Everything You Wanted to Know About David Flin
David Flin is an author, anthology editor, and publisher. BUT he is also a former bodyguard to King Charles, a cancer survivor, and a Royal Marine during some monