Interview with Hilary Rhodes

How did you start writing historical fiction?
Quite honestly, I was ambushed into it! I had the great privilege and joy of going abroad to Oxford University during my junior year of college, and rather naively, thought I was going to study English and psychology. Then I joined my home college’s tutoring program for London schoolchildren, where myself and two other students developed a workshop about the Norman Conquest. This was something I had been interested in before and took a class on in my freshman year, but had never pursued in depth. Still, it sounded like fun, so I scuffed up a few relevant facts and sallied forth. My job was to get the children to do an imaginative exercise related to the material, and I’d come up with a few basic story prompts. (1: “Harold, before his death, gave you a secret never to tell the Normans. What was it?” or 2: “William, on his way to be crowned, gave you a gift. What was it?”) Aside from one gratifyingly industrious little girl, this wasn’t taken too seriously; William would no doubt be extremely surprised to find that he bequeathed plasma televisions, one trillion pounds, fancy sports cars, gated mansions, and other such largesse to a bunch of twenty-first-century schoolchildren. The hour went off relatively well, and they all had fun, although I’m not sure how much they learned. But that was only the beginning.

I was in London Victoria station, in the process of finding the bus back to Oxford, when the plot bunny first sidled into my head. It insisted very much that I wanted to tell a Norman Conquest story of my own, which took me greatly by surprise, and I tried to deny it. The bus departed, promptly running into heinous traffic. I sat chewing this over. We drove. I thought. We drove. I thought harder. We got back to Oxford. I disembarked in a muddle, headed into my flat, opened up a document, and wrote about five pages. I put it aside for a few days. Then I went back to it. It was like touching a match to gunpowder, and I was completely done for. I changed my psychology course to medieval history, studying it, writing it, researching it, living it, and finally finishing the manuscript for The Aetheling's Bride (one of my forthcoming books). The Lion and the Rose was completed during my senior year in college, after I had taken a summer trip to Normandy with my mother and found myself utterly compelled to write William the Conqueror's fascinating, complex, dramatic story in full.
How do you research your books?
In nearly every way I can. In the course of writing my first book, I had the unparalleled resources of Oxford available to me, whether it was catching a lecture at the Exam Schools or checking materials out from the History Library. But there are plenty of ways to do good research in everyday setting. While the first step to writing about any period is, of course, to read like crazy, not all history books are created equal, and part of the secret to solid research is learning which sources to rely on, and which claims pass the smell test. I read regular scholarly books, essays, articles, primary sources, websites, and just about anything I can get my hands on (having two degrees in the subject does help) and pride myself on my novels' extremely high degree of accuracy in details large and small; I've had to regretfully rule out using words such as "kowtow" and "quixotic," even when I very much wanted to, because they wouldn't have been invented yet in a medieval setting! I also can't tell you how many times I've written a detail in as a placeholder, intending to go back and look it up later, only to find when I do that it was exactly correct (it's mildly spooky when that happens). Wikipedia can be a good place to start if you want to comb the footnotes for links to articles and books, and I do use it for broad, overview-type information.
What makes good historical fiction?
First and foremost, going back to the previous question, doing your homework. When I read other historical novels set in this time period, I can instantly tell if someone did the Cliffs Notes version, and it will drive me crazy. Take the time to get the details right. Secondly, my greatest pet peeve is when these complicated, nuanced, rich, compelling, many-layered, oftentimes quite morally grey people are reduced to essentially stereotypes or cartoons. Another one of my forthcoming books is about Richard the Lionheart, and due to his great prominence in popular culture and legend, you will not believe how many bad portrayals of him I came across, both in fiction and in supposedly impartial history. He's generally reduced to either a straight bad guy (because he went on Crusade, and you know, we definitely don't do anything like that in the Middle East) or a straight good guy, with the former tending, irritatingly, to prevail. Neither of these depictions are even remotely close to the much more vibrant and remarkable truth of the actual historical figure. We tend to let modern judgments cloud our visions of these people in their own medieval time period, and to simplistically reduce their motives and actions to conform to these standards. Because the general public knows so little about the actual Middle Ages, and relies on stock Hollywood images and perceptions of supposedly backwards and ignorant religious zealots, this carries over into making sure we as a modern audience knows how "bad" they were. It drives me up the wall. Maybe I'm just too much of a sucker for deeply flawed, complicated, dynamic, ambitious characters neither white or black in their morality, which is how I always try to approach writing them in my books.

