Books·Magic 8 Q&A

The book that cured Jack Whyte's writer's block once and for all

The author of historical fiction novel The Burning Stone takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
Jack Whyte is a B.C.-based author of historical fiction. (Viking Press)

Jack Whyte is a Scottish-born Canadian novelist of historical fiction. His work includes the Arthurian-rooted Dream of Eagles series and the Templars Trilogy, which is comprised of the books Knights Of The Black And White, Standard of Honour and Order in Chaos.

His latest, The Burning Stone is a tale of revenge, dark secrets and a mysterious cataclysm that wiped out a Roman legion. 

Whyte takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A, answering eight questions from eight writers.

1. Russell Smith asks, "What is the musical soundtrack to your latest book?"

As a writer of historical fiction set more than a millennium and a half ago, there's really no soundtrack that I can identify as being integral to my latest book, because the plain, historical fact is that (to the best of my knowledge, at least,) we have no musical history for the days of the Roman Empire. The only suggestions open to us are modern speculations predicated upon the shapes and sizes of the few instruments we know of, most of which are variants of metal horns, drums, and other percussion instruments, all of which tend to sound like 20th-century soundtracks for epic movies and ignore the fact that chromatic scales lay hundreds of years in the future.

As a result of that — and greatly to my own surprise, now that it has been brought to my attention by this question — I have come to realize that, when it comes to my novels, I have almost always written in silence… Normally I don't have "mood music" playing as I work, although there was one novel that was exceptionally different. That was a book — the fourth in my Arthurian Cycle — called The Saxon Shore, and much of it was set in pre-Dalriadic Ireland, where there was virtually no Roman infrastructure, which meant no urban civilization and absolutely no roads. In writing that book, I had to come to grips with the difficulties, amounting to virtual impossibility, of travel in a country without roads, something I had never really investigated prior to that point. Of course, once I became involved in that line of research, my perceptions and perspectives on all kinds of other things were changed forever, because in our world we are virtually incapable of imagining life without roads; we can't conceive of physical destinations that are not linked by some logical form of meaningful progress from point A to point B.

At that time, though, (in 1993,) I went to see the Daniel Day Lewis remake of The Last of the Mohicans, and there I saw a very real indication of what life had been like in America during the French and Indian Wars of the 1850s, before the building of any highways and the proliferation of wheeled traffic, when the longest journey literally began with a single step and people thought nothing of running for miles on end, all day and every day, and the primitive-sounding Celtic music of that sound track, anachronistic as it was, influenced my visualization of fifth century Ireland, so that that single novel, The Saxon Shore, was written to a soundtrack of mid-18th century Celtic music. It was a magical connection that has never been repeated, and so I write in silence.

2. Kenneth Oppel asks, "Even after so many books, do you still feel like you're doing it wrong?"

This question made me smile, because I've never thought I was doing it "wrong." I was always simply too amazed to be doing it at all, and both astonished and gratified that enough people were buying my work to allow me to continue doing it for a livelihood.

I don't believe there is a "wrong" way of writing a book, once we get beyond the elephant-in-the-room proviso of learning and polishing the tradecraft of being a writer. We are all as different from one another as the whorls on our finger pads, and what works for any one of us might never work for another. I have a fond memory of one of Canada's most renowned writers of nonfiction gazing at me in perplexity across a dining room table in the early 1990s and asking me, "How, in God's name, do you do that?"

He was referring to the process of creating historical fiction, and I discovered that he, who towered above all the reportorial writers in Canada at that time, was as perplexed by my imaginative, speculative facility as I was by his pragmatic, analytical acuity.

There is no wrong way to pursue the excellence this craft affords us. The imperative is simply to keep after it.

3. Anita Rau Badami asks, "Do you change the way you approach writing with each new novel?"

Now there's a question that cries out for a yes/no answer, because it leads almost inevitably to philosophical musings. The kneejerk response has to be, "Of course I do," because the alternative would be an admission that all your writings are formulaic, and that while you might be quite happy to be seen, professionally, as commercially successful you're willing to accept the accompanying corollary: that you're inspirationally mundane, pedestrian and, ultimately, a lazy producer of potboilers… Not a good image.

