All of my career has been an attempt to educate myself and get paid for it.
For centuries my father’s family lived on Britain’s biggest tidal river, the Severn, on which there was a huge trade with the interior, and through the Port of Bristol with America.
For me, playing music while I write is important. Several of the romantic scenes in ‘Paris’ were written with Debussy’s ‘String Quartet,’ his ‘L’Apres-midi d’une Faune,’ or Canteloube’s ‘Songs of the Auvergne’ playing in the background.
For novelists, the imagination is everything. The trick is to guide one’s imagination using research. I love using old maps. When I wrote my novels on London and New York, I found wonderful historical atlases. Paris has the most lavish maps of all.
I descend from both Philadelphia Quakers and Carolina colonists whose families were separated by the Revolutionary War. That helped give me insight into the agony of Patriots who, until the British government denied their claims, had always, like Ben Franklin himself, thought of themselves as free-born Englishmen.
I do extensive research before I begin writing, but only a fraction of the research goes into the novels. The writer does not need to tell the reader everything. But one hopes that the writer’s belief in his characters is evident in the telling, just as the mood created in the writer’s mind comes through in the atmosphere of the scene described.
I first considered writing ‘New York’ in 1991. I’d been in the city for a decade, was married to an American wife, and sending my children to New York schools. I was even on the board of a coop building. But I wasn’t sure how to organize such complex material, and for many years I put the project aside.
I myself was born beside a river – the Avon in Sarum. So when I first encountered New York’s great harbor and the Hudson River as a teenager, and came to understand their historic canal and railroad links to the vast spaces of the Midwest, I felt both the thrill of a new adventure and a deep sense of homecoming.
Paris. City of love. City of dreams. City of splendor. City of saints and scholars. City of gaiety. Sink of iniquity.
Writing historical novels can be dangerous. We need to be as accurate and as fair about the historical record as we can be, at the same time as creating our fictional characters and, hopefully, telling a good story. The challenge is weaving the fiction into the history.