A Conversation with Historical Fiction author, Michael Ward
Please give a warm Coffee Pot welcome to Historical Fiction author,
Mary Anne: A huge congratulations on your debut novel. Rags of Time is the first book in the Thomas Tallant series, could you tell us a little about your series and what inspired you to write it? What drew you towards the Stuart era in which to set your book?
Michael Ward: ‘Rags of Time’ is my debut novel, so I thought long and hard about my choice of genre and subject. I chose to write historical fiction because I read a lot of it. My early inspirations were Patrick O’Brian, Bernard Cornwell and CJ Sansom. I love the creative potential of infusing a factual historical backdrop with a fictional story, using both real and imaginary characters.
My choice of period was quite deliberate. I felt some eras, such as the Tudors and Romans, were over populated. Too much competition! I needed a quiet corner where I could set up camp and build my world. I researched the Stuarts and within a couple of days, I had found my home. A number of novels had been written about both the English Civil War and the Restoration. But when I stepped back and considered the mid-Stuart period as a whole, I had my eureka moment. In just 25 years, England experienced a tumultuous series of events: civil war, regicide, a republic and restoration. 25 years – an adult lifespan back then. I had discovered a treasure trove of continuous historical drama, a wonderful backdrop for the development of my main characters through their adult lives. Add to this the hellish year of 1666 - the Fire of London and the Great Plague - and the stage was set for my book series, starting with 'Rags of Time'.
Mary Anne: What were the challenges you faced in researching this period of history and were there any unexpected surprises?
Michael Ward: I knew the turbulence of this period was driven by religious and political change. However, further research revealed it was also a time of major commercial and scientific development. I realised I had to embrace and interweave all four elements to truly immerse my reader in 17th century
|Physician William Harvey demonstrates to Charles I his discovery of how blood circulates around the body.|
The events of the day would provide more than enough opportunity to explore politics and religion, but I needed a counterpoint of my own making to introduce and feature commerce and science. And so my two main characters were born, spice merchant Thomas Tallant and the enigmatic polymath Elizabeth Seymour, whose love of astronomy and mathematics were only matched by her addiction to tobacco and gambling.
|Profits soared for 17th century merchants through imports of spices such as nutmeg and mace.|
I was working full time on my copywriting business while writing ‘Rags’, so only had time to use secondary sources which thankfully are plentiful (no shortage of factual histories of the period!). I also looked at academic journals to uncover detail on specific elements of the period. It took me eight months of research before I was ready to write a word but, as I was starting with a blank piece of paper, I was examining the entire Stuart period, gaining knowledge that will help me throughout the series.
My most unexpected surprise was choosing a fictional location on the Thames for the Tallant family warehouse, only to discover later a map from the1660s that named the exact same spot ‘Ralph’s Quay’. Ralph is the name I had chosen for Tom Tallant’s father!
Mary Anne: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction?
Michael Ward: Clearly it’s critical to get the historical references spot on. That takes time and care which is a challenge, but a very enjoyable one. (However, I’m resigned to the likelihood that I’ve made a least one gaffe somewhere in Rags which will soon be discovered.) I use an etymology dictionary a lot and I’ve learned not to rule out a word or term without checking it first. It’s surprising how much of our language today has its roots in or before the 17th century.
I’ve also tried to integrate the historical information seamlessly within the plot and character development, so the reader’s immersion in the period is natural and continuous. I’m still working on this because the period I have chosen has a lot going on politically in different places at the same time. Nice problem to have though!
Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?
Michael Ward: I feel it’s a little early for me to offer advice, but my years as a journalist did teach me the importance of getting something down on the page, something you can then work with, editing and reshaping. Don’t even try and make it perfect first time. You just need a first draft you can then start building from.
I find some of my most creative work is a result of editing. This applies on a larger scale as well. My first version of ‘Rags’ had a second chapter that I was very pleased with until I stepped back, looked at the book as a whole and realised it wasn’t working, so out it went.
My second suggestion is, if at all possible, find and join a local writers’ group. It’s very therapeutic to get away from your desk once every couple of weeks and share your work with other aspiring writers. You get good feedback and collegiate support. It’s also stimulating to read other people’s stuff and see how they are tackling plot, character development, etc. I wasn’t sure if it was for me until I joined mine. I’m so glad I did.
Rags of Time
A Thomas Tallant Mystery
By Michael Ward
Thomas Tallant, a young and ambitious Spice Merchant, returns from India to find his city in turmoil.
A bitter struggle is brewing between King Charles I and Parliament, as England slides into civil war. The capital is simmering with dissent. The conflict is ready to boil over.
But Thomas soon has other troubles to contend with. A wealthy merchant, Sir Joseph Venell, is savagely killed; then his partner Sir Hugh Swofford plunges to his death, in the Tallant household.
Suspicion falls on Thomas, who is sucked into a mire of treachery and rumour within the City of London. As the merchant struggles to clear his name, he becomes captivated by the enigmatic Elizabeth Seymour, whose passion for astronomy and mathematics is matched only by her addiction to the gaming tables.
Pursued by the authorities, Thomas races to unmask the real killer who claims a third victim to implicate him further, toying with his future in a deadly cat and mouse game.
In a desperate race against time, Elizabeth applies her powers of logic and deduction to unearth the clues that will point to the killer, but her way is barred by a secret message from the grave.
Can she crack its code before Thomas, now a wounded and exhausted fugitive, succumbs to the chase?
