Adrian Goldsworthy: On Escaping Into Historical Fiction

Author and historian Adrian Goldsworthy discusses the adventurous nature of historical fiction, and the process of writing his new novel, The Fort.
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Adrian Goldsworthy is a respected historian of the ancient world. He studied at Oxford, where his doctoral thesis examined the Roman army, and he went on to write acclaimed works of nonfiction including Caesar, Hadrian's Wall, and Philip and Alexander. His fiction includes the Vindolanda Trilogy, set in Roman Britain.

Adrian Goldsworthy: On Escaping Into Historical Fiction

In this post, Adrian discusses writing during a pandemic, the adventurous nature of historical fiction, and the process of writing his new novel, The Fort, and more!

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Name: Adrian Goldsworthy
Literary agent: Georgina Capel Ltd
Book title: The Fort
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Expected release date: August 10, 2021
Genre/category: Historical Adventure
Elevator pitch for the book: Centurion Flavius Ferox is sent to command a garrison of disgruntled soldiers just as a new war with Dacia is brewing. With enemies on both sides, and the machinations of the Emperor’s cousin, Hadrian, thrown into the mix, he has to fight hard to survive and save those dearest to him.
Previous titles by the author: Vindolanda, The Encircling Sea, Brigantia, the Vindolanda trilogythe Napoleonic Series, Non Fiction – Over a dozen books including, Caesar, The Life of a Colossus, Pax Romana, Philip and Alexander, The Complete Roman Army

Adrian Goldsworthy: On Escaping Into Historical Fiction

The Fort by Adrian Goldsworthy

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What prompted you to write this book?

I wrote the Vindolanda Series to explore the frontier in Northern Britain at the end of the first century AD, and bring to life the people mentioned in the remarkable Vindolanda Tablets. The Fort is the first in a new trilogy taking Ferox off into the wider Roman empire. So in a way it’s looking at Britons—some of them Roman citizens, some of them not, but all in the employ of Rome—abroad, realizing the world is a lot bigger than they thought, as is the empire. It’s also about the Dacians, a remarkable, sophisticated, and strong kingdom with a mysterious culture. 

The Vindolanda series was essentially a Western—just set in the ancient world. They explored frontier life, the mingling and clashes of culture, with good and bad people on all sides, and no simple right and wrong. The Fort moves to another frontier to ask many of the same questions, but also is larger in scale and puts us in the middle of a great war. At the heart is Ferox, a man who does not fit neatly as a Roman or as a member of his own tribe, but someone who tries to do the right thing and tends to upset those in authority. This time he is besieged and facing overwhelming odds.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

I guess about a year. The publishers asked me to write the trilogy perhaps a year before that, while I was still busy finishing a nonfiction project. The biggest change was that the sequel to The Fort, a story called The City, was originally going to be the first one in the trilogy. However, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense as the second, and the plot of what would become The Fort was growing in my mind. So after a good deal of discussion, my editor was willing to let me do things this way.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

This was a book dominated by Covid. I started writing almost to the day when the first lockdown was introduced here in the U.K. That did not really make much difference to an author, other than half the days of each week were devoted to teaching and entertaining my son (then 6 years old), so I did not write or work on those days. Bigger changes were that most of the staff at the publisher was off work, the office shut down, so messages tended to take longer. The biggest difference was that on publication there were scarcely any signings or events in person, but lots online.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

Aspects of the plot always come as a surprise. My story-lines tend to grow over time, beginning when I’m writing something else (and often a history book rather than a novel). Then, I set aside several months for the novel, beginning with a month of intensive research. I have been writing about the ancient world as my day job for decades, but when you are thinking about a story you start to ask different questions, and that in itself is interesting and a lot of fun. You also come across lovely little incidents or details from the actual evidence and start thinking whether they would work in the story.

Adrian Goldsworthy: On Escaping Into Historical Fiction

By this stage, the plot is beginning to sort itself out and its main waypoints arrange themselves. Then you sit down to start writing, which in my case usually means days of staring at a screen and typing nothing—or typing something, reading it back, and deciding that it is rubbish. The first chapter is painful, and likely to be rewritten several times, often drastically. The next few chapters come piece by piece, and then about a third of the way into the story it all starts to flow. I know lots of authors plan everything carefully before they write, but that does not work for me. I have an idea, and more importantly "know" my characters and the situation, and feel I "know" how they would react. The story rarely goes as expected and things just seem to happen that send it off in other directions altogether. This probably sounds eccentric, but it’s almost as if you are watching a movie in your head and then describing it. I have no idea whether other people write this way, but it seems to work for me.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Pleasure. My novels are meant to be escapist combined with what I like to think of as historical tourism. They don’t plumb the depths of the human condition. They are adventures, meant to be exciting, dramatic, funny at times, moving at others. Hopefully a reader gets to like spending time with the characters, going through all the dangers and struggles at a safe distance. As a historian, being accurate is important to me, but as an honest historian, I know that there is much that we do not know about the ancient world. So I take the evidence we have, guess and invent to create as fully rounded and plausible a world as possible. Hopefully it gives a sense of life at the time that will be of interest. A good historical novel can give a feel for a period and place far quicker than reading nonfiction.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Write books that you would like to read. Trying to write what you think others might like won’t be as enjoyable or let you produce your best work. So think of a story and setting that would spark your own imagination and make you want to pick up the book if you saw it in a shop. Writing is hard work some of the time, and the whole process of checking and correcting—and copy edits and proofs—can be grueling, but writing should be fun.

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