7 Questions With Author Gordon L. Thomas
Meet English author, Gordon L. Thomas. He lives with his wife in London and started writing after he retired, resulting in four incredible historical novels. During his amazing career in the UK Home Office which is like the Department of State in the US, he alternated scientific work with being an administrator. A very cool aspect about his novels is that so far, they’ve all been based in Spain.
“I just love all aspects of being an author. I feel destined to write!”
Gordon published his first novel, The Harpist of Madrid, in 2011. This novel is based on the amazing life of a 17th century Spanish composer and harpist to the king of Spain.
The second, The Emerald of Burgos, is the story of two 17th century Spanish ladies of pleasure while the third, Expulsion, is a spy romance and the prequel to his first novel. Gordon has just published his fourth novel, Return to Madrid.
As a lover of Spanish culture and history, Gordon L. Thomas became immersed in it while studying the Spanish language. He has a number of friends who live in Spain and travels there quite a lot.
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Esther Rabbit: Just how much research is there behind a novel? Tell us how it looks behind the scenes.
The key to writing a successful novel is the research it is based on. I remember seeing an interview with Frederick Forsyth once, a good few years ago now, in which he said he spends two years researching each novel he writes. So that’s what I did before I started banging my keyboard to write ‘The Harpist of Madrid’. I spent two years looking into the life of the main character, Juan Hidalgo de Polanco (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juan_Hidalgo_de_Polanco), the most famous composer of 17th century Spain.
He was a harpist in the court of King Philip IV of Spain and hence the title of my novel, based on his amazing life.
My first sojourn was a trip to the British Library in London to see what Groves Musical dictionary had to say about him. Not much, other than to say that he wrote music for the first two operas in Spanish.
But one little reference struck me as especially interesting: to a 1967 PhD thesis by a researcher called Ruth Landes Pitts which was focused on the second of Juan Hidalgo’s opera, called Celos áun del Aire Matan (Jealousy even of the Air can Kill).
Many years before I wrote a PhD thesis myself – on nuclear physics would you believe – so I knew that there would be a long list of references at the back of the thesis, which was at the Peabody College of the University of Nashville, Tennessee. To cut the story short, my wife and I went to the US, borrowed it and copied it.
It was probably the best prize of all the research I did. There at the back was huge list of references, each of which I followed up, either at the Biblioteque Nacíonal in Madrid or with the Hispanic Society of America. There must have been at least forty from which I made some remarkable discoveries about the intrepid composer. The strangest of which was that he was a member of The Spanish Inquisition! Not one of those who handed out death sentences I should add!
I was lucky on several other fronts, too. I needed a map of 17th century Madrid. And sure enough discovered one, drawn by a Portuguese cartographer called Pedro Texeira. Not only is it a road map but it has a key to the addresses of some 2000 of its residents including Diego Velázquez, the famous painter whom Hidalgo must have known, as well as the addresses of others who show up as characters in my book.
Finally, I had to research some of these characters, to read about Philip IV, Velázquez himself, what life was like in Spain at the time, what it smelled like, what people wore and how they travelled.
So yes, there is a lot of research needed and the above shows you what I did for my first novel. The temptation is to use all you’ve discovered in your novel but don’t do that. You will bore your readers if you do. Use it mainly to set the scene in your own mind for what you are writing about and be aware of overloading the reader with facts that have no impact on the story.
Esther Rabbit: How does a day in your author life look?
It depends. For example, I have just published my fourth novel, Return to Madrid which is a sequel to my first (it can be read quite independently of The Harpist). So I am not actually writing a novel at present.
Apart from writing this, I have been researching my next novel which will be based on the extraordinary life of an English woman composer who lived from about 1860 to 1940. Today I have read about 20 pages of a book about her life and work. She is called Ethel Smyth and is one of the most interesting women you could come across.
More about her in my novel! I have also been updating my Facebook page and blog. I fact I am promoting Return to Madrid by giving away 15 copies of it in return for amazon reviews. If you’d like one pop along to my blog which you will find on my webpage www.gordonlthomas.com, assuming there are some left, I’ll send you one!
I’ll be reading more about Ethel later today and starting to draw a timeline of her life.
When I’m actually writing, I write no less than 1,000 words a day. Every day, except when I may be on holiday or doing something which will consume almost all of a day. Otherwise, I’ll do 1000 words a day. So you need to be disciplined if you are going to write a worthwhile book.
Writing need not be a lonesome task. I can write in my easy chair with my computer in my lap while my wife is watching television. The only drawback is when she speaks to me and I’m so involved in the plot I don’t reply!
I do a lot of other things besides writing, as you’ll see from my website. I’m chairman of the Executive Committee of the International Carnahan Conference on Security Technology (http://sites.ieee.org/iccst/) which takes up a fair bit of my time. I also play up to about four rounds of golf a week. But I religiously find the time to write my 1,000 words on writing days. Sometimes it means getting up early and getting a start before I go to golf; other times when I come home; after lunch or in the evening after dinner. So there is no fixed time during the days I write.
Some days I may be doing a book signing. I’ve done upwards of 50 now, mainly in the larger UK stores such as WHSmiths and sometimes Waterstones. But I do like to support the smaller local book shops where I can, for example The Regency Bookshop (https://regencybookshop.com/ ) in Surbiton.
I hardly ever stand for more than five hours to do a signing (I don’t like sitting at a table!) and speak to people wandering around or entering the shop. I have the attitude that I don’t really care if chatting to someone leads to a sale or not. The important thing is to get them to engage with you. I could tell you some incredible stories about the things that have happened to me at signings but maybe in a future interview.
