Indophiles Authors

Writing history

Diana and Michael Preston, aka Alex Rutherford   | Photo Credit: G. Krishnaswamy

People often ask us why we decided to write our historical novels — Fortune’s Soldier about Robert Clive and our Empire of the Moghul series — under a pen name. Our reason was that we wanted to keep our work as non-fiction and fiction writers distinct, since we take different approaches to the two. We chose ‘Alex’ because we both like it, and because it’s one of the few names in English that can be either male or female. It’s also vaguely Scottish and we both have some Scottish family roots. Finding a surname was harder. We finally chose ‘Rutherford’ because we thought ‘Alex Rutherford’ sounded ‘right’— that it had the right cadences — but also because we admire the New Zealand scientist and Nobel Prize winner Ernest Rutherford.

People are also curious about how we manage to write together. This is something we developed over time, while collaborating on a number of non-fiction books. We’ve always enjoyed working together, and we found that the process came relatively naturally. A real bonus is that writing can sometimes be a lonely business. It’s great to have someone to share the highs and lows, and talk through difficulties with. It’s harder for two writers to get writers’ block than one!

However, writing non-fiction and writing fiction are very different techniques. When we turned to historical novels, we had to evolve a new way of working to develop plot lines and characters — something you don’t do in non-fiction. First we collaborate on building a strong plot line and subdividing it into chapters and scenes. Then we decide which of us will write which section. That may sound quite cut and dried, in reality it’s fluid and iterative — a synergy if you like. Though we produce first drafts separately, we spend a great deal of time discussing and amending the text together. Of course, we sometimes disagree, but talking things through usually provides a solution we’re both happy with. Above all in our collaboration we strive to keep the writing fresh and immediate. We want the reader to feel at the centre of the action, eager to turn each page and unable to detect which of us was the lead author for which scene.

Teamwork

The fact that we’re a team also helps with the research, one of the real pleasures of the writing process for us both. For Fortune’s Soldier, to help us understand the mindset of the complex, mercurial and controversial Robert Clive and the political situation in the Indian subcontinent in the 18th century which he so profitably exploited, we spent quite a bit of time in libraries and archives. In Britain we read the official correspondence of the East India Company — dry but insightful — but also some more colourful and intimate letters and diaries. We were also very fortunate to have help and insights from our editor Poulomi Chatterjee and her colleagues at Hachette India, for example in explaining the layout and character of old Calcutta and drawing our attention to recent Indian research.

Our work brings us frequently to India, which we first visited many years ago. Though we didn’t know it at the time, that initial visit would be the catalyst, many years later, for choosing India as the setting for many of our books. Like so many first-time visitors we made a beeline for the Taj Mahal, which captivated us. We began reading the Moghul chronicles, which revealed to us the extraordinary dynasty that created the Taj. Our interest was kept alive by frequent return visits, on one of which we decided to write a non-fiction book —A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time — about the Taj Mahal and the family drama behind it. That in turn inspired us to develop our Empire of the Moghul novels and, most recently, to take India’s story on into the 18th century to the time of Robert Clive.

We’ve probably spent nearly two years of our lives in India and could not have written our books without those visits. However gripping and detailed, source documents can only convey part of the picture. They don’t capture sounds, smells, tastes and sights — how the deserts of Rajasthan glow tangerine in the midday sun or how the Hooghly River looks spectral as a pale mist cloaks it in the early dawn. Neither can they give you a real sense of topography and landscape, such as the thrill of trekking in Sanskar or tracking tigers in national parks. To help us visualise Robert Clive’s life as a young soldier fighting in so many campaigns in the south and of course in the great confrontation at Plassey, and re-create it for our readers, we needed to see the places for ourselves — not a duty, but always a pleasure and an activity we hope our readers think was worthwhile.

The authors’ latest book, Fortune’s Soldier, has just been released.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 1:19:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/writing-history/article26339453.ece

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