Welcome to Gareth Williams, retired history teacher and author of Needing Napoleon and Serving Shaka, who dropped in to answer some questions about his books.

FR. What sparked your interest in Napoleon? Is it something you’ve had for a long time? And do you have a Napoleon costume?

GW. I think it started at school. The idea of a Corsican outsider rising through the ranks thanks to the French Revolution to become Emperor of the French captured my imagination. Faced by endless coalitions against him, usually funded by the British, he won battle after battle. I found that pretty impressive! But hubris got the better of him. Spain and then Russia saw him squander the troops that had made him the dominant military force on the continent. Defeat. Exile. It should have been all over, but no! He escapes Elba for France, gathers support and everything culminates in the epic battle of Waterloo – I guess the 1970 Dino de Laurentis film starring Rod Steiger deserves a mention here.    

I don’t have a Napoleon costume but I do have a bronze bust sitting on my desk!

FR. What made you decide to transport someone from the present back in time to witness Waterloo and its aftermath rather than choose as your MC one of the many officers around Napoleon, or even Napoleon himself?

GW. I was interested in the idea that Napoleon could have won the battle of Waterloo. His performance was lacklustre. What if he had better intelligence on the enemy? It was also a way of giving myself the opportunity to tread the battlefield and meet Bonaparte, in the guise of a history teacher, albeit a miserable one!

I didn’t want to write another fictional biography of Napoleon because Max Gallo’s Napoleon series has done that brilliantly. If I had used one of his officers, there wouldn’t be the tension between what they and Napoleon knew.  

FR. What advantages do you think viewing these historical events through the eyes of a modern observer gives the narrative?

GW. I hope it allowed me to explore Napoleon’s decisions on the day of the battle and its aftermath in a fresh way. My MC gives up everything to change the past, but at Waterloo, he finds himself unable to exert the necessary influence. That puts him in a pretty tough spot given there’s no way back to the 21st century.

FR. Have you visited the places you write about, and which was your favourite? And of the ones you haven’t visited, which is top of your bucket list?

GW. I have a pretty good working knowledge of schools! And Paris. But I have never been to the site of Waterloo or Malmaison or St Helena. I lived in South Africa as a boy but Benoni was a modest mining town, a far cry from Shaka Zulu’s capital!

I do love Paris. I would love to visit St Helena.

In truth, I travel in my imagination with the help of books and the internet, which is all most of us have been able to do recently.

FR. What was the most difficult thing to write about, and why was it so? And what was the easiest thing?

GW. I think the hardest things to write about are the most familiar. Everyone has an opinion. There are many experts likely to pick up on the slightest error. So the battle of Waterloo is a good example. It is much easier to write about Shaka Zulu, because so much less is known, it gives room for imagination to fill the gaps, which is fun!

FR. Do you think living on a Scottish island enabled you to empathise with Napoleon’s incarcerations on Elba and St Helena? Do you ever feel incarcerated?

GW. There are two types of people in the world when it comes to islands. Those who see the coastline as a limitation, a barrier, a confinement and those who see endless horizons, security and a clearly defined home. I used to live on Guernsey and loved it. I also love Skye. During the pandemic, the island was quiet and felt reassuring.

I’m not saying I don’t empathise with Napoleon on Elba and St Helena. After all, I voluntarily lived on my islands whereas he was imprisoned on his. I expect we have all wished we were somewhere else at some time, and there is no doubt that is how Napoleon felt.

FR. How many novels are in this series and once Napoleon dies will you go on to further chart your hero’s adventures back in time or will he find a way back to the 21st century?

GW. It is funny you should ask how many novels in the series. My editor wants to know and so does my publisher! The third novel is due out in September. I have committed in my mind to a fourth, although the plot is not fully formed in my head. After that, I’m not sure.

The third and fourth books will be set in the years immediately after those featured in Needing Napoleon and Serving Shaka. According to the rules of my time travel device, a person can only travel back in time on a one-way ticket. So, there is no prospect of my MC returning to the 21st century. He has to figure out a way to live in the nineteenth century, which gives me plenty to write about!

FR. Which authors inspired you as a young man/boy and what are you reading right now?

GW. I loved Tolkien for the sweep and drama of his imagination. I loved adventure stories for boys, most of which probably fail the political correctness test, but I read them with innocent excitement. They were often the same books my father read. Captain W.E. John’s Biggles books, H Rider Haggard, John Buchan, that sort of thing. When I got a bit older, I marvelled at Shakespeare’s plays. They were part of our history and often about history at the same time. I have no pretensions but sometimes feel a kinship with the bard when I plunder works of history for plots and characters. He had Holinshed’s chronicles where I have had Gilbert Martineau, E.A Ritter and J. Leitch Wright Jr.

I am currently reading A Brief History of Roman Britain – Conquest and Civilization by Joan P. Alcock as research for a twin timeline murder mystery I am plotting. I am also reading your book, Guinevere: The Sword, the third instalment of your excellent Arthurian series.

FR. How long have you been writing? And what were your earlier efforts about?

GW. I started trying to write my first novel at primary school. It was an adventure in the future. I finished my first novel at twenty. It was a terrible romance! I kept trying but almost always ended up with convoluted plots and unconvincing characters because I was trying to squeeze writing into a busy life.

My first coherent novel was a product of the first lockdown and the fact that I had recently retired. That book spilled into a second instalment and a third. I then took a pause to write something unrelated. I have just handed that over to my editor. It is the fictionalized biography of a real but largely forgotten man, William Augustus Bowles.

FR.  What advice do you have for would-be writers?

GW. You have to find the time to do it properly. Don’t overreach yourself like I did. If you are busy, write short stories. They can often lead on to novellas and beyond. Plan things in advance. Have a strong outline so that your writing is really like colouring in. Pay attention to characters. Even my minor characters have their own ‘character card’ which I use to record everything I need to know about them. Oh, and one more thing – read!

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