Digging up history

Meet John Broughton, an author from Lincolnshire who came to Italy for a year in 1986, met Maria, and stayed ever since. I had an appointment with my friend in a little bar near Pompei, about half way between our Italian homes. We sipped our glasses of “Villa dei Misteri”, a prestigious wine made by Mastrobernardini, who obtained permission to use the historic Pompei vineyards and research Roman techniques. (Each bottle cost €100 and so I’ll leave it to your imagination to decide if I’m using artistic license here about the truth of what we were really drinking …)


In AD 79 the secrets of Pompei were burned in an avalanche of boiling mud and ash from Vesuvius, so Pompei seemed a fitting venue to chat about the adventure of writing. Both of us write historical novels and try to excavate hidden stories and secrets with our research. John’s books feature the Dark Ages. I enjoyed his first book, The Purple Thread and am proud to have my quote on his cover. Discovering the world he describes, set in the era after the Romans have left Britain and the Christian Church is becoming the dominant force in the western world was “like being led by eerie candlelight into another world.”
I have all his other books waiting on my Kindle and I know I won’t be disappointed. I learned such a lot about this early period of history from John’s work and wish I’d had an entertaining teacher like him at school.


I asked John why he enjoys writing in this period.
Saints and Sinners and Mixed Blessings, its sequel (Nov 2018 and January 2019) are set in my favourite period – the Anglo-Saxon era. I like it because my surname is Anglo-Saxon – a place name that means a fortified hill by a stream. Saints and Sinners began with my desire to write something set in my home county of Lincolnshire but the Dark ages are very dark for the Kingdom of Lindsey. Even so, I wrote about St Guthlac, who was a hermit in Crowland in the Fens. He went from being a violent, heavy-drinking, womanising nobleman to being a saint. Typical Lincolnshire lad but in reverse! His best mate Aethelbard went from being an outlaw to becoming one of the greatest kings of Mercia. The book is about them.

The Purple Thread was an education to me, as well as being a fabulously entertaining read, full of description and great characters. I felt immersed in that world. How much research do for your books?

I admit to doing a lot of research, filling whole exercise books. But I enjoy it nearly as much as the writing. Of course, in the genre of historical novels you can only use a small fraction of what you discover, to avoid creating ‘knowledge dumps’ in the middle of your chapter. I try to pick out juicy snippets – either events like the racial massacre of Danes in Oxford or how the Saxons dyed cloth yellow or how the Danes built a long ship (just some interesting bits). After all, who wants to read a historical novel without a feel of the period?

Absolutely agree! I need to visit the places I write about. It’s not enough for me to look them up on Google. I need to be able to breathe, to listen and to see the locations to make them come alive. In that way, you can pick up details you might not have thought of, merely sitting at a desk. I take notebooks with me wherever I go. Where do you write?

I write in a corner of our sitting room where I have a desk next to a bookcase. I do all my writing on the keyboard in Word for Mac. Unfortunately for me, we live next door to a noisy bar, so I claim to be the only writer in the world who can blot out boozy, swearing football fans! Iron concentration, that’s mine! And yes, I would love to write by a quiet gurgling stream in Tuscany. Do I have a routine? Yes, more or less. It’s just that some days you think you’re going to write thousands of words but end up with nothing and other days you don’t feel like it but do your best work- I can’t explain that. But anyway, usually, after breakfast I deal with my e-mails. That done, I re-read the last few paragraphs I wrote the day before and write until about 11.30, by then I’m desperate for a walk. My best work tends to happen between 16.00 and 18.30 and then, not being able to beat them at the bar, I join them!
I hope you don’t drink from €100 bottles all the time, as we are doing today! And, when you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

I enjoy – surprise! – historical novels, but lately I’ve read rather a lot of World War 2 novels. Perhaps I’m trying to make up for the fact that my dad didn’t like to talk about the war, probably because he was in the RAMC and he was the only survivor of a ‘friendly fire’ episode. His best mates died.
Yes, traumatic times and that generation didn’t talk much about the war, did they? I found that with my own parents. Thank heavens for diaries.
Have you ever self-published?
I have a little experience of self-publishing but that showed me how difficult it is to promote your work, especially if, like me, you live in Italy all year round and can’t rely on support groups or go to libraries or schools to promote your work. I have a very friendly editor, James, at Endeavour Media – I say that because he has yet to reject one of my submissions! I prefer to have my work promoted by a publisher, even if a lot of what they do is unseen by me so it’s a question of trust.
Yes, all the social media input involved with publicity can distract from writing. But it has it plus sides! I’ve made lots of new friends as a result, including yourself. It’s been great to talk. Cheers, cin cin and good luck with your writing, John. By the way, if you come my way to Tuscany, it’ll be Chianti or Montalcino… sfuso (from the barrel).

John Broughton pic

About the author

I was born in Cleethorpes Lincolnshire UK in 1948: just one of the post-war baby-boom. After attending grammar school and studying to the sound of Bob Dylan I went to Nottingham University and studied Medieval and Modern History (Archaeology subsidiary). The subsidiary course led to one of my greatest academic achievements: tipping the soil content of a wheelbarrow from the summit of a spoil heap on an old lady hobbling past our dig. Well, I have actually done many different jobs while living in Radcliffe-on-Trent, Leamington, Glossop, the Scilly Isles, Puglia and Calabria. They include teaching English and History, managing a Day Care Centre, being a Director of a Trade Institute and teaching university students English. I even tried being a fisherman and a flower picker when I was on St. Agnes, Scilly. I have lived in Calabria since 1992 where I settled into a long-term job, for once, at the University of Calabria teaching English. No doubt my lovely Calabrian wife Maria stopped me being restless. My two kids are grown up now, but I wrote books for them when they were little. Hamish Hamilton and then Thomas Nelson published 6 of these in England in the 1980s. They are now out of print. I’m a granddad now and happily his parents wisely named my grandson Dylan. I decided to take up writing again late in my career. You know when you are teaching and working as a translator you don’t really have time for writing.
As soon as I stopped the translation work, I resumed writing in 2014. The fruit of that decision is my first two historical novels, The Purple Thread and Wyrd of the Wolf, published by Endeavour Press, London. Both are set in my favourite Anglo-Saxon period and are available on Amazon as eBooks and paperbacks. Currently my third and fourth novels are available from on Amazon, Saints and Sinnersand its sequel Mixed Blessings set in on the cusp of the eighth century in Mercia and Lindsey. A fifth Sward and Sword will be published in June 2019 About the great Earl Godwine. I have two more under consideration and three others just lurking in my computer.

John’s website

Author Facebook

About Angela Petch

Bit of a story dreamer, written four novels - a fifth in progress. I love my little family and in no particular order afterwards: Italian culture, food, wine, walking everywhere I can and especially in the Apennines, East Africa, tennis when I can, reading, reading and more reading. So much to discover still before I die.
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3 Responses to Digging up history

  1. Great blog, Angela. It is so interesting delving into the minds of great authors. Thanks!


  2. Angela Petch says:

    Thanks, Jessie! I am so nosy about how other authors go about their writing and it sometimes helps to modify our own methods through their tips. I agree with John’s view about overloading our books with research.


  3. jessiecahalin says:

    I love this insight into John’s writing world. Wonderful how he immerses himself in research and the places. I agree with visiting the destinations. He deserves expensive wine after a hard day’s writing. An entertaining interview.


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