But then there are those among us who write series, and for us, the question, as posed, takes on an entirely new resonance, begging the question, "How do you continue to generate dramatic tension and dynamic variety, when you are dealing with an expanding list of known and semi-known characters?"

At the risk of sounding flippant and glib, I have an answer that works for me and makes perfect sense within the environment of whatever I'm working on. "I look around me," I say, "and I pay attention to what people say and to the way they behave, and then I borrow from their present realities and adapt their perspectives to match and conform to the structures (and the strictures) of the period I'm writing about." I can say that with confidence, because the basic and vital concerns facing everyman and everywoman never change. The only difference, down through the millennia, has been that human technology changes constantly and affects contemporary values and mores as it evolves. The same criteria that dictated priorities to the peoples of ancient Greece and Rome continue to exert similar influences on people today. To me, the entire craft of writing is about storytelling, and that perception, with all its ramifications, provides me with a wealth of raw material that I can plunder and pillage without fear of being repetitive or predictable. And that, in turn, enables me to say, "Yes, I do change the approach I take to each new novel," because each new novel is a new story that brings with it its own demands and stipulations governing how it will be told.

4. Sarah Raughley asks, "What comes first: plot-building or world-building?"

For me, the plot is all-important, because I'm one of those aged dinosaurs… Growing up, I had never heard of world-building. When I was a boy, at my most impressionable reading age in the early 1950s, J.R.R. Tolkien's work was largely unknown to the general public, and the term "high fantasy" had not yet come into use. Since then, of course, Tolkien's works have catalyzed the creation of an entire new genre of literature, and world-building has taken on massive significance to a huge and increasingly sophisticated field of writers.

For me, though, my first requirement has always been a character and a predicament of some kind, and the plot has always evolved from there. It helps, too, if  I have an inkling of how the story might end, but by and large the plot development of each of my books was dictated by the research I conducted and the ancillary details that grew out of it. My imaginary world was the Roman Empire and Roman Britain. They came to me packaged together during my boyhood as a turnkey delivery, and I found sufficient raw material in there to keep my imagination engaged for more than 30 years.

5. Eden Robinson asks, "How long is your mull time before you write?"

Reminds me of a Gershwin song about different ways of naming food… You say potato, I say pot-AH-to. In this case, you say mull time and I say research, and the only accurate answer to the question, for me, is another smart alec question: "How long is a piece of string?" Research, for me, takes on a life of its own, and I do all of it to serve a single purpose, which is to allow me to write intelligibly about something that, up to that point, I might have known little or nothing about.

Case in point: How do you (or does anyone) fit a hilt to the tang of a blade? Similarly: when did the craft of shoeing horses really begin?

The first of those two questions led to almost a complete year of digging before I unearthed a working understanding of the metallurgical processes that dominated the evolution of swords and blades in the ancient world. The second led me to an understanding that horses really didn't need horseshoes until much later in history — long after the fall of the Western Empire. The Romans had horseshoes, but they were primitive almost like gloves, and designed for specific uses.

My mull time, therefore, is particularly important, because if I write something and get it wrong — or even get its historical context slightly off-kilter — there are always large numbers of offended pedants out there eager and willing to take me to task ad nauseam…

When I tackle a new field, as I did when I left my Arthurian stories behind and moved on to my Knights Templar Trilogy, I immerse myself in reading everything I can find that had a bearing on my subject matter, never losing sight of the fact that even when one is working with the original documents underpinning a theory, belief or philosophy, one has to bear in mind that the original author(s) had already gone through the warping process of writing within a prevalent set of circumstances and conditions.

I conduct all my research with a view to developing a personalized perspective that is logically sound, makes sense to me, and justifies the elevation of the people involved in the original events from heroism to legend. I spent more than a year, and probably closer to two years, reading everything I could lay my hands on, dealing with the Templars to the exclusion of everything else. And believe me, there's a world of off-the-wall fantasy out there on that single topic.

