Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest Interview with Historical Mystery Author John Pilkington

30 January 2020

Special Guest Interview with Historical Mystery Author John Pilkington

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Summer 1604: England is on edge, as a high-powered Spanish delegation arrives in London to start vital and long-awaited treaty talks. King James, a year into his reign, wants to be seen as The Peacemaker King, bringing an end to nearly twenty years of warfare with Spain which has left both countries exhausted and almost bankrupt. Yet there are those who profit from the war - and such people cannot be allowed to threaten the peace negotiations.

I'm pleased to welcome historical mystery Author John Pilkington to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

Just now, I’m not sure what counts as my latest book. I’ve been pleased to see the first historical series I wrote, the Thomas the Falconer Mysteries (published 2002-2007) reissued as e-books by Sharpe Books over the past few months, with an omnibus collection of all seven books now out under the title Hunter and Prey (Sharpe, 2020).

Following that early Tudor project I wrote three more historical series, including one featuring 17th century spy or ‘intelligencer’ Martin Marbeck, whose last outing appeared in paperback in 2016 (Severn House Publishers). But the most recent book I’ve written is a new venture for me: Yorick, His Tale told by Himself. I suppose I would call this ‘speculative fiction’, giving my version of the story of a character from Hamlet (he of ‘alas, poor Yorick’ fame) from his humble birth and life as a stable boy, to becoming the King’s favoured jester and playfellow of the young Prince Hamlet. It was a lot of fun to write. It’s yet to find a publisher, and it may need further work, but I have hopes.

What is your preferred writing routine?

After many years of writing, I’ve developed an ‘office hours’ habit. I write all morning, perhaps do a little more after lunch and then edit what I’ve done. Afterwards I escape for a long walk, weather permitting – I’m fortunate to live by a quiet tidal estuary, very good for fresh air and wildlife. I think it’s important to get away from the desk. I work at the keyboard, print off what I’ve done each day and then read it over first thing the next morning, editing by hand with a lurid red pen. Then, when I open up the work again on the screen I edit from the hard copy, which gets me into the flow to carry on the narrative. I sometimes write things out longhand, like new sections I want to insert, and work them in later.

I’ve done lots of research over the years and have extensive files, but I rarely look at these once I’ve started a new book. There’s always the danger of putting in ‘undigested research’, and the temptation to add too much period detail. This is fiction, not a history book, and the story is paramount. Once I’ve got the book moving I work every day, without fail.

What advice do you have for new writers?

I’m not sure I can offer any, but I’ll try. Are you certain you want to write, or do you merely want to ‘be a writer’? If you really want to write, you will probably do so anyway. I attempted my first novel at age 13. It was terrible and I never finished it, but you have to start somewhere. If you want to be published, writing is a commitment, not a hobby. You also need to be clear about what sort of writing you want to do: try out different forms and genres, and see which satisfies you most. It doesn’t matter how bad you think it is.

There’s no short cut to developing a workable style – as with most things in life, you get better with practice. And read a lot, of course – even ‘How to Write’ books, if they help. Join a local writers’ group, if that helps. Make a regular time to write, somewhere you won’t be disturbed, and don’t let anyone put you off. It’s often difficult to get people to take you seriously as a writer – until you’re published, whereupon they start asking you where you get your ideas from! But persevere: it’s down to application and persistence as well as talent. Good luck.

What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books?

I’m a recent convert to Twitter, which has opened up a new – and at times astonishing – world. In the past I generally relied on my publishers to do all the marketing and publicity, though I helped when I could, making myself available for interviews and so on. When I wrote a children’s series, for example (the Elizabethan Mysteries), my wonderful publishers Usborne were very active in promoting me and my work, arranging visits, talks and readings in schools and libraries. But nowadays, I don’t think this is enough: the writer should take some responsibility and engage with the fast-moving online world, and with sites like GoodReads and Bookbub which will help raise your profile and attract potential readers.

I launched my website around a decade ago. There is a panel on my home page which can be updated at any time with news and events, but how much this actually helps with book sales I really don’t know. Being on Twitter has led to a new surge of interest in my work. Online promotion is very important now, and it seems to be helping me.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

I’m fascinated by espionage, and when I began delving into the Elizabethan era I was intrigued to learn that the first Cambridge Spies date back to the 16th century - almost 400 years before Burgess, Philby and Maclean. In the 1580s the Queen’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, began recruiting bright, adventurous young men from Cambridge University (where he too had been a student). Their mission, in this time of religious turmoil and plots against Elizabeth, was to pose as disaffected Catholics, travel abroad to infiltrate the Catholics on the Continent, and report on their activities.

At its peak, the late-Tudor espionage service boasted as many as sixty agents using cover names, ciphers, letter drops and messages written in invisible ink – the beginnings of the spy’s equipment through the ages. Eventually I created my own spy, Marbeck, the hero of four books (described by Booklist as ‘a 17th century James Bond’). Recently I wrote an essay on the topic, On the Jesuit Trail, for the Royal Literary Fund’s website, now published in their anthology A Self Among the Crowd (Small Press Publishing for the RLF, 2019). I’m sure there’s still a great deal more to be revealed about this absorbing subject.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

This is a tough question. I suppose there have been many I struggled with, though I rarely remember the actual writing process. But one that sticks in my mind was the climactic ‘mass brawl’ scene in The Ruffler’s Child (the first Thomas the Falconer mystery). The fight took place in the Bear Garden in Southwark, after the day’s ‘entertainment’, and involved around a dozen angry men armed with clubs, daggers and assorted hand weapons. Moving so many participants around convincingly, and maintaining the suspense, proved a big challenge.

Never having been involved in such a fracas myself (beyond snowball fights), I had to reach into memory for every violent struggle I could recall, from schoolboy tussles to battle scenes from films. (Spartacus and Braveheart have always been personal favourites, but few scenes match the visceral realism of James Fox’s gangster-on-gangster fight in Performance – perhaps because it wasn’t scripted). To keep the scene gripping without losing sight of my main protagonist, and above all to avoid it feeling contrived, was hard. I think – I hope – that I’ve got better at it since then.

What are you planning to write next?

Some years ago, I wrote two novels set in the reign of Charles II (After the Fire and The Judas Blade), featuring Restoration Theatre actress-turned-sleuth Betsy Brand (first published by Robert Hale, soon to be republished in revised editions by Joffe Books). I’m very fond of smart, witty and resourceful Betsy and want to extend the series, creating more mysteries for her to solve in that ‘gaudy and bawdy‘ period of intrigue and corruption. I’d like to push her further into danger, allowing her to show her considerable courage. A plot’s already forming, but I’m keeping tight-lipped about that.

John Pilkington
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About the Author

John Pilkington has written plays for radio and theatre, television scripts for the BBC and now concentrates on historical fiction, reflecting his passion for the Tudor and Stuart periods. A writer for over thirty years, he has published around twenty books including the Thomas the Falconer Mysteries (republished by Sharpe Books), the Marbeck spy series (Severn House) and two Restoration-era mysteries featuring actress-turned-sleuth Betsy Brand (to be republished by Joffe Books). He is also the author of a children’s series, the Elizabethan Mysteries (Usborne). Born in the north-west of England, he now lives in a quiet Devon village with his partner, and has a son who is a musician and composer. Find out more at his website,, and find John on Twitter @_JohnPilkington.

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