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28 April 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 6:01am

Balancing history and fiction — and writing that 14th draft

Interview with Stewart Binns, author of the historical novel Conquest.

By Helen Lewis

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?

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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.

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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.