What spending WWI & WWII with Ken Follett taught me about writing

What spending WWI & WWII with Ken Follett taught me about writing

Are you reading Ken Follett?


“They” say you should write the same kind of fiction (or books) that you like to read. Oh, dear. I’m screwed.

I like to read historical fiction.

I mean there is historical fiction and then there is Ken Follett.

For the last few weeks, I have been listening to his, The Century Trilogy (see below). A few years ago, I had read his book, The Pillars of the Earth: A Novel and had been astounded by the level of historical detail, the richness of the characters, and the intricate plots and subplots.

Follett makes no secret of his painstaking writing and rewriting process. After creating his detailed outline and first draft, he asks his editor, agent, family members, subject matter experts, and “ anybody else who will take an interest” to make copious notes:

I type up all these notes by page numbers and collate them using large ring binders. For example, I might have four comments for page 80 of my typescript, one from an editor, one from my agent, one from a family member and perhaps one from an expert I’m consulting, (like an FBI agent or a scientist or an historian). I put the two pages opposite one another in the ring binder so that when I come to rewrite I’ve got my first draft on one side and people’s comments on the other side. (Source: https://ken-follett.com/masterclass/completing.html)

Follett’s books are quite long. For some writers that might mean fluff that should be edited. I have never found this to be the case with Follett, and this quote gives us a clue — every sentence is reconsidered in his rewrites:

For the final six months, I go through the file page by page, rewriting.

I don’t edit my first draft. I don’t put the first draft on the screen at all because I find that makes me lazy. I key every word in again because that forces me to reconsider every sentence. You can almost always find a way to improve just about every sentence that you’ve written. I can, anyway. (Source: https://ken-follett.com/masterclass/completing.html)

All of Follett’s time and attention to detail is amazing, but what makes his historical fiction beyond exceptional is just that, the historical accuracy and his research. What makes me say, “I’m screwed” is how Follett does some of his research:

I often use the services of professional researchers, mainly Dan Starer of Research for Writers in New York. Dan produces reading lists on, say, earthquakes, clones or eighteenth-century criminal courts. He finds learned articles, out-of-print books and old maps, people for me to interview, experts and historians, detectives and FBI agents. Most of my books are checked for factual errors before publication by at least one technical consultant. (Source: https://ken-follett.com/masterclass/research.html)

Right there I’m lost. With all of those juicy historical goodies to pour through, I doubt I would ever get to the writing.

However, don’t let my trepidation stop you if you are stout of writing heart. Read more of Follett’s process here — his short Masterclass is free:

Ken Follett | Masterclass | Introduction

But first, of course, make sure to read some of his books if you haven’t yet.

To give you an idea of how epic (in all ways) and research-rich his novels are, his three book series, The Century Trilogy comes in at a whopping total of 3,024 pages.

The Century Trilogy Trade Paperback Boxed Set

Or, if like me, you need to multi-task your fiction reading while you work out, or commute, the three books on Audible will take you a total of about 99 hours of listening time. That’s 297 miles for this slow walker!

The Century Trilogy consists of:

  • Fall of Giants: Book One of the Century Trilogy
  • Winter of the World: Book Two of the Century Trilogy
  • Edge of Eternity: Book Three of the Century Trilogy

You can read more of the individual book descriptions yourself, but in short, Follett weaves the loves and losses of several sets of families and generations from different classes, from Russia, Wales, England, Germany, and the U.S., through World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and all the way to the 1980’s.

Follett’s deft handling of fear, death, prison camps, torture, and all the rest of humanities’ hellish inhumanity in the midst of war is a master class in itself.

But you will need to read  Ken Follett’s The Century Trilogy to discover more yourself.