By the time my research was complete, several years had elapsed, but I had formed a realistic perspective on the Knights that permitted me to interpret, and to speculate knowingly about, the most amazing medieval secret society in European history. I set out to write three separate books, dealing with the founding, the zenith, and the destruction of the Order, and they were each highly successful, thanks to the elasticity of mull time.

6. Shilpi Somaya Gowda asks, "Do you ever get stuck creatively? If so, what do you do to get your creative juices flowing?"

I have only ever been stuck once, creatively speaking, but it was a serious block. For a very long time I thought I might never get around the difficulty I was having. But then I read an amazing book called On Writer's Block, a new approach to creativity, that was written by a woman called Victoria Nelson. That book saved my life because it showed me, for the first time ever, how completely dominated we are by our subconscious minds. The subconscious has the absolute power to make or break every one of us, creatively speaking, and I had always paid glib lip service to that as a kind of unctuous cant, never really giving it much thought until I hit that particular wall and serendipitously found Nelson's book lying at the wall's base.

That single volume taught me to look and see the reality underlying all my angst and pain; to see, and to appreciate, what I had been doing to myself and how I had been working, militantly, against my own better judgment… And so I threw out the 600+ pages I had written, and started all over again, from scratch, and the whole story spooled out flawlessly in a matter of mere months.

The problem has never recurred, because the hidden bonus of this gem of a book is that once you know what was causing your problem, you'll never put yourself in that situation again — or, if you start to do it even unconsciously, you'll quickly be able to recognize it and take remedial action. On Writer's Block still enjoys pride of place on my personal library shelves.

7. Yann Martel asks, "Is there a Great Book that you actually hate? Why?" 

This is one of those things that I would not willingly admit to, in the normal run of things, but I do have a resounding "Yes" answer to accompany it.

I find the  works of Franz Kafka — all of them — to be appallingly dismal and bereft of any modicum of comfort or enlightenment for anyone foolish enough, or obsessive enough, to slog through them, and I really have tried to come to terms with my own distaste for them. It doesn't work, though. His books depress the hell out of me and offer me no inkling of enjoyment or enlightenment. I tend to think that, should such self-punishment ever be shown to be beneficial, would go out and buy myself a used and gory, knotted gout, rather than a Kafka novel.

8. Kevin Hardcastle asks, "What would you say to a younger version of yourself, or another emerging writer, who doesn't know what you know now about writing and publishing, or how long that road can be?"

I wrote for 15 years, completing three novels, before I ever considered showing my work to anyone, let alone a potential publisher, so I have no difficulty in making the case that, as in any other endeavor, it takes 20 years of hard grinding to become an overnight success. But even as I'm saying it nowadays, I can sense the reaction of my listener, as in, "Oh sure, and you had holes in the soles of your shoes."

I always go on, though, to talk about the craft of writing, and how crucial it is to become a master of the language in which we deal.

I began writing as a high school English teacher, which presupposes some basic training in the elementary mechanics of syntax and grammar... spelling, too, was in vogue in those times... and everything I have done throughout my adult life has been connected to storytelling, in one form or another. I learned to write by being a writer, in teaching school, in advertising copywriting, and in corporate communications. In those days, communications was a painstaking field and publishers were the keepers of legends.

Nowadays, we have the Internet and a burgeoning belief that anyone — anyone — can be a successful writer, simply by producing words and posting them on-line. No previous skill, knowledge or expertise required. Write something and post it our there. If you build it, they will come, and the world awaits your arrival with bated what's-its-name as a new, unknown and self-published writer.

So my advice to promising young writers today is learn the craft — and I'm constantly aware of the disdain that greets such statements, since most of the youngsters listening are pretty much sure of their own entitlement and sure of their success, going in. Thank God, though, that does not apply to everyone and there are still legions of eager young wannabes out there. To those I say — repetitively — "Learn to use your stock-in-trade in every conceivable way and never be satisfied with easy access to any aspect of real publishing. Learn the proper and accepted rules of language —grammar, syntax, and analysis — and learn how to manipulate the language itself. And remember, above all, that nothing comes free and nothing worthwhile is achieved without conscientious effort. Sure, you can publish it yourself, but then it joins the revolving swirl of all the mediocrity that's out there, and it's up to you to sell it on our own.