Monday, June 1, 2015

One Magical City, Two Books...

by Julian Stockwin

This magical city has inspired
artists over the centuries
Forget Lady Luck, I’ll take serendipity any day. It’s not often that an author finds himself in the position of being inspired to write two books following one location research trip... But that’s what happened to me after visiting Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople).

While there researching the latest book in my Thomas Kydd Series my wife Kathy discovered a rather lovely silk scarf in the Grand Bazaar. As she was chatting with the merchant I idly wondered just how silk in times past was brought from China to the West. Intrigued, I did some ferreting around and the creative juices started flowing – and I knew I had another story I just had to tell…

Thus it was in an exotic Turkish bazaar that The Silk Tree began its journey from inception to publication.

My current books Pasha and The Silk Tree are set in very different time periods, over a millennium apart. Pasha is the latest in my ongoing Kydd Series, one man’s journey from pressed man to admiral in the Great Age of Fighting Sail. It deals with the new and deadly sphere of influence for England: the Dardenelles, connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea and providing a coveted trade route to India. The Silk Tree is a standalone, an epic adventure to unravel China’s most guarded secret and set in the time of Emperor Justinian.

My literary partner on our last night in Istanbul!
My Kydd tales are based in the Georgian era, 200-odd years ago. I now know that period pretty well and can mentally go back in time there with reasonable ease. However, when I decided to write The Silk Tree I faced a huge challenge: I would need to get my head around a time not 200 but 1500 years in the past, and across two very different great civilisations – China and Byzantium! I have to admit I was somewhat nervous as to whether I could pull it off. But I do have a secret weapon: my wife Kathy. She’s an ex-magazine editor and we work together as a collaborative team.

I guess the hardest part of getting a historical mind set for The Silk Tree was to internalise the perceived boundaries of the known world in those far far away times. I had to strip away the trappings of modernity and develop an empathy with my main characters – a canny Greek merchant, Nicander and a fearless Roman legionary, Marius – and understand their personal horizons. This demanded deep research but I always especially enjoy this part of the writing process.

For me historical fiction must be character-led. Both my current books offered the opportunity to delve into the lives of a number of fascinating real-life characters who lived in Constantinople. I’ve picked two, one from each of my books.

Emporer Justinian I
Emperor Justinian I, traditionally known as Justinian the Great and also Saint Justinian in the Orthodox Church, was a towering figure in antiquity who did much to restore the respect and standing of the Roman Empire in the East, and his codifying of laws is the basis of much jurisprudence today. He was, incidentally, the last emperor to speak Latin as a native first language.

He was in power from 527 to 565. His reign marked a blossoming of Byzantine culture and his building program yielded such masterpieces as the church of Hagia Sophia.

Justinian was a man of large views and great ambitions, of fecund activity of mind, tireless energy, and a relentless grasp of detail. I would have loved to have spent some time with him!

Sultan Selim III
Another character I found intriguing is Sultan Selim III, who features in Pasha. Selim was very fond of literature and calligraphy; a poet, a musician, a devotee of all the fine arts. Sixty-four compositions by Selim are known today, some of which are part of the regular repertoire of Turkish classical music performance.

In many ways he was also very modern and a reformist ruler. Selim introduced domestic reforms: he opened schools, encouraged the printing and circulation of Western translations, and young Turks were sent to Europe for further study. The most significant reforms involved the military. The navy was strengthened, and a navigation school was opened. The army commissariat was changed, officer training was improved, the Bosphorus forts were strengthened, the artillery was revitalized, and the new engineering school was reorganized. The major innovation was the founding of a new body of regular troops known as the Nizam-i-Cedid.

I have a lot of sympathy for Selim, a cultured and sensitive man who’s delicacy and love of learning were no match for the titantic struggles around him. He dithered in the face of a need for resolution and firm decision and his temporising ways led directly to his early death.

But getting back to that location research trip...Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, uniquely lying partly in Europe, partly in Asia. It straddles the Bosphorus strait in northwestern Turkey, between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Founded on the Sarayburnu promontory around 660 BC as Byzantium, the city officially known as Istanbul since 1930 can lay claim to having been one of the most significant cities in history.

Of all the location research places I’ve visited in the course of my writing career Istanbul ranks as probably the most magical!

