Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Sharon chats to ... Derek Birks

The Harrogate History Festival is a fabulous weekend in October, where you can chat about the past from morning 'til night and no one will complain ( unlike at home!). You get to meet some great authors and historians and they are more than happy to chat away, whether its at a talk, in the bookshop or in the bar. While there, I took the opportunity to chat with Derek Birks about his latest book, Scars From the Past, the start of a new series, which comes out on 24th November.

So, Derek, tell me about the new series. It begins in 1481, ten years after the end of my first series, Rebels & Brothers. It concentrates on the younger generation of Elders, who are growing up and getting involved in family duties. At 17 Ned's son, John, inherits his father's lordship. However, as he saw so many deaths as a child he sees the lordship as an unwelcome legacy. He is a ward of Earl Rivers and spends his days training and nights in the company of prostitutes. He has grown up with Lizzie Holton, daughter of his father's steward, but their relationship is damaged from the outset of the book - it's an impossible love. After getting into a fight John decides  to run away with his cousin Will.
The first part of the book sees the two sides of the family: those left at home, affected by his absence and John's adventures on the Continent.
It's different from the first series, less linear. And there's no involvement with the king, the country is at peace.
There are some completely new characters - and some old favourites.
I hope that people, who have not read the first series, can pick this up and enjoy it.

How many books do you have  planned for this series, will there be four again? I don't have an actual number planned, these books are more standalone than the first series, so I'm not restricted to a particular number. I have at least three in mind at the moment, but it could go on indefinitely. There are so many threads to explore. And I'd like to go into Henry Tudor's reign.

Does Eleanor (she's my favourite character from the first series) calm down and retire, or is she still as feisty? Eleanor is a major player in the new book. She is 10 years older and has grown up some, but is still slightly reckless and noble. She can't be as sword-wielding as previously - she's a mother now, with a son and daughter to be responsible for. I have tried to put John and Eleanor in a realistic context. Emma is also there, with Robert Radcliffe, but she will come into it more in later books.
The servants are still there and Lizzie's presence brings the lower classes more to the fore.

How is the new series different from the last? One of the hardest things is to make characters unique and individual. Especially the women. I had a problem with the new generation, with two girls close in age, both teenagers. My problem was, if they are next too each other, what is it that makes them different? So I kept them apart, and in different situations; in that way they wouldn't be compared. One off them is quite prominent and will establish herself later in the series.
The most difficult thing was how to make John different from his father: so he drinks, spends evenings with the girls, but is not so good with women. He's a reluctant fighter, whereas his father was quicker to get involved. As a mercenary he ran away from the responsibility in warfare, leadership, while still doing what he was trained to do.

Is there - or will there be - a new 'strong woman' to take over from Eleanor as she gets older? Ah... that would be revealing too much. There are other strong female characters, yes - but that's all I'm saying.

Did you feel obliged to have a strong woman in your second series? It's in the Elder family genes, so it would have to be a strong possibility.

Scars from the Past - the title - underlines the baggage they carry. John and Eleanor do carry on their strong link - forged from shared experiences in the first series - and that informs their decisions. I was reluctant to make an Eleanor mkII. The women have to have different strengths, rather than sword-fighting. They carry on the fight in their own, different ways.

How do you plan your story, are you a plotter or a non-plotter? I knew how the book was going to end, but didn't plot the beginning. Also, I didn't write the book in order. I knew where it was going, though. I tend to plot a sequence of scenes - maybe 10 - that are used as the framework and that I can change as I go along. The order of writing may depend on what is researched. I rough out 2 or 3 scenes and then fill in the gaps once I have done the research. For example, Corve Manor; I had originally used Stokesay Castle as Corve, but had to plot its location for this book, and so now it is Corvham Castle - there's nothing left of it now, but I needed a sense of place becausse of events that happen there. And the scenes at Ludlow, I had to research the locations and walk the streets to get the timings right.

Do your characters take over the story? It's like magic, an alchemy. One new character came very close to death, but grew from being a bit part to becoming very important to the story. He's a very different character to the others and becomes quite an emotional trigger.

Have you been strict with continuity, from events in the first series? With the people - yes. Such as eye colour - I had to go back and check. I started with a spreadsheet of characters of that moment - ie. 1469 - and added to it. So I have all the physical characteristics of each of them. Continuity with the places was more difficult, such as with Corve Manor, but I was keen to build on what had already been sasid and not be contradictory. I have plans for the layouts of Ludlow, Corve and Caversham. I also have a map of Ludlow, and plans of the houses and rooms where scenes take place. I did have to work out how many people could fit in each of the properties.

Do you do an extensive bibliography? in my historical notes I emphasise how something has been documented and verify whether events are true or not. So I do record where I get information from, and give credit to particular historians that have been helpful, such as Nichoolas Orme.

Do you have a family tree? I have one for personal use, but don't want to put it in the book, as it would give away too much of the story, such as who married who, when children were born - and when so-and-so died.

Scars from the Past is released on 24th November and can be pre-ordered on Amazon

I would like to express a huge 'thank you' to Derek for such a fabulous and candid interview. Please look out tomorrow for my review of Scars from the Past and a giveaway of this fabulous new novel.

Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history for over 30 years. She has studied it at university and worked as a tour guide at several historic sites. She has been writing a blog entitled 'History...the Interesting Bits' for almost 2 years and is currently working on her first non-fiction work, 'Heroines on the Medieval World' which will be published by Amberley in 2017.


  1. Many thanks, Sharon, for having a chat at Harrogate. I think we covered a fair bit of ground! The giveaway will be a paperback, as long as it's in the U.K.

  2. Great interview, one to go onto the wish list :)

  3. Wonderful interview about a wonderful book!
    May I be put in the hat t win Derek Birks.....
    Yes. The punctuation is right!