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  • Writer's pictureGareth Williams

Fantastic Arthurian series by Fil Reid

Today, I want to feature a fellow historical novelist - Fil Reid – Author – Historical Romance Writer. If you like a bit of romance in your historical fiction but insist on authentic period detail and a strong plot, then her books are for you. The first three in her series are Guinevere: The Dragon Ring; Guinevere: The Bear's Heart; and Guinevere: The Sword.

Fil and I recently interviewed each other and I thought I would post our answers. They are also available on the 'Interviews' page on my website. Fil first:

1. In The Dragon Ring Gwen’s interest in King Arthur is attributed to her father. where did your fascination come from?

When I was a child, my parents took me to see The Sword in the Stone and I thought it wonderful. I had a colouring book which I cherished and can see now in my head. I have Asperger’s Syndrome (late diagnosed) and evidently, he became my ‘aspie obsession’ alongside horses. I’ve never stopped being interested in him.

2. You are writing about the Dark Ages. I imagine evidence is in relatively short supply. How does this affect your writing?

I actually prefer it that there’s not a lot of evidence. It gives me free rein with my imagination, and I can embellish it as I want to, add in plot twists, interpret such things as battle locations in any way I like. Kill people off, that sort of thing – such fun.

3. Your books are historical romances, but the context is prominent. Do you think Gwen and Arthur’s relationship is predominantly a product of the era in which it is conducted?

Well, on Arthur’s side at first it’s very 5th century but Gwen sees their relationship strictly from the POV of a 21st century girl and being strongwilled, she does her level best to educate Arthur into coming round to the fact that women are equal to men. An uphill slog, but she manages it a lot of the time even though they often can’t show this to outsiders. Although under the surface, Arthur remains the product of his era, something he displays very strongly in book six, The Road to Avalon, and which leads to an immense falling out between them. A falling out you don’t think they can come back from.

4. How do you reconcile research and imagination in your writing?

I do a lot of background research – about the houses, farming, way of life they lived. But on top of that I impose my own very vivid imagination. I don’t drive due to vertigo attacks and am always the passenger. One of my favourite long journey things to do is to stare out of the window and visualise the landscape as it once was. I read a Daphne du Maurier book – The Mill on the Strand – in which the MC has some special power invented that allows him to walk through the present day but see the past. I’d love to be able to do that. I’m working on encouraging my computer coder son to make an app like that for historical sites. You wear goggles and see the walls of castles rise. Although it turned out a bit dangerous in the book as the MC thought he was walking on dry land (in the Middle Ages) and in fact was walking into deep water!

5. Do you believe King Arthur was an historical figure, and if so, how close to the actual man is your character?

I do indeed believe he really existed. Someone very powerful certainly refortified South Cadbury Castle (my Din Cadan/Camelot) at exactly the right time for Arthur, so why wouldn’t he be called Arthur? Or at the very least be the basis for the legend? And it’s significant that just about every historical figure who has a ‘he lies sleeping ready to come to our aid one day’ legend about him is real. So the mere fact Arthur has this attached to his legend inclines me to believing he did exist.

6. What do you most enjoy and least like about writing your novels?

I pretty much love all of it. The battles are the hardest bits to write for obvious reasons, and there are thirteen of them! Nennius’s twelve culminating in Badon, plus Camlann. With a female MC it was a struggle to get her involved in some way in as many as I could, but paradoxically that made it a bit easier as she didn’t have to be in the thick of it. I concentrated more on the before the battle and the aftermath with an emphasis on how horrified by the violence she is, and how pointless she finds it. As she’s from the 21st century it gave me a good excuse not to glorify the battles but to show the bad side of them every time.

7. What are the particular challenges of writing a sequel?

You have to remember what came before! I had a huge number of characters, and I kept a chart about them, noting down things they’d done and said as well as mundane things like eye colour and scars so I wouldn’t change them from book to book. Even the lesser characters return throughout the series, so they had to only age, not change too much. The only one I had a small amount of trouble with was book six – the culmination of the series. I had a LOT of loose ends to tie up and they needed tying up in the right order. So, it ended up being the only one I ever wrote a plan for – even though it was very rudimentary. Normally I just sit and write with no plan to work to.

8. Would you consider writing novels set in a different time period?

I really love this time period and the freedom it gives me to make the story mine. I don’t think I’d like to write about genuine historical characters in a well-documented time period because then I’d be constrained all the time to schedule of their known actions. I much prefer the freedom to use my imagination. I might write another time period but invent characters I could play about with.

9. Who are your favourite authors and why?

As a child I loved Alan Garner, Lewis Carol, Arthur Ransome, Rudyard Kipling, Laura Ingalls Wilder (named my first child Laura!), and pony stories like My Friend Flicka and The Silver Brumby. I had an aunt who taught top juniors who always sent me books for Christmas and birthdays. Once she sent me The Song of Hiawatha – I loved it and still have it. I moved on as a teenager to writers like Mary Stewart who kindly wrote a series about Merlin that I loved, and Georgette Heyer, and Dick Francis. I’ve always liked a thriller and as a horse love I really enjoyed the latter. Nowadays I still love a thriller and am reading The Runaway Jury by John Grisham at the moment. But I really love any book that’s well written. My all-time favourite is probably Nevil Shute, and of his books The Chequer Board is my top read – I could read it again and again. I love his writing style.

10. What advice do you have for an unpublished author with a completed manuscript?

Haha! Never give up. Took me forever to get a publishing deal. They say if you’re good you’ll rise to the top. Not sure if that’s true or not. It’s a very competitive world out there. One of the best things I did was to join Critique Circle, an online critting group that has literally thousands of members. I joined back in 2018 and it’s only the help of my friends on there that has got me this far. You post a chapter a week and read and crit the work of others to gain credits to use to post more of your own chapters. It really works well.

