Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Blog Interview with Author JAMES AITCHESON

James Aitcheson has been quietly achieving with his debut novel, Sworn Sword. A story of a Norman Knight, Tancred a Dinant, and his journeys in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest.  It is the first in a series and has garnered the series a steadily growing fan base since its release.
Now, a few years on, and there was a book two, The Splintered Kingdom, released in 2012 and a book three recently released called Knights of the Hawk. All of which have found favour amoung many readers around the world.

Sworn Sword may have been quietly achieving over the last few years, but now the momentum is building. The series that Sworn Sword kicked off has been creeping into International markets and if you ask any UK author about getting their books released into, specifically, the US market, you will find the tales are grim.
In a market where publishers have tight specifications and reject so many more than they accept, James Aitcheson's books are not only reaching the US readership via retail outlets, but they are also showing up in libraries across the country. Now that in itself is no small feat. When breaking into foreign markets you know you have made it when the American reader can find your books in their library, or get their library to request it from elsewhere.

I am not entirely sure that getting voted in as a Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction Group book of the month can compare with the triumph of breaking into foreign markets, but Sworn Sword was voted in by readers of the historical fiction genre. If anything, this reflects a small piece of the market pie. A piece of pie that shows a receptiveness to not only the way the series is presented (ie cover, book blurb), but also to the historical setting the author has written in.

To help our readers enjoy their read of Sworn Sword throughout November, the author James Aitcheson gave up some of his valued research time, to sit down and do an interview with me.
I hope James' answers stir you all up to lose yourself for a while in 11th century Britain and the Norman invasion.

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Do you think it is important to be as historically accurate as possible in an historical fiction?

Before I turned my attention to writing historical novels, I studied History at Cambridge, so I do feel a certain responsibility to keep my fiction as faithful as possible to what is known, so as not to misinform the reader or present a false picture of events.
The advantage of writing fiction set during the Middle Ages, however, is that the historical sources are very often fragmentary, and sometimes in conflict with one another. A lot of information we might like to know simply isn’t available or is disputed, which gives the novelist a large degree of freedom.
Part of the fun, for me, of writing historical novels lies in weaving my stories in and out of the historical framework, and so most of the time I see little reason to alter the facts as far as they’re known. When I do, it’s always with good reason and I own up to it in my Historical Note at the end of the book.

Tell us who was William the Conqueror in your mind?

William, we’re told by our sources, was a formidable figure, not just physically but also in terms of his strength of will. He was born into a warrior society, where the elite drew their power and influence largely from their martial prowess, their leadership and their ability to secure the loyalty of large numbers of armed knights.
What marked William out as that he was thrust into the violent, backstabbing world of Norman politics from a very young age. The illegitimate son of the previous duke, he was only around 7 or 8 years old when he succeeded, and his formative years were blighted by an extended period of civil war in Normandy, which no doubt hardened him and shaped his outlook on the world.
Above all, he was ambitious and unafraid of taking chances. That he was able to convince his nobles to commit vast resources to the invasion of England in 1066 – an enterprise that at the outset must have seemed enormously risky – is testament to his charisma and influence. While his enemies feared his ruthlessness, he was also remembered as a man of great generosity and piety, which in many eyes made him the very model of a medieval king.

You are standing on the battlefield in 1066. Where would you be standing? Which team? What kind of player? Eg. Knight, Housecarl.

I’d be standing as far from the battle-line as possible! I don’t think I’d be very good in a combat situation. As for which side you might find me on, that’s a difficult question. Some people might assume that because my protagonist, Tancred, is a Norman knight, that I would naturally ally myself with the Normans in the battle, but the truth is that I don’t identify especially strongly with either side.
Both King Harold and Duke William were men who had won their way to the top through uncompromising politics and their military accomplishments. Neither of them appears to me any more likeable as an individual than the other, and neither one would command my allegiance. The Battle of Hastings wasn’t a battle between nations so much as the final showdown between those two contenders seeking the ultimate prize: the English crown.

There is much written - from both a positive and negative view - on the impact William and his Normans had on Britain. What are your thoughts on the positives and negatives post invasion?
There’s a widespread assumption, in the UK at least, that the Norman Conquest was a Bad Thing as far as the English people were concerned, and that it heralded a harsh regime of bitter oppression. There is no denying that William was responsible for some shocking atrocities, the most infamous of all being the winter campaign known as the Harrying of the North, which is mentioned in The Splintered Kingdom and which saw a vast region of northern England laid waste. We also know that the native aristocracy was almost entirely usurped by 1086, the year of Domesday Book, with only a very few English thegns remaining in possession of their estates, and the vast majority of the land being held by Norman barons.

