What can you tell us about Matthew Quinton's new adventures in The Blast That Tears the Skies, without spoiling the plot for readers?
The Blast That Tears The Skies, the third book in the series, is set in the year 1665 and places Matthew, his friends and family, at the heart of several real events, notably the terrible plague in London and the battle of Lowestoft, the first fleet action of the second Anglo-Dutch wars and one of the great epics of the age of sail. Many real figures of the Restoration age appear in the book, notably King Charles II, John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys. The story also includes some shocking revelations about his family's past and a showdown with the scheming seductress who has married his brother, the Earl of Ravensden.
What have you got planned for the future of this series?
I've recently finished the first draft of the fourth book, The Lion of Midnight, which is set principally in Sweden in the early months of 1666. I'm contracting to write another two, one of which will have as its centrepiece the great Four Days' Battle of 1666 while the other will culminate in the Great Fire of London. Beyond that is in the laps of the gods and the publishers alike, but I've sketched out the plots of well over a dozen books (and I've also written the last few pages and last words of whatever the final book in the series happens to be – probably the only similarity between myself and J K Rowling)! I also hope to develop some additional stories which will take place during the chronological gaps in the main series and which will go straight to Kindle as 'e-novellas' – the first of these, a prequel to Gentleman Captain, is already written and should be launched soon.
What started your interest in the Navy of the Restoration period?
'Warship spotting' was my childhood hobby, and by the time I did my first degree the seventeenth century was my favourite period. Eventually I combined the two – I was looking for a subject for my doctorate and realised that hardly anything had been written on the 17th century navy for about 50 years (this was in 1981-2). My doctoral thesis was published as my first book, and I never looked back after that.
As an historian you have written non-fiction books on the period. What made you move to fiction and which do you prefer writing?
I'd always wanted to write fiction and had written countless 'Chapter Ones' of terrible sub-James Bond thrillers before abandoning them. In about 2000 I had a distinctly belated road to Damascus moment when I realised that if I was going to write a novel at all, it really ought to be something to do with the subject I'd been studying for twenty years! I wrote three scenes of Gentleman Captain, now a long way apart in the book, but didn't actually join them up for a very long time, partly because of heavy work commitments. Then in 2005-7, when I'd finished full-time work, I was writing my big award-winning non-fiction book, Pepys's Navy, and completed Gentleman Captain 'on the side' and almost as light relief. As for which I prefer, I love writing both; for example, having finished The Lion of Midnight I'm now writing my next non-fiction book, Britannia's Dragon: A Naval History of Wales. They're different disciplines – clearly there's more freedom in writing fiction but in one sense it's also harder work because you don't have the 'anchor' of referring back to the sources all the time. For the foreseeable future, I certainly hope to be able to alternate between the two genres, ideally writing two novels and a non-fiction book in each two year period.
What intrigues you about the period in which the books are set?
On a purely naval level, it's such an important formative period in the history of the Royal Navy – the time when so many aspects of 'Nelson's navy' are first created. But the Restoration period as a whole is a fascinating one, with larger than life characters like King Charles and Pepys, court and political intrigue, and some of the most dramatic events in British history, such as the Plague and Fire. You also have the huge question of how to deal with the legacy of the civil wars, the quest for religious freedom, the change in foreign policy from war against the Dutch to hostility towards the French – so in my opinion, it's endlessly multi-layered and provides an almost inexhaustible store of potential plots!
How do you undertake your research?
In one sense I'm very lucky in that I've not had to research my period from scratch, so I can call on the body of source material that I've built up in the last thirty years. I also have a large library at home which includes most of the major primary and secondary works about the Restoration period. But I also think it's important to carry out fieldwork as far as possible and actually visit the places I'm writing about, so for Lion of Midnight, for example, I spent a week in Sweden which included several days in the Gothenburg area where the book is principally set. I've also spent a lot of time in the Netherlands, and I spent a great deal of time in Scotland when researching my non-naval book Blood of Kings: the Stuarts, the Ruthvens and the 'Gowrie Conspiracy'.
Do you have other writing projects under way in addition to the series?
Yes – Britannia's Dragon, which I've already mentioned, should be finished by the end of the year, and I'm also working on a book about the fascinating Stepney family to tie in with the restoration of Llanelly House, the great Georgian mansion in my home town. I'm also editing a volume on the naval battles of the third Anglo-Dutch war for the Navy Records Society.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
I wanted to write something that wasn't set in the genre's usual Napoleonic period and to use the series as an opportunity to bring the Anglo-Dutch wars and the Restoration navy to a wider audience. But I also wanted to write books that were just as rooted on land as they were at sea; in a sense they had to be written in that way because on the whole Restoration warships didn't undertake such long voyages as those of the eighteenth century (J R Jones once likened Restoration naval warfare to bombing raids in World War Two, i.e. setting out for relatively brief but deadly sorties before returning to base, and I think that's an excellent comparison). I'm delighted that the feedback from readers has been so positive, and that they clearly appreciate what I'm trying to do; I thoroughly enjoy writing the books, and people also seem to enjoy reading them, for which I can't thank them enough!
The Blast That Tears The Skies is published by Old Street Publishing