Chris Turnbull writes historical fiction novels. They cover a number of periods and places, though he is best known for his works set in the Victorian Era. With a diverse back catalogue, it is interesting to see how Chris has had to vary his planning for different settings. With some particularly well-known settings, the World Fair of 1889 for example, his research has needed to be very thorough. Chris lives in York and has a new novel, set in Victorian England, out soon.
Your writing is set in several periods. Was it a conscious decision to vary the setting or did ideas just take over?
For me, I love learning about different times in history, and to set a book in a particular time period allows me to research that time and also learn something new. My first book was set in WW2 England, and I have always been fascinated with this time in history as it had the most impact on the entire world. The majority of my other books are set in Victorian England, and this purely comes from my own fascination with the time period. My Whitby books were my first venture into this time period and I chose it primarily because I wanted it to be set a couple of years after the publication of Dracula (which is referenced in the book). My other book ‘Carousel’ is set in Victorian Paris as I wanted to explore the city during that time.
Find out more about Whitby’s Darkest Secret on Amazon.
Victorian England and the Second World War are both incredibly popular periods of history. With people knowing so much about these areas, what lengths do you have to go to to ensure you get the historic aspects of your work accurate?
The research part of my writing is huge. I certainly spend more time researching the facts to ensure they are as spot on as I can possibly make them. I can see myself spending hours looking into something that is only referenced in the book once, or even just in a couple of words. I think because people do know these time periods so well it is important to show the reader that you have done your homework, as they will spot it a mile away if you have made something up. I also love the research side of my writing and enjoy discovering little bits that I can include in a book.
Your WW2 novel is set in Cumbria. Can you tell us a little about the reasons why you chose this setting and perhaps a bit about Alston during the Second World War?
The Vintage Coat was my first book, and it came about as a happy accident really. I am a huge lover of antique shops and in 2013 my in-laws took me and my partner for a trip out to a place called Alston…I had never been before. They were from Cumbria and knew I would love it. As it happens they had a delightful antique shop where I found an old military coat that fit me perfectly (and if you have not met me then most male clothes are always too big). I bought the coat and it was not long before the idea for the story started to flood my mind.
I did consider setting it in my home county of Yorkshire, but the more I wrote the more Alston felt the right place to keep the story setting.
Alston is a very quiet little town, and had little involvement in the war, but I was able to find out quite a bit about the town which allowed me to include the names of shops etc. into the story and keep it as real as possible.
Find out more about The Vintage Coat on Amazon.
Similarly, you choose Paris c1900 as the setting for another novel. Again, why did you choose Paris and how did you go about researching for this novel?
CAROUSEL is another book that kind of took me by surprise. I have always loved Paris and have had the opportunity to visit a couple of times. The basis for this story was the Eiffel tower, and I found myself looking into its construction, and the World Fair that it was built for in 1889. Thankfully the research for this book was one of the easiest as Paris is a well-documented city through history, and with the World Fair on that year too I had an array of pictures, paintings and written accounts to help me re-create the setting. This book has had the most praise by the fans for being so descriptive that the readers felt as though they had been…which is amazing feedback for a writer.
Find out more about Carousel on Amazon.
How do you balance the fiction and the fact?
Primarily my work is fiction, and that takes up the majority of the story. However, the facts are placed in and around this, be it describing the setting, or placing in a newspaper article that really did appear on the day the chapter is set. The last thing I want is for my readers to feel like I am preaching history, but at the same time I think it is great to add these little facts in. I am always getting comments back from readers with ‘I didn’t know that…’ which again is fantastic as it means they picked up the facts.
What is your planning process?
My planning process changes with every book. The Vintage Coat was not very planned at all…I simply wrote and let the story take me along for the ride, which I absolutely loved and was even shocked with the ending myself. A lot of my other books are half planned out, mostly so I know roughly where I am headed but also loosely enough for me to let the story take me on the journey too. I find by doing this it keeps me excited by the story and wanting to know what is going to happen next. My new book, which is coming out in July, is a crime novel and for this I have had to plan to the letter. This is because I needed to know who the killer was, and what clues and red herrings I could leave throughout the book. This is the first time I have planned every detail of a book like and found it more of a challenge (which I enjoyed) than I thought it would be.
Lots of schools do make use of historical fiction in lessons, do you consider young adults when writing? Do you think that historical fiction can help them to understand the period that your novel is set in?
Certainly. I am not going to lie, history lessons at school cannot always be the most exciting; but having different ways of teaching certain times in history, like a fictional novel set in that time period, is a great way to teach about life in those times. History has had so many amazing time periods, and also some incredibly impressive events throughout the world and I believe that history lessons can be fun if they are done right.
Who are your favourite authors (or historians)? How have they influenced your own work?
An indie author I love at the moment is called Martin Ferguson, he has a fantastic series on the go called ‘The Relic Hunters’ which I adore. He has cleverly combined history (and the history museum) with a great tomb raider style set of stories. Each one cleverly looks into a different relic which not only gives us the history but there are also chapters set in that time period which are cleverly written.
Another book I love and took inspiration from is The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan, this is a fantastic read set in the early 1900s and is written so well that you can picture everything in your mind as clearly as though you are watching it in the TV.
I do find myself watching a lot of history programs as well, and if there is anything available that co-insides what I am currently working on I will watch it to try and help me get into that mind frame.
What plans have you for your writing? Will it continue to be similar styles or do you see yourself writing in different genres or historical periods?
As it stands I am enjoying writing this style of books and will certainly continue. My new book is again set in Victorian England (1881 this time) and is a crime novel which I hope to be the start of a series. I do have an idea for another WW2 themed book too which I hope to start very soon. I am interested in other time periods and have a couple of projects mapped out for later which I hope to come back to, these are all much further back than Victorian so I am interested to see how I get on with them.
What tips do you have for any aspiring writers, of any age?
Never give up. Some people say you should write every day, I say do it as often as you like. Don’t make it a chore, make it an enjoyable experience. And most importantly it is a creative art form, so don’t let anybody tell you that what you are doing is wrong (unless you are doing historical fiction, and then just make sure you have your facts checked).
I’m Chris, Reading and Writing have always been a passion of mine, I love the feeling of been drawn into a good book and escaping into another world. Writing has been something that has been with me from a young age, and creating characters is something I particularly enjoy. My writing is almost always set in the past, I love finding out about times gone by and try to include the knowledge I learn about the era into my book, and hopefully, you too may learn something you didn’t know before.
Chris was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire in England. The eldest of two sons Chris originally wanted to become a dog groomer and trained in this field before working on a farm in the grooming room as well as helping with the dog hydrotherapy. After a few years, Chris moved on, and found a job at Bradford University working with PhD students in the Biology labs. Chris enjoyed nearly 7 years here before moving over to York University to take on a similar, be it a more senior role. Chris now lives on the outskirts of York with his partner and their Jack Russell terrier, Olly.
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Zenta Brice – a story based in Latvia as the Soviet Regimes grip on the Baltic loosened
Jeri Westerson – an author in 3 genres, most relevant here are the Crispin Guest novels, described by Jeri as Medieval Noir
Simon Schama – an excerpt of a conversation about the way in which Historical Documentaries are produced