A Conversation with
Please give a warm Coffee Pot welcome to Historical Fiction author, John Pilkington.
Mary Anne: Hi, John, I am so excited that you dropped by today for a chat. As a skilled writer for radio, stage and television what drew you towards writing historical fiction?
John Pilkington: In fact I wrote my first historical mystery before I wrote for television. Around twenty years ago my playwriting work seemed to be drying up, and I needed a new outlet. While on holiday, sitting by the pool day-dreaming, I got the idea of creating an Elizabethan-era sleuth. This was a period I knew well, having come to it through drama and literature (Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson and the rest) before I got interested in the historical and social background. Somehow – I’m not sure how - Thomas the Falconer was born: a sharp-eyed man of the Berkshire Downs, servant to a wealthy knight, who could travel with his master, mix with people of many types and get involved in various mysteries. His first book, The Ruffler’s Child, was written quite quickly in 2-3 months, and through that I found a new agent who then, purely for financial reasons, lined up television work for me. I spent three years working on a BBC daytime soap, but didn’t enjoy it much. Fortunately the scripts could be done within a month, leaving me free to get back to the far more satisfying world of Thomas the Falconer. Though I had no idea then that he would become the hero of 7 books, let alone that I would go on to write 3 more historical series! Nowadays I rarely do any other sort of writing and am happy to spend my working hours in the Tudor and Stuart eras, which never cease to produce new stories.
Mary Anne: Your new book, Legacy: A Justice Belstrang Mystery takes place just 11 years after the infamous Gunpowder Plot. What were the challenges you faced in researching this period of history and were there any unexpected surprises?
John Pilkington: I’ve always been fascinated by the Gunpowder Plot, and became interested in those turbulent years during which the Tudor century gave way to the Stuart, after James 1st succeeded Elizabeth in 1603. It falls between two very well-trodden periods – the Tudor Age and the English Civil War - but is filled with conflict, intrigue and incident. I’m surprised that more writers don’t choose to explore it, because there’s a wealth of material there once you start delving into it.
|London in 1616 by Dutch engraver Claes Jan Visscher.|
In 2014, I’d just finished a 2-year stint as a Writing Fellow at the University of Bristol, and was free to get involved in some new, in-depth research. I spent around 3 years researching the Jacobean era. As with any period, there are delights and disappointments. For one thing, I found King James an unpleasant man and grew to dislike him intensely. I could well understand why Catholics were so dismayed and angry when (like many a politician) he promised so much before his coronation, then turned his back on them after becoming King. Soon I began to identify with the plotters! I forget who it was who said that the writer should take the part of the underdog, but I often seem to do that instinctively that in my fiction.
|Gunpowder Plotters by Crispijn van de Passe.|
Surprises – yes, there were some. For example, I couldn’t get the grisly image out of my head of King James standing up to his bare ankles in the blood of a fresh-killed stag, believing it a cure for gout (I used it in Legacy). I was surprised by Guy Fawkes, the ‘warrior-monk’ who could move about freely because he was all but unknown in England, having spent ten years fighting for the Catholic cause on the continent. He was so tough that, after being captured, he withstood two days of torture before he would even reveal his true name. And when he came to be hanged, he was too weak to climb the scaffold unaided, yet threw himself off the top rung of the ladder so that his neck broke, thereby sparing himself the unthinkable agonies of being disembowelled and emasculated alive, like his fellow plotters. But perhaps the biggest revelation of all – though with hindsight, I should have expected it – was how paranoid the country was after the plot of November 1605 was thwarted, and how many Catholics were persecuted, jailed and ruined. Small wonder that the slightest mishap to the King or any of the Royal Family could easily be – and often was - interpreted as another attempted ‘plot’. Fertile ground - and out of this Legacy emerged. For authors, the ‘what if’ factor is often a useful spur. ‘What if someone had decided to…?’ We can speculate as we like.
Mary Anne: The hero of your new book, Robert Belstrang, is a retired magistrate who has turned his hand to investigation when the son of a neighbour goes missing. What do you think makes him such a good protagonist?
