With the launch of his latest book, I invited Tim Walker along to talk about writing, research and all things Roman…
Tell me about your latest book.
Hi Colin – thanks for having me on your blog.
My new book is ‘Arthur Rex Brittonum’, book five in ‘A Light in the Dark Ages’ series. It is the story of a mature Arthur, and his efforts to unite the tribes of Britain in opposition to the creeping colonisation of England by Anglo-Saxons in the early sixth century. I chose to ignore advise against using Latin in my book title (again) and have followed on from 2019’s ‘Arthur Dux Bellorum’ (‘Duke of Battles’) with an Arthur upgrade to Rex Brittonum – ‘King of the Britons’.
I suppose the decision was made 18 months ago to use the title given to a real, historical Arthur by 9th century monk, Nennius, of ‘Dux Bellorum’, in my book title, and as the new book is a sister volume, it made sense to me to give it a similar title. I’m continuing the story from youthful Arthur to a more mature and considered Arthur, embroiled in politics and war, in the new book. New readers to the series can start with the new book as it works as a standalone novel, with backstory built in.
Where do you find inspiration for your novels, and in particular, your ‘Light in the Dark Ages’ series?
I was inspired to write the first book in the series ‘Abandoned’, in 2015, following a visit to Silchester – the site of former Roman town, Calleva Atrebatum. I came away wondering what life would have been like for the local tribes – the Atrebates – and how they would have felt after Roman occupation ended after almost 400 years. Perhaps opportunity for some, and concern for other. Abandoned in its first incarnation was an 16,000-word novella detailing the desperate defence of Calleva by the townsfolk against a roving Saxon war party, following the exit of their Roman masters. I self-published it to Amazon Kindle and got some stinging reviews mainly due to its brevity. Clearly, it needed developing into a longer book. With further research, I became hooked on the idea of writing a three-generation book series covering the early Dark Ages and leading to the coming of King Arthur.
The New Book:
From the decay of post-Roman Britain, Arthur seeks to unite a troubled land.
Arthur Rex Brittonum (‘King of the Britons’) is an action-packed telling of the King Arthur story rooted in historical accounts that predate the familiar Camelot legend.
Arthur, only son of the late King Uther, has been crowned King of the Britons by the northern chiefs and must now persuade their counterparts in the south and west to embrace him. Will his bid to lead their combined army against the Saxon threat succeed? He arrives in Powys buoyed by popular acclaim at home, a king, husband and father – but can he sustain his efforts in unfamiliar territory? It is a treacherous and winding road that ultimately leads him to a winner-takes-all clash at the citadel of Mount Badon.
Fans of Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden and Mathew Harffy will enjoy Walker’s A Light in the Dark Ages series and its newest addition – Arthur Rex Brittonum.
Do you worry about factual accuracy in your books and how do you deal with this?
Yes, I do agonise over historical accuracy. The main problem I have is with the paucity of hard and fast historical evidence for what happened where and when to whom in the fifth and sixth centuries. From brief mentions of half-glimpsed figures and battles in the works of early historians and chroniclers, I have garnered some information on which my narratives are based – much of which is influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 work, ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’. This has been widely criticised by historians for its obvious inaccuracies and apparent inventions, although he has been re-appraised in recent times by historians such as Miles Russell, who points out that here is clear evidence that Geoffrey was working from known sources, and that he makes mention of a ‘text in a native tongue’ which remains unknown to contemporary historians. He appears to have used artistic licence to rearrange some figures and events in the timeline, undermining his credibility, however he did not invent Uther Pendragon and Arthur, as there is enough evidence elsewhere for their existence.
Some of my support characters are ‘real’ historical figures, such as tribal kings mentioned by name in annales and chronicles, but other characters are inventions. Parallel historical events in Europe are alluded to – such as the death of General Aetius, the last credible leader of the Roman legions in Gaul, in 454, and the advance of Clovis, King of the Franks, in the years after. Also, the Welsh Annales – a list of dates and key events – records that a ‘strife’ took place at Camlann in the year 539 at which ‘Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) fell’. The date is a supposition based on where historians think the year 1 of the Annales corresponds to our calendar. However, taking 539 as the possible or likely date of Arthur’s death at Camlann, and say, he was 50 years old, then he would have been born in 489. This date does fit in with a rough timeline of his predecessors – Uther, Ambrosius, Vortigern and Constantine.
There is a lot of guesswork here by historians, but that is fine for me, as my work is fiction based on a largely opaque period in our history.
How do you approach the research aspect of your writing and does this ever result in stories taking a different direction?
