Mary Anne: A huge congratulations on your new release, The King's Spy, could you tell us a little about your series and what inspired you to write it?
Mark Turnbull: The King’s Spy is the first book in my new Rebellion series and follows Captain Maxwell Walker, a royalist cavalryman. It is set in the latter part of the War of the Three Kingdoms and opens at the Battle of Naseby in 1645. Much of what I’d read described the outcome of Naseby - a resounding royalist defeat - as the end of King Charles I’s cause, but in actual fact the royalists could have turned the defeat around within the 12 weeks following the battle. That crucial time, in which the King attempted to march his ‘Oxford army’ north, to link up with his Scottish forces, was full of action, adventure and politics. I couldn’t resist this backdrop and getting into the midst of it through my writing. There’s also the notorious capture of the royal correspondence at Naseby, which was a propaganda defeat for the King, and this forms part of the plot. Books two and three will give me the opportunity to move into the period around the King’s surrender in 1646 and the peace negotiations and political chaos that followed, which are quite overlooked aspects of the conflict.
Mary Anne: What drew you towards the English Civil War in which to set your book?
Mark Turnbull: I have had a love of history from a young age, but my fascination with the Wars of the Three Kingdoms was sparked when I was 10 years old and my parents took me to Helmsley Castle, North Yorkshire. Like most children, I couldn’t wait to explore the gift shop and bought a pack of cards that displayed images of the monarchs of England on one side, and some details about their lives and reigns on the other. Some of the early monarchs and their grey tombstone effigies were rather dull, but above all others, the card relating to the life and times of King Charles I stood out. The portrait was Van Dyck’s Charles I at the Hunt and I was immediately struck by the King’s image, the artistry, clothing and colours. When I found out that he had been executed, it really did spur me on to learn more. It was like a historical whodunnit and I was eager to discover how and why something so monumental had happened.
Not long after this I stumbled across the film, Cromwell, starring Sir Alec Guinness and Richard Harris. Although it isn’t historically accurate in many respects, I immediately recognised this newfound era and was captivated as it was brought to life on screen.
Part of my quest to get closer to the history naturally led me to re-enactments. Whilst on holiday we visited events organised by The Sealed Knot and The English Civil War Society and these battle displays fired my imagination. The sight and smell of them was – and still is – very atmospheric and the re-enactors do a sterling job. When I was seventeen, I joined The Sealed Knot (the Marquis of Newcastle’s Whitecoats) as a pikeman. The sight of having cavalry ride straight at us, of being able to look down the length of my pike at the faces of oncoming opponents, the exertion, smoky confusion and blur of action, were all priceless experiences.
Mary Anne: What were the challenges you faced in researching this period of history and were there any unexpected surprises?
Mark Turnbull: The beauty of researching this period is that I love doing it and find it so fascinating! One of the more challenging aspects that I researched was in relation to tunnelling and mining during siege warfare, and specifically discovering the finer details and techniques of counter-mining. Wistow Hall, in Leicestershire, which is where some of the book is set, still stands today, but because the building has been altered over the centuries and the route of roads changed, I had to strip these away so that I could visualise the 17th century house and the landscape around it.
The most unexpected surprise by far was the life of Sydenham Poyntz. Commander of Parliament’s Northern Association armies, he features as a character in the book. I could not find any portraits of Sydenham, but I did find an online copy of his reminiscences about his time in Europe during the Thirty Years War. There was so much adventure and tragedy in his life - enough that it could make an excellent novel in itself! He ran away from his apprenticeship in London aged sixteen (when, he admitted, ‘youth and rashness are of affinitie’) and enlisted in Lord Vaux’s English regiment that was fighting alongside the Spanish. He was captured by the Turkish army and spent six years being a slave to Turkish masters. His wife and son were later killed by French soldiers and then he returned to England and fought in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Perhaps poignantly, his end remains shrouded in mystery, as he simply vanished after the surrender of Barbados to the English Commonwealth.
Mary Anne: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction?
Mark Turnbull: One part I find tricky, like a lot of other authors, is time. I have a full-time job, so I have to plan my research and writing time as much as possible, though I don’t set targets for how much or how little I write in each session as that would be stifling. At the moment, many authors are juggling home schooling too and lockdown also prevents visits to any integral historical locations.
But in terms of the writing itself, the accuracy of sources and any confliction between them can prove a challenge when it comes to piecing the history together and weighing it up - especially so if you are exploring what occurred during a battle. But that said, working my way through obstacles and resolving them is simply part of the process of producing historical fiction and adds to the overall enjoyment (if not at the particular moment!).
Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?
Mark Turnbull: Write, write and then write some more. Not just your book, but articles, blog posts – anything. I find that the more I write about the War of the Three Kingdoms, the more I learn about writing itself and the period. It really helps me develop my writing style and gives me variety.
Engage with all those who share your passion for history; readers, fellow authors and publishers. Share your journey, support others, discuss the era, join groups, set up a website and social media accounts. Be a part of the book world and keep up with news, new releases and opinion. Collaborate and make friendships.
Keep going. If you want to write and publish your first book, you need to remain focussed but also enjoy the writing and publishing process, however hard and challenging it can be. Look at every step as a learning curve. Don’t give up.