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Novel path to the past
  1. Ben Kane

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Ben Kane loved reading and history at school, but had always wanted to be a vet. After qualifying, the urge to travel found him visiting places he had read about, which reignited his passion for history; however, it was while working as a temporary veterinary inspector during the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 that he had the chance to stand on Hadrian's Wall and imagine how the Roman legionaries must have felt. That experience led him to turn his hand to writing historical military fiction

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LIKE many people who dream of a career in veterinary medicine, I started off with a childhood love of animals. Dogs, cats, cows, sheep – as a boy, it didn't matter to me, I loved them all. Clichéd though it is, the wonderful, life-affirming James Herriot books helped fuel my interest in the profession, as did the fact that my dad was already a vet. Alongside this love of all creatures great and small ran a deeply rooted love of history. Don't ask me where it came from, but as a boy I devoured any book I could find about men with guns or swords. Yet I still ended up applying to study veterinary medicine. The main reason was that although I loved history, I couldn't see myself as a teacher or a lecturer, but I could see myself as a vet. There was certainly no concept in my mind of being a writer.

Graduating in 1992 from University College Dublin, I worked in mixed practice (in Northern Ireland and the Republic) for nearly three years. This was mainly large animal work, but with a good amount of small. I moved to the UK in 1996, working for a year in small animal practice in Greater London before the need to travel really hit me.

In 1997, I left my small animal job and took a solo trip to the Middle East, following part of the ancient Silk Road. During this trip, I also visited many of the ‘stans’, countries which had until only a few years before been part of the USSR. In Turkmenistan, I walked the ruins of Merv, an enormous walled city which was demolished by the Mongols in the 13th Century.

As I wandered through the vast site, in temperatures of more than 40°C, what became evident was that the city's history stretched back into deep antiquity. Merv had originally been founded as Antiochia in the fourth century BC by Alexander the Great. Furthermore, Roman prisoners of the battle of Carrhae (53 BC) had been taken there by their captors, the Parthians. Fascinated, I did some research upon my return. This confirmed what I had read in Merv, and the seeds of my first novel, ‘The Forgotten Legion’, were sown in my mind. For all that I had had my first thoughts of writing military historical fiction then, real life continued to get in the way; so did travelling.

Less than a year after the ‘stans’ trip, I set out again, this time heading for North, Central and South America. After nearly three years away, and spells of working in large animal practice in New Zealand and small animal practice in Australia, I returned to the UK in early 2001. The devastating outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) started about a month later. I volunteered to work as a temporary veterinary inspector very soon after that.

I had seen FMD in Kenya when seeing practice as a student; plus, I had lots of large animal experience. Luckily for me, I was posted to Northumberland, where Hadrian's Wall is situated. I spent a year in the north east; it was an unforgettable but deeply harrowing time. During the terrible months of slaughtering animals, however, things were made easier by the fact that I was able to visit many amazing Roman sites on the wall. The stunning locations and little museums fired up my imagination as never before, and I determined to write a novel about the Romans at last.

Over the following two years, I went back into small animal veterinary practice in Shropshire, bought a house and settled down somewhat. Crucially though, I also started writing. This was a process that I soon grew to love. Despite the long hours and on-call nights and weekends, writing became an obsession, a fix. I wasn't happy unless I could write every day. During my lunch break, I'd use my laptop in the staff room, my car or a local café. I enrolled in a residential writing course run by the Arvon Foundation (arvonfoundation.org), which is something I'd highly recommend.

In 2005, I moved from Shropshire to a practice in Bristol, specifically because it was a four-day-a-week job, with no on-call. This was to give myself more time to write. Even that didn't give me enough time. Several days a week, I'd get up at 5 am to do a couple of hours before going to work. Weekends were non-existent except for 12 hours a day of writing and researching ancient Rome. I built up a library of scores of textbooks, and continued to visit Roman sites all over Britain.

In early 2006, I was fortunate enough to get signed by my literary agent, whose input and help with my writing skills was enormous. Discarding what I had written up till then (it wasn't good enough), ‘The Forgotten Legion’ emerged into the light. It was put on the market in summer 2007 and, after a bidding war involving six major publishers, I landed a three-book deal with Random House.

Going full time

By the time of the novel's release in May 2008, I was deep into writing my second book. However, the pressures of family life, writing and work were becoming too much to continue without the risk of burnout. Although it meant a big drop in pay, I decided to go part time. That worked well for a number of months, but a mandatory major rewrite (from my editor) of the second book meant that I asked for a one month sabbatical in December 2008. One month turned into two, and the practice I worked for wasn't prepared to keep my job. That was fair enough, but I couldn't go back to work either: I was contracted to finish my novel.

On a wing and a prayer, I became a full-time writer in early 2009. That was a tough year financially, because at that stage I wasn't earning enough from writing to live on. We lived half on my advances and half on some money that my wife had come into. However, I didn't worry too much about whether it was a good career move. Writing had become something that I enjoyed doing more than I had ever loved veterinary work. I am happy to say that it still feels that way.

Things soon took a turn for the up as well. In 2010, my third book reached Number 4 in the Sunday Times top 10. Since then, things have gone from strength to strength. My novels are on sale in more than 10 countries and, at this moment, I have a four-book contract that secures my income for the next few years. I won't be returning to practice for the foreseeable future.

Marching for charity

Towards the end of this month, Ben will be walking the length of Hadrian's Wall for two charities – Combat Stress and Médecins Sans Frontières – and he will be doing so in full Roman gear. The following is extracted from his blog.

January 17, 2013: ‘Anthony Riches, author of the Empire series, and Russell Whitfield, author of the Gladiatrix novels, have agreed to come along on the walk as well. More recently, archaeologist, author and noted expert on Hadrian's Wall, Mike Bishop, said that he will accompany us too. This will add immensely to the experience, as he knows more than most people alive about the wall.

‘We aim to walk west to east (this is regarded as the best way to do it), starting on either April 28 or 29, with six days walking, and one day to recover/sign books in Newcastle.

‘The gear I will be wearing includes a linen undertunic, tunic, cloak, boots, straps for carrying my scutum (shield), scutum cover and a helmet with a three-feathered crest, a pilum and sword belt and new gladius hispaniensis (sword) as well.’

January 29: ‘I'm champing at the bit to get out and about near home in the gear, so that I can really get a feel for it. Break my boots in. Tweet photos of myself that will have you falling off your chairs with laughter. Stay tuned!’

Training begins on February 18: ‘Straps to carry the shield sorted, I thought, it's now or never. I've walked just over four miles/6.5 km each time, once with the crested Montefortino helmet (in the photo, it's missing a feather – it fell off on the walk – but thankfully, I found it). It's actually quite comfortable to wear the shield like this, although it needs a little adjusting so that it doesn't knock off my left leg. The helmet is another matter – it's slightly too small, and I am a little concerned about what my head will feel like after 85 miles/139 km!’

▸ Ben's blog can be found at www.benkane.net/bens-blog/ and Mike Bishop can be followed on Twitter at @perlineamvalli or through his Hadrian's Wall website. They will be tweeting, blogging and taking photos as they march.

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