But the jury is still out as to how much the Conquest really affected the lot of most common folk in England. Their lives were typically conducted on a much more local level, and while the arrival of these foreign overlords must have been frightening, of more immediate concern was whether they could put enough food on the table to last them through each winter. They still had to till the fields and reap the harvest and pay their rents, just as they had done in the days of Edward the Confessor(1042–66) and earlier kings, and probably cared little for the wider struggles for power.
Because no one can say how England would have turned out in an alternative, Conquest-less timeline, it’s almost impossible to make a value-judgement as to whether, on the whole, the Norman impact was positive or negative. What’s clear is that it left a lasting impression on the country, helping to shape its institutions, language and law, and also making a mark on the landscape itself in the form of the great castles and cathedrals. England today is a product as much of the Normans as of the Anglo-Saxons.

With the third book in your 1066 series released late October, where to now for Tancred? Is it a trilogy or a series? If a series, how many books are planned?

The third book, Knights of the Hawk, brings to a close one particular arc of Tancred’s saga, but it’s not the end of his story by any means. I’ve got plenty more ideas for where his travels will take him in future, but exactly how many books the series is likely to comprise, I’m not yet sure. The Normans sought adventure all across Europe in this period, including in Italy and in the Byzantine Empire, so the next instalment could well see him seeking his fortune beyond Britain. In the long term I’d like to take Tancred on the First Crusade, although that’s still some way off yet. By that point he’d be in his mid-fifties, so perhaps a little bit old for front-line fighting!

Would you like to write in any other historical settings, and why?

At the moment I’m thoroughly enjoying writing about the Norman Conquest, which is such an interesting subject, with so many facets that I’ve still to explore in detail. Having said that, I do have ideas in mind for books set in other periods, as well as for contemporary fiction too. If I was to turn my attention to a different historical setting, it would probably be Anglo-Saxon England, which is a period that has always fascinated me, and which I specialised in while at university.

Has any author, book or person had a hand in inspiring you to be a writer?

Writing is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was very young, and I never required any particular inspiration to write: I just got on and did it! During the course of 2006–7, however, when I was in the process of penning the initial stages of Sworn Sword, I was fortunate to read a number of great historical novels: Imperium by Robert Harris; Dissolution by C. J. Sansom; The Ruby in Her Navel by Barry Unsworth; and The Religion by Tim Willocks. Each of those authors has a very different style and voice, but they all equally grabbed me and showed me the potential of historical fiction to bring the past to life.

You are currently on a research trip. Can you tell us about that? What are you seeing and after all your research trips what has been your favourite place so far? And why?

I’ve actually just returned from spending a few days in the University Library in Cambridge, where I’ve been researching my next book. As a Cambridge alumnus, I’m fortunate in that I’m still entitled to access to the library, which receives a copy of every single book that’s published in Britain. So if there’s a particular subject that I need to know more about, I know the UL will have it. It’s a fantastic and invaluable resource for a historical novelist to have. 

Every new project begins with a trip to the UL, where I immerse myself in the latest academic studies. It’s one of the parts of the job that I love the most. Only once I’ve laid down the groundwork do I feel equipped to actually start writing. Even while the novel is in progress, I often need to make trips back to Cambridge to look up specific topics that I didn’t necessarily realise I’d have to know about at the outset.
Research for me also means going to visit some of the key locations that are going to feature in the novel. I like to tread the same ground that my characters would have walked. My travels have taken me to Durham, York, the Welsh Marches, the Fens around Ely, and the site of the Battle of Hastings. Of all of them probably my favourite has been the Welsh Marches, where Tancred has his manor and where I’ve spent some time walking Offa’s Dyke Path. It’s a beautiful part of Britain that oozes history at every turn, and the landscape hasn’t altered much over the centuries, so it’s easy to imagine how it would have looked to Tancred.

Which do you prefer ebook or paper?

Paper. I don’t have anything against ebooks; it’s just that I’ve grown up with traditional books, and haven’t yet heard any compelling reason to change my habits by investing in an e-reader. But the electronic format is still in its infancy and I think we’re likely to see lots of exciting developments in the next ten years that we’ve barely even begun to consider, so perhaps my opinion will change in time!


More details can be found on James and his books on the author's website:  

If you would like to follow James on social media you can check him out and even say hi via his Twitter Page: or his Facebook Page:

- MM


  1. Isn't it special when an author reveals how they research and write? I enjoyed this interview so much.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Louise. James sure is lucky having that all access pass to the Cambridge Library for his research.