Peter Tonkin on the joys and responsibilities of researching historical fiction.
Since bringing the 30-novel Mariner series of action adventures to a close and retiring from full-time teaching, I have been working on two parallel series of historical novels. One is a sequence of murder-mysteries set in Elizabethan England and the other is a series of spy stories set after the death of Julius Caesar during the final years of the Roman Republic. A quirk of circumstance has meant that the latest in each cycle is being published within a week or so of the-other, bringing into sharp focus the differences in historical research and narrative technique required by each genre. A Stage For Murder was published on 24 May and Cicero Dies! on 12 June.
The historical settings of the novels were not chosen by accident – or with much calculation, though fortunately they are amongst the most popular with fans of historical fiction. I fell in love with the Classical era during my first Latin lesson long ago at Prep school, and with the Elizabethan period a little later when I was first introduced to Shakespeare. Throughout my secondary and university education I remained passionate about both and ended up writing my Master’s thesis on Shakespeare and the influence of early drama on his plays. Which of course included work not only upon the situation in which Shakespeare’s plays were written, but upon the Classical sources, both literary and critical, which stood beside the traditional English dramatic productions of the Tudor years.
My post-retirement lifestyle has helped me hone my (almost constant) research. Some of my early work was compared with that of Hammond Innes and my recent freedom from the responsibilities of full-time employment has allowed me to emulate Innes’ famous approach to his research: go and explore where your story is set. My wife and I travel to Egypt regularly (Cleopatra being an important character in the Roman series). We spend a week in Rome each autumn. We have researched along the north Mediterranean coast from Spain to the South of France, visiting ancient sites such as Nimes and Vaison La Romaine. We are regular visitors to Oxford, Chester, Stratford Upon Avon and of course to London – especially the South Bank, the Globe and the Tower of London.
However, most of my research into each era, and the historical characters I try to bring to life (and sometimes to death) is based on books and the internet. In some locations (eg Egypt) internet access can be problematic, so I take books (and my Kindle with its library of 100 volumes or so). My current focus is on Ancient Rome. The Road to Philippi* is planned to deal with the period between Cicero’s murder and the battle of Philippi – with my central characters following the Via Egnatia through Macedonia and Greece before taking ship for Alexandria to try and convince Cleopatra to support Antony and Octavian’s attack on Brutus and Cassius with her navy. Which she tried to do, in fact, but unsuccessfully. I have books on life in Ancient Rome, the Via itself, the legions involved on either side; (heartbreakingly, my favourite, the Martia Legion almost all drowned when their troop-ship sank in a storm, according to Appian), on Roman military spycraft, Republican warships, the battle itself, biographies of Augustus, Antony and Cleopatra. When I return home I will also access the brilliant Life of Caesar podcast – and triple check everything I find on Wikipedia.
My Elizabethan books also rely on biographical work about historical characters as well as general background. Unsurprisingly, I have many volumes about Shakespeare, but also on Queen Elizabeth, the Walsinghams, the Cecils, Sir Walter Raleigh Edmund Spencer and Robert Devereux. Edmund Spenser also appears in the next book planned – as a corpse, for he died mysteriously on Saturday, 13th January 1599 – though the project, currently entitled A Verse To Murder, will deal with the build-up to the Essex rebellion. (Hence the visits to The Tower for Elizabethan as well as Roman research).
The Tower, in fact might well stand as a symbol of my method, with its Roman origins and Elizabethan associations – especially Tower Green, for instance, where Essex was beheaded on Wednesday, 25 February 1601 while Raleigh looked down from a nearby window, blissfully unaware that his own head would fall seventeen years later, with much of the interim being passed in the Tower as well. Although the historical settings are very different, I have so far managed to keep them carefully separate in my head – and so can often ‘file away’ something for later reference while working on one specific time-frame.
The technique behind my historical narrative is simple. In each series there is a largely fictional central character – though my Roman spy, Artemidorus, is based on the man who gave Caesar a list of the names of his assassins as he was about to enter the fatal meeting on the Ides of March 44BC. Needless to say, Caesar didn’t read it. Around these characters I place as many historical figures as I can, making them as ‘real’ as the historical record and modern research allows. My plots are driven by the historical record. A Stage For Murder begins with the famous incident when Shakespeare, Burbage and their associates stole The Theatre from Giles Allen’s field in North London and transported it across the Thames to be re-erected as The Globe on the South Bank. Cicero Dies! details events between the defeated and outlawed Antony’s retreat from Mutina and Cicero’s death on the orders of the triumphant Triumvirate of Antony, Octavian and Lepidus 33 weeks later.
Research is in itself a pleasure, but I believe it is also a responsibility – to make the characters, settings and actions as accurate and believable as possible. And, with any luck, fascinating and thrilling into the bargain.
Peter Tonkin has published 38 novels in a range of languages and formats: thirty in the Mariner series of international action-adventures – novels that have been critically compared with the best of Alastair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and Hammond Innes – four in the Master of Defence series of Elizabethan murder mysteries and four occasional novels, including the international best-seller Killer and the vampire story The Journal of Edwin Underhill. Follow Peter on Twitter.
*Now called Death at Phillipi, out in 2020