Frequently asked Questions
What inspired you to become a writer?
From the first moment I was able to borrow a book from the library I knew I wanted to write one - I’d be about five at the time. Unfortunately, people from my background didn’t write books, so the need had to lie dormant for about forty years while I went through school, worked and had a family. One day at The Scotsman a friend who’d written a book said: ‘You should write one too, I bet it would be very gritty.’ So I did, and it was.
Which authors have had the greatest influence upon you?
I think Robert Louis Stevenson would be the first. Kidnapped is a wonderful, simple story with captivating characters that takes you on a helter-skelter ride through the grandeur of the Scottish landscape. Alan Breck Stewart is the perfect flawed hero as the Jacobite who’s fallen on hard times and you can tell that Stevenson has visited every location and sketched it with words. George Shipway’s historical novels are the benchmark anyone writing in the genre should aspire to. I’ve always been drawn to thriller writers: Alistair McLean and Jack Higgins gave me the itch to write, because they have such a straightforward style. And the late, great George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman books taught me more about history than I ever learned at school. The fact that he wrote the first Flashman while he was still working at the Glasgow Herald was an inspiration to me. I love John Le Carre’s books, because he writes superbly and manages to make it look easy, and American writer Alan Furst’s Second World War spy novels are hard to beat for atmosphere.
You mention that when young you spent time restoring a Roman marching camp and the next 36 years dreaming of Romans. What interests you about the Romans and the era you write about in particular?
It’s true that the first job I had when I left school at 16 was restoring the legionary marching camp at Pennymuir in the Cheviot hills. The Forestry Commission had ploughed it up to plant trees - this was in the 70s when panacea was a land covered from coast to coast in Norway spruce - until someone pointed out they were destroying a scheduled historic monument. We used mattocks and shovels to turn four feet wide slabs of peat turf back into the holes they’d come from. It could be an eery place, full of grouse and curlews and adders, but there was a gap in the hills where Dere Street entered the valley and in the quiet of the evening you could imagine the legions marching through it and the impact they had on the local population. I think that’s what draws me to the Romans in particular. Two thousand years ago they laid their stamp on the known world and almost everywhere you go the signs are still there. That said, it’s an exaggeration to say I dreamed of Romans for 36 years. I was brought up to respect the past in a town filled with history and it’s history that fascinates me, not just the Romans.
You were a journalist for many years. How helpful has that been to your work as a novelist?
Hugely helpful. I spent 36 years in newspapers and twenty of those in high pressure positions on major nationals. Standards were immensely high and we were taught never to waste a word and that has carried on into my fiction writing. I tend to write clean and right and my grammar and spelling tends not to need a lot of editing. Most of that time I’d be working in an open plan office amid mayhem (screaming confrontations, people throwing things, death threats: the normal atmosphere of a daily newspaper) and I learned to focus despite what was happening around me. That made it much easier when I decided that the only way I was ever going to finish a book was by working on the train between Bridge of Allan and Edinburgh. Previously I’d managed 500 words a day. Now I was doing 1200 or 1500 and the maths of producing a book started to add up.
How do you research your novels?
I’d love to say that, like Stevenson or the great western writer Louis L’Amour (“When I write about a spring, that spring is there, and the water is good to drink.”), I’ve visited every place I’ve written about. Unfortunately that’s not the case. I hate the internet. I’m of the firm opinion that it is a black hole that will eventually devour the world. But without the internet I could never have written a book. I have about two dozen bookmark files filled with several hundred web links. I could build a Roman flower mill or make a pair of caliga sandals. I know the range and power of a scorpio, the catapult the Romans called the shield splitter. I have the translated works of Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio and Plutarch. I know the rudiments of manufacturing a bomb, the sound of a Kalishnikov and how to fire it. All without leaving my desk. More importantly, thanks to Google Earth I can travel to the remotest places in the world, check out the terrain, the temperature, look at photographs and then link to blogs to get the first hand experiences of people who’ve been there. That said, there is nothing to beat being there in person. I’ve travelled to Rome, Madrid, Dresden and Berlin on research trips and it’s a lot easier to soak up the atmosphere than trying to evaluate what you see on a computer screen. Oh, and I have books, hundreds upon hundreds of books that cover my study like a sea.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
I don’t have any rituals, but I do have set times and routines. I set myself a target of 3,000 words a day and I sit down at my desk around 9am. I don’t get started immediately, because there are generally e-mails to deal with, but I’ll spend three hours at the computer, take a break for lunch, then back for another two or three hours. I don’t always hit the target, but I’ll happily work to 10 or 11 at night, so I do more often than not. I work in a spare bedroom/study that generally looks like a bookshop that’s been hit by a hurricane.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer?
Persevere. Anyone with an imagination and a working knowledge of English is capable of writing a book. The people who do it are the ones who don’t give up when they hit a seemingly impossible situation, or their characters won’t behave. You can write your way through any problem.
Apart from writing, how do you like to spend your time?
Preferably in the fresh air. I love to go fishing, but less for the thrill of the catch than the simple act of standing in the middle of the river and watching the world go by. I’ve seen otters, kingfishers, ospreys … and a very occasional trout.
What's been your favourite moment in your writing career?
It has to be the moment in May 2007 when Stan, my agent, called me up at The Scotsman and said: ‘Are you sitting down.’ What was then ‘Whom the Gods Destroy’, (I think) had been out to publishers for about a week and he said that one of them, Transworld, had offered a six-figure advance for the world rights to two books. It changed my life.
What is your next writing project?
My life is just one big writing project. I’m currently working on the final stages of he first draft of Sword of Rome, the fourth Gaius Valerius Verrens adventure, when I finish that it’s straight on to The Excalibur Codex, which is due for delivery in February 2013, then it’s back into the sandals again for Da-de-dah (possibly Torment) of Rome. I’m committed to write five novels in the next three years, so there truly is no rest for the wicked.