I also do talks about my books in particular and writing in general. I didn’t start writing novels until I retired and I call my main talk ‘A latecomer novelist’! I have done over 60 talks up to now for Rotary Clubs, book clubs, Women’s Institutes, Probus Clubs, Men’s Seniors clubs, U3A groups and others. These talks and signings are among my major sources of sales.
Esther Rabbit: What should readers expect from your next novel?
Let’s talk about Return to Madrid because I’m not sure yet what to expect myself from the one about Ethel Smyth. I’m not even certain that I’ll write it.
Return to Madrid is about Francisca, the recently widowed wife of Juan Hidalgo de Polanco. Their son dies in mysterious circumstances while a student at a university not far from their home in Madrid, sixteen years before Juan Hidalgo dies. Francisca gives a new purpose to her life by going to the son’s college to see if she can solve the mystery of her son’s passing.
What the reader can expect is a fast moving, gripping thriller, which takes different turns at every corner. Who would possibly think that a widowed woman, along with her friend, could solve a case that has been cold for 16 years? There was no fingerprint evidence in those days, nor DNA. Forensic science hadn’t been born!
But these two persistent women engage the help of staff at the university and the local constabulary. You will be surprised at what they uncover and that they find the solution to the puzzling death. Not only that, but new friendships are formed with people in this university town. Francisca is troubled as to whether or not to pursue them. Does she fall in love again at the age of 69? Not with a man so much younger, surely!
I won’t tell you more, in case you decide to read it! It’s available in paperback or on kindle at http://goo.gl/kog8Nx
Esther Rabbit: What are the steps you usually take from writing your first draft to publishing?
First, I spend a lot of time editing. I reckon to cut out between 5% and 10% of the text in the first draft. That can be up to about 15,000 words, two weeks work! But the novel needs to flow in an effortless way like a rapidly flowing river. No dams or other hindrances.
And it needs to be free of errors and ugly typos. That is quite hard to achieve, in part that’s because I’ve written the thing myself and can skip quite unknowingly over errors I’ve made myself, mainly in punctuation and spelling, often of names.
This is where the next stage kicks off. I send it to my trusted readers: my son, Greg , John C (also a writer), Chris, F, Karen T, Lorri (another novelist), and, far from least, my lovely wife Jan who can pick up a small print error like an eagle spotting a field mouse.
They also help with any plot errors I may have made and tell me about things in the book they don’t feel comfortable with, e.g, too much sex, not enough sex, oddities about the characters and any inconsistencies. All this happens while I am reading the draft again… again…and again!
I next go through all of what my trusted readers come up with and correct the errors. I then look at the other comments and work out whether or not to accept them. If I can see no reason to reject a comment. I usually accept it.
For my first two novels, The Harpist of Madrid and The Emerald of Burgos, I used a UK publisher called Olympia, then based in London. I had to put quite a significant proportion of the publication price to get Olympia to print The Harpist. But they did.
They also wrote the blurb and designed the cover. The best thing they did though was to get an historian to read it and give their comments. There were 11 pages single spaced of them. I was shocked! After I had come off the ceiling I made an important decision.
I would accept each of the comments and incorporate it into the novel, unless I could prove it wrong. I ended up accepting all of them except two. I shall be eternally grateful to this historian whoever she was (I’ve always felt that it was a woman!).
So that was The Harpist. The book sold really well – over 2500 copies to date – and Olympia were much more lenient when it came to publishing The Emerald of Burgos. It hardly cost me anything if you take account of the 50 complimentary promotion copies they gave me.
I took a completely different approach to publishing my third and fourth novels. I set myself up as a publisher! My business name is: SellMy Books https://www.yell.com/biz/sellmy-books-worcester-park-9433066/ . This meant quite a lot of work but it has paid off well.
It has cut out the ‘middle man’ between me the author and the printer. I pay the printer, usually less than half the cover price of the book, so profit by more than half that price if I sell at the cover price. I have a brilliant cover designer who produces great covers at a reasonable price. The ultimate is to publish books by other authors and I’m doing that too!
Esther Rabbit: What’s your favorite genre as a reader?
Historical novels. I love reading them. I’ve just finished reading Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers.
Esther Rabbit: Does the genre you normally read have a direct influence on your writing?
Yes, definitely. I do read lots of different genres actually but historical novels are my favourite by quite a long chalk. One that influenced my writing of The Harpist of Madrid was A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian author.
The first few paragraphs shocked me. I was determined to write something, if not equally shocking, that would pull my readers straight into the story. That is why The Harpist starts with a surprising scene of nudity on the stage of a theatre in Madrid. I loved Márquez’ method of developing characters and, while hoping I have my own individual style, I have drawn on his, too.
I have read a number of the historical classics including novels by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka over the years and I’m certain they have influenced me. The Harpist includes a not quite direct quotation from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I’ll leave it to you to spot it!
Esther Rabbit: What are the 5 immediate tasks you hope to accomplish in the near future?
Good question! I must finish my research on Ethel Smyth. I’m giving that high priority. That will take up to eight months. Hopefully, I shall be writing the novel over the winter.
Then I shall be working out where to go next. I have an idea about a novel based on the adventures of Queen Emma of Normandy, a mediaeval queen who was uniquely married to two English kings. She was another fascinating woman.
One based on the Dutch wars for which I already have a cover picture painted many years ago by my wonderful, loving and talented mother. My most immediate task is to go to bed. Goodnight!
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Meeting her changed everything.“