I have read a number of books by historians that cover the fifth and six centuries, and it never ceases to surprise me how different their opinions and theories are. This is because the evidence is so scant, that there is much room for speculation. I can choose to cherry-pick whose theories to follow based on the direction I want to take my story. The idea for the direction of my Arthur story came from reading an article by historian David Ford Nash, who took the oblique ’12 battles of Arthur’ from the pages of Nennius’s 9th century work, ‘The History of Britain’, and tried to make sense of the locations of each battle. He decided that the first three or four battles were in Lincolnshire – a part of England where raids by the Angles had taken a foothold at the time of Arthur. Five or six other battles he placed in Yorkshire, Northumberland and Scotland. Others he had problems locating, but surmised that the West Midlands and West Country could be contenders.
So, I fashioned my story to take Arthur and his followers up the east coast from Lincolnshire to Yorkshire and further to Hadrian’s Wall in Arthur Dux Bellorum – covering roughly a ten-year period. Then in the new book, Arthur Rex Brittonum, he leaves his base on Hadrian’s Wall and travels to Chester and on to Wroxeter/Viriconium near Shrewsbury. Then he goes south to Gloucester and Bath, fighting his final few battles in the West Country. All perfectly achievable on horseback using Roman roads.
Apart from the obvious answer, what prompted your book ‘Devil Gate Dawn’?
Devil Gate Dawn started its life as a fiction blog called, ‘The Life of George’. This was near the start of my creative writing journey, and I would sit in cafes people watching and scribbling notes on what I could see, hear, touch, taste, smell. That’s what the creative writing course advised. I came up with my character George, a recent retiree, and started to invent situations for him. Each blog post was typically a scene of 300-500 words. After nine months, I had amassed close to 40,000 words. It was at this point that I decided to work it up into a novel. The main change was to introduce a sub-plot involving George’s daughter and her new boyfriend. I can’t remember how I arrived at naming the mysterious country house of my villain, ‘Devil Gate Drive’, after Suzy Quattro’s hit single of the same name. Maybe I was listening to it on that day! So, the book title was named after the dramatic climax – a dawn raid on Devil Gate Drive.
Are you planning any further adventures in the ‘Charly Holmes’ series for children?
Yes! Cathy and I are currently writing book three in the series, Charly in Space. Each new project starts with me asking my growing teenage daughter, ‘what are you interested in now?’ Last year it was superheroes, this year it’s Space. So, we have concocted a story whereby Charly goes on a school trip to the European Space Agency in France. Charly’s inquisitive nature somehow gets her into the command module of a rocket bound for the European Space Station orbiting the Earth. Oops! We are working on the finishing touches and hope to have it out in September.
Who is your writing hero?
My favourite authors are Bernard Cornwell, Hilary Mantel and John Grisham. I admire their differing styles and approaches, and get some inspiration from each of them. Mantel for her astounding prose and devilish descriptions, and the other two for their calm, confident storytelling abilities. I have seen Bernard Cornwell being interviewed on stage, and was fascinating. Also, I was lucky to get tickets to see Lee Childs and John Grisham interview each other on their approaches to writing fiction at the Harrogate Book Festival in 2018. Grisham is a meticulous planner, and Childs is more of a seat-of-your-pants inspirational writer. I am somewhere in between.
What advice would you give to someone writing about historical events?
Read in your genre. See how other writes do it. You will often find that the best writers’ deep love for their subject matter shines through. The author must grab and hold the reader’s attention, otherwise they will drift away to another book. You must convey your enthusiasm for your own story through your writing, otherwise you risk losing your reader. You must know your main character well, and make your reader see through their eyes and experience the period world you have created. Period detail is important, but your book will sink or swim on the strength and credibility of your story, and the charisma of your main character.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
I have been happy to remain self-published, so I can follow my own interests and whims when it comes to my next book. Also, given that I am managing a chronic health condition, I have no deadlines to stress about, save those I have set for myself. I have complete control over the creative process.
The best thing, however, is the enjoyment of the creative process. You can plan your story and sketch out your chapters before you start, but the finished manuscript will have deviated from your plans and taken on a life of its own once you start banging away at the keyboard. It never ceases to amaze me how the interactions and adventures of your characters can throw up new plot ideas that take you in unexpected directions. It is your story – you own it.
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Great to meet Tim and learn about these books, Colin. Having just finished my new novel which centres around the Second Anglo Boer War and knowing how tough it was to research, I can imagine how hard it is going so much further back in history.
I’m not terribly keen on research, so well done you!