There are so many iconic sights in Istanbul but I had to strictly focus on those that I would write about in either or both of the books.

I’ll never forget standing on the Galata bridge as the sun was setting and looking up the whole length of the Golden Horn, gradually taking my mind back in time through the vistas of history it must have seen. I saw beautiful and mysterious goods from all over the known and unknown world arriving in ships of all kinds: red sails, tripod masts, galleys. Then my eyes travelled to the city itself, first founded by Byzas in 667 BC and having seen the Athenians, Lysander, the pax romana – it gives you pause to know that when the Roman empire was moved there by Constantine, the city was already a thousand years old.

The glorious Hagia Sophia
The glorious Hagia Sophia features in both Pasha and The Silk Tree. It’s regarded by many as the eighth wonder of the world. No-one visiting this icon of antiquity will fail to be overwhelmed with its atmosphere of ageless beauty and astonishing dimensions. Originally dedicated to the Wisdom of God (the Logos, the second person of the Holy Trinity), Hagia Sophia translates from the Greek as ‘sacred wisdom’. In Latin it was known as the Church of Sancta Sapientia.

When Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 AD Constantinople was the world’s largest city. Commissioned by the great Emperor Justinian I, Hagia Sophia was built in just six years. One hundred master builders supervised 10,000 workers in its construction.

Justinian wished to build an edifice to rival the legendary Solomon’s Temple. When he finally entered the finished building he uttered the words, "Solomon, I’ve surpassed you!"

Selim III receiving dignatories
at Topkapi palace
The Topkapi Palace was not built at the time in which The Silk Tree is set but it features prominently in Pasha. Situated on Seraglio Point, a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, it’s truly memorable with still the haunting mystery of sultans and harems about it, and I made it the centre for Renzi’s exotic adventure in Pasha. One of my most vivid memories of my visit to Istanbul is looking out from a wing of the sultan’s private quarters at Topkapi. To the left is Europe, to the right Asia. Directly in front is the Bosporus leading to Russia. Turn around and there’s the Sea of Marmara leading to Mediterranean and western world. And at your feet the Golden Horn...

I feel truly privileged to be able to travel the world in the course of research for my books.

Copyright acknowledgments
Selim III: By Joseph Warnia-Zarzecki 1850 (French) (Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Justinian: By Meister von San Vitale in Ravenna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Hagia Sophia: By Arild Vågen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Topkapi reception: By Konstantin_Kapidagli_001.jpg: Konstantin Kapıdağlı derivative work: Isl@m (Konstantin_Kapidagli_001.jpg) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Constantinople painting: Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


An epic adventure
to unravel the
secret of silk
Julian Stockwin was sent at the age of fourteen to Indefatigable, a tough sea-training school. He joined the Royal Navy at fifteen before transferring to the Royal Australian Navy, where he served in the Far East, Antarctic waters and the South Seas. In Vietnam he saw active service in a carrier task force. After leaving the Navy Julian attended university; he became a teacher and later practised as an educational psychologist. Julian lived for some time in Hong Kong, where he was commissioned into the Royal Naval Reserve. He was awarded the MBE and retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He now lives in Devon with his wife and literary partner Kathy. More information can be found on his website Julian also posts to his own blog, BigJules, and is on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

The latest title in
the Kydd series
He has written fifteen books to date in his Thomas Kydd historical action adventure fiction series. Although they form a series each title can be read as a stand-alone novel. The titles, in order are KYDD, ARTEMIS, SEAFLOWER, MUTINY, QUARTERDECK, TENACIOUS, COMMAND, THE ADMIRAL’S DAUGHTER, TREACHERY (published in the US as THE PRIVATEER’S REVENGE), TREACHERY, INVASION, VICTORY, CONQUEST, BETRAYAL, CARIBBEE and PASHA. He is also writing a series of historical standalones based on pivotal points in history. THE SILK TREE is the first of these novels; the second, THE CRAKYS OF WAR, is scheduled for publication in 2016. Julian has also written a non-fiction book, STOCKWIN’S MARITIME MISCELLANY.
His next Kydd series book is TYGER, out on October 8.


  1. Fascinating post, Julian - glad tou know how fortunate you are to get to do the travelling! Enjoying Caribbee at the moment and looking forward to listening to The Silk Tree.

  2. Great post! I'm always excited to read new books set in Istanbul.


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