Conversations: Bernard Cornwell

by Pamela Taylor
published in Writing

On November 26th, the latest opus from Bernard Cornwell – Sword of Kings  – will be available in bookstores in the US. If you’re already a fan of The Last Kingdom Series, then you’re no doubt as eager as I am for the newest volume.

If you haven’t yet explored Cornwell’s work, then don’t wait another minute – you’re in for a treat. A consummate storyteller, Bernard Cornwell excels at immersing readers in the realities of a time long past. His characters are memorable, the historical details are impeccable, and the narratives keep you reading late into the night.

We’re extremely fortunate that Bernard Cornwell was willing to take some time out of his busy promotion and writing schedule to share some thoughts with our community.

From 2000 BC to the mid-19th century, spanning two continents, and with a bit of legend thrown in . . .  Few authors of historical fiction have attempted such a broad expanse of time and place. How have you managed to immerse yourself so successfully into so many eras and settings?

I confess it never occurred to me that the broad expanse of time was unusual . . . like (I hope) most authors, I write about what interests me.  Sharpe sprang out of the Hornblower stories which I read when I was young; and then, finding myself living in the USA without a work permit, I decided to try a ‘Hornblower-on-Land’ series to see if it could pay the rent! It did. I suspect my main interest is mediaeval, but finding myself living in the States, thanks to a blonde, I became fascinated by the American Civil War – which led to books.

Then, a decade ago, I fell among actors and found myself on stage. I played everything, from Sextimus the Silent in ‘Once Upon a Mattress’ to Prospero in ‘The Tempest’. But finding myself with professional actors and directors focused my interest in Shakespeare – I was cast in every summer’s Shakespeare production – and that fascination inspired five years of research and ended with Fools and Mortals!

There’s no sense to any of it – capricious choices!

Do you plan the story arc of an entire series from beginning to end or does one book inspire the next?  And how often do your characters or the setting alter the story’s trajectory during the writing process?

Oh, my Lord, I wish I could plan! I envy those authors who can plot their whole story before they begin, but I just can’t do it. I think it was E.L. Doctorow who said that writing a novel was like driving a car at night with feeble headlights down an unfamiliar winding country road, and you can only see as far ahead as those feeble lights allow. I find exactly the same. I start a book not knowing how it will end – indeed, I start a chapter without knowing how it will end. The story reveals itself as you write it, and for me, 95% of the work is the process of discovering the story. I know that sounds daft, but it does work. I suppose it’s the subconscious? But characters always say things and do things that surprise me, and there’s little choice except to go where they seem to want to go. If they don’t surprise me then I suspect the writing is dull, which is the cardinal sin. That does lead to wasted time . . . you find that a choice you (they) made in Chapter Three leads nowhere by Chapter Seven and then you have to go back and change the whole thing. So how often do the characters change the story? All the time!

What’s one of the more curious, surprising, or maybe even peculiar things you’ve discovered when doing research for a story?

Probably a lot of things! I was surprised that if you take the well-known verse in the 23rd Psalm, ‘my cup runneth over’, back to the Vulgate then you end up with ‘my cup makes me drunk’, which is a lot more fun. I have no idea which translation from the Hebrew is accurate, but I know which I prefer.

I was fascinated by Elizabethan stage makeup – using belladonna to make the eyes of the young boys playing women look larger, and thus more alluring. Nothing earth-shaking, I know, but the minutiae of history is always fascinating.

Is there an interview question you’ve always hoped someone would ask but no one has? And, of course, how would you answer it?   

Honestly? No.

This is a bit like asking a parent to choose a favorite child, but is there a particular book or group of books among your work that’s closest to your heart – or that you’re most proud of?

I’m most fond of the Arthurian trilogy: The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur.  I don’t know if they deserve that fondness, but they were simply exhilarating to write! I felt tackling the Matter of Britain was a bit ambitious, and maybe foolish, but I wanted to move the stories back into a believable 6th century setting and so allowed myself six months to do some very detailed research. About three months in, towards the end of September, I got bored with making notes from ancient Welsh texts and decided I would take a day off and write an experimental chapter – experimental because I’d decided to write in the first person, which I’d never done before. I took the day off, wrote the ‘experimental’ chapter, and never stopped. The first draft was finished just before Christmas. I’m not saying the book wrote itself (the rewrite took much longer), but it was pure pleasure! The other two books were also incredibly pleasurable to write. I’ve never dared re-read them – I’d hate to become disappointed in my triplets!

Are there other historical periods, characters, or events that you’ve wanted to spin a narrative around and just haven’t gotten to yet?

There are two or three. Will I ever write them? I don’t know. I’m ancient now, but maybe there’ll be time?

Any hint you’re willing to drop about what we can look forward to after “Sword of Kings”?

More of the same! Uhtred’s tale, which is embroidered onto the events that led to the creation of England, is still unfinished, so as soon as I finish this answer I’ll go back to Chapter Four of what is, as yet, a novel without a title!

About Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell is the author of the acclaimed New York Times bestselling Saxon Tales series, which includes The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman, Lords of the North, Sword Song, The Burning Land, Death of Kings, The Pagan Lord, and, most recently, The Empty Throne and Warriors of the Storm, and which serves as the basis for the hit television series The Last Kingdom. He lives with his wife on Cape Cod and in Charleston, South Carolina.

Sword of Kings is available for preorder from Harper Collins and at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, – wherever you do your book shopping. Learn more about Bernard Cornwell at his website, where there is an active Q&A section. You can also follow him on Facebook.

Pamela Taylor’s inspiration for her first book turned out to be that final straw that pushed her to leave the corporate world behind for the world of words and imagination. Now an author and an editor, she loves helping others polish their stories almost as much as she enjoys writing her own. She’s a member of the DFW Writers Workshop and the Editorial Freelancers Association and is in her third year on the judges panel for the Ink & Insights Contest. You can learn more about her books at, and about her editing services at

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