Judith Cutler

Writing Historical Novels

My Favourite Historical Novelist

historical image

The late 1990s was a period of great change for me. It was a point where I left my marriage, my home and the college where I’d worked for nearly thirty years, after two violent attacks. I was at long last a published novelist. My short stories had popped up in various places over the previous ten years but getting a two book contract for contemporary crime novels set in Birmingham encouraged me at a time when things were pretty bad.

Soon after I became unemployed, the Crime Writers’ Association, to which, on the basis of Dying Fall, I’d just been admitted, needed a secretary urgently. With a can- do spirit, I took on the post, which I held with little distinction for several years. To walk into the committee room was like walking into a hall of crime-writing fame. I’d treasured books by many of them and others lurked on my bookshelves still unread because of the general trauma of the previous year. As a writer of contemporary crime, I’d tended to read others of the same genre, to inspire and teach me: I aspired to be a Birmingham Sarah Paretsky (sorry I never quite managed it!). So I’d neglected the historical crime genre to some extent.

I set myself the delightful task of reading at least one of each of my fellow committee members in turn. The first one happened to be The Hawks of Delamere for two reasons: Edward Marston was the CWA Chairman and he’d kindly turned up to a bookshop reading I was doing to promote my latest book (Power on Her Own).

I opened it idly on the way home and was promptly transported to another world.

I knew about crimes. I knew about plotting. I knew about characterisation. I knew about dialogue. I knew about pace. But this writer had gathered all these essential elements of a novel and rolled them up and popped them into the eleventh century with ease, it seemed.

Although The Hawks of Delamere was part of a series, the exposition was so clear that a new reader like me was never muddled. I soon came to appreciate the compassionate masculinity of Ralph Delchard and Gervase Bret, Domesday Commissioners to King William. In addition, there were quirky churchmen, swashbuckling villains, and plots involving dead birds and Welsh princes. The dialogue sounded authentic without becoming quaint. Truly the author was an inspired historian who could impart his knowledge of and love for the period without ever sounding didactic. The pace was terrific, the whole novel rattling along with such gusto and passion I couldn’t put it down.

I can truthfully say that I’ve read every other novel that Edward Marston has written since, and his cracking short stories. They’ve inspired me to paddle in historical waters myself, first with a range of short stories and then with my two Tobias novels. But I never think of myself as a historian. I can research specific periods for an idea or (better still) a commissioned story but I simply don’t have Marston’s range or depth of knowledge.

On the other hand, I am able to find his socks when he loses them, and what he does on the dance floor I do backwards and in high heels. I’m afraid that in time the Chairman and the secretary committed the cliché of falling in love – and, yes, I married him.