Interview: Louise Turner, Author of Fire and Sword

TurnerFireAndSwordEveryone, please welcome Louise Turner, author of the historical fiction novel Fire and Sword, which is set in the 15th century Scotland. Today we chat about Star Wars, archaeology, engineers, embarrassing moments, and much more! Make sure to check out the book blog tour hosted by Historical Fiction Virtual Tours for reviews, giveaways, and more!

If you could, what book/movie/TV series would you like to experience for the first time all over again and why?

Oh, that’s a tough one… I’m lucky, I think, in that if really I love a movie or a book or a TV series, I can leave it for a while then go back fresh so it feels like I’m watching it for the first time all over again. But if you wanted me to pick just one, it would have to be Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. When I first saw Star Wars, I was nine years old, too young to appreciate the fact that movies just weren’t made like that, and that its opening sequence was utterly ground-breaking. Years later, watching Jurassic Park gave me a taster of what it would have been like: as I watched the small dinosaurs ‘flock’ past the actors with a tyrannosaurus in hot pursuit, I knew then that I was watching something completely new, a film that was really pushing the boundaries of cinematic technology.

Reality in my fiction: how important is it? Lengthy travel, cussing, and bathroom breaks happen in real life. How do you address these mundane occurrences in your writings?

There’s a simple rule. If it clutters up the plot, it ends up on the cutting room floor. But if it’s important, it stays in. For that reason, the travel tends to be abandoned, unless something crucial happens in that time. The toilet breaks? I’ve included one or two! As for the swearing… I leave it in as required, but don’t go overboard for it, partly because I don’t think modern readers appreciate it (I don’t), and partly because once again it slows down and dilutes the dialogue. And I don’t like that.

Whether I perfectly reflect the reality of the past by doing this is, however, an interesting question. There’s a form of combative poetry called ‘flyting’ which was popular at the court of James IV, where the poets tried to fling as many swear words at each other as they could. Did this represent everyday life, or was it something extraordinary? My high-born characters only swear at moments of extreme stress – they would point out that swearing is a mark of someone who has lost control of the situation, and they really wouldn’t want to be seen in such a position of weakness.

What biographies of the creators of your favorite genres do you want to read? Are there lesser known creators that still need a biography?

I don’t really read much in the way of biographies, the only exceptions being those of important historical figures or early antiquarians/archaeologists. Biographies of modern writers and film makers leave me cold… One exception has been Hilary Mantel’s autobiographical memoir Giving up the Ghost which I found fascinating.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been reading a number of ‘classic’ works of historical fiction by the likes of Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve been finding the prefaces increasingly interesting. – sometimes written by the authors themselves, sometimes written by academics, they offer a refreshing reminder that the experiences of these writers who worked way back in the 1800s weren’t entirely dissimilar from those of us who are pursuing this vocation today.

What nonfiction works have you found useful in building fictional worlds, cultures, and plots?

The list is endless. The importance of background research in recreating a convincing past world cannot be under-estimated. But the books which influenced me most during the writing of Fire & Sword were Norman MacDougall’s James IV, Jenny Wormald’s Court, Kirk and Community: Scotland 1470-1625, and Henrietta Leyser’s Medieval Women, with Stephen Boardman’s Ph.D. thesis on The Politics of the Feud in Late Medieval Scotland also meriting a Very Honourable Mention.

Who are your non-writer influences?

Intellectually, I’ve been shaped by so-called ‘post-processualist’ school of archaeology which formed the basis of my studies at university. This was influenced in turn by the sociology of Giddens and Bourdieu. I think the best way of describing this way of thinking is to take the view that, rather than seeing individuals as shaped by the physical and cultural environment in which they live, they are both constrained by this environment, while at the same time able to challenge its parameters and in due course transform this environment (again, in both the physical and the cultural sense). This thinking has been vital to the way in which I approach historical fiction – my characters are constrained by events, while at the same time, they do their best to actively influence these events and alter circumstances to their benefit. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t – the end result should mirror what actually happened in history.

But I suppose that overall my greatest influence has to have been my mother. She was an avid reader, a fan of science fiction and historical fiction, and also an extremely busy woman – she had a full time job as a Head of Department in Modern Languages at a comprehensive school, as well as being actively involved in numerous choirs and amateur operatic societies until her hectic schedule was cruelly curtailed by multiple schlerosis. She read and critiqued a very early draft of Fire & Sword but sadly passed away before it achieved publication – I’m sure she’d have been over the moon to hold it in her hand as a proper, published book.

Which ancient or historical works have you not read and periodically kick yourself for not having made time for them yet?

A couple of years ago, my answer would have been very different, because these days I’m doing well at playing ‘catch-up!’

During the last few years I’ve read Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Suetonius’ Twelve Caesers, and Thomas More’s Utopia, so I’m not as hopelessly ill-read as I was! But I need to read more of the (translated!!) Greek and Roman classics by the like of Plutarch and Xenephon, and closer to home, I really must read Bower’s Scotichronicon….

Please don’t be too impressed by this learned list – I can’t read any of them in Latin or Greek, or even in Middle Scots…

If you could sit down and have tea (or a beer) with 5 historical figures, who would you invite to the table?

Ah, what a question!

I think I’d opt for a round of claret (or equivalent) with the following historical personages: let’s have mathematician and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria for starters (hoorah for the philosophical sisterhood!), then add King James IV of Scots and Scots-born engineer Thomas Telford to the mix for good measure (Tam Telford did a spot of archaeology at Wroxeter in Shropshire once upon a time, which makes him an even more appropriate choice). I’m going to include archaeologist Harriet Boyd Hawes to the group, then for my final choice I’ll include John, 1st Lord Sempill (John Sempill of Ellestoun, featured in my novel), because I think he’d really enjoy the discussion and debate.

James IV would probably steal the show, flirting with Hypatia and discussing engineering with Thomas Telford (who would no doubt offer, for a healthy fee, to redesign the entire roads network of mainland Scotland and build King James a fine set of naval dockyards and canals for good measure), while Harriet Boyd Hawes and myself could talk archaeology and watch chaos unfold all around us…

Care to share an awkward fangirl/fanboy moment, either one where someone was gushing over your work…..or one where you were gushing over another author’s work?

Eek! Time for an embarrassing confession…

Okay, I think this is best described as an anti-fangirl moment, for reasons which will become clear in a moment. Way back in the late 1980s, I was awarded first prize in the Glasgow Herald New Writing in Science Fiction short story competition for a story I wrote called Busman’s Holiday. The prize was presented on my 20th birthday, by a woman science fiction writer I’d never heard of called C J Cherryh.

It was only afterwards that I gave Ms Cherryh’s books a try. And I was hooked. Seriously hooked. I thought her science fiction was awesome, and yes, I don’t deny it. In the end, reading her work influenced the way I approached my writing, and in particular the way I write historical fiction.

I still have a photo that was taken that night – to this day, I don’t know whether to be terribly excited or terribly proud, or terribly ashamed about the events of that evening. Because she congratulated me! She toasted my success!! And I didn’t even have any clue about just how amazing that was until much, much later in my life.

There. Is that awkward enough for you??? I’m cringing at the recollection even now…

Places to Stalk Louise Turner

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