Historical Fiction & Meaning with B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Derek Birks

Derek Birks

I’d like to welcome Historical Fiction Writer and B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree Derek Birks to talk with me today about what Historical Fiction means to him. Derek was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. For many years he taught history in a secondary school in Berkshire but took early retirement several years ago to concentrate on his writing. Apart from writing, he spends his time gardening, travelling, walking and taking part in archaeological digs at a Roman villa. Derek is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period. He writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history. His debut historical novel, Feud, is set in the period of the Wars of the Roses and is the first of a series entitled Rebels & Brothers which follows the fortunes of the fictional Elder family. The sequel to Feud, A Traitor’s Fate, was published in November 2013 and Book 3, Kingdom of Rebels, in September 2014. The final book of the series, The Last Shroud, will be published in the summer of 2015.

Derek, what are the periods of history focused on for your writing?

The series I have just finished writing has focused on the mid-fifteenth century, more specifically the period known as The Wars of the Roses. I expect to stay with this period for my next series.

Why Historical Fiction?

I’ve always been captivated by history and I suppose that started at school. I had a few inspirational history teachers who made it not only interesting but fun. I’m fascinated by the detail of history – sometimes quite quirky detail – but I also like to explore the areas of history where our grasp of what happened is still rather tenuous.


When did you know you wanted be a HF writer?

I’ve loved writing since my primary school days when we used to have a lesson called “Composition” – which turned out to be writing. Some of my friends hated it but I liked it and I like to think maybe I showed some early aptitude for it.

I started writing fiction in my teens. I was writing an adventure story and it was not very good, I fear. After that I tried my hand at writing poetry and plays which led me into the world of theatre. For many years I was immersed in that and I spent all of my spare time being a stage manager – it’s not entirely unlike being a writer…

I earned my living as a history teacher and in history I found my writing material but, looking back, it was only when I stopped spending time on theatre work that I found the time to write. Only then did I realise I wanted to write historical fiction and I began the book that would become Feud.

How much time do you spend on research? What sources do you use?

I spend a lot of time now on research – partly because I really enjoy it! Historical locations are great: castles, battlefields and ruins. There’s nothing I like more than exploring historical sites, trying to visualize how they would have looked in the past and getting a feel for the place.

For my last book, The Last Shroud, I did a battlefield walk in Barnet and found it incredibly helpful in interpreting accounts of the battle there in 1471 – even five and a half centuries later!

I also use primary sources a lot, though they often shed less light on a subject than one might think. In the fifteenth century the written sources are surprisingly fragmented and quite major events are still a mystery to us all. Maps are very important to me because early maps tell me which places were important then rather than now. You need an understanding of how far people could travel in your period – and how long it would take them.

Artefacts are also useful – handling a weapon for example is a good place to start if you want to know how it was used.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000448_00060]

What do you feel is the importance of historical fiction?

Historical fiction may use history as its setting but it is still fiction and its task is to bring the stories of history alive.

I see history as a continuous tapestry of life – a tapestry which in places is a bit thin and sometimes has great holes in it. Historical fiction is there to fill in some of those gaps and add detail to the threadbare sections. If it’s done well then it can really help the reader to imagine what life was like at a moment in the past.

Historical fiction reaches many readers who would not pick up a non-fiction history book and it presents elements of history in an accessible form. As a historical fiction writer there is no greater compliment than a reader saying your book has inspired them to read more on the period.

Who are your influences?

The one I usually cite is Alexandre Dumas. I loved his Musketeers series and read them all by my teens. I liked the premise – often used! – of a group of friends undertaking a dangerous mission but I was also intrigued by the idea of a group of characters under intense pressure and winning through, though not always without some cost.

More recently it was Bernard Cornwell who influenced me most and I dare say I’m not alone in that!

Fantasy writers though have also shaped the way I think about fiction, notably JRR Tolkien and GRR Martin. I like Tolkien’s inventiveness and his creation of a sense of fellowship and purpose. Martin gives us terrific, flawed characters and the sheer brutal power of some of his scenes is overwhelming. Both writers show a willingness to eliminate important characters if it seems to work in their stories.

In the Rebels and Brothers series, I have tried to reproduce and blend – hopefully in my own style – some of these influences. My brand of historical fiction is full on, and I hope realistic. You can’t write about the Wars of the Roses without a pretty high body count – it would be nonsense. In my books no-one is safe – no-one – but hopefully I’ve tempered the raw action with a group of characters whose interaction intrigues the reader. I’d like to think that the reader can invest in some or all of the characters.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000448_00060]

How much fiction (in your opinion) is best to blended with historical facts?

Basically, it’s fiction. My stories are fiction but I set them in as realistic a setting as I can. I like the historical context to be accurate. For example, I try to ensure that I do not put an actual historical character in a place at a time that he could not possibly have been there. I like the feel of the book to be authentic and I won’t move events to suit the story. Having said that, it is all about the story and what works in the story. I’m not trying to educate nor do I want to mislead the reader, so I always have historical notes at the back of each book to spell out which parts are fiction.

How do you feel the genre has progressed in the last ten years?

That’s a hard one! I think that the genre has broadened out considerably and I give Bernard Cornwell some credit for that. There was a time when it seemed that historical fiction books had to have a picture of a woman on the front, usually headless because apparently the bodice was the important bit.

I think that the impact of TV and films can also be seen on what is written now and the way it is written. Readership is always changing as society changes. The advent of self- publishers has led to an explosion of historical fiction – not all of it good, I’m afraid – but it has given the reader a huge range of work to choose from. Writers are exploring many more different time periods these days which is great. Variety is always great.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000448_00060]

What are the important steps in writing HF?

There’s a chicken and egg here. You need an idea for a story – or at the very least, a period you love where you can search for a story. The story matters most.

Once you have the basis of the story then you look in more depth at the history because you need to clothe your story in historical detail – but those details are driven only by the story because it’s not a history lesson.

You must think a lot about your central characters and how they drive the story. Readers need to make a connection with at least some of your characters. They must want to know what happens to the characters or you’ve lost your readers.

So, you read, you visit, you study and then you ponder. You gather together the various strands of the story and you map out where that story is going. In my view, you can leave a fair bit unplanned when you first start writing but you have to know where and when the story begins and how it ends.

That’s how I do it: I work towards my ending, often changing my mind about a lot of the other elements in the story as I go. No doubt other writers will work differently.

What must you not do writing in this genre?

OK, some ‘don’ts’ – in my view anyway…

Don’t try to educate. Don’t fill the book with historical detail and dilute your story.

Don’t write about what you don’t know or haven’t researched.

Don’t distort the history without at least telling the reader afterwards.

Don’t confuse the reader with incomprehensible dialogue – use only some words which convey a feel of the period. Reading Chaucer is great but not if the reader wants to finish your story before the polar icecaps melt.

When writing, do you use visuals to give you inspiration? Such as historical pictures of people, castles, towns and such? What about historical objects?

As I said, maps and artefacts are useful. I also take a lot of photographs during research and I will study some of them for a long time, especially landscapes and buildings. There’s nothing more evocative of place than a haunting landscape or an image of a ruined building.

When I’m actually writing though, I use audio more than visuals – specifically music. Certain characters have associations for me with particular pieces of modern music. My leading characters all have ‘their’ songs: Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits for Ned Elder, This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush for Emma Elder and Try by Pink for Eleanor Elder.

Some writers could not imagine listening to such music – or any music – whilst they write but for me, it seems to work. And yes, I can also write in a darkened room in complete silence…

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