Robert Barclay: Looking at History with Fresh Eyes

Picture of a smiling caucasian gentleman with a fringe of white hair and glasses. He wears a green shirt and is outside. Trees can be seen in the background.

Today we will be putting the tough questions to Robert Barclay

He is a historical fiction author who has been writing for fifty years. Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions. 

-Robert, what first attracted you to writing?

I can't tell you because it goes back to infancy. I do recall one essay I wrote in grammar school (in the UK) at the age of 12 in which I was uncharacteristically inspired. The teacher read my essay to the whole class, which filled me with great pride. Then he organized a vote as to whether the class believed I had written it. I lost the vote by a landslide. This was a bit of a setback.

-Who were your favourite authors at the time?

I was deeply into science fiction. Arthur C. Clark, Isaac Asimov, but quite a few British ones too, such as John Wyndham and John Brunner.

-Name three of your favourite books, and why they are your top picks.

Sorry, but this is impossible. There are some that I will go back to again and again, such as Charles Dicken's Great Expectations and Nevil Schute's Trustee from the Toolroom, but as to favourites there are just too many.

-Are you a plotter or a pantser?

More plotter than pantser. I can see the sweep of the thing before I start, but it can get shaken around. The great advantage of the word processor is that you can write the middle, the end, any damn' piece you please, and weave it all together. The art of serial storytelling is dying. Imagine Dickens writing his novels in many installments for the Strand Magazine, while ensuring that every single detail from start to finish was consistent. Now that's craft!

-What sets off the desire to write about a certain historical character or story?

Difficult to say. In the case of Jacob the Trumpeter (which I'll detail below) it was direct exposure to a hitherto unexplored thread of history.

-What is your idea of happiness?

Daft question really. A glass of red wine? I dunno. Coincidentally, I've just written a short story called "GODSEND-27" on this very subject, which I hope to see published in 2023 by Jon Peirce in his second volume of Plague Take It. My views of happiness in that story are not... well, I'll leave you in suspense.

-What are your ideal writing conditions?

There aren't any really. I can sit down at the keyboard at any time, maybe writing only a paragraph or a sentence. I have no schedule. The short story I mentioned above was written in draft on a flight to England a couple of months back. It's that or the inflight "entertainment."

-Where or when do you feel most inspired?

Anytime, anywhere. I'll sometimes fish a Visa slip out of my wallet when I'm away from the keyboard in order to note down a few pearls of wisdom. They're often crap by the time I sit down, though.

-What do you appreciate most in your friends?

That they are there.

-Where would you like to live?

Where I am, but there are times during the winter when my wife's home of Trinidad beckons.

-Who are your greatest influences?

Tough one, this; there are so many. I think the friend I teach my workshops with is one, and my mentor from my internship at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum is another. Both represent turning points in my life's path (if one can be said to have a path).

-If there was one recommendation you could give to authors starting out, what would it be?

Does an author "just start out" or have they always been writing and are now deciding to take it up a level? In any event, don't get overwhelmed by the size of what you want to accomplish. Break it down into negotiable pieces. Join Ottawa Independent Writers to be exposed to like-minded and folk and those with experience and expertise.

-What are the characteristics you believe make a great historical fiction story?

I think you have to get inside the minds of your chief protagonists, and be comfortable in their historical milieu. The details of everyday life lend credibility to the narrative, so a great deal of research is essential. Your readers will know if it doesn't ring true.

-What is the title of your latest story?

Jacob the Trumpeter.

-Can you give us a synopsis of it?

I teach at the International Trumpet-making Workshop in various locations in Europe and the US. My German teaching colleague was told of a trumpet hanging up in a small Lutheran church in eastern Germany. Thinking it might be a wartime bugle, he went to the church and found to his great surprise that the trumpet hanging up on a votive plaque had belonged to a cavalry trumpeter, Jacob Hintze, who had been killed in a duel in 1676. The trumpet was made in Nürnberg in 1650, an incredibly rare find. According to the church records, Hintze had been granted the living of an inn on the post road in the estate of the Duke Adolf-Friedrich of Mecklenburg/Schwerin. How could a lowly cavalryman be granted such a boon? What service could he have performed for his duke to be so richly rewarded? Selected trumpters at that period could travel freely between enemy lines, and were couriers, emissaries and spies. Undoubtedly, through the Thirty Years War and the fragile peace that followed, Jacob Hintze was a soldier in combat, and was serving his duke in covert activities. Nothing more is known about Staff Trumpeter Hintze, which led me to create him a life from whole cloth. It is all true, or it ought to be. I know he would approve.

-Are you working on anything else at the moment, or have the germ of an idea for another story you’d like to titillate your audience with?

I am wondering about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 where Guy Fawkes and his confederates nearly blew up the king and his parliament. Trouble is, the plot failed, so no great climax. Wouldn't it be nice to write an alternative history where James I and his counselors got blown to kingdom come?

-Once again, thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions. I wish you all the best of luck in your writing endeavours!

An illustration of a man riding a horse rearing on its hind legs while he blows into a horn.

Here are Robert Barclay's socials:

This is the link to pick up your copy of Jacob the Trumpeter:

If you enjoyed this interview with Robert, you'll love this one with Rich Larson!



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