James Aitcheson was born in Wiltshire in 1985 and studied History at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he developed a special interest in the Middle Ages. After graduating, he began to write what became the first book in his Conquest Series, Sworn Sword, developing the project while studying on the MA in Creative Writing programme at Bath Spa University.
His latest novel is Knights of the Hawk. James has been writing full-time since 2010 and is currently working on his fourth novel. The series is currently being published in the UK, the US and Germany.
You write historical fiction; what is it about this genre that appeals to you?
I think that historical fiction offers a powerful tool for exploring the past, for challenging myths and misconceptions, and for approaching familiar subjects from unfamiliar points of view. That’s very much the philosophy behind my Conquest Series, which tells the story of turbulent years that followed the Battle of Hastings, but from the perspective of one of the invaders, an ambitious Norman knight named Tancred.
I’ve always had a passion for the past, and specifically the Middle Ages, but I first became fascinated with the Norman Conquest while I was studying History at Cambridge. 1066 marked the beginning of a period of intense and traumatic change in England: of social, cultural and political upheaval on an unprecedented scale, as the triumphant Normans expunged the native English aristocracy and imposed their stamp upon the kingdom. I wanted to bring those events to life, and to suggest what it might have been like to live through such times.
Could you describe your approach to researching this era and then incorporating period features into the story? How important is factual accuracy?
Being a historian as well as a novelist, authenticity is very important to me. When it comes to research, my approach is every bit as rigorous as if I were writing a non-fiction account of the period.
Each new project begins with a visit to the University Library in Cambridge, where I spend several days absorbing the latest scholarship, making notes and laying the essential groundwork. I also talk to medieval re-enactors, and try to visit some of the locations that I know will feature in the novel, in order to get a feel for the lie of the land.
For me, part of the joy of writing fiction comes from weaving my own stories in and out of the real events, and so I normally see little reason to alter the established facts. Having said that, one advantage of writing fiction set during the Middle Ages is that the historical sources are often fragmentary or conflicting, meaning that the ‘facts’ are sometimes open to interpretation, offering the novelist plenty of freedom.
When you have a germ of an idea for a novel, how do you begin to plan for the writing stage? Do you map events in advance, for example, or do you simply begin?
Once I’ve done my initial research, I usually draw up a short plan: nothing tremendously detailed, and often no more than two or three pages long. In those few pages I outline what I envisage being the rough shape of the novel, including the key events as well as some of the themes I want to explore.
Nothing is ever set in stone, though. As I write and my ideas evolve and become more refined, I’ll return to that plan and make changes both major and minor. Often the finished novel ends up being quite different to my original template.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on my fourth novel, which also takes place during the Norman Conquest, during one of its most infamous episodes: the winter campaign known as the Harrying of the North, during which William the Conqueror laid waste to Yorkshire and north-east England. The new book is quite different in style and tone to the existing trilogy, and it features an entirely new cast of characters. It’s still in its relatively early stages, so I can’t say too much about it just yet, but I’m already very excited about it.
Are there any writers that have particularly inspired you? Which modern writers do you enjoy?
I’m a voracious reader and enjoy many different genres. In terms of historical fiction, the writers who have most inspired me include – in no particular order – C. J. Sansom, Bernard Cornwell, Barry Unsworth, Tim Willocks, Robert Harris and Kevin Crossley-Holland. Each is very different in style and subject matter, but they’re all equally effective when it comes to bringing the past to life and evoking worlds very different to our own.
Outside of historical fiction, my favourite authors include Chuck Palahniuk, John le Carré and Douglas Adams, but foremost among them is Margaret Atwood. Her breadth of vision never fails to amaze me, and her command of language and voice is simply incredible.
You’re a graduate of the popular MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa; how did the course prepare you for life as a working writer?
The MA in Creative Writing was enormously beneficial for me. I’ve often said that it would have taken me ten years to learn on my own what I learned in a single year on the course. The focus on deconstructing texts and finding out what makes them work helped me to hone my own prose and develop my narrative voice, and gave me the confidence to experiment with new forms.
I think creative writing courses have a huge amount to offer, by providing both a constructive atmosphere in which writers can learn their craft and a forum in which they are taken seriously as novelists and poets.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
The best piece of advice I could offer to any aspiring writer is simply to practise, and then to practise some more. The more you produce, the better you’ll get. Persistence and determination are just as crucial as talent.
If possible, find a community of writers or someone whose opinion you value and trust, and see if they’ll give you some friendly and constructive feedback on your work, but only when you feel it’s ready to show.
Thank you James!