You have mentioned that you write historically based action adventure novels by using your fictional characters to put a “human face” on “a real world of history”. What is the key to writing well about fictional characters in a realistic setting from the past?
The key to writing fictional characters against a real world of history is to remember that the basic nature of humanity has not changed since we first harnessed fire and made a spear. I attempt to create characters a modern reader can identify with in their strengths and weaknesses. What does change is the attitudes of my characters towards the society they belong to. What we may consider today as not politically correct was not so in the past. The people I write about are the ghosts of our pasts and when writing about actual historical characters I research their methods of speaking, attitudes and how they reacted to their society.
How important is research to authentic historical fiction, and what sorts of activities does research for one of your novels involve?
Research is vital to producing a credible novel that is historically based. I think readers expect not only to be entertained but also educated. This latter aspect once got me into trouble when I was researching women’s underwear in the 1860’s. I found a couple of books in my local library describing women’s underwear in that period and so I was able to accurately describe the scene of my heroine being disrobed whilst being seduced. As I checked the books out I heard one of the ladies behind the counter whisper to her colleague, “I think that man must be a pervert…” So you can see where research might lead you to.
What are some of your favourite adventure novels (other than your own) and what makes them stand out for you?
I am a Bernard Cornwell fan. I can’t get enough of his books. His books meet the criteria of hugely entertaining as well as educational to anyone with a love of history. He is best known for his Sharpe novels but he is equally adept at writing about other aspects of English and international history. I remember Wilbur Smith once mentioning that his favourite author was also Bernard Cornwell.
How do you typically decide what to put in each chapter and how the chapters fit together into a satisfying story, or is that something that just comes together as you write?
In a sense there are two ways to approach a novel. Some plot and others plod. I am a plodder. That is, I have an idea where the story will go but allow my characters to dictate the story. I always keep in mind a few basic rules. Pack in as much as you can to a page when it comes to the action, leave the reader guessing at the end of each chapter and write about subjects with a hard edge of life and death.
Is there any specific type of fiction or approach to fiction you would like to see more of in Australia?
I think Aussie writers cover a vast area of fiction that is second to none in the world. Matthew Reilly provides a brilliant action genre that has captured the world’s attention. Tony Park covers the African based action adventure story as good as any writer in the world and so on.
Do you have a specific process you go through writing each novel, or is it different every time?
Each novel means more historical research. I envy writers who set their stories against our times as they admit little research has to be made into everything from food to clothing etc. I am sort of recognised for writing about the little known aspects of our history such as the Aussies who fought in the Maori Wars, The Silent Frontier, the Aussie soldiers who fought on the Russian front in 1919 – hence many of our war memorials are inscribed The Great War 1914 – 1919, The Frozen Circle and the Aussie involvement in Chinese modern history during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, The Stone Dragon.
What is the top piece of advice you would like to give for new writers?
As a soldier in the army many years ago I was honoured to be accepted for a very special unit called The Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. Its motto has stuck with me for many years
What’s next for your fiction writing?
My next book to be released in November is the 5th in the Macintosh/Duffy family saga with the title, To Ride the Wind. It takes the family story up to 1917.
Find more details on Peter Watt and his fiction at www.peterwatt.com.
The Australian Literature Review