I STUMBLED on this interview I did on my approach to writing battle scenes for the Historical Novel Society a few years back, and I thought it was worth reviving. Hope you enjoy!
1) In Avenger of Rome, there is a climatic battle scene which is detailed and riveting. When you set out to write battle scenes on such a large scale, what are the technical building blocks that you use to create them?
There are two types of battle that require slightly different approaches. The first is where there is a historical record and you have the choice of fitting your action and your narrative into a factual framework. There's a good example of this in my book Claudius where the invading legions meet the combined tribes of Britain under Caratacus in a climactic battle on the Thames (although it may have been the Medway). The Roman historian Cassius Dio has left us a few details - for instance we know how many and which legions take part - and I used them as the foundations for my battle plan. The second type is where you are writing an entirely fictional battle as in Avenger and Hero of Rome, the first in the Valerius series.
Firstly you have to remember that you're omnipotent, you can go anywhere and see and experience anything: to a certain extent the battlefield is your deadly playground. Then you have to approach your battle like a general. I've been fortunate to have a lifetime of reading military memoirs and factual books about battles, and it's something I really enjoy. The building blocks are the forces at your disposal and the forces at your enemy's disposal, the effectiveness of both sides' weapons and technology, and finally the terrain. In Hero of Rome, the battle is fought at Roman Colchester, and I was able to use the terrain, rivers, slopes and the city walls, to conduct a defence. In Avenger, thanks to Google earth, I was fortunate to discover the perfect position in eastern Turkey where a relatively weak Roman army could hold off a much stronger Parthian force, and I used the terrain and Valerius's experience to help him win it.
2) Gaius Valerius Verrens is the complex hero of the Rome series, how do you sustain his character arc through a series of books while not allowing him to be overshadowed by new impressive characters like Corbulo in Avenger of Rome?
All of my characters, even the relatively minor ones, are real people to me. By accident or design Valerius starts off in Hero of Rome as a relatively young and rather inexperienced officer whose life is dictated by his father. I think everyone is moulded to a certain extent by their experiences, and we know that war changes people. What Valerius suffers in book 1, dictates who he is in book 2, and so on. He grows older, he's a little wiser, but he still makes mistakes. I don't worry about other characters overshadowing him because that happens in life, and he's living in an age of great and sometimes terrible men. Nero, Seneca, Vespasian, Corbulo, Vitellius, Peter and Paul; all men of power who have to be portrayed that way.
3) Hero of Rome was a battle driven book and Defender of Rome was more concerned with political events while your latest Avenger of Rome balanced the two expertly. Where are you planning to bring the next book in the Rome series, e.g. will it be more political? Also how far is it from publication and can you give us an idea of its plot?
I wanted Valerius to face different challenges in each book. I'd get very bored if he simply marched into battle every time. Fortunately Valerius lives in endlessly interesting times. Sword of Rome (the provisional title) carries on more or less directly from Avenger and plunges Valerius straight into the Year of the Four Emperors, eighteen months of bloody civil war which almost tore Rome apart. Valerius has come into contact with all the main protagonists and that places him at the centre of events. It's a mix of political subterfuge and constant threat that builds up to the first battle of Bedriacum. It's with my editor now and I think/hope it has the same qualities as Avenger: a real epic blockbuster.
4) You rewrote history in your last book with the decisive battle in Avenger of Rome not drawn from the historical record. When you sat down to consider making changes to the history narrative, what were the pros and cons you thought about?
I have a huge respect for the historical record and I try wherever possible to work within it, although I reserve the right to read between the lines and come to my own conclusion whether it is accurate or not. Most of the sources we deal with in First century Rome were written between fifty and a hundred and fifty years after the events they record and by men with their own political convictions and motivations. When I came up with the idea of Valerius meeting Corbulo I had no idea the great general's battles had all been fought by that point. I wrestled with lots of possibilities, including abandoning the book altogether, but the more I researched, the more I realised that the conditions were there for Vologases to make a surprise attack, and that Corbulo the man I envisaged would have reacted accordingly. It's known that Emperors expunged the names and records of great men who attracted their ire. Why not let Nero do that with Corbulo's final victory?
5) In a recent panel at the HNS 2012 conference, it was stated that Roman historical fiction is in general more popular in the UK than in the US. Do you think that's true in your experience? If so, what is the attraction for your UK readers to Roman historical fiction do you think? If not, do reactions to your books differ greatly between your UK and US readers?
The short answer to the first part of your question is Yes. I think UK readers are attracted to the Romans, because, like much of the rest of Europe, Rome has left its stamp all around them, with roads, villas, forts and marching camps. They're curious about these alien people who lived among them two thousand years ago and created great monuments like Hadrian's Wall and magnificent buildings like those in Bath. The Romans were here for 370 years, but we know comparitively little about their lives. Hopefully my books, and others like them, help fill in the gaps