimes in quite a lot of detail. In 'The Shadow Prince', that means the things which we know happened historically to Perkin -- his adventures in Ireland, his marriage in Scotland, his invasion of England, his capture by Henry VII and so on. That way I have a string of events with large gaps in
between. Then I start to look for what MIGHT have happened in the gaps, and what COULD have happened (and of course what could NOT have happened) and start to work on the ones that look most promising. That's always a lot of fun, and sometimes very rewarding. It can lead to total re-interpretation of why things happened they way they did. I tell the story in the afterword to 'The Shadow Prince' of how I bought two books for a total of 65p, one ('Cod', by Mark Kurlansky, 55p) in an Oxfam shop and the other ('The Columbus Myth' by Ian Wilson) for 10p in the parish jumble sale, and managed to get an enormous amount of information out of them that led to a complete rethink of the plot. They were a rich mine of ideas that in the end led to a complete re-write of the ending.

I also try to think thematically. In 'The Shadow Prince', for example, I had a clear theme of appearance and reality, disguise and role-playing, that ran right through it, so I looked for places where I could build on that or enhance it in some way, which in his case was relatively easy to do and fitted in with what I needed.Then I look for real people whom my protagonist might have met. In 'The Master of Bruges' I was lucky enough to be able to throw in all sorts of disparate historical characters from William Caxton to Richard III, from Charles the Bold to the magician Tremethius. 'The Shadow Prince' is the same (I won't put any spoilers in by telling you who he meets). I think I'm the despair of my editor, who tries to remove my knowing  jokes. I managed to keep a couple this time, though (my favourite is on page 69).

What excited you about the fifteenth century and made you want to write The Shadow Prince?

It was the obvious thing to do. Macmillan wanted another book after 'The Master of Bruges', and I didn't really have anything in mind. Then someone suggested a sequel, and I realised that at the end of 'Master' I had left the door open for a follow-up with Prince Richard. The fact that there were big gaps in the story of Perkin Warbeck meant that I had a lot of leeway, the many unanswered or unsatisfactorily answered questions about him meant that I could choose the interpretation I wanted (or needed, as the case may be), and another major factor was that most of the groundwork for the research was already done, as I had covered Flanders and the Wars of the Roses in the first book and many of the same characters were involved with Perkin. I had had so much fun with 'Master' that I looked forward to repeating it -- frequent trips to Belgium, necessitating even more frequent sampling of Flemish beer - you get the picture.

Are you a plotter or a seat-of-the-pants writer? Tell us a bit about your writing process.

As you can tell from the above, I'm probably a bit of both. As at the moment I'm writing historical novels, there are obvious constraints that I have to observe - I can't have impossible things happening, for example, or characters meeting who lived at different times, so there is a clear plotting element to my books. On the other hand, I am constantly looking for new interpretations of history, so I do tend to go off down the highways and byways in search of the odd and the curious. Of course, not all of the stuff I find ends up in the finished manuscript, but enough does to make it worthwhile.

Have you always been a History buff?

Yes. I used to love it at school, but I enjoyed the peripheral bits rather than the political stuff. As a result it was the only O-level I failed, because I spent too long writing on battles rather than treaties, or individual feats of exploration rather than political takeovers -- the adventures of Lewis and Clark rather than the ramifications of the Louisana Purchase, and so on. About forty-five years ago I discovered the joys of historical wargaming, and that led to lots of researching of battles, uniforms, tactics and so on.

Who or what has made the most difference to your writing?

I've always enjoyed the sort of story which takes a minor character from history and weaves them into a plot involving major historical characters. I suppose Lew Wallace's 'Ben-Hur' was the first of this type I read as a boy, and then there was Robert Graves' 'I, Claudius'. Then when I was a student George MacDonald Fraser's 'Flashman' series started to appear, and I decided that if I ever wrote stories, that would be the type I would write. I was chuffed to bits when an earlier reviewer of 'The Master of Bruges' compared it to a Flashman.The biggest difference, though, was caused by retirement. I suddenly had time to work on plotting and writing and researching, and it's no coincidence that I didn't publish my first novel until I was sixty-five. I know many people are able to combine a full-time job with writing, and of course I have enormous respect for them, but I never could. I suppose I was just too lazy. I wrote articles for papers and magazines, but they are just short things you can toss off in an evening and don't impinge on family time, and similarly I wrote schoolbooks, but they were based on the lesson notes I had to write for class, so they didn't take up much time either. Novel writing is a different cauldron of cod altogether.

Do you have a special place to write or a special routine?

If  I use the phrase 'book-lined study' then readers will get the wrong idea. I do have a study (a converted bedroom), and it is book-lined in the sense that I have seven enormous bookcases that I've picked up from jumble sales and charity shops and which are filled with an eclectic and completely disorganised host of tomes, but I defy anyone to find anything. (I, on the other hand, am blessed with one of those spatial memories than can recall exactly where I saw something, even if it was four years ago, and go straight to it. Having said that, my glasses are an exception to the rule.) I am an indiscriminately enthusiastic purchaser of books, and buy them far faster than I can read them. I discovered the Hakluyt Society a year ago, and now have about forty of their publications dotted about the room. A couple of them found their way into 'The Shadow Prince' by various circuitous routes.Routine? Perish the thought. I write when I remember to, when the agenbite of inwit pricks (am I using that correctly?) I am extremely disorganised.

What do you hope readers will love about your book?

I think it has a certain swashbucking charm, some humour, and a nice twist in the tale that I find pleasing. History students will, I hope, chuckle at the solutions I have postulated to a number of mysteries. I got a five-star review in the Telegraph soon after publication, and the reviewer seemed to find in the book all the things I hoped were there. If the readers have half as much fun reading it as I did writing it they're (I hope I'm not too presumptuous in using the plural!) in for a good time.

Thank you very much Terence for taking the time to answer my questions, and all the best with 
The Shadow Prince. 
Terence's other book, The Master of Bruges is also published by Macmillan.