Bestselling historian Dan Jones has been enlightening global audiences with tales from the past for 15 years. Now he’s turning his hand to fiction, discovers Rebecca Pitcairn
“This time of year is always pretty full on for me,” explains Reading-born historian Dan Jones as he tries to remember which town he’s speaking to me from. He’s on tour, somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales, having already stopped in Edinburgh and Manchester within the last 24 hours to promote his new book, Essex Dogs.
Having previously written ten bestselling history books including The Templars, Crusaders, and Powers and Thrones, as well as The Colour of Time and The World Aflame with Marina Amaral, the 41-year-old is used to the hectic nature of a book tour. However, this year he’s a little more nervous than usual because the book in question is his first novel.
“They are very different writing processes,” says Dan. “Non-fiction is taking a messy story and winnowing it down and giving it focus, but I’ve found fiction is a question of putting your feet up and letting your imagination work on its own, letting the characters have fun – or not have fun depending on the scenario – and do what they feel like.”
Essex Dogs is the explosive first instalment of a planned trilogy set in the early stages of the Hundred Years War. It tells the stark story of ten ordinary soldiers in Edward III’s invading army, who land on the beaches of Normandy in the summer of 1346 and head into a battle that will forge nations, and shape the very fabric of human lives.
“It’s a deep dive into the imagined reality of life in a medieval army,” explains Dan. “The opening sequence is of a sort of medieval D-Day, except there’s no messerspitze and machine guns, instead you’ve got trebuchets and crossbows.”
If Dan’s other work is anything to go by (he’s sold over one million copies of his non-fiction books), Essex Dogs is bound to be a hit. But, I wonder, with such success in the non-fiction market, why the switch? “I couldn’t do this story in non-fiction because the chronicalists don’t really care about ordinary people, so there’s not enough information to credibly build the world of ten individuals in a non-fiction way,” Dan tells me. “But if you create individuals, as I’ve done in the form of these ‘Essex Dogs’, then you can place them in a world that has historic credibility but also develop a really exciting story around them.”
The story has all the right ingredients for a Hollywood blockbuster. Indeed, Sony Pictures International has the option to option screen rights to the Essex Dogs trilogy. Dan refuses to be drawn on who he might like to play the characters, should it get that far. However, his work with artist Ash Fields on a window campaign to help bring the characters of the book to life in bookshops up and down the country was an “interesting casting process of sorts”.
“Ash is a fantastically gifted artist and he and I talked throughout his development process on what they looked like,” Dan explains. “What we’ve come up with are 10 visions of these guys, which to me are very true to my imagination of them.”
Dan’s vivid imagination of history’s much loved (and hated) figures can be somewhat attributed to his school years in Buckingham, where he grew up and attended The Royal Latin School, which celebrates its 600th anniversary next year.
“I had a very good teacher when I was 14/15, called Mr Green, who was just a wonderful storyteller,” he remembers. “We were learning about the Tudors, as most children were at that age in the 90s, and he just brought them so vividly to life that it didn’t feel like work, it felt like this extraordinary adventure. I’ve just written the forward for the official commemorative book about the history of the school so I’ve been reflecting on my time there a lot recently. I had a fantastic time.”
Through his non-fiction work, Dan is no stranger to the screen. He has written and hosted dozens of history-based TV shows including the acclaimed Netflix/Channel 5 series, Secrets of Great British Castles, Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty: The Plantagenets and London: 2000 Years of History and admits that “of course” he would love to see Essex Dogs played out on screen. But, for now, he is focusing on the book and the launch of his first podcast, This is History, which runs for 12 weeks in the lead up to Christmas.
“It’s a 24-part series about the first Plantagenets; Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and all the dramas with their kids,” he explains. “It’s a political story masquerading as a kitchen sink drama on steroids! But the podcast is not a chat show, it’s a really crafted piece of audio storytelling with great sound engineering and design, an original score, so it’s cinematic.
“I think one of the problems people used to have is that they’d say [history] was boring but now there is lots of media for people who are capable of telling stories to tell stories. And that’s all you need to engage people in history. Your subject matter is the sum total of all human deed and achievement so you should be able to make it interesting, if you know what you’re doing.”
Essex Dogs by Dan Jones is out now in hardback, published by Head of Zeus, an AriesBook, RRP £16.99. Dan will be at Guildford Book Festival’s History Day, held at West Horsley Place, on October 2, Guildfordbookfestival.co.uk