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Traitor's Gate - Michael Ridpath

How I wrote Traitor's Gate

Traitor's Gate very nearly didn't make it out of that proverbial bottom drawer where so many novelists keep those manuscripts that are not quite publishable. I started work on it in 2005, finished the first draft in 2006, and tucked the fourth draft into that bottom drawer somewhere in the depths of my computer in 2007. I dug it out and rewrote it in 2011, and found a publisher in 2012. Finally, after reading 108 books producing 114,000 words of notes, and writing seven drafts of 120,000 words each – admittedly they were not retyped all the way through each time – Traitor's Gate was published in June 2013. And you know what? It was worth it. At least for me.

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Why didn't I get it right first time?   Until Traitor's Gate, all my novels had been financial thrillers – eight of them – starting with Free To Trade in 1996 and ending with See No Evil in 2006. I had worked in the City myself and so I was writing what I knew, which is a good plan when you start out. I learned something about writing thrillers with each new book, but my sales were slipping. Unfortunately financial thrillers never did take up the mantle of legal thrillers as my publishers had hoped: I never was, as one optimistic strap line put it, "the British John Grisham". But I was ready to take on the big boys. I wanted to write about what I didn't know. I wanted to write a spy thriller set in the Second World War.

Hammer & SickleThere is another idea about writing bestsellers which is not nearly as useful as "write what you know", in fact I believe that it is a dangerous myth. That is the notion that you need to analyse the market, see who sells well in it, and copy them. It might work some of the time, but it is unsatisfying to the writer and unsatisfying to the reader. It seems to me that if you want to establish your name as a favourite with readers, then you must ensure your books are different from those others out there. A good way to achieve this is to find some idea or theme that resonates, and to explore it. Of course there will be action, intrigue, tension, suspense and excitement, but the theme will set the tone of the novel and make it worth reading and remembering, rather than just a pleasant way to pass a couple of evenings. If you think of John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold you will see what I mean. It's not just an exciting Cold-War spy thriller, it's about deceit, corruption, betrayal and how the espionage world both attracts the morally flawed and encourages them, all ideas that were to crop up again and again in Le Carré's novels.

So how could I find a unique perspective on the Second World War, the period that has probably had more books written about it than any other?

I went back thirty years, to the time when I read history at university. In many of the rooms of Merton College in Oxford used to hang a little wooden plaque with the name of the undergraduate who had resided there in 1914 and the year he died, often also 1914, sometimes 1915, occasionally 1916. The one in my friend Dave Bowen's room had a typically Edwardian name, I think it was Algernon. I have thought a lot about Algernon ever since.

I studied the twentieth century, and wrote an essay on appeasement just before the Second World War. It struck me very clearly why appeasers in the late 1930s, survivors of that wholesale destruction of youth that was the Great War, tried to do every last thing they could not to fight a war to avoid a war, especially when the "war to end all wars" had already been fought so disastrously twenty years before. In retrospect appeasement was a bad idea, but perhaps it seemed a good idea at the time, or at least an honourable one.

Lastly, the concept of "The Good German", interested me. My eighth financial novel, See No Evil, is set in South Africa and features a wealthy newspaper magnate who believes that Apartheid is wrong. He is a "good Afrikaner" in the 1980s, and his life is difficult. How much more difficult would it be to become, or remain, a "good German" in the 1930s. There were many of course; a lot of whom were crammed into the concentration camps.

Iron crossThese ideas, more feelings really, were simmering gently somewhere in the depths of my mind, when I stumbled upon a historical event of which I had not previously heard: the plot amongst German officers to overthrow Hitler in September 1938. Perfect. 1938, as I called it then, was born. Two young idealists, a German and an Englishman, meet at Oxford in the 1930s. They vow never to fight each other. Then, in 1938, as their two countries seem on the brink of war, and of a war not just between nations but between good and evil, they meet again in Berlin. Should Theo, the German, join his fellow German officers planning to assassinate Hitler? And should Conrad, the Englishman, work with the German secret service to help them carry out their plot? Or are they being duped? Are each of them betraying their country, or their ideals, or both?

The research was fascinating. Lots of reading of history books and contemporary novels, a couple of visits to Berlin. Then it was time to write, and the writing was fun, immersing myself into Germany in 1938, where the stakes were high and good was squaring up to evil. The book was a little longer than usual, but I finished a first draft eventually. It was pretty good, the history was fascinating, but it was a bit slow in places, and my hero, Conrad was a bit too passive. An observer, not a doer. I had forgotten my thriller-writing skills, and I had some rewriting to do: shifting scenes around, deleting some, adding others, raising the stakes, getting Conrad to pull his finger out.

The book improved and after four drafts my agent sent it off to a dozen publishers. I was quietly confident, I had done this before, with Free to Trade, and the results had been pleasing. But then three rejections came, then six more, and then the final three. The hard fact hit me: two years' of work had been turned down. My agent, Carole Blake, then gave me what turned out to be excellent advice. Accept that the market didn't want 1938 and come up with another idea.

In the mean time, I had been writing yet another draft of 1938, the fifth. By this stage, I was determined to write a pacy spy thriller, and I ditched all the interesting, slow stuff about Conrad and his crises of conscience. But as I read it through yet again, and considered Carole's advice, I thought that I had perhaps created the worst of all worlds: a mediocre thriller which didn't really say what I wanted to say. So, I stuffed it in the bottom drawer, pulled out a big sheet of white A3 paper and thought anew. My Icelandic detective Magnus and the Fire & Ice series was the result.

After I had finished my first Magnus novel, Where The Shadows Lie, I was tempted to take out 1938, and have another look at it. But I remembered how leaving Free To Trade for nine months had given me a clearer picture of it. I knew that the trouble with 1938 was that I was too close, that I had tinkered it to death, and I thought it would require the passage of years, rather than months, to be able to look at it again objectively.

So four years later, I pulled out the fifth draft and began to read. I could remember how much I had loved writing it, and what an important character Conrad was to me. As I began reading, I was disappointed. Conrad was dull. There was nothing much to him: he wasn't the complex, interesting man who had hovered over my shoulder for the year I was writing the book. But the plot wasn't bad. And as I got deeper into it, it fairly zipped along. The ending was pretty good.

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Interesting   Then I dug out the second draft. This time the beginning grabbed me. Conrad was much more intriguing; I felt like I was in his company rather than his dull younger brother. The book became a bit flabby, too much historical explanation about obscure German generals, and Conrad became a bit prissy, which I didn't like. But at least the novel was about something.

With four years' perspective, the solution was obvious: combine the second and fifth drafts, and give Conrad a 1930s-style stiff upper lip, which would hide but not obliterate his churning emotions. There followed a sixth draft and then, as I sat down to read through the seventh, I realised I finally had what I had wanted all along: a novel which was about peace, betrayal, friendship and loyalty, but which was also an exciting thriller about the coup that would have changed world history if Neville Chamberlain had done things only slightly differently on 30 September 1938. Hello, Traitor's Gate.

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