I WRITE because I enjoy doing it.  The only writing competition I’ve ever entered was at the age of twelve.  The stuff’s always been hanging around in my mind.

I used to write the first draft of a book in long hand.  I especially enjoyed the sound of the nib scoring the paper and the moment of triumph when I turned over a completed page.  I boasted about this: I find I even mentioned it on the dust wrapper of White Blood.  Then one day I decided it was sheer pretension and ever since I’ve written on a PC and found it much easier.

On the question of research (which I’m often asked about), it’s important to know that the past cannot be brought to life solely from reference books.  For authentic colour you must go to the accounts of travellers and to contemporary letters and diaries.  You may have to read an awful lot to find a single nugget but your time is never wasted.  You absorb the tempo of your character’s life, by which I mean the prevalent worries and fears of society.  It’s as vital to know which people feared more in revolutionary Russia, starvation or Lenin’s secret police, as is to know the date on which bank deposit interest was abolished.  The difficulty for the historical novelist is how to use his information without forcing it upon the reader.  Hardship is always vividly described by contemporary writers, happiness rarely.  The key, I think, is not to regard research as work but as one of the pleasures that arise from an inquisitive mind.

The one particular research tool I’d like to mention in connection with the Charlie Doig novels is Baedeker’s Russia, published in 1914.  Everything a novelist wants to know about location, price, transport, statuary is in it. (Its maps were always the best.  All European armies preferred them to their own.)

Like everyone else, I use Google, but without pleasure.  I find Wikipedia a veritable minefield of disinformation on any subject I know a little about.

The fiction writers whose styles or methods have influenced me include several Russians: Nabokov, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Babel, Chekhov.  I wish I could tell you what draws me to them, but I cannot: I just do not know. Add to these Virginia Woolf, Joyce Cary, Camus, Saul Bellow and the most individual of all writers in English - Laurence Sterne.  I’m talking here not about the sort of casual enjoyment one may get from a good thriller but about beauty and authenticity, and thus a feeling of absolute truthfulness underlying what’s being described.  Only the best of fiction and poetry have this sort of quality.

My top poets are the Polish Nobel winners, Wisława Szymborska and Czesław Miłosz.  Dylan Thomas has a special place in the wordy section of my mind.  I admire the work of Walcott, Larkin, Roethke and the staider poems of Octavio Paz.  I like to have poetry as my bedside book: just one line or phrase or thought provides enough food for the night.  A world without fiction would be intolerable, but without poetry it would be uninhabitable.

Let me not omit the ‘adventure’ writers in their various forms.  Buchan and C.S. Forester were my teenage daily companions.  I enjoyed reading the Hornblower stories to my sons as much as they enjoyed hearing them.  Also in my youth came the Bond books.  I and my siblings would fight to get our hands on the copy that Ian always sent my father.  Later came the Martin Beck ’tec stories from Sweden - wonderful, a corpse by page ten almost guaranteed - and the vast output of Elmore Leonard, of which Cuba Libre is my favourite.  Incidentally, many novelists admit to having learned lessons about handling dialogue from this writer.  I’m one of them and am happy to acknowledge the debt.

The final question: why do I write historical fiction?  Because I have more sympathy for the past than for today’s world, and because I have a better grip on it - on the technology, the motives, the concerns, the politics, even on the language of previous times.  There is one more reason: to imagine how I myself would have behaved if caught at a great turning point in history such as Russia in 1917, is irresistibly frightening. I return to reality dumb with gratitude.

© 2014 James Fleming - Damnable Iron

“One detects the hand of a master” The Sunday Telegraph