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The Horse Coin - Background to the Book

The Horse Coin stands on its own. It’s not a crime book, let alone a Corvinus, it’s set in Britain (at the time of the Boudiccan revolt), and it’s written in the third person.

The original intention - which explains the forward-looking ending - was to make it the first book of a series taking a Roman family through the history of Roman Britain and possibly beyond; the trigger (for me) being the clash of two mutually-alien cultures and their eventual fusion. The left hand - Celtic - way of looking at things has always fascinated me just as much as the right hand Roman: each has its own contribution to make, its own strengths and flaws, and its own lessons to teach if the other will only accept their validity. This balance - this equality - was important: what I emphatically didn’t want to do was choose one side, Roman or British, and whitewash it while blackening the other. The choice of the coin as both a title and a leitmotif (it would have appeared throughout the series) was intended to reflect this: it actually exists (Cunobelinus, the pro-Roman Celtic king, struck it at Camulodunum) and is a beautiful blend of Celtic and Roman features.

All very well, but whether the idea worked or not in practice I’m not at all sure: I’m always surprised when someone tells me - and they do, occasionally, completely unsolicited! - that they enjoyed the book, because on the whole I didn’t. Certainly it was uncomfortable to write; not in the sense that Nero was, but just awkward, in places like wading through glue. It’s the only book I’ve ever written where I didn’t altogether feel on top of things, or that the characters were telling the story rather than me. Partly, this is because it’s in the third person, and I’m a natural first person writer; this, for technical reasons, was unavoidable (it’s difficult to use a first person narrator when your plot demands several things happening at virtually the same time in different places, which The Horse Coin’s did). As a consequence, it felt like suddenly finding yourself driving an automatic car when you’re used to a manual: you don’t feel at home, you have to think consciously about what you’re doing. Perhaps the best thing to have done - and what I’d do now - was to leave the story to rest for a while, or, more drastically, to have junked it in its current form and waited until it resurfaced. But I did neither.

One detail about the writing, though, that suggests that the characters could take off when they liked. In my original plan Dumnocoveros the druid had a very minor part which ended with him being chased by a Roman detachment, caught and killed. In the event that wasn’t what happened: he was chased, fine, but I couldn’t make him be caught. Instead - and despite my best efforts - he escaped and became one of the story’s linchpin characters. That, to a writer, is a promising sign.

I’d be interested to know - if you have read or do read the book - what you thought of it; genuinely interested, so adverse comments are just as welcome as favourable ones.

David Wishart (May 2006)

read the 1st chapter

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