Questions & Answers
If you have any questions that aren’t answered here about myself, my books or the history and inspiration behind them, please feel free to get in touch with me via the Contact page, or come along to one of my many Events.
Do you have a writing routine?
Novel-writing is about as far from a nine-to-five job as it’s possible to get, and I don’t always keep to regular working hours, although I try to be disciplined. Every day I try to write at least one thousand words, and I’ll just keep going until I reach that target. Sometimes that will take only a few hours, while other days I’ll still be writing late into the evening!
How much research do you do?
A lot! Before I start writing each new project, I spend several days in the University Library in Cambridge immersing myself in the latest academic studies, investigating particular topics of interest and generally laying the groundwork. I also visit locations that I know are going to feature in the novel, in order to get a sense of the lie of the land. But there are often times when I have to pause from writing to look something up or delve a bit deeper into a particular aspect of the history, and so in that sense research never really stops.
How long does it take to write each book?
To be honest, it varies. My first novel, Sworn Sword, took around four years to complete, during which time I completed my MA in Creative Writing, and it underwent several incarnations and revisions in that period. The next two volumes in the Conquest Series arrived more quickly, each being completed within a little less than 18 months, while my latest novel, The Harrowing, being my most ambitious and creatively challenging work yet, took me nearly three years to write and has been worth every minute spent on it.
Which other authors have inspired you?
In terms of historical fiction, the writers who have most influenced me include (in no particular order) C. J. Sansom, Barry Unsworth, Tim Willocks, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Bernard Cornwell and Robert Harris. Each offers something very different in terms of style and subject matter, but they’re equally proficient at evoking worlds very different from our own.
Outside of historical fiction, my favourite novelists include John le Carré, Chuck Palahniuk, Margaret Atwood, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. As an author I feel it’s important to read as widely as possible and to absorb different styles and methods of storytelling. Exploring new ideas and exposing oneself to fresh perspectives is what writing and reading are all about.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
The best piece of advice I could offer to any aspiring author is simply to practise, and then to practise some more. The more you produce, the better you’ll get. Persistence and determination are just as crucial as talent.
If possible, find a community of writers or someone whose opinion you value and trust, and see if they’ll give you some friendly and constructive feedback on your work, but only when you feel it’s ready to show.
The Conquest Series
What inspired you to write about the Norman Conquest?
I first began to study the Norman Conquest in depth while I was reading History at Cambridge and researching for my final-year dissertation. It was a period that’s always fascinated me, and the more I read through the sources and pored over the literature surrounding the subject, the richer it seemed to grow.
1066 marked the beginning of a period of intense change in England: of social, cultural and political upheaval on a scale that’s very difficult for us in the twenty-first century to imagine today. In the space of a generation after 1066, the Anglo-Saxon elite was almost entirely swept away and replaced with a new, French-speaking aristocracy, who brought with them new laws and customs, as well as fashions in art and architecture. At the same time, the landscape itself was remodelled, as the Normans carved out fiefdoms and imposed castles to dominate both town and country.
I wanted to capture a sense of what it would have felt like to live through such a traumatic period.
Why did you choose to begin the Conquest Series in 1069, rather than in 1066?
It’s fair to say that 1066 is the best-known date in English history. Most people know about the Battle of Hastings, have seen pictures of the Bayeux Tapestry, and are familiar with the scene depicting the arrow in the eye that’s traditionally thought to have killed King Harold.
However, while the story of events leading up to William’s victory at Hastings have been told many times in fiction, the story of the aftermath isn’t as well known, and yet arguably is the most fascinating part. The years following 1066 saw a long and bitter war for mastery of England, as the conquerors struggled to subdue a hostile country rife with rebellion and under threat of invasion from overseas.
What made you decide to write from the Norman rather than the English perspective?
From a very early stage I knew I wanted to tell the story of the Conquest from the point of view of one of the Norman invaders, a knight serving in William the Conqueror’s army. So far as I could see this was an angle that few authors had taken before, which made it ripe for exploration. In reality the Conquest was a complicated and morally messy affair, and I don’t think it’s accurate or honest to depict it as a straightforward struggle of good versus evil.
It’s too easy to paint the Normans with a broad brush and say that they were universally a bad lot. I’m sure that some did come to these shores for purely self-serving reasons, and a few were responsible for inflicting great suffering upon the vanquished English, but I also think that many, like my protagonist Tancred, were complex human beings who genuinely believed in the righteousness of their cause.
For a more in-depth answer, take a look a this post from my blog.
Do you have to read the books in order?
There is an overarching story in the Conquest Series, but you can certainly begin with The Splintered Kingdom or Knights of the Hawk if you wish and you shouldn’t find yourself lost! I’m a firm believer that each novel should have a clear beginning, middle and end, and should not exist simply as a setup for future instalments, and so I try to ensure that each novel can be read on its own.
When will Tancred return?
He will return at some point in the future – that much is certain – although I can’t yet say when that will be. His story is by no means over; he still has many places to visit and many battles to fight.
For the time being, however, I’m focussing on other projects, including my new novel, The Harrowing.
Is it a sequel to the Conquest Series?
In short, no. The Harrowing is a standalone novel, featuring an entirely separate cast of characters and set in the winter of 1070 during a particular phase of the Conquest known as the Harrying of the North.
OK, but should I still read the Conquest Series first?
You’re welcome to, but you certainly don’t have to. You can read The Harrowing without having read the Conquest Series. Although it happens to be set during the same period of history, it’s otherwise entirely unrelated to the Tancred novels, and you will be in no way disadvantaged if you haven’t read any of my previous books.
I live outside the UK. Where can I buy The Harrowing?
At the moment, The Harrowing is only published in the United Kingdom. However, you can still buy it even if you live elsewhere in the world – for example in the United States. I recommend ordering it from the Book Depository, which is based in the UK but offers free worldwide delivery.
Featured podcastFor more podcasts, visit James's channel on Soundcloud.
New & forthcoming releases
UK: The Harrowing, 7 July 2016 (hardcover).
US: Knights of the Hawk, 2 August 2016 (paperback).
Czech Rep.: Rozervané království, 16 January 2017 (hardcover).