John Pilkington: I really wanted to find a different sort of sleuth, following the 4 I’d already created. Thomas the Falconer is a plain-speaking countryman – courageous, upright and loyal. Martin Marbeck, the protagonist of a series of 4 books, is more dangerous: a spy, swordsman and man of action. Boy actor Ben Button followed, the young hero of my Elizabethan Mysteries series for children. After that came my only female protagonist, Restoration-actress-turned sleuth Betsy Brand, who has featured in two mysteries so far, set in the 1670s (After the Fire and The Judas Blade).
Robert Belstrang arrived for a number of reasons (one of them is my growing older!). I thought a more learned man, a lawyer by training, principled but with a rebellious streak, could go places the others couldn’t – even into Whitehall Palace, seat of government as well as a place of intrigue and corruption. He’s a widower and a grandfather with a good deal of life experience as well as a wry sense of humour, and unafraid to admit his faults. He’s immune to bribes, as he is (usually) to the temptations of the flesh. He may not wield a sword like Marbeck, handle himself in a fist-fight like Thomas, or have the acting skills and female perceptions of Betsy Brand, yet he’s brave, believes firmly in justice and will pursue a trail to its bitter end. I can’t help thinking he has a touch of Inspector Morse, with his eye for detail and his grouchiness, as well as of Samuel Pepys, who generally lived life to the full. I began to write Robert’s narrative in the first person, a new venture for me, and at once felt comfortable with him.
Mary Anne: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction?
John Pilkington: I think it’s getting the balance right, between creating a believable historical setting and telling a strong story that makes the reader want to stay with it.
There are pitfalls, like allowing your characters to express 21st-century views - or trying to reproduce period dialogue, which is difficult and sometimes downright impossible. Then, readers can soon tell if you’re trying too hard to sound ‘authentic’, for example by putting in unnecessary historical detail to prove you’ve done your research (I’ve fallen into that trap myself!). They can also grow bored if the characters are too much ‘of their time’ and difficult to identify with – for example the deep, unquestioning religious beliefs of the 16th and 17th centuries, which can lead people to behave in ways we find hard to understand. But they do appreciate a strong sense of ‘being there’.
My usual method is to choose a particular time in which to set my story, then research the events of that year, or years, so that I won’t make any glaring mistakes – like including a real-life character who had in fact died previously, which almost happened once. I build my fictional mystery against this background, even interweaving events if possible, so that the story could – just feasibly – have happened then and there. Legacy is rooted in the events, attitudes and ambience of 1615-1616, and I had to be careful with my timing - for example, finding out when the King was away hunting, as he often was, rather than at Whitehall, which involved digging into various records. I think taking such pains pays off, in the end.
Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?
John Pilkington: Firstly, I think you need to be passionate about your period. You will need to do plenty of background reading and research of course, and if you aren’t intrigued by what turns up you will get bored with it, which is fatal. What is it about a particular era which most attracts you? Maybe you were enthralled by films like Gladiator, Braveheart or Elizabeth, or drawn to Citizen Kane or even Brighton Rock – the 20th century is now a perfectly acceptable setting for Historical Fiction. Maybe you devoured books as a child set in the Middle Ages, the Civil War or the American Frontier. It doesn’t matter too much because, whatever period you choose, someone has already set a book in it (or twelve). Never let that put you off, but remember that certain periods of history have been plundered extensively by authors, from Ancient Egypt and Rome through the Middle Ages, Tudors and Stuarts, the Napoleonic era to both World Wars. Try to find a new angle if you can, and a protagonist unlike those who come easily to mind. Who, for example, would have thought that a herbalist monk based at an abbey in Shrewsbury in the 12th century would turn out to be such a successful sleuth, in print and on screen? But Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael remains popular today, almost 45 years after he first appeared.