Lastly, we often fall into the trap of telling history as if it was the sequential deeds of various great men. While I love many of these great men dearly, I also want to flesh out and expand the universe, to consider the point of view of minor characters, and introduce perspectives of people who were surely there, but were not considered by the chroniclers of medieval history (male religious men writing about other male elites). So I feel free to use well-developed and important fictional characters with fairly large roles, as long as they fit into the story and the setting. I don't feel that it's a sacrilege of some sort to branch out and try to bring history to life in all its particulars, and to let my imagination create scenarios and storylines to enrich the overall whole.
Do you write anything besides historical fiction?
I write all kinds of things. I run a blog where I often post fanfiction for my favorite books, movies, and TV shows, and I am a hardcore geek who adores fantasy and science fiction, which I have both written and hope to continue writing in future projects. As a matter of fact, I'm working on "Strangeland," a magical, historical, steampunk, science-and-religion time-traveling adventure -- big fat books with both magic and history (either one is acceptable on its own, but I particularly love them together) are my favorite thing in the world. I also post "Scholarly Saturdays" on my blog, non-fiction pieces exploring the real-world history behind many of my projects. Give me an imaginative, literary, well-written story with complex characters and WTF-they-did-not plot twists in just about any genre, and I'll be happy.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
So far as I know, there has never been a time in my life when I wasn't writing. The first short story I can definitely remember finishing was at the age of seven, the same year I did all the writing and researching of my family history in order to be featured as a paper doll in American Girl magazine. I wrote my first novel at the age of eleven, and knew I'd be studying it all through college, which I then did; I briefly pursued the idea of getting an M.F.A. in creative writing, but have ended up going down the academic path instead. Writing is simply how I make sense of the world, tell stories, explore and enrich my scholarship, entertain myself, and otherwise an integral part of my life. It's very, very rare that I'm not working on one kind of project or another.
Who are your favorite authors?
Neal Stephenson, Diana Gabaldon, George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, and others have been particularly influential and favorites of mine.
What are you working on next?
I'm preparing Book 2 of The Lion and the Rose series, "The Gathering Storm," to be published this fall, as well as the two-part Aetheling's Bride series, "The Outlander King" and "The Conqueror's Bane," which pick up after the end of "Storm" and introduce us to the characters of Aislinn, an 11th-century Saxon woman writing a remarkable chronicle of her life after she is swept up in William's invasion of England, and Selma Murray, a young American graduate student studying her mysterious manuscript at Oxford in the 1980s. I have also just finished editing "The Trinity Crown," my novel about the reign of Richard the Lionheart. I'm working on some of my long-running fan fiction projects, and other informal and smaller-scale stories.
Published 2014-06-16.
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Books by This Author

Price: $4.99 USD. Words: 143,400. Language: English. Published: September 15, 2016. Categories: Fiction » Thriller & suspense » Action & suspense
Based on an actual quote in a medieval chronicle, this unique thriller centers around King Richard the Lionheart and his Muslim counterpart, Sultan Saladin, being brought back to life in the modern world, as they are caught up in the War on Terror and powerful interests from all sides. If they are not tracked down in time, the consequences will be unimaginable.
The Trinity Crown
Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 361,100. Language: English. Published: February 11, 2016. Categories: Fiction » Historical » Medieval
From the author of The Lion and the Rose and The Aetheling's Bride series comes The Trinity Crown, leading us into the world of one of the most famous -- and controversial -- kings in English history: Richard the Lionheart. It continues the story of William the Conqueror's legacy and his descendants, the dynamic, talented, and fatally flawed Plantagenets.
The Conqueror's Bane
Series: The Aetheling's Bride, Book 2. Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 163,990. Language: English. Published: September 30, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Historical » Medieval
Sequel to The Outlander King, The Conqueror's Bane chronicles the last chapters of the life of William the Conqueror, and the entwined stories of two remarkable women: Aislinn and Selma. Aislinn must face new challenges and struggle to forgive her enemies, while Selma must uncover the full truth of Aislinn's manuscript and face her own dark past.
The Outlander King
Series: The Aetheling's Bride, Book 1. Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 161,580. Language: English. Published: June 1, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Historical » Medieval
The story of The Lion and the Rose continues with the tale of two remarkable women: Aislinn, a seventeen-year-old English girl caught up in the army of the “outlander king,” the man who will become known as William the Conqueror, and Selma Murray, an American graduate student at Oxford University, researching her mysterious chronicle almost nine hundred years later.
The Book of Noah
Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 143,740. Language: English. Published: November 4, 2014. Categories: Fiction » Science fiction » Apocalyptic
The Book of Noah is a post-apocalyptic science fiction dystopian novel. Taking place both in the near future and five hundred years from now, it unfolds the parallel stories of U.S. Attorney General Chris Cordwainer during World War III, and Noah, the young High Priest-in-training of the Church of Noah, when the “war to end all wars” and its aftermath have radically transformed the country.
The Lion and the Rose, Book Two: The Gathering Storm
Series: The Lion and the Rose, Book 2. Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 101,270. Language: English. Published: September 30, 2014. Categories: Fiction » Historical » Medieval
The Lion and the Rose: William Rising introduced us to the young William, Duke of Normandy, and his treacherous childhood, as he fought his own barons to survive and claim his birthright. The Gathering Storm plunges us even deeper into his unfolding story. Now twenty-two, he has won his most pivotal battle, but impossible struggles loom -- and very few of his enemies are actually defeated.
The Lion and the Rose, Book One: William Rising
Series: The Lion and the Rose, Book 1. Price: $3.99 USD. Words: 114,840. Language: English. Published: June 19, 2014. Categories: Fiction » Historical » Medieval
William of Normandy: visionary, ambitious, indomitable, cunning. . . the man who would change the destinies of England and France forever. William Rising tells his story as never before, from crippling childhood loss, political treachery, and adolescent betrayal, to the making of a conqueror.