8 March 2022

Special Guest Interview with Peter Tonkin, Author of Shadow of the Axe (The Queen's Intelligencer Book 1)


Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

1599: After years of arrogance, disobedience and failure, the Earl of Essex bursts into Queen Elizabeth’s private chambers at Nonsuch Palace, confronting her before she has even had time to dress. This is something the Queen can never forgive. Essex’s enemies, led by Secretary of State Robert Cecil, begin to plan his final downfall.

I'm pleased to welcome author Peter Tonkin to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

I am currently working on the second of a proposed three-book series of Elizabethan and Jacobean spy thrillers. They are centred round the real historical character Robert Poley who was not only involved in the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots (he is credited with uncovering the Babington plot by pretending to be one of the plotters) but was also there when Ingram Frizer famously killed Christopher Marlowe at Mistress Bull’s house in Deptford on the evening of 30th May1593. 

In the first of the series, Shadow of the Axe, he is working for Robert Cecil, Secretary to the Council, involved in a plot to bring down the Earl of Essex, who is an increasing danger to the Council and the Queen. In the current work (Shadow of the Tower) his target is Sir Walter Raleigh - who is becoming a genuine danger to King James and his succession - and others keen to kidnap or kill the King in a re-play of the Gowrie Plot of 5th August 1600 which he was lucky to survive. In the third book (Shadow of Treason) he will be involved in foiling the Gunpowder Plot.

What is your preferred writing routine?

I get up at 7am, and go through yesterday’s work on my computer, which I then print off. While it’s printing I work-out on my rowing machine and go through my work-plans for the day in my head as I do so. I take my wife the print-out which she will go through and edit. While we discuss any further plans, I continue my work-out on my exercise bike. 

I write from 9.30 – 12.30 then from 1pm – 5pm. I work on a word-processor, listening to classical music (usually on headphones) from my Spotify account. I try to have a break and walk around every hour then scan through the previous hour’s work before proceeding. I have a study and I work surrounded by the reference books that help with whatever my current project is. During the last few years I have worked on a series set in Ancient Rome (Caesar’s Spies) and another set during the Trojan War (The Trojan Murders) as well as another series set in Elizabethan England (the Tom Musgrave series). 

What advice do you have for new writers?

Someone is supposed to have asked Kingsley Amis on one occasion ‘what makes a writer?’ and he is supposed to have answered, ‘A writer writes’. So that is my first piece of advice (which I have given to both of my sons who are writers, as well as to many students who have asked the same question) Keep Writing. I am still old-fashioned enough to believe that if you want to become a professional writer (they are relatively few & far-between) you need an agent. Then you need a publishing house. 

More modern writers, however, would recommend an alternative approach: publish on the Web; set up a blog; get followers and organise them into a fan-base. Then go looking for someone to pay you to keep writing/influencing etc. If you want to write literature (or even popular prose) that gets critical regard (in papers, magazines, Bookbub or Amazon star-ratings) remember what I call the Mozart rule which is: you never find out how good you were ‘til you’ve been dead for 50 years – so don’t get too hung up on it.

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

I think I covered this in the answer above. I have to say, though, that I am a total dinosaur myself, ad really struggle to do more that Tweet and Facebook daily. When I was first published in the late 1970’s the houses who published me handled the publicity. As time went on, however, things (and my lifestyle) changed. In the early years of my writing career I was also teaching at a series of schools in South London and Kent. 

In those days my work (the Mariner series of 30 action/adventures) tended to be compared with Alistair MacLean and Hammond Innes. I promised my wife that when I retired we would follow Hammond Innes’s example and travel widely for the purposes of research etc. That is what we do now (I am writing this in Egypt) SO, I have had little to dlo with my own publicity, but anyone starting out could do no better than going along the Blog, magazine article, Bookbub, author-organised fanbase route until they can get a publisher to do the heavy lifting.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research.

While researching my current book (Shadow of the Tower) I discovered that Sir Walter Raleigh attempted suicide while being held in the Tower awaiting trial, having been accused of plotting to murder James and his whole family. He was at dinner with Sir Roger Peyton, Lieutenant of the Tower, when he suddenly snatched out his dagger and stabbed himself in the breast. The dagger skidded off a rib, or the attempt would have succeeded and he would have died there and then. Robert Cecil (who had had a hand in preparing the evidence against Raleigh) was in the Tower interviewing another prisoner and was instrumental in helping the wounded man.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

The hardest scene usually is the current one – it never gets any easier but still remains infinitely enjoyable. I have had the next scene in Shadow of the Tower in my head for a while but getting it down is being a problem. One which I will confront (again) when I have finished here. It takes place at Burghley House on Easter Monday 1603 when the Cecil brothers’ massive Easter Feast is interrupted by Sir Walter Raleigh who presents himself to King James in spite of James’s orders to stay in London until after Elizabeth’s funeral.

After a nasty confrontation, Raleigh is sent back south with a flea in his ear but things do not end there because James goes hunting after dinner and is thrown from his horse and is very lucky to break his collarbone rather than his neck. An historical coincidence that I shall of course, turn into a murder attempt…

What are you planning to write next?

My next novel (third in the Queen’s Intelligencer series – Shadow of Treason) is all taken care of and really just needs committing to paper (so to speak). In fact, I have introduced – historically accurately – several of the Gunpowder plotters in Shadow of the Tower. After that, there has been some interest in adding further stories to the Caesar’s Spies series or the Trojan Murders series. Caesar’s Spies has chronicled events from the death of Julius Caesar to the Battle of Philippi, but the narrative arc of the series was also designed to carry the characters through to Actium and its immediate aftermath. 

By the same token, the three books in the Trojan Mysteries series have dealt with ‘events’ in the lead-up to the Trojan War itself, and there is plenty more information and inspiration supplied by Homer, Virgil, the authors of what remains of the Epic Cycle, Herodotus and of course the ancient playwrights who put the Golden Age Greek legends on the stage (Vengeance At Aulis, for instance, owes a great deal to Euripides’ Iphigenia At Aulis).

Peter Tonkin

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About the Author

Peter Tonkin attended the Queen’s University, Belfast, 1969 – 75, where he studied with Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Bernard MacLaverty and Ciaran Carson; and directed Ciaran Hinds in Hamlet.  He published his first novel, Killer, to international acclaim in 1978.  Since then he has divided his time between writing and teaching.  He has published 52 other novels including the Master of Defence series of Elizabethan murder mysteries and the 30-book Mariner series of action-adventure-thrillers.  Since retiring from teaching, he has been preparing a series of thrillers set in Ancient Rome.  He is pictured here preparing to attend a Literary Evening at Trinity College, Oxford, of which he is a Benefactor. Find out more at Peter's website https://petertonkin.com/ and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @petertonkin50

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