The Historical Alchemy of Derek Birks

Crafting Timeless Sagas from the Threads of History

“Derek is a luminary in the realm of historical fiction, a true artisan whose work transcends the mere retelling of bygone eras to animate them with a vibrancy that is palpable. His novels are not just books; they are portals to the past, meticulously researched and masterfully written, offering readers an immersive experience that is both educational and exhilarating.”

As Reader’s House magazine, we conducted an interview with Derek Birks, a master weaver of historical tapestries, to delve into the intricacies of his craft. Born in Hampshire, raised amidst the lush landscapes of New Zealand, and now settled in the pastoral beauty of Dorset, Derek’s journey is as captivating as the eras he brings to life in his writing.

Once a history teacher in Berkshire, Derek exchanged classroom storytelling for the boundless realms of historical fiction, drawing readers into the tumultuous times of the late medieval period with his first series, “The Wars of the Roses.” His pen breathes life into the fictional Elder family over eight books and a novella, capturing the essence of an era with precise historical accuracy and thrilling action.

Derek’s narrative prowess also shines in his Amazon bestselling trilogy set in post-Roman Britain, spotlighting the legendary Ambrosius Aurelianus. His passion for history doesn’t end with his writing; it extends into a popular podcast series co-hosted with historian Sharon Bennett Connolly. “A Slice of Medieval” bridges the gap between history and fiction, featuring discussions with novelists and historians alike.

In our intimate conversation, Derek reveals his literary roots as a child reader enthralled by adventure and character-driven tales. He shares his admiration for the enduring figures of D’Artagnan and Uhtred of Bebbanburg, as well as his own creation, Eleanor Elder. He nods to the influence of literary giants like Bernard Cornwell and Alexandre Dumas on his work and gives us a glimpse into his current reading list and upcoming projects.

Derek’s writing style—character-driven and action-packed—eschews lengthy descriptions in favour of a narrative that propels forward with every page turned. His characters are diverse and flawed, providing a rich tapestry for storytelling. His meticulous research process involves not just books but also archaeological reports, online documents, and invaluable site visits to capture the essence of historical settings.

Whether he’s crafting words in his quiet study or amidst the ambient noise of a local café, Derek’s dedication to his art is unwavering. Currently juggling multiple projects across different time periods, he continues to challenge himself with new genres, including a modern crime thriller.

Join us as we explore the mind and musings of an author who has dedicated his life to the past, yet writes with an urgency that resonates in the present. This is not just an interview; it’s a journey through time with Derek as our guide.

What kind of reader were you as a child? 

From an early age, I was encouraged to read by my parents so, I quickly became a quite voracious reader. I remember being interested in words themselves too: what they meant, how they looked and sounded. There wasn’t a great range of books available so I read The Famous Five and so on. The theme was usually adventure and action, but I was also captivated by interesting characters.

What genres do you especially enjoy reading? 

These days, I struggle to find the time to read and inevitably I read mainly historical fiction or non-fiction history. But I also like thrillers and science fiction.

Who is your favourite fictional hero or heroine? 

In modern thrillers, it’s hard to go past Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. But, in terms of historical fiction, there are a number of candidates which I guess I can reduce to two: D’Artagnan from Dumas and Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred of Bebbanburg. To those, I must confess that I am very fond of my own Wars of the Roses heroine, Eleanor Elder, who is undoubtedly the most popular character I’ve ever created.

What books and authors have impacted your writing career?

I suppose that, like many other historical fiction authors of my generation, I’ve been massively inspired by Bernard Cornwell. He has set the bar very high with his unrivalled body of work. The other writer I’ve always admired is Alexandre Dumas, especially his Three Musketeers series which is set over several decades. I quite like the idea of developing characters as they grow older and I have used this in my Wars of the Roses series which spans about thirty years.

What do you plan to read next?

I’d like to read War Cry by Ian Ross, who I’ve just interviewed for the Slice of Medieval Podcast. It’s the sequel to Battle Song which was a fabulous story set in thirteenth century England during the time of Simon de Montfort and Henry III.

I’m also planning to delve into the works of M J Porter, who writes about Mercian England, because I’ll be interviewing her shortly too.

How would you describe your writing style?

My books are very much driven by characters and action. I like something to be happening on every page I write so, I’m not big on florid descriptions of clothing and furniture, or paragraphs containing deep introspection.

I also like my protagonists to be varied so, for example, in my Wars of the Roses series, there are three protagonists and all are in some way flawed. Two of them are women who, though they are sisters, are very different both in their outlook and their attributes. A range of leading characters provides plenty of scope for moving the narrative forward in interesting ways.

How do you research your writing?

Well, firstly, I read a lot of books for research – especially if I’m writing historical fiction. Depending on the time period, I might well be reading archaeological reports too, as they can be invaluable in getting a feel of a period very long ago. I’ll research documents online along with other sources such as contemporary maps and diagrams.

There is no substitute for location visits and, though much of my writing has been set in the fifteenth century or even earlier, I find that site visits are still invaluable for getting a feel of a place. Sometimes places have changed very little even over five hundred years but the landscape is nearly always different and it can require much painstaking research to unravel in what ways a place has changed. For example, has the passage of centuries caused a coastline to recede, or marshland to be drained, or cliffs to be eroded?

Figuring out such changes contributes to recreating an authentic setting.

When, how and where do you write?

I tend to write more in the mornings than later on in the day; after all, a writer’s got to have a life! At the moment there are two places that I write – the most obvious being on a laptop at a desk in my study at the top of the house – which my wife calls my eyrie. I like to write with music in the background. People are often surprised about that but it helps to blur any other extraneous sounds in the house. Sometimes, I associate a particular song or piece of music with one of the characters and listening to it helps me to focus on that character.

In recent months I’ve started to writing several mornings a week at a local café/restaurant in Christchurch. Walking there and back ensures that I’m not sitting down for so long and gives me a bit of exercise. I’ve also got to know some of the regular waiting staff quite well too. They are surprised that I can concentrate with all the conversations going on around me, but I guess it just becomes background noise.

What are you working on at the moment?

Currently, I am working on several projects. One is a series set in the twelfth century period known as the Anarchy when there was civil war between King Stephen and his cousin, Empress Matilda. I’m also writing a modern crime thriller which I’ve been threatening to do for ages. As well as all that, I’m rewriting the texts of my podcast series on the Wars of the Roses into a handy guide on the subject aimed at students and indeed, anyone else who might be interested in the period.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? And what would you want to know?

Having already interviewed Bernard Cornwell for the podcast I co-host – A Slice of Medieval – I would probably choose Alexandre Dumas because he led such a fascinating, and often quite turbulent, life. He was involved in the theatre too which I enjoy very much. He was, of course, writing several centuries earlier, but his mixed race origin, wide travels and bohemian lifestyle ensure that he still excites much interest today. I’m sure he would be a fabulous guest at dinner!


‘Epic, action-packed and bloody. Derek Birks throws us headlong into the maelstrom of the Wars of the Roses. The author doesn’t pull any punches in this twisty tale of feuding families in a land riven by war.’  Matthew Harffy

‘First-class historical fiction, and beautifully written. A gripping Wars of the Roses yarn with totally authentic and believable characters. Highly recommended for fans of the period.’ Angus Donald

‘From the eye-catching cover to the last page, Feud is an exciting story of survival through personal upheaval during a vicious war, where the outcome is not always certain.’  Historical Novel Society

‘It is impossible not to feel invested in the characters – they are flawed and damaged, but trying their best to survive and you find yourself willing them on.’  The Review

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