Now here are my responses to her questions - thanks Fil, I really enjoyed it!

1. What sparked your interest in Napoleon? Is it something you’ve had for a long time? And do you have a Napoleon costume?

I think it started at school. The idea of a Corsican outsider rising through the ranks thanks to the French Revolution to become Emperor of the French captured my imagination. Faced by endless coalitions against him, usually funded by the British, he won battle after battle. I found that pretty impressive! But hubris got the better of him. Spain and then Russia saw him squander the troops that had made him the dominant military force on the continent. Defeat. Exile. It should have been all over, but no! He escapes Elba for France, gathers support and everything culminates in the epic battle of Waterloo – I guess the 1970 Dino de Laurentis film starring Rod Steiger deserves a mention here.

I don’t have a Napoleon costume but I do have a bronze bust sitting on my desk!

2. What made you decide to transport someone from the present back in time to witness Waterloo and its aftermath rather than choose as your MC one of the many officers around Napoleon, or even Napoleon himself?

I was interested in the idea that Napoleon could have won the battle of Waterloo. His performance was lacklustre. What if he had better intelligence on the enemy? It was also a way of giving myself the opportunity to tread the battlefield and meet Bonaparte, in the guise of a history teacher, albeit a miserable one!

I didn’t want to write another fictional biography of Napoleon because Max Gallo’s Napoleon series has done that brilliantly. If I had used one of his officers, there wouldn’t be the tension between what they and Napoleon knew.

3. What advantages do you think viewing these historical events through the eyes of a modern observer gives the narrative?

I hope it allowed me to explore Napoleon’s decisions on the day of the battle and its aftermath in a fresh way. My MC gives up everything to change the past, but at Waterloo, he finds himself unable to exert the necessary influence. That puts him in a pretty tough spot given there’s no way back to the 21st century.

4. Have you visited the places you write about, and which was your favourite? And of the ones you haven’t visited, which is top of your bucket list?

I have a pretty good working knowledge of schools! And Paris. But I have never been to the site of Waterloo or Malmaison or St Helena. I lived in South Africa as a boy but Benoni was a modest mining town, a far cry from Shaka Zulu’s capital!

I do love Paris. I would love to visit St Helena.

In truth, I travel in my imagination with the help of books and the internet, which is all most of us have been able to do recently.

5. What was the most difficult thing to write about, and why was it so? And what was the easiest thing?

I think the hardest things to write about are the most familiar. Everyone has an opinion. There are many experts likely to pick up on the slightest error. So the battle of Waterloo is a good example. It is much easier to write about Shaka Zulu, because so much less is known, it gives room for imagination to fill the gaps, which is fun!

6. Do you think living on a Scottish island enabled you to empathise with Napoleon’s incarcerations on Elba and St Helena? Do you ever feel incarcerated?

There are two types of people in the world when it comes to islands. Those who see the coastline as a limitation, a barrier, a confinement and those who see endless horizons, security and a clearly defined home. I used to live on Guernsey and loved it. I also love Skye. During the pandemic, the island was quiet and felt reassuring.

I’m not saying I don’t empathise with Napoleon on Elba and St Helena. After all, I voluntarily lived on my islands whereas he was imprisoned on his. I expect we have all wished we were somewhere else at some time, and there is no doubt that is how Napoleon felt.

7. How many novels are in this series and once Napoleon dies will you go on to further chart your hero’s adventures back in time or will he find a way back to the 21st century?

It is funny you should ask how many novels in the series. My editor wants to know and so does my publisher! The third novel is due out in September. I have committed in my mind to a fourth, although the plot is not fully formed in my head. After that, I’m not sure.

The third and fourth books will be set in the years immediately after those featured in Needing Napoleon and Serving Shaka. According to the rules of my time travel device, a person can only travel back in time on a one-way ticket. So, there is no prospect of my MC returning to the 21st century. He has to figure out a way to live in the nineteenth century, which gives me plenty to write about!

8. Which authors inspired you as a young man/boy and what are you reading right now?

I loved Tolkien for the sweep and drama of his imagination. I loved adventure stories for boys, most of which probably fail the political correctness test, but I read them with innocent excitement. They were often the same books my father read. Captain W.E. John’s Biggles books, H Rider Haggard, John Buchan, that sort of thing. When I got a bit older, I marvelled at Shakespeare’s plays. They were part of our history and often about history at the same time. I have no pretensions but sometimes feel a kinship with the bard when I plunder works of history for plots and characters. He had Holinshed’s chronicles where I have had Gilbert Martineau, E.A Ritter and J. Leitch Wright Jr.

I am currently reading A Brief History of Roman Britain – Conquest and Civilization by Joan P. Alcock as research for a twin timeline murder mystery I am plotting. I am also reading your book, Guinevere: The Sword, the third instalment of your excellent Arthurian series.

9. How long have you been writing? And what were your earlier efforts about?

I started trying to write my first novel at primary school. It was an adventure in the future. I finished my first novel at twenty. It was a terrible romance! I kept trying but almost always ended up with convoluted plots and unconvincing characters because I was trying to squeeze writing into a busy life.

My first coherent novel was a product of the first lockdown and the fact that I had recently retired. That book spilled into a second instalment and a third. I then took a pause to write something unrelated. I have just handed that over to my editor. It is the fictionalized biography of a real but largely forgotten man, William Augustus Bowles.

10. What advice do you have for would-be writers?

You have to find the time to do it properly. Don’t overreach yourself like I did. If you are busy, write short stories. They can often lead on to novellas and beyond. Plan things in advance. Have a strong outline so that your writing is really like colouring in. Pay attention to characters. Even my minor characters have their own ‘character card’ which I use to record everything I need to know about them. Oh, and one more thing – read!

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