Please introduce yourself and your books
My name is Simon Turney, also writing as S.J.A. Turney. I’m an author of Historical Fiction (taking historical events and characters and trying to make them Dwayne-Johnson-level cinematic and exciting) and Historical Fantasy (similar but without the restrictions of enforced accuracy.) I’m the strange combination of traditionally published through Orion, digitally published through Canelo, and self-published through me, which means I have a finger in every pie and am almost perpetually confused. I’m a Yorkshireman, a husband/slave, a father/zookeeper and a student and lover of history and travel.
What are the real-life stories behind your books?
Ooh, well I’ve written a lot of books. The origins vary. The Marius’ Mules series (currently on book 12 of 15) is based upon Caesar’s diaries of the Gallic and Civil Wars, so I’ve got a solid historical character to run with there. A bald guy with a big nose. Veni, vidi, something-or-other. My Praetorian series, now on book 5 of around 9, is based around a character who I stole from his tombstone, which listed his life and career, throughout the Antonine and Severan eras of Rome. My Templar series (book 4 of 6) sprung from the discovery that there was such a thing as female Templars, and begun with the story of the preceptrix Ermengarda d’Oluja in late 12th century Spain. My Ottoman Cycle (4 books) all came from a minor reference to an astounding event in late 15th century Istanbul, when a building detonates during a storm. My Damned Emperors books are biographical, based upon those very emperors. My Crocodile Legion and its sequel blossomed from research into the fascinating city of Crocodilopolis and the pyramid and labyrinth of Hawara. Finally, my fantasy series (the Tales of the Emperor) are not based on real things, but are influenced by them, from the pirate haven of Tortuga by the ancient hillfort of Stanwick Camp to the movie DOA starring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. So you see, like the playwright dwarf in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, I am constantly beset by inspiration.
What inspires/inspired your creativity?
I’ve always loved to create worlds and stories. In junior school, I wrote a parody of a Roger Moore Bond movie called ‘Moonscraper’. In Grammar school I failed art because the teacher didn’t like that I had painted my cityscape being eaten by a dinosaur. At university I wrote a short story about a Klingon Bird of Prey. And like a number of writers I was a Role-Playing gamer at school and beyond, into my late 20s. I spent much of my life creating worlds just for fun. What inspires me? Everything. Take me for a half hour wander around your neighbourhood and the bones of at least one story will come from it.
How do you deal with creative block?
I so rarely get it. I work easily and the story just flows. On the odd occasion when I hit a wall, it will be coffee that solves it. Or beer. Or a walk around the village wondering how my characters will get somewhere. Or standing in a shower, ranting to myself about character motivations. There is no hard and fast rule.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
There are many. The prime one is giving up. Whether you’re writing it and suffering writer’s block, or you’ve got a gleaming finished product and you just get rejection letters from agents, giving up solves nothing. Only perseverance wins. Once upon a time traditional houses like Penguin and Hachette were all there was and you were either accepted or not. These days there are dozens of layers of publishing. Some houses are smaller and will accept manuscripts that the main houses won’t. Just beware of scammers. Be wise. But there is also always self-publishing which has not the stigma it once had. Beyond that, edit, edit and edit again. Get people to edit and proofread your book endlessly. When you think it’s done, do it a dozen more times. If it’s your first book, you will only make that vital impression with a polished product. Do your research. This I cannot say strongly enough. I once read a so-called ‘historical novel’ where the pillars of Hercules seemed to be around Istanbul, someone was chased around Tunisia by a Tiber and someone drove a chariot in an amphitheatre, This sort of thing puts readers off. Have sympathetic characters. Do not be unremittingly bleak. A sense of humour changes everything.
Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
In my career, I only chose my earliest covers. Since then they have all been done for me, either by a talented friend, or by the publishers. I have had a say in it, but I have been consulted rather than instrumental. Covers are tough. People say ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, but we all do and it’s natural to do so. And if that were true, then covers would all be boring because we’d choose the cheapest. If you have the choice, make it striking, make it appropriate to the material, make it stylish. Try not to make it derivative. Be attentive and careful. A friend had a very high-profile Roman book release and the front cover had the guy with his armour on backwards. This sort of thing is stupid, avoidable, and puts off readers. Titles are much the same, except that I have chosen mine throughout. A title needs to be individual, nor lost among similar. It should describe the book or hook the reader’s attention.
How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
Simply: they don’t. I’ve had a huge number of very good reviews over my career and a small number of negatives. As long as it’s that way round I won’t lose any sleep. Plus reviews are important, but they are also a weird old minefield to navigate. There are the pointless ones (*** Haven’t read it yet), the stupid ones (* Doesn’t fit on my book shelf), the angry ones (this is horse dung and I will never read anything by this man again, visit his country or own a dog of the same breed, his writing has offended me so much). To be honest, 80% of bad reviews have little effect on sales because they’re so daft or pointless that would-be readers look past it. And crippling one star reviews are almost as good as five stars because readers are almost keen enough to see what the fuss is all about that they consider buying it. The true killers are the mediocre 2 and 3 star reviews with lines like ‘I’ve read better’ or ‘A way to pass the time.’ Those are the ones that occasionally get to you. Again, coffee or whisky help me through such times…
How has your creation process improved over time?
