Bernard Cornwell - tips from a master of historical fiction

Learning from the master – Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell has written over 55 novels and sold more than 20 million books worldwide. 20 million. Just let that sink in.

He’s one of my favourite novelists. I devoured the Sharpe series and am now into his Uhtred Saxon/Dane epic. UK appearances are rare as he now lives in America. So I jumped at the chance to see him give a talk in York in October 2016.

Here are just a few quotes I managed to scribble down.

On writing

“You write what you want to read.” In Bernard’s case, he wanted to read Hornblower on land.

“I begin every new book thinking ‘ I can’t do it, it’s not going to work.’ ”

“Writing is better than working.”

He says it takes him three months to write a book, then three months to edit and carry out additional research.

“Every successful writer begins at the point thinking no one is ever going to read this.”

“Writing a book is not a small thing. You’ve got to overcome the fear. It’s difficult to believe you’re going to get an agent, a publisher, a reader.”

If you’re being rejected, take heart. An agent turned him down with “No one wants to read about the British army.”

To writers: “Go for it!”

Pantster or plotter?

I was amazed given the brilliant twists and turns of his books that Bernard is a ‘By the Seat Of Your Pants’ter, rather than an organised plotter.

“I don’t want write a long outline before I begin. I can’t.”

“I usually throw them into a situation and find out what happens.”

“I can’t work it out ahead of time.”

But: “I spend a lot of time putting doors in alleyways.” He further explained this as literally and figuratively speaking. So if Sharpe gets caught in a situation, the solution appears. But that solution has been hinted at earlier.

Bernard Cornwell on research

“Research is a lifelong thing. It depends on what you’re writing.”

On the Uhtred series: “The body of material is very contained for the Saxon period.”

“Do some research while you’re still writing and the rest you make up.”

“There comes a point where you have to stop researching, and start writing.”

On Sharpe and the TV series

“I had great faith in Sharpe. I thought there was a gap in the market.”

Sharpe was originally meant to be played by Paul McGann. However he injured himself playing football with the cast. Apparently it was the biggest insurance claim in television history.

“Pete Postlethwaite’s Hakeswill was far better than mine.”

Sneaky insight: Bernard plans to write another Sharpe book. Also he knows who Sharpe’s father is but won’t divulge. He says “I’ve given you enough clues. Do some reverse engineering.”

“People ask whether writing is lonely. How can it be lonely when you have Sharpe and Harper talking to you?”

The naming of characters

“I couldn’t think of a name for the hero. I’m a huge rugby fan so I temporarily named him after Richard Sharp, adding an ‘e’. It stuck.”

On Uhtred and history

On his Saxon Series based on the adventures of Uhtred of Bebbanburg: “We English don’t know where we came from.”

Sneaky insight: there will probably be four more Uthred books after The Flame Bearer. Which Bernard mischievously referred to as The Flame Thrower throughout the talk.

On historical fiction

It sounds like historical fiction is too much of a busman’s holiday for Bernard. Although he did say how much he liked George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman series.

He’s also not a fan of alternative histories: “I have a certain duty to history. I regard a historical novel as a gateway to history.”

Bernard also said reading other novels to provide a jacket blurb is too much like work. However he loves a good police procedural. So if P.D. James were ever to want a jacket quote, she could count on Bernard Cornwell.

On creating narratives

“There’s my little story that goes on in the foreground against the history.”

“If a Sharpe book flags in the middle, I wheel on 40,000 frogs. For Uthred, I wheel on a bishop.”

On The English Civil War

I was delighted when Russell from the Jorvik Viking Centre asked if Bernard would ever write about the English Civil War. Just like Bernard wanted to write about Hornblower on land, I wanted to write a Sharpesque adventure set in the seventeenth century.

“The Civil War fascinates me but the wrong side won. I’m instinctively a Royalist.”

“In every conflict like that, the Puritans always win. And the reason is they don’t get drunk at night. I prefer Cavaliers.”

I know Bernard says he hates writing jacket blurb, but maybe he’d make an exception for my band of Royalist spies undermining Oliver Cromwell in the Interregnum? Lady Laurette, Sir Robert, Mr Carter and Fitz would be so very grateful.

Graciousness, thy name is Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell at a book signingAs you would probably guess, Bernard is a natural storyteller. He has a great turn of phrase and is so warm and engaging. Afterwards he must have signed 200+ copies from adoring fans. Cape Cod and Charleston are very lucky to have him. If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, go!

P.S. He also patron of a charity who supports veterans. He’s allowed them to call their charity cafes after Sharpe. Check it out: Sharpe’s cafe

About the author

H.J. Reynolds has written an historical action adventure about Royalist spies in Oliver Cromwell’s England. The first draft of 90,000 words is complete and she is seeking a literary agent. Contact her at helen[at]

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