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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Iain Stewart talks about the inspiration behind his Knights Of The Air book series.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Iain Stewart about his life and career, being inspired by World War 1, and the creative process that went into his book series, Knights Of The Air.
Tell me a bit about who you are and why you started writing.
I was always in love with words and stories and was reading voraciously from an early age. In fact, at prep school in Kenya I was caned by the headmaster, six of the proverbial best, for reading under a blanket with a torch after lights out. Which taught me an excellent lesson- don’t get caught. But that same school encouraged me to write stories and praised me for them which led to the idea.
I first sat down and tried to write a book, a novel on the Arthurian legends, when I was twenty-two, and found that I did not have much to say. It was hard to add value to the existing libraries on the topic. So, I shelved the idea. For the next few decades, I made a pact to work like extremely hard in the financial markets so I could earn enough to retire at 50 to travel and explore writing. Which I did.
Rather than attend schools to learn how to write, I decided to write and learn as I went along. So the first book was a very inefficient process. Typically, I only wrote only on Thursdays and if something special was happening, like travel, I just missed that Thursday. My vow was that writing would be fun and not a chore. Which it was, enormous fun. I loved the research of historical fiction and then the work of weaving an interesting story into the real facts and characters. But when I first finished the story I wanted to tell it was 400,000 words and I learned that publishing a tome like that was a non starter for a 1st time author.
A wise author once told me at the very beginning of my voyage that the very first decision of a writer should be whether they want to sell books or they have a story to tell. I went with the latter, but at the same time, the acid test of writer must be whether people want to buy your books, so when I was told I should split my stories into books of 90,000 words each, I got to work. That was harder than writing the original, taking the story structure apart and recobbling it into four books, each with their own structure. But I am grateful for that process, for I think the books are better for that work.
All of which is a long winded way to saying it took me from 2007 to 2022 to get from the first words on paper to four books into publication, released all in one year.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Knights Of The Air?
It’s a series which is one story. I loved the Arthurian legends and always wondered at the bits that were left out. The triangle of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere seemed extraordinary in its contradictions.
How did a loyal knight who aspired so stringently to be a “parfait gentle knight’ end up cuckolding his king and friend? How did Arthur resist banishing Lancelot when the rumours of the affair start, and how was he so sad when he was forced to do so? This was a violent age where any king who apparently allowed his underlings to steal his wife would have lost bucket loads of Kingly, warrior and manly credibility? And so on.
So I thought it would be interesting to transplant those stresses and strains to the most recent period where men fought individual combats and chivalry had not quite died. It helped that I have always been fascinated by WW1 flying and it fitted the bill. So I put two passions together, and tried to imbue it with the life lessons I had learned around leadership, teams, innate goodness of some men and women and evil in others, and of course the eternal struggle of finding the right sort of love.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Knights Of The Air?
I found the writing easy and enjoyable but the publishing and marketing was a nightmare. In terms of the pure writing, I first wrote the protagonist as a paragon, before realizing that he must develop an arc & develop. So, I had to give him unlikable and unadmirable characteristics which went against my untrained instincts.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
It was easy because I had the figure of Lancelot. The greatest warrior, always being led astray by women, whose greatest wish was to see the Holy Grail. A man that others would see and praise as a paragon, but who was intensely aware he was constantly falling short of his own aspirations.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
The series had a layer of antagonists. The first is the rather amorphous one that is the entire German air force, but inside that is the incomparable German ace [ in real life and in my books], Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron [who inspired Snoopy of course].
Then, because Richthofen was in fact a rather admirable human being, I created a nasty piece of work who flies for him. I tried to give him an arc to, and always to make it clear that while he was a nasty human being, he had good reason for that nastiness. I enjoyed giving him a sense of humour that was distinctively cynical.
What is the inciting incident of Knights Of The Air?
When WW1 breaks out and the protagonist is not aware. He is ambushed, his friends killed and his home burned down. He escapes after being badly beaten but now has a blood quest for revenge.
What is the main conflict of Knights Of The Air?
At one level, the air fighting between the British and the German airmen.
At another, the struggle to remain a decent man in a savage war and the mental turmoil that results from that and the inhuman stress.
Did you plot Knights Of The Air in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I kind of straddle this one. I need the discipline of the classical three part structure [ which I would say is four parts but hey, who am I to argue with Aristotle] so I plan that out quite rigidly and always try to stay within it. But I found that the characters morphed on me. Some took me over and forced me to give them bigger parts, some forced changes in the story as they developed. I liked that and gave them the room they demanded. So, the final product differed a lot from the original outline and I believe the books are better for it.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Knights Of The Air need?
I would make the distinction between story editing and what I will call grammar & word choice editing.
For the first, I was lucky enough to find an excellent story coach, Kristina Stanley, who has also developed her own software [https://fictionary.co] that helps structure the story and coaches you through checking each scene for essential elements.
For the grammar and word choice I used the software, Prowritingaid.com, which was great. Then I used erudite friends as beta readers, and they were great. Then finally, I used a professional grammar editor and he was good. And there were still errors in the first edition! It’s a lot harder than it looks, that process. The one thing I know for sure is that the more you read your own books, the less errors you spot. We all need help on this one.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Enjoy it. That way the commitment needed to finish comes easily. If you need a break, take a break. Just say to yourself, “I will do this my way and that means I enjoy it on my terms.”
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Many readers have asked to keep the same characters and write more about flying in WW1, but I don’t think I have more to say on that topic. But I am toying with a WW2 series involving many aspects of the war, where a single bomb falling on London in 1940 sets events in motion that bind men and women of both sides together through many decades, without them every realizing the common linkages woven by the three sisters commonly called ‘The Fates’, who weave the webs of destiny. Oddly enough, the series will be called FATE.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Yes and yes. It is not only about the sales. You learn a lot about yourself when you sit down and write a novel. Things come out on the page you don’t expect, and delving into your own experiences to create more believable emotions for your characters brings memories and insights of your own life spilling out from your unconscious. I’d encourage everyone to try.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
My webpage contains links to buy the books but the awards, reviews, and some interviews that I have done. https://istewartauthor.com
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