The second instalment of the Clifton Chronicles is flying off the shelves and Jeffrey Archer is already thinking of the third. The best-selling author in a freewheeling conversation.

One year after we left Harry Clifton standing at the cusp of life and death, the hero of Jeffrey Archer's Clifton Chronicles is back; this time suffering endless hardships and obstacles as he goes to prison under a name that's not his own for a crime he didn't commit. The second instalment, The Sins of the Father, is set during World War II, and is perhaps even more exciting and fast-paced than the first. Like Only Time Will Tell, Archer's new book is already a bestseller with copies flying of the shelves as fans eagerly turn pages to find out what happened next. Excerpts from an interview with the best-selling author.

How was it writing The Sins of the Father?

With every book I write, I want it to be better than the first. With The Sins of the Father, I wrote as many as 14 drafts and spent thousands of hours working on it. For nine months I worked only on this book, getting involved in no other project. Now, with the third book, I know I'm trying for even better. I've just finished the first draft and there will be many, many more. It's my most challenging project.

Are you happy with how the characters are shaping up? Is the story going in the direction you want it to go?

Completely. I don't have the entire story planned out. It unfolds as I go along. In fact, I don't have a clue what's going to happen after the third book; sometimes, even I'm taken by surprise by the twists and turns in the plot. But I am satisfied with how things are shaping up. I can see the characters through the end.

So your characters sort of chart their own path?

It's a little of both. I start them off, doing something I want them to. But then, if you have nine months to constantly think about these characters, they are bound to grow and develop as they go along. Sometimes they'll do what I want them to but sometimes, suddenly, they'll take me by surprise and I'll find maybe Emma or Clifton saying ‘No! We aren't going to do that! This is what's going to happen.' That's the great thing about writing a series; there is space for the characters to grow and change all the time. And of course, while writing the second book, I have the advantage of the first one to go back to. With the third, I can refer to the last two.

What about minor characters? Will some make it into the third book? You've introduced interesting people like Jelks and Quinn in this. Of course, some people from Only Time will Tell didn't appear.

You've given me an idea! I think I'll bring Jelks back in the next book. He's a great character! Sometimes, a character starts off small, barely there for a page, and then suddenly, I'll find them silently making their way into the story. Before I realise it, they've become major characters. For example, the Jewish lady who escapes from Germany was initially a very minor character, barely there in the book. But she was so interesting and so powerful a character that, before long, she'd become quite important.

You've already mentioned that the series is going to span an entire period in history. This one is, of course, set during the 1940s. An entire section is dedicated to Harry's time in prison. What kind of research went into writing about such different areas?

Two things. I read and I talk to people. For example, just yesterday, I told my personal assistant to find out who was the world authority on shipping. The gentleman lives in the U.S. I've already read one of his books and now I've also arranged a meeting with him, as part of the research for my next book. I like to get my information from people who have experience with what I want to know.

And since with every book, I'm writing about a specific period in history, I'm trying to stick as closely to the feel and language of that period. With the third book, which enters the next two decades, the 1950s and 1960s, I have the advantage of being born in 1940s. I remember that period from my childhood. I've been careful to pay attention to the hundreds of little details that will make the story more authentic. I've tried to make the language sound more like it was then; a little old fashioned. For example, people say ‘That's sorted' now. Back then, the phrase was ‘that's sorted out'. Of course, that's a tiny detail, but it makes a big difference.

How has the response been so far?

Great! And the response from India has been fantastic! It's been just two days since the book has been released and, already, we've been overwhelmed by mails and letters. People are saying things like “I read it in six hours”; “I read it in one go!” Most people seem to like the second book better than the first, which is a great thing for the writer. The story has to keep getting better, and I hope the third one does that too.

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