I would suggest that, to begin with at least, you let your research lead you. Nowadays you can do a great deal of it online, though you will probably want to build up a library of good reference works on the period, rather than just a stack of Wikipedia print-outs. I’m also a great believer in ‘hands-on’ research when it’s possible. I don’t just mean visiting museums, castles, historic houses or battlefields, stimulating though these may be. I mean ‘getting your hands dirty’, as one of the best writers I knew used to put it: handling period artefacts if you can, inspecting everything from food to weapons, trying on clothes, talking to specialists and so on. I did some fencing at school, which has proved useful when writing sword-fighting scenes. For the Thomas the Falconer books I went on a falconry course, flew some of those remarkable birds myself and learned a huge amount from the falconers I met. Having done some acting as a student, and seen a few Restoration-era plays in the theatre, helped me enter Betsy Brand’s world. In short, anything that brings you closer to the period in which your characters live is useful.
I have a cork wall in my study on which I pin portraits, photographs, maps, quotations, snippets of dialogue – anything that helps with the work-on-progress. One you’ve settled on your central figure – hero, sleuth, or however you like to think of him or her – you can build up a profile before putting ‘X’ on the page. Is there a family? What does X do for a living? What does he/she care about most, and who are they likely to come up against?
Of course, I speak as an author of historical mysteries, and it could be that your protagonist isn’t an investigator or crime-solving figure at all. Some authors choose a real personage (soldier, politician, criminal, courtesan, nurse - there are no limits) and make them the centre of their novel. Who would argue with the success of Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, hitherto an unpopular and somewhat shadowy figure of the Tudor Court, and now the engrossing subject of a world-famous, prize-winning trilogy?
As I’ve said, it’s really down to what excites and intrigues you. You should do your research, build up your story/plot and then try out a few openings to see what works best, if it helps. Good luck!
Mary Anne: Thank you so much, John, for taking the time to chat with us today.
If you would like to find out more about John and his books then you know what to do SCROLL DOWN!
A Justice Belstrang Mystery
By John Pilkington
Robert Belstrang, ex-magistrate bored with country life, comes to London to investigate the strange disappearance of Thomas Jessop, son of a poor Catholic neighbour. He locates the youth in Bedlam asylum, silent and starving himself. When he tries to free Jessop, he is warned off the case by a politic lawyer, Anstis. Soon after, Belstrang finds himself drugged, robbed and falsely imprisoned.
Once released Belstrang persists in his investigation, but he is thwarted at every turn: unseen forces are at work who seemingly want Thomas Jessop to die. When Belstrang confronts Anstis, even he turns up dead.
The trail grows murkier by the hour, drawing Belstrang into the fear-ridden Catholic underworld - until he uncovers a plan with its roots in the Gunpowder Plot of more than a decade ago. Young Thomas, an embittered papist, was being used in a desperate scheme to mark the anniversary of the Plot. The scheme failed – and now the conspirators seem eager to cover up the whole business.
But Belstrang’s a stubborn man. With the help of ex-soldier Daniel Oldrigg, he sticks doggedly to his purpose - and stumbles on the real causes of the Anniversary Plot, which stem from the very heart of a corrupt government.
Belstrang must uncover the truth, or die trying.
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Legacy: A Justice Belstrang Mystery
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Having given up trying to become a rock star after playing guitar in various bands, John Pilkington turned to writing and found his true vocation. His first works were radio plays, followed by stage plays and scripts for BBC television. But his venture into historical fiction proved crucial, and it continues to be his lifelong passion. He has published around twenty books including seven in the Elizabethan-set Thomas the Falconer Mysteries series (now republished by Sharpe Books), four in the Marbeck spy series (Severn House), and two in a Restoration-era series featuring actress-turned-sleuth Betsy Brand (Joffe Books). His latest novel is Legacy (Sharpe), set in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot.
Born in the north-west of England, he now lives in a quiet estuary village in Devon with his partner, and has a son who is a musician, composer and trainee psychologist. When not at his desk he may be found walking by the river, doing a little carpentry or listening to music - and reading, of course. Having moved his fiction into the 17th century, he quite likes it and may well remain there.
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