And, if she succeeds, has Thomas the strength to face his tormentor and win his life and reputation back?
Praise for Rags of Time
'A satisfying, brooding mystery set in Stuart England anticipating the coming Civil War.'
Paul Walker, author of State of Treason
'I loved it; a wickedly dark murder mystery set in Stuart London.'
Jemahl Evans, author of The Last Roundhead
21st October 1639
As he strode across the lower meadow of his country home, Sir Joseph Venell considered his sin, and smiled.
He felt a surge of shameful joy as the late autumn sun bathed the village of Kensington, burnishing the leaves that rained from the tall beech trees surrounding the field. A warm breeze stirred the branches, releasing a further golden shower.
He should not exult in making money, he knew it. Except it would be so much money! And it would fall at his feet like these leaves, each year without fail. A God-fearing man, Sir Joseph rebuked himself, but heard his voice laugh out loud as he calculated his future wealth.
He worked his way down the slope. The grass was lush for the time of year and his stockman had kept the sheep in the upper field. They would be moved to the meadow next week to gorge themselves on the fresh pasture.
Sir Joseph hummed a Gabrieli motet, breaking the tempo to match his bouncing steps as he let the slope take him down the hill. It had been his father's favourite piece of music. What would Papa think if he could see his son now, about to secure his place among London's leading merchants, and through the King's favour no less. Excitement coursed through Sir Joseph. Had life ever been better? The sun was shining, the air was clear and he was off to see his beloved bees. They had remained active during the extended summer but now it was time to make a final inspection of the hives before the cold weather arrived.
The sun cast lengthening shadows, picking out tiny black moths which flew from the grass, disturbed by his steps. This indeed was a heaven on earth, Sir Joseph mused. Even the infernal pigeons had stopped their incessant call: koor, koor, koorrrrr... koor, koor, koorrrrr... koor, koor! Gone! Strange - but most welcome.
The first blow to Sir Joseph's head threw him forward
violently. He staggered but remained upright. It came from behind and he had no time to recover before he was hit again, this time from the side.
In shock, he wheeled around to confront his attacker. Behind him, the pasture stretched up to the gate he had entered minutes ago. He could see the path he had made through the grass. There was no one in sight.
He turned quickly back the way he had been heading, breathing hard. Ahead lay his route to the hives. He looked right, up the slope to the tree line. No one there either. As he turned to the left to check the bottom of the field, he was pitched forward by another jarring blow to the back of his head, this time accompanied by a piercing pain in his scalp.
Sir Joseph fell to his knees, hands out in front. The grass was cool between his fingers as he stared at the ground, his ears full of his ragged breathing and the beating of his heart. O Sweet Jesu. He is quick, this villain. I cannot see him! I must get help, somehow.
'I have no money on my person,' he shouted into the ground, hearing the rising panic in his voice. 'But I am not an unwealthy man. Let me live and I will be generous .'
As he spoke, a rivulet of blood dripped from his head onto his hand. The smell of the warm blood mingled with the scent of crushed grass beneath his knees. Sir Joseph's panic changed to rising anger. Who was this bastard toe rag to attack him on his own land?
'Yes, I will be generous...with the rope,' he muttered to himself, as he staggered to his feet. He carefully quartered the field, north, south, east and west. It was empty.
His anger was quickly doused by the chill of fear. Where was his attacker? He did not understand what was happening but he must get out of this damned meadow immediately. The quickest way was downhill. He ran towards the hives, and the shelter of the surrounding woods.
Four steps later, Sir Joseph was sprawling on the ground once more, hit by another sickening blow to his right temple. He stumbled to his feet and started running again, now gripped by mortal fear. In a moment, he had realised his fate. This was not a robbery. It was a lesson in humility. He had dared to believe he had created a heaven on earth and now was being taught by the Almighty that such arrogance required swift correction. He had been handed to the demons for punishment.
Pain seared his brain as he was hit again. Sir Joseph shouted to the skies, waving his arms in the air, as his steps became more uncertain. He stumbled up the slope, no longer sure of his direction.
'Oh God, forgive me. I am a mortal sinner.' Another crash as his words went unheeded. 'I dared to be filled with selfish pride. Oh Jesu, forgive me.'
Blood was running freely down his face, filling his eyes and mouth. Blinded, he staggered on, turning this way and that across the meadow, screaming.
'Forgive my greed. I will give my money to the poor. I will do anything if you will only spare ....'
Sir Joseph's pleas were silenced by another lacerating blow. Again he was pitched forward, but this time lay still on the ground. His eyes stared across the empty field as stalks of grass blew against his face. The sun was now lower in the sky and the air had turned cooler. Blood slowly spread across the ground under Sir Joseph's head. The buzz of gathering flies filled the air.
The breeze shifted direction and caught the tallest trees at the top of the pasture. More leaves fell and danced through the amber light before landing gently on Sir Joseph's prostrate body.
The sheep called to each other in the top meadow. Evening was approaching.
And from the trees a familiar sound returned: Koor, koor, koorrrrr... koor, koor, koorrrrr-koor, koor.
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Rags of Time
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Writing has been central to Michael Ward’s professional life. On graduating from university he became a journalist, working in newspapers and the BBC. He then taught and researched journalism practice before being appointed head of the UK’s prestigious Journalism School at UCLan. He now runs his own content creation and training company.
‘Rags of Time’ is Michael’s debut novel. Its sequel is due late in 2020.