Inside Historical Fiction with Stewart Binns

The Shadow of WarStewart Binns is an author and award-winning filmmaker. He has written the Making of England quartet consisting of Conquest, based on the Norman Invasion in 1066, Crusade which looks at the Norman rule of England and the first crusade to the Holy Land, Anarchy which tells the story of civil war between Stephen and Matilda, and Lionheart about Richard II and the third crusade. In 2014 he released The Shadow of War, the first of a five-part series on WWI.

I am delighted that Stewart Binns has agreed to be interviewed on the blog to give his perspective on inside historical fiction.

MKTod: What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable and irresistible?

Stewart Binns: The juxtaposition of the real (most writers base their stories/characters on real events/people) and the flights of fancy of the author’s vivid imaginings. You get the best of both fiction and non-fiction. Interestingly, I’ve had many readers ask how much of what I write is ‘true’.

MKT: Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

SB: Yes. See above, but also because the past is removed from us, so we can take more liberties with it in terms of drama, intrigue and context. I suppose it’s not unlike Sci-fi in reverse. In my first novel, it was vital that Hereward of Bourne (the Wake) fought at Hastings – did he? Almost certainly not, but he might have.

MKT: In your opinion, what do top historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

SB: Do their homework to get their context right. Use history as an open door to a great story. Take their readers on a compelling journey through another time and place that is rich with powerful imagery, engaging characters and momentous events.

MKT: What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

SB: That things were very different then, but also that nothing fundamental really changes (human frailty in particular).

MKT: In writing historical fiction, what techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

SB: Take years to learn your craft, do meticulous research, undertake thorough fact-checking and use several other pairs of eyes as critics.

MKT: What do you do to make fictional characters true to their time?

SB: See above. In particular, be them when you write; be in their heads; see what they see; feel what they feel, speak out-loud what they say and write down what they say as they say it.

MKT: What elements do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

SB: You have to make it as real as possible and then make them believe they’re there.

MKT:Do you see any particular trends in HF?

I think we writers have real problems. Our audience is getting older and thus smaller.

There are too many of us, writing too many books. Too many alternative forms of gratification are available. Not all of us will survive the cull that is inevitable. We’ll self-publish of course, but that will make matters worse, generating yet more books that only a few people will read.

After that? Fewer authors, fewer books; but better ones.

Many thanks, Stewart. I hope others will find inspiration in your thoughts. One stands out for me in particular: “Use history as an open door to a great story.”

Reader Interview Series – Ken L.

Man Reading - John Singer Sargent
Man Reading – John Singer Sargent

Please welcome Ken, the second of our reader interviews. In addition to reading, Ken has wide-ranging interests and many author recommendations to tempt other readers. Ken is a Facebook friend.

Tell us a little about yourself  –  I am male, 68 years of age and live in a small village in an area designated as an area of outstanding beauty which is in the  county of Somerset in the UK. I am now retired.

I trained as a design draughtsman in the Nuclear Power Industry, later becoming a site engineer helping to supervise the construction of Nuclear Power Stations, the latter part of my working life was spent in Sales and Marketing working for a Danish Pump Company.

My Favourite pastimes are reading, generally historical novels, spend a lot of time walking our two Giant Schnauzer dogs, gardening, we have a fairly large garden. Have done a lot of research on my family tree and through the National Geographic Genographic project have become very interested in the DNA aspect of finding out who and where our ancestors came from. Other interests are Folk Music, Art, drawing and painting, collecting  antique drawing instruments.

Please tell us about your reading habits and preferences – Generally read about one book per week so 50 to 60 per year, tend to read when I have free time, but mostly in the evening. I prefer a printed book rather than an ebook, although I have a number of ebooks on my iPad, this preference is probably an age related thing, although my daughters prefer printed books.

I generally only read one book at a time, and the majority will be historical novels set in Ancient times, Roman,Viking, Medieval, have not read many set in more recent times other than War Horse and just recently a novel set in the civil war period (England) mainly because I had read a number of the author’s books set in the Viking period.

Does not matter how long or short the book, I decide to read purely on subject matter. Mobile devices such as the iPad have only changed my reading habit insomuch as it is now far more convenient when going on holiday just to take my iPad.

How do you decide which books to buy, what influences your purchases? –  I generally decide by the author and time period of the novel, however I have bought books that have intrigued me by reading the brief synopsis of the story on the book cover, three come to mind, Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury and Times Tapestry by Stephen Baxter – all of these books are historical type mysteries and I really enjoyed them.

What do you like about historical fiction what don’t you like? – I just like Ancient History and reading historical novels especially the really good ones, can give you an insight into a world long gone. You can also learn lots of interesting facts about the period and the people. I can’t say I dislike anything about historical fiction.

What types of historical fiction do you prefer? – As I have said earlier the main areas of historical fiction I prefer are Roman, Viking and Medieval period.

Do you have historical books or authors you would recommend to other readers, can you tell us why? – I have quite a large list of authors I would recommend such as Bernard Cornwall, Ben Kane, Anthony Riches, James Wilde, Simon Scarrow, Robyn Young, Jack Whyte, Stewart Binns, Angus Donald to name but a few. A few outstanding books for me come to mind, these are books I really could not put down  – Conquest by Stewart Binns, Requiem by Robyn Young, Hereward by James Wilde, Outlaw by Angus Donald.

In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to talk and learn about books – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, book clubs – can you tell us about your experiences, where you go to talk or learn about books, why you enjoy discussions about books?  The only discussions that I have regarding my reading material is really within the family, particularly my brother. We tend to meet up every month for lunch and much to our wives’ disgust, we generally spend a lot of the lunchtime discussing the historical novels that we are reading or have recently read. My brother is actually having a go at writing an historical novel set in Roman times, he has done a great amount of research and finished a couple of chapters, really look forward to reading it.

What advice do you have for writers of historical novels?  – The only advice I would give is keep those novels coming, the greatest thing at the moment for me, is that we have such a healthy number of good historical novelists writing novels set in the periods I love. Long may it continue.

Is there anything else about reading historical novels you would like to comment on? – Discovering new historical novelists is always exciting, you can find them in the most unusual places. We were visiting a craft centre at one time, very near to where we live that exhibited all manner of things made from willow, in the showroom they were displaying a novel written by a local author, the title made me pick it up, “Warrior King”, a story about Alfred the Great. It was a really good read and I emailed the author to tell her how much I had enjoyed it.

Many thanks, Ken, for sharing your views. I’m interested in your point about ‘discovering new historical novelists’. Do you use features such as the one offered on Amazon ‘customers who bought this book also purchased …’ ? I think discovery is one of the biggest challenges facing authors, particularly those who are self-publishing.