Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Interview with Derek Birks @Feud_writer

Derek Birks was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. For many years he taught history in a secondary school in Berkshire but took early retirement several years ago to concentrate on his writing. Apart from writing, he spends his time gardening, traveling, walking and taking part in archaeological digs at a Roman villa.

The Digital Ink Spot: What can you tell the readers about Feud
Derek Birks: Feud is set during the Wars of the Roses when local disputes are sometimes settled by violent means. It is the story of a fictional family, the Elders, who become embroiled in a savage feud with their neighbors, the Radcliffes.
The central characters are siblings: Ned Elder, a Yorkshire knight, and his sisters, Emma and Eleanor. At the start of the book in September 1459 their father and older brother are killed, their household is ransacked and the two sisters are abducted. The book tells the story of the Elders’ struggle to regain what has been lost to the Radcliffes.
When I wrote Feud I tried to write the kind of historical fiction that I like to read myself: authentic and fast paced. I aimed to include a lot of action which was driven along by the characters and I also wanted several interesting female characters to play significant roles in what was a very male dominated society.

The Digital Ink Spot: You wrote on your website you are inspired by images where a scene might take
place. How much more of your creative process is visual?
Derek Birks: Fiction is born in the imagination of course, so before I can put it into words I need to visualise it. I have to try to put myself in the position of my characters and because I am writing in the distant past that is not always easy. 
With scenes that take place in a known place, for example the town of Ludlow, it’s essential to go there and try to envisage how it would have been at the time. Looking at maps, especially of land use in the Middle Ages, helps to develop for me a mental picture of a site. In Ludlow I walked the line of the old town walls to get an idea of the size of the town in the 1450s. You have to strip back the trappings of modern life: what would the street have been like without the supermarket, pavements, double glazed windows, street lights and so on? The point is: it has to be a mental picture because in most modern places there is very little left to see of the medieval period.
In more natural settings, it’s a little easier. There is a scene in Feud which takes place on a misty autumn morning. When you are writing such a scene it helps to be able to call up images of an actual place in similar conditions. You can visualise stumbling through the swathes of brown, dying bracken. It’s damp and you’re disorientated by the mist closing in on you. Knowing how that feels makes it easier to create scenes which seem more authentic.
I create scenes in my head, often when walking or maybe swimming - the brain has to be focussed only on creating the scene. I play the scene through, always asking myself the question: does it feel right? If it doesn’t then I have to “press the pause button” and think again.

The Digital Ink Spot: As a historical fiction writer, what are your thoughts on the discovery of King Richard III’s skeleton in a parking lot?
Derek Birks: Well, it’s a real scoop isn’t it? I’m a keen, though very inexperienced, archaeologist and I know that these sorts of discoveries are about as rare as you can get. As if there wasn’t enough interest in Richard III, it would have to be him that turns up in a car park. Richard carries so much “baggage” with him I’m surprised he wasn’t found with a few suitcases! I don’t think that finding Richard’s corpse will solve any of the mysteries that surround his actions. As an author I have no doubt that Richard will make an appearance in one of my books about the Elder family, not least because his palace at Middleham Castle in Yorkshire is a stone’s throw from the fictional home of the Elder family in Feud.

The Digital Ink Spot: Do you recall how your interest in history originated?
Derek Birks: I don’t think there was a “eureka moment”. I think it developed gradually during my school years. I was fortunate to have some inspirational history teachers and they introduced me to the stories of history. Most people are drawn in by stories, by the qualities of a set of individuals or perhaps by the resilience or courage of just one man or woman. People are interesting and they are rarely one-dimensional. When I taught history to teenagers it increased my own interest because I began to learn what kinds of historical stories intrigued them. The challenge for me as a writer is to be true to the history and at the same time make my characters interesting to the reader.

The Digital Ink Spot: What can readers expect in the future from you?
Derek Birks: The next book in the Feud series is well under way and I’m looking to publish that in the summer if all goes well. The new story is set a couple of years later when King Edward IV is still trying to stamp out Lancastrian opposition and the Elders face a new challenge. I already have plans for the third book and ideas for a fourth. After that I may have to consider whether I want to start a new series in a different period of history but at the moment I’m enjoying recreating the blood and misery of Wars of the Roses with the Elder family.

Twitter: @Feud_writer