Balancing history and fiction -- and writing that 14th draft

Interview with Stewart Binns, author of the historical novel <em>Conquest</em>.

Earlier this year, I spoke to Stewart Binns, who became a writer of fiction for the first time as he approached his fifties, when he wrote a book called Conquest about a (largely forgotten) 11th-century hero called Hereward the Wake. Here, I talk to him about inspiration, research and writing that 14th draft.

What was the inspiration behind the book?

I came to fiction slowly, having worked in television most of my life. Coming from a visual medium, words weren't a major part of my training but I realised how powerful they could be. I started writing non-fiction connected with the television series I made and that got me scribbling. Through that process, I started thinking: "I really do like words." By that point, I was almost 50 and I thought: "Could I do some fiction?"

And how did you find the setting?

I'm very interested in early Britain and folk traditions. I went in search of a story and I found Hereward the Wake in the 11th century. I'm old enough to have heard of him -- Charles Kingsley wrote about him in Last of the English in the 19th century.

I'd been fascinated by the film Braveheart and how clever it was to turn a guy being hung, drawn and quartered at the end into a victory. The parallels with Hereward were quite strong: he led the siege of Ely and that was a defeat for the last of the English resistance.

With historical fiction, how did you find the balance between history and fiction?

There are themes -- our passion for freedom and liberty -- lying at the back of the story. As a former history teacher, I've tried to make sure that the history is pretty pure -- the events and chronology are consistent with known facts -- but I've embellished a personal adventure story around those big events. It probably didn't happen but it could have happened.

What was the research process like?

I read non-fiction extensively. I don't read Latin or Old English but, other than that, I read almost everything there was to read about the 11th century. I was very keen to write the sort of thing an older teenager could read and excite them about the origins of Britain.

How long did the book take you to write?

In actual terms, ten years. I spent two years reading and travelling to places -- such as Bourne, Hereward's birthplace in East Anglia. I also had to learn the craft skills of writing fiction.

What was the biggest challenge?

I was trying to paint the pictures too vividly, coming from a visual background. Someone told me: "You only need to describe 50 per cent of the scene, because the reader will do the rest." It took me a while to crack that.

If you started over, what would you do differently?

Not much, because it's important to learn the craft skills. You can't do an apprenticeship in writing fiction, where you learn from others. It's a very intimate experience; you're in your own head, letting your imagination go. So far, 20,000-odd people have bought the book and I'm wallowing in the idea that they're having the experience I had.

How did you approach the process of writing?

I wrote the first chapter, which is a set-up chapter, and used that as a test case. I counted recently: there are 14 drafts of it, each getting better and each getting shorter. That took me a year and a half.

How did you get the book published?

Alastair Campbell is a good friend of mine -- we're both Burnley fans. I got to the point where I had gone as far as I could with the book but I didn't know anyone in the literary world. Alastair and I were at Watford for a Burnley game where we lost 3-0 and we were in the car coming back. He'd just published his first novel and we were talking about it; I said, "I've written a book" and he said he would read it. I didn't think he would but he did -- bless him!

He sent it to his agent -- this shows how you have to get lucky in life -- and one of his team said, "This is pretty good." It wasn't their kind of thing but he said he'd send it to another agent and I got a deal with Penguin within a week. I didn't have it to hawk it around and I didn't have to get rejected; I just had to be in that car park with Alastair Campbell.

You support Burnley, though; you've made sacrifices.

Well said.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism