Dan Jones is the Sunday Times and New York Times bestselling author of ten non-fiction books, including The Templars, The Colour of Time and Powers and Thrones. He is a renowned writer, broadcaster and journalist, and has for many years wanted to write authentic but action-packed historical fiction. His debut novel, Essex Dogs, is the first in a planned trilogy following the fortunes of ten ordinary soldiers in the early years of the Hundred Years’ War. He lives near London with his family.
Read about Dan’s writing process and how he gets into the roots of his work to sprout historical fiction worth telling and find out how you can win one of three sets of his books Powers & Thrones, Crusaders, and Essex Dogs below.
The Magic Beans of Writing Historical Fiction
When people ask me to describe the relationship between writing history and historical fiction, I usually ask them to imagine a compost heap. A rich, well-rotted, somewhat smelly compost heap, full of dead things in various stages of putrefaction.
Do you see it? Good. Now, if you are the historian, your job is to pull your gardening gloves on and dive in. You must sort through the muck handful by handful, trying to puzzle out what has gone into this heap of spoil, who put it there and why, and what you can say about the society that created it.
You are trying to recapture the world that produced the compost heap, and tell a compelling story about it to those who are interested.
If you are the historical novelist, your job is somewhat different. You must root about in your pocket and throw onto the compost heap a handful of magic beans. If you are lucky, a beanstalk will sprout. You must wait a while as it grows. Then you must step carefully over the bent back of the toiling historian, and climb up that beanstalk, hand over hand, until you reach the hole it has poked in the clouds.
Up there, you are free to find out what magic land lies at the top, inspired and fed by the history midden down below.
Like the historian, the thing that you, the novelist, are describing would not be possible without the compost heap. You must both be competent storytellers in order to communicate what you have seen. And the stories you tell may happen to relate in interesting ways.
But they are not the same thing. Not at all.
I’ve spent most of my life on my hands and knees, digging about in the compost heap. I’ve written ten nonfiction books, including Powers & Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages, and Crusaders: A Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands.
These, and the rest of my history books, have been labours of long research and painstaking planning. It has always been my aim to craft nonfiction books that can be read at pace: for entertainment as well as edification. To do that, I borrow a lot of structural techniques from screenwriting.
I hope the result is that my history books present complex eras of medieval history in a way that is easy to understand while staying true to the facts and in touch with the latest historical research. I pray that the end product will make you want to turn the pages rather than die of boredom.
My new book, Essex Dogs, is not a history book. It is a novel. It takes its cues from ‘real’ history. But it uses the history (in this case, that of the Hundred Years’ War in the fourteenth century) to nurture a story that is about much more than medieval warfare.
Essex Dogs plays games with history, subverting sources and cracking jokes. It is both faithful to the historical era in which it is set and roughly disrespectful to it. It is a critique and a condemnation specifically of the code of chivalry, expressed through a mad caper that could just as easily be set in World War 2, or Vietnam. Or space.
Writing nonfiction and fiction feel physically different to me. The two jobs seem to activate different parts of my brain. I do not prefer one to the other, but I’m very glad I now do both.
I hope you enjoy Powers & Thrones, Crusaders, and Essex Dogs. All three books are dear to my heart. And none of them smell too much of compost. We cleaned it off before we published.
To be in with a chance of winning one of three sets of books from Dan Jones contact us via email with the subject line I want to win a set of books by Dan James.
Apply by midnight on October 31, 2022.
Open to UK residents only.