Louise Turner is the debut author of Fire & Sword, a thrilling historical novel set in 15th century Scotland that chronicles the life of John Sempill. Read on to see our discussion of why she suddenly decided to write a novel, how she kept track of her enormous cast of characters and her future plans.
1. Of all the times you could have set your novel, why Scotland in 15th century?
I’ve lived in the west of Scotland all my life, so when I first decided to start writing historical fiction, it seemed natural to look around me for inspiration. I suppose it was a sense of place that compelled me to write ‘Fire & Sword’; in particular, it was a fascination with two local historic monuments. The first of these was the Collegiate Church of Castle Semple near Lochwinnoch in Renfrewshire, which was built at the behest of John, 1st Lord Sempill (plain ‘John Sempill of Ellestoun’ in ‘Fire and Sword’). The second was Duchal Castle, where a siege takes place towards the end of the book. Even though Duchal played a crucial role in events that had repercussions across Scotland, most people travel past it every day without even knowing that it’s there.
2. What was your research process like for Fire and Sword? How long did it take?
It’s a sad admission, but my generation just wasn’t taught Scottish history in any detail at school. We were told about Bannockburn and Bonnie Prince Charlie, but very little else. Those like myself who develop an interest later in life often learn through the novels of Nigel Tranter! Because I’d worked in archaeology, my knowledge was a little less sketchy than most: when I first embarked on my research, I knew enough to have figured out that Scotland’s medieval past involved tower-houses, green-glazed pottery and lots of oyster shells. You will note, however, that I have since come to appreciate that this is a vast over-simplification!
When I started researching ‘Fire & Sword,’, I referred first to the available local history accounts. But they’re very parochial in tone. They run along the lines of ‘x was an evil so-and-so. He started a feud with y and in doing so wiped out z.’ This really isn’t very helpful, because it leaves readers with the impression that medieval Scotland is inhabited by a bunch of really crotchety (or in Scots parlance, ‘crabbit’!) homicidal maniacs.
It was only when I started looking further afield, by reading historical syntheses that were broader in their concerns (such as Norman MacDougall’s wonderful book James IV) that I discovered that most of these local disputes had their roots in national politics. It was at this point I knew I had a real story to tell, and what had begun as a fictionalized biography of John, 1st Lord Sempill turned into a dramatized account focusing on 18 months of his life. The final phase was to create a realistic environment within which to place the characters. For this, I needed to research all manner of things, from art, architecture and fashion to cookery and economics.
3. You have such a huge cast of characters with very similar names. How did you manage to keep track of all of them?
I followed the ‘ripples on a pond’ principle.’ With John as the primary starting point, I worked my way outwards. I studied the genealogies of each family – the Sempills, the Colvilles, the Montgomeries, etc., figuring out the basic patterns, seeing the way allegiances shifted. For example, in the time of John’s father, the Sempills were allied with the Cunninghames and King James III – by the time of John’s death, the family had switched sides to the extent that John’s eldest son and heir was married to one of Hugh Montgomerie’s daughters. Little facts like this helped inform upon the characters, slowly building them up in greater layers of complexity. At first, it was unbelievably difficult for exactly the reason you describe – they have very similar names. It was only when I started to mentally ‘cast’ the characters, and ‘see’ what they looked like, that I finally found it easy to write about them, and to slip into their heads as necessary.
4. Which of the characters was your absolute favourite to write?
That’s a hard one, because my favourite tends to be the one I’m writing about at the time! I suppose it has to be a toss-up between John Sempill of Ellestoun and Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie, because they’re the characters I spent most time working with. But I couldn’t choose between them, not for the life of me!
Hugh’s an obvious first choice, because his personality is just so big and ebullient that he demands attention whenever he steps into a room. He’s also such a darkly humorous character that spending time with him is a sheer pleasure. But John’s equally compelling in his own way. Because he’s more introverted and far less approachable, it’s quite hard to get to know him properly, but that only makes him more endearing once you’ve made the effort.
5. Can you give us a hint about your next project?
I’ve recently completed my 2nd novel (Working Title: ‘The Gryphon at Bay’) which follows on immediately from the events described in ‘Fire & Sword’ but features Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie as its central character. I’m now currently enjoying a hiatus between major projects. During this down time, I’ve been writing a couple of shorter pieces which supplement my historical novels. Once they’re done, I’ll be taking some time out from 15th century Scotland to work on something complete different – a time-slip novel which is part thriller/part romance, and which follows the trials and tribulations of a young man from Ancient Sparta who finds himself stranded in modern Wiltshire…
6. You wrote many short stories before deciding to write Fire and Sword. When and how did you decide to go from writing short stories to writing a full length novel?
Ah, appearances can be deceptive! I’m not a big fan of writing short stories, I find the format extremely difficult in the technical sense, because the crafting has to be meticulous, and every word must count. I much prefer the creative freedom that comes with writing longer works.
But for some absurd reason, despite my inherent aversion to the form, I once managed to win a short story-writing competition when I was 18 years old. The story in question was a dystopian science fiction tale set in an independent Scotland of the future. Called ‘Busman’s Holiday,’ it was first published way back in 1988 and it’s amazing how it’s just kept on going. So far it has been reprinted 4 times in various different places.
Though I find writing the classic short story form an arduous task , the writing of short pieces as supplements to larger works is something I’ve grown to love immensely. I first started experimenting with this when I was writing fan fiction, and I found it a great way of exploring key moments in terms of events or characters’ story arc. I suppose it’s a bit like improv in the dramatic sense! This is a form I’m rediscovering at the moment with a couple of short items featuring characters from ‘Fire & Sword’ and its follow-up. But I’m not sure if I’d describe these pieces as examples of ‘short stories’ in their pure, correctly structured, form. Give me novels, any day. Probably shows a distinct lack of discipline on my part, but what the heck!
7. What was the road to publication like for you?
The phrase ‘very long, and very tortuous’ probably sums it up!
Way back in 1999, I committed the classic novice’s mistake of submitting the manuscript long before it was ready. After several rejections, I could at this point have opted for the predictable route of showing the manuscript into a bottom drawer and abandoning it in a fit of pique, but I thought the story – and the individuals at its heart – deserved better. And besides, I just had a gut feeling that it was a tale worth telling.
In the next couple of years, I found my ‘voice’, but I couldn’t find any Scottish or UK-based publishers who were willing or able to take on such an epic manuscript written by an unknown debut author. So I looked further afield, and in July 2005 my manuscript was accepted by a very enthusiastic and supportive small press based in New Orleans which specialized in historical fiction. I was delighted, of course, until a month later a certain hurricane nearly wiped out New Orleans …
Things never got off the ground after that, but jumping ship and abandoning my first publisher was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make. People would look at me and say, “Why don’t you just find another one?” without understanding that you can’t just wave your hand and flag one down like you can a bus or a taxi. Eventually, someone suggested that I got in touch with Eric Reynolds of Hadley Rille Books. At the time, I wasn’t convinced he’d take the book because ‘Fire & Sword’ didn’t seem to sit naturally comfortably within HRB’s ‘list’. It was only later I learned that moves were already afoot in HRB to expand into the historical fiction market, and I’m proud and delighted to say that ‘Fire & Sword’ is leading the charge in this respect.
Since signing with HRB the actual publication process has been wonderful – everything I’ve hoped it would be and more. It’s refreshing to work with a publisher who’s willing to back a BIG book, with such a huge cast of characters. The journey through the whole editing and production process has been really exciting and invigorating, and also very encouraging for a new writer embarking on this new and terrifying voyage out into the unknown.