I think this has gone hand in hand with my increased OCD over the years. Once upon a time I was relaxed and disorganised. The plot of Interregnum (written in 2004) changed immensely during the writing. By the time I wrote ‘Capsarius’, my outlook and mental state had changed so much that when the story suddenly veered unexpectedly from the plan and I couldn’t immediately see a way to push it back on course I had a major mental crisis and threw in the towel, deleting a book of which I’d written 120,000 words (more than the length of most novels.) Now I have rigid plans, rigid word counts to meet, rigid timescales and a specific working day. I have routines and order out the wazoo and deviating from them sends me into a panic. Thus have I become mentally unstable but a great deal more efficient and prolific. See how I sacrifice my brain for my art? Oh, and coffee. Mucho coffee is involved, too. And sometimes biscuits.
What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your books?
Ah, an easy question. The best is when someone likes your book. This comes in wide range of effects from an appreciative email from a US veteran who likes how you handle military camaraderie (my favourite type), to people seeing you at events, dropping their jaw and running to their spouse, shrieking ‘he’s here’. This was weird and humbling, and still makes me smile. The worst? The worst was those early days when I was spending 10% of my annual income sending printed manuscripts to agents and waiting 6 weeks to receive form letters telling me they loved it but it would not be right for their list. The most surprising things come on a monthly basis. research turns up astounding things every time. I’ll just give you the one example from this week. The aqueduct that leads from Zaghouan to Carthage in Tunisia runs for almost 60 miles, making it one of the longest in the world, but drops only 864 feet throughout the course. That means a gradient of just one inch of drop over ten yards of distance. That’s quite something! Oh, and when the Nea Ekklasia church in Istanbul exploded in 1490, it was such a massive bang that the church disappeared, leaving a crater, while pieces of its stone rained down miles away across the Bosphorus! Surprising is part of the game.
Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
This strikes me as a weird question. If I am not satisfied with my story, how could I possibly expect a reader to do so? I have to laugh, feel tense, or shed a tear when I read back my own work, or I would not even remotely consider it worthy of turning out to a reader. Worth has to begin at home.
What role do emotions play in creativity?
Here’s a fun one. When I read back the epilogue of Dark Empress, I feel immense satisfaction. When I read the epilogue of Interregnum, it makes me cry. These are the emotions I go for, and that it works for me is a good sign. But there’s more to it than that. I listen to music while I write. I have a very eclectic taste in music, from Rimsky-Korsakov to the Swedish death-metal band Insomnium, from Sia to Pink Floyd, from Goth bands to 80s electronica. That means I have music for every mood. When I write a chapter, I will see what the chapter contains from my plan, then select an appropriate soundtrack. If it’s a huge battle, it might be the Viking metal band Ensiferum. If it’s light-hearted, I might have Monty Python Sings on in the background. If it’s sad, I might go with Floyd’s Endless River. If it’s tense investigation, I might go with Urma. The plan sets the scene, the music sets the emotion. The two combine to create what the reader will experience, and this is, in essence, what film-makers do with scenes. I work in a very cinematic way.
Do you have any creativity tricks?
Nope. I don’t think there are any. The simple thing is just to pay attention. Whatever you watch and read will give you ideas, so long as you have a receptive mind. One of my favourite pastimes is to sit in a pub for hours and simply watch people. It REALLY helps in crafting realistic characters.
What are your plans for future books?
Again, being prolific, there are many. The Marius’ Mules series has three books left to run before it ends on the steps of Pompey’s theatre, Ides of March 44BC. Praetorian has perhaps four or five, following the rise and fall of the Severan dynasty. There are two more Templar novels to come, dealing with the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa and the end of the Rourell preceptory. If Orion accept the proposals, then there will be two more Damned Emperors (Domitian and Caracalla). I have finished a trilogy based on the conflict between Constantine and Maxentius alongside my partner in crime, Gordon Doherty that is as yet unreleased. I have plans for a series based on Trajan’s Dacian wars to follow after Marius’ Mules, and a series about Vikings in the Mediterranean to follow Templar. And I’m currently working on a standalone based in the 19th century transportation of criminals to Australia with the fabulous Prue Batten. And honestly, between writing this interview and it being published, I’ll have had four more ideas!
Tell us some quirky facts about yourself
Ok, I think I’ve probably already covered this well, but here’s ten small factoids:
1. I am allergic to cats, seafood and anything sung by Rick Astley
2. My favourite movie is Conan the Barbarian. My least favourite is the sequel
3. I once helped build a Stonehenge trilithon for the BBC
4. I was nicknamed Thunder Thighs at school, which I didn’t realise was a feminine taunt until my 30s
5. My ancestor was clever enough to wait for 1068 to invade England from Normandy, after the fighting had stopped.
6. I lost at Colin McRae Rally against Craig Charles (Lister from Red Dwarf)
7. After school, I decided I would rather eat a skunk than read Thomas Hardy again
8. I replayed a famous scene from Gladiator standing in Carthage Amphitheatre
9. I do passable vocal impressions of Dave Mustaine, Michael Stipes, Dave Gilmour and Jonas Renkse
10. I do not understand fish