Every time I write a new history book I hit the road on book tour, visiting bookshops and bumping elbows with people like you. And when I do, someone always asks me: would you ever consider writing a novel?
For years I used to say no. My argument went like this: if you write a bad history book, you probably just got a few facts wrong. But if you write a bad novel, you’ve revealed to the world that you don’t really understand what it means to be a human. I was afraid I’d write a bad novel. I was a coward.
Then I turned 40. I found this disagreeable. But I did find my outlook on life changed a bit. It’s not that I suddenly got brave. But I didn’t care so much about showing myself. So I decided to write a novel. In fact, I decided to write three. Essex Dogs is the first of them. It’s about a little company of guys who find themselves at the sharp end of the Hundred Years’ War. They don’t like it an awful lot. But they make the best of a bad job.
Why’s it called Essex Dogs? Short answer: because it is. Long answer: back in 2017, when I was still saying I wouldn’t write a novel for fear of bringing shame on my family, I was dozing on a flight home from Prague. I had this half-dream about a gang of freebooter/mercenaries at large in the fourteenth century. I woke up and opened my laptop and made some notes about them. I was listening to a song called “Essex Dogs”. I called the file Essex Dogs. After that I closed the laptop and didn’t think about it again for a long time.
Then, on New Year’s Day 2019, I took a walk on Omaha Beach in Normandy with some friends. And suddenly I saw an adventure for the Essex Dogs to have. What if they were on the Normandy beaches when Edward III landed 15,000 men there on 12 July 1346? It would be like a medieval D-Day. Instead of Messerschmitts and machine guns, there would be trebuchets and crossbows. But otherwise the experience would be very similar. And the Dogs would have all manner of adventures as they struggled through the battle for Normandy, until the showdown at Crécy, at which point we would leave them, bruised and exhilarated and changed in some fundamental ways.
Now I was getting somewhere. Yet I still needed tipping over the edge. What tipped me was having dinner with the legendary George R.R, Martin, creator of Game of Thrones and much else besides. George is a great man. It isn’t his fault I wrote this book, and I urge you not to hold it against him. But the experience of talking with someone who loved history, read history, inhaled history, but wrote fiction… that helped convince me that this might be a fun thing to do.
So I said the two most liberating words in the English language: F*** it. Essex Dogs were a go.
What else can I tell you? I love this book. I poured everything into it. I cried when I finished it. Not because I was sad at the ending, but because I didn’t want to leave the Dogs behind. They’ll be back in book two, of course. They have already taken a hell of a beating. I’m not sure how they’re going to get through. But I’m looking forward to finding out.
I hope you like Essex Dogs. See you round the way.