Interview with Steven Smith

Published 2016-10-24.
What's the story behind your latest book?
'This Sacred Isle' is an historical fantasy set in Dark Age Britain.

The year is AD 593 - with Roman rule a distant memory, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms now dominate most of Britain, with the native Britons driven out or enslaved in their own lands. But rumours whisper that Merlin the Sorcerer has returned to unite the Britons and defeat their hated enemy.

Meanwhile, fourteen-year-old Morcar daydreams of battles and heroic deeds. However, when his village is attacked, Morcar is forced to venture into the wild - and there he must confront the danger that threatens to destroy his people...

'This Sacred isle' combines gritty historical detail with the powerful mythology of the Anglo-Saxons - with an exciting plot and rich characters, it is a story to keep readers intrigued and entertained.
What influenced you to write 'This Sacred Isle'?
The period known as the Dark Ages has long fascinated me, a period when kingdoms and regional identities started to coalesce, with the very foundations of the nations of Britain taking shape. At this time, Britain was largely a wild land, rich in myth and ruled by warrior-kings, and a land where the people faced perils that many parts of today’s world still endure: war, disease and famine.

In some ways, this is a post-apocalyptic world, with scattered groups of individuals struggling to establish order within the ruins of Roman Britannia. In addition, the plight of the Britons intrigued me; how would they feel, often supplanted by the aggressive newcomers from across the sea, the last remnants of the civilisation of Roman Britannia crumbling?

The Anglo-Saxon cosmology and mythology feels fantastical to the modern mind, but it would feel real to the people of the time, they would make no distinction between what might be called ‘supernatural’ and real life – and this was something I wanted to explore in the novel.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up and still live in East Anglia, where my novel 'This Sacred Isle' takes place. East Anglia was a kingdom founded by Angles who came to Britain from the continent. Using the landscape, legends and unique atmosphere of the region felt natural to me and inspired many scenes in 'This Sacred Isle'.
How did you research 'This Sacred Isle'?
Writing 'This Sacred Isle' required a considerable amount of research, and although the novel has fantasy elements, I wanted to make sure that the historical details were accurate.

Much of 'This Sacred Isle' takes place in locations that are real or inspired by real places. I made every effort to visit these locations, for example, I visited Burgh Castle, the setting of the final battle in the book. Of course, I could have discovered the key facts about Burgh Castle by reading books or articles on the internet. But the experience of actually being there gave me so much more: mood, atmosphere and a real sense of place. As I stood within the ruined fort, ideas for the story sparked in my mind; I put myself in my character’s mind, trying to understand what their feelings would be like when faced by such a place.

Similarly I visited West Stow Anglo-Saxon village – this is a wonderful ‘living’ museum and an absolute treasure trove for anyone interested in this period. And as well as the fascinating artefacts and buildings, simply walking through and around the recreated village gave me so much. I remember sitting in one of the halls, with a smoking hearth-fire blazing away and feeling that I was transported to that world. Such experiences go into my ‘sense memory’, which I draw upon as I write the book.

In a similar vein, I take every opportunity I can to visit museums and galleries. I am fortunate to live within reasonably easy distance of London, which enables me to access some of the world’s greatest collection of art and historical objects, such as the British Museum and the National Gallery.

When I am researching, I find there is nothing like seeing (and when allowed, handling!) real objects from the period – it gives wonderful insights into a culture and I find it also guides me to certain aspects of a character. Research is not just about collecting facts; research is just as much about capturing the mood of a time.
When did you first start writing?
As a child, I loved writing stories. I suppose I grew more serious about writing after university, and wrote several short stories, some of which were printed in SF magazines and fanzines. In 2007 I independently published my first novel ('The Map of the Known World') and have carried on ever since!
What is your writing process?
I plan extensively! I begin with a ‘story planner’, a template based upon the 'Hero’s Journey' story structure. How does it work? Well, it is a very cheap, lo-fi tool! I print out the sections onto an A3 sheet and then simply add post-it notes (different colours for narrative points, characters, mood etc.) to the relevant sections to map out the plot.

Once I have completed the story planner, I produce a detailed, chapter by chapter breakdown of the story – this breakdown includes description of plot points, characters, mood and theme.

With a completed plan in place, I move to a first draft, and then to multiple subsequent drafts before I pass the book to an editor.
What are you working on next?
I am in the early stages of a SF story, provisionally named 'Second Sun'. This will be a change of direction for me but it’s something I’m very excited about!
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