My novels are very character-centric with the main focus on character development and interaction. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of my novels are inspired by people. My historical biographies and biographical fiction, obviously, were inspired by real people, whose stories fascinate me ― General Friedrich Olbricht, Leonidas of Sparta, Balian d’Ibelin. Other stories, were inspired more by the “footnotes” to history ― a passing reference to an individual act of courage or compassion, a short description of a donor or a grave in a half-forgotten church, a local legend of dubious veracity that nevertheless captures the imagination….
Yet almost as important as people, places too inspire the imagination. I firmly believe that my interest in history and historical fiction started at the age of four when my father took me to the Coliseum in Rome. While my mother and older sisters took the guided tour, my father (wisely) decided a four year old would be bored by so much information. So he led me through the Coliseum alone and confined himself to the essentials. “This,” he told me, “is where the Romans fed the Christians to the Lions.” Now that was fascinating to a four year old.
I spent the rest of the afternoon (or however long the official tour took) trying to imagine where they had kept the lions? where the Christians? Was there no way to escape? What if a lion got loose among the spectators? You see how rapidly this can become a novel?
Of course, at four, no novel evolved, but the process of thinking about the places I visited as the site of historical events and the stage for personal drama had started. It was helpful that Rome was only the start of a tour that took us to Florence and Venice, then up the Rhine and finally to Denmark and England, where we had family. Two years later we were in Brazil, and my imagination was ignited by a visit to the decaying city of Manaus on the Amazon. I wrote a tale about an Indian boy following the Amazon to the sea. (Any resemblance to childhood books about traveling down the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Mississippi are pure coincidence, of course….) I was in second grade.
At fifteen, the family returned to England. By now I loved to read as much as I loved to eat and breathe. I had not stopped writing since that book about the Amazon, but now I was living in the midst of history. We lived in Portsmouth, and Nelson’s flagship the Victory was within walking distance of our Victorian townhouse. The view out our front bay window was of the Solent, the Isle of Wight, the Royal Navy patrolling the grey, white-capped waves….
Although I never wrote that novel about the Royal Navy in the age of sail, I soon became fascinated with Britain in WWII. I visited the Imperial War Museum and touched the wings of Spitfires. I went to Tangmere, so close to Portsmouth, and gazed out across the peaceful, grass field, and imagined the gentle peace shattered by the telephone, the call to “scramble,” the roar of Merlin engines and the distant thud of the falling bombs. It took almost two decades and various false starts, but when Chasing the Wind was published in 2007 it was praised by one of the few surviving RAF fighter aces of that war, Wing Commander Bob Doe, as “the best book” he had ever read about the Battle of Britain. Doe wrote to me in a hand-written letter I treasure to this day. He said I “got it smack on the way it was for us fighter pilots.”
No amount of sales is a higher accolade for a historical novelist than for someone who lived through the time and events described in the book saying you got the it right. That is why, to this day, I consider Chasing the Wind (Kindle title: Where Eagles Never Flew) my best novel.
In coming weeks, I will be selecting some of venues relevant to the Jerusalem Trilogy and my current work-in-progress, The Last Crusader Kingdom. I hope my descriptions will inspire you to visit these unique places – either in my books or in person.