David Field is an established author of historical fiction. His work to date includes a series of crime fiction novels set in Victorian London; a current series of books set in Tudor England of which books two of the six-part series is currently available and; a forthcoming series based around the Norman Invasion of England. David’s interview shows that he has a passion for putting life into characters who are often well known historical figures.
What makes the Tudor period interesting to you?
Like most school students, I found that the tudor era leapt from the pages because of its human drama. A fat king with six wives, a virgin queen who sent the Spanish Armada packing, and all the colourful characters around the throne – Wolsey, Cromwell, Cecil, Drake and so on. The costumes, the pageantry, the excesses – the sheer pizzazz of it all, that not even uninspired teachers could diminish.
The Tudor era is a period for which many readers will have preconceived ideas. Are you conscious of this when planning your novels?
Yes and no. I am aware of what others will have learned as well as me – the bare bones of dates, events and so on. The challenge for me is to reach behind the preconceptions and lift out the real people – a bit like taking a photograph from a frame and reading what’s written on the back of it. I was particularly conscious of cliché demolition when I wrote about Henry VII, Wolsey and Cromwell (‘the miser’, ‘the vainglorious priest’ and ‘the thug in a doublet’ respectively). They were three-dimensional human beings with personalities, ambitions, emotions and reasons for doing what they did, now imprisoned in the cold typeface of academic tomes that students memorise in order to ‘cram’ for exams. They deserve a better literary tombstone than that.
What lengths do you have to go to in order to ensure that the historical aspects of your work are accurate?
I begin with the unassailable facts regarding which there has never been any scholarly dissent (e.g. dates of accession and death) then paint in between the outlines without altering them in any way. I’m not a great fan of ‘alternative history’, because enough inaccuracies surround the original, so I take what is known and ask ‘why’? Why, for example, was Wolsey so proud, vainglorious and fond of the outward trappings of success? Because he was despised for his lowly origins as the son of a butcher. I haven’t altered a known historical fact, but I’ve employed a little ‘thinking outside the square’ in order to breathe life into the man, with his appealing human failings underneath his Cardinal’s soutane. It’s well known that Wolsey had an enemy in Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and given that they were the same age, and grew up in adjoining counties in East Anglia, why not make them schoolboy enemies? Have I destroyed the very fabric of English history? I don’t think so – I’ve merely given the kiss of life to the cardboard cut-outs of the history textbook.
Which of the Tudors is your favourite, and why?
Definitely Thomas Cromwell. Everyone loves a villain, and his ability to survive all the intrigue of the Court of Henry VIII speaks volumes for his gutter skills. Again, as the son of a Putney blacksmith he needed to be devious, amoral and treacherous, as well as hugely gifted, in order to rise above the perfumed sycophants, and his downfall – like Wolsey’s – was his inability to see how badly he was about to piss off his protector and patron Henry. He’s sometimes (e.g. by Hilary Mantel) recognised for his warm human side, but his actions speak for themselves. Ask any Sixteenth Century monk.
How do you balance the fiction and the fact?
I’ve already alluded to this. I never ‘bend’ a single established fact – except perhaps when making Jane Rochford more of a whore than she probably really was. What I do is to keep within the accepted lines and add the colour, the depth, the human dimension. Everyone knows that England was ill-prepared for the Spanish Armada that was known to be on its way, but how did it feel to actually be there facing the approach of the greatest floating army the world had ever witnessed, with only a few reformed pirates to defend you? How did Jane Grey feel about being thrust onto the throne of England? I was altering nothing by giving her a fictional lifelong friend in whom she could confide.
What is your planning process?
I’m not sure I have one, other than lying back in my recliner chair and putting my character into the scene that unfolds in my head until I can almost smell it. It helps that another of my lifelong hobbies has been amateur dramatics, since all actors are trained to ‘get into character’. Once the scene opens up in my head I climb into the appropriate costume and play the part as I feel it. For example, there’s a scene in ‘The King’s Commoner’ in which Wolsey pauses briefly during his lonely stroll through a royal garden in order to break wind. He was a lover of rich foods, so why wouldn’t he? Later I gave him a duodenal ulcer to hasten his physical deterioration prior to his obscure death in Leicester on his way south under escort to the Tower. However, I drew the line at the mental image I’d formed of Anne Boleyn picking her nose – I’m sure she did, but it didn’t quite accord with the character of her that I’d identified as the doyen and trendsetter of Courtly etiquette.
Do you think that historical fiction can help young adults better understand history?
Without a doubt. I’m a great fan of TV’s ‘Horrible Histories’ series, and an admirer of Terry Deary’s books that inspired it. Take the simple example of the sketch in which a father is trying to recruit his young son into the family business of ‘gong farming’. We too easily accept that the only means of transport in Tudor times was on horseback, without appreciating the amount of dung this left on the streets, to reach epidemic proportions in Victorian London.
Who are your favourite authors?
No surprises here. Hilary Mantel for her courageous psychoanalysis of Thomas Cromwell, and Ken Follett for his unflagging portrayal of the lives of ordinary people against the backdrop of real events in history.
What plans have you for your writing?
I already have a series of eight published novels behind me that involve crime in Victorian London, and the same publisher has just released the first two in my six book series on the Tudor age, ‘Tudor Dawn’ (Henry VII) and ‘The King’s Commoner’ (Thomas Wolsey). Another publisher has another series of three crime stories on the launch pad that feature the working life of a Tudor Constable. Also in a publisher’s WIP is a series of four novels depicting the conquest of England by the Normans from a Saxon perspective. What must it have felt like to stand on a hill overlooking Pevensey beach in 1066 and see the invasion fleet on its way in? I also have novels set during the Civil War and The Great War awaiting acceptance by publishers.
What tips do you have for aspiring writers?
Courage, determination, undying faith in your abilities, humility, a willingness to take constructive criticism for what it is, and a magic wand. Somewhere out there is an agent or a publisher who wants what you have written – all you have to do is find them. Nothing new in any of this, but I’ve lived it, and it’s all true, folks. Personally I avoid literary agents, because most of them are only looking for the next J.K.Rowling. Try small ‘indie’ publishers, but target only those who invite the sort of stuff you’ve already written.
David is a prolific author and has only touched on part of his work in this interview. You can find out more about him and his books via his Amazon Author page.
Lindsay Littleson – wonderfully constructed novels aimed at Primary School pupils, accompanied by teaching resources
Chris Turnbull – a range of books largely set in the Victorian era, plus a World War Two novel and one set in late 19th century Paris
David Pilling – the Longsword Series, set in the reign of Edward I
Alex Marchant – stories suitable for Primary school children and KS3, set against the backdrop of Richard III’s life
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