I am often asked, where did I get the inspiration for my Tudor-era time travel novels? The answer is very simple – it was when I was driving across the Hammersmith Flyover.
Let me explain.
In the early 1990s I used to commute into London every day from my home in Windsor. It seems incredible now, but in those days I thought nothing of a daily car journey into work on the M4 and across town to Swiss Cottage. I would listen to the breakfast radio, drumming my hands on the wheel to the music, and even singing along if I knew the words (and often even if I didn’t). The roads were probably jammed up every day, but in my rose-tinted memory the traffic always flowed smoothly, making the trip through Shepherds Bush, up to the Northern Roundabout and onto the M40 a pleasant breeze.
The buildings on the way fascinated me, and in particular St. Paul’s, the magnificent church sitting to the left of the Hammersmith flyover as you head into town. What impressed me most was the incongruity of such an ancient building being surrounded by so much concrete, steel and glass. Seeing something so clearly rooted in history being dwarfed by massive office blocks created a strong sense of wonder – how could two such distinct eras co-exist in the same space?
And then – what it would be like to step out of the frenetic pace and constant noise of modern London, into the (I assume) peace and tranquillity of the church? (Note to self: must do that one day).
But then I thought even further. What would it be like for a 17th century Hammersmithian sitting in that church, to get up from their pew and head outside, expecting to find rural peace and quiet, but instead to be faced with 25-ton trucks thundering over the flyover, while the fields they just left were now filled with monolithic buildings covered in strange brand names? How would people of the 1600s cope with such a time-shift?
And then I went further still. What if a modern-day person wandered into the church to get away from all the traffic noise, and when they come out, time had gone back to the building’s original era, and they were now in some bucolic 17th century setting, with sheep grazing in the fields and an aged farmer in a cloth hat leaning on the gate dispensing wise epithets with a piece straw sticking out of the side of his mouth?
Only it wouldn’t be anything like that, would it? The reality (if such a thing could actually happen) would be that our reluctant time-traveller would be an alien in a foreign land, unable to understand or be understood, at the mercy of customs and norms for which they had no conceptual framework – in other words a fish so far out of water that they would flounder hopelessly… (other metaphoric clichés are available). How soon would they say or do something that marked them out as a target, and they ended up swinging at the end of a rope, or being burned at the stake as a witch? The early 17th century was marked by its relentless witch hunts, which were inflamed by King James himself in his book called Demonologie; essentially a state-sanctioned invitation to try any poor woman (and it was mostly women) for the perceived crime of causing misfortune, sickness or even death through enchantment or satanic rituals. Our time traveller would be easy pickings.
So there it was – the germ of an idea for a time-travel story, where a modern-day traveller ends up being accused of witchcraft in the 17th century. But then I got to thinking again – would that be the best era for such a tale? How about going back a few more years to Tudor times, where accusations of witchcraft were treated more even-handedly and there were those who were sceptical about such things? Not only would that give my time-traveller potential allies, but the era itself was more colourful, more flamboyant, and hey, a lot more interesting than those dull old Puritans.
So there I was, breezing across the flyover each morning, building this time-travel / witchcraft story in my head.
And fortunately, I also had a format ready and waiting to receive it.
A few years before I had written the book and lyrics for a musical – which were so balls-achingly bad that it was a blessing that it had never seen the light of day (despite my best efforts at the time). But the music, which was written by a couple of friends, was actually very good, so I had set myself the talk of validating their work by overlaying a whole new book and lyrics. This time-travel idea was just the ticket, and over the next few months I created a show called Spirit of History, which was ultimately premiered in Old Windsor in 1993.
Fast forward to the mid-2010s and I felt the urge to write a novel. In the spirit of true originality, I decided to upcycle my musical into the book it might have originally come from, and with gung-ho enthusiasm I started lifting great chunks of dialogue from the musical libretto and pasting them into my new work. But I soon realised that a book is very different beast from a musical (you can’t just paper over a plot-hole with a song, for example), and the resulting novel, while coming from the same origin as the stage show, ended up taking a very different narrative course.
So there you have it. A church by a flyover leading to a stage musical, which in turn led to a novel called The Witchfinder’s Well – and from there to a couple of sequel novels and a spin-off as well.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Church image: Gatton, S. A.; Old St Paul’s, Hammersmith, London; Richmond upon Thames Borough Art Collection ; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/old-st-pauls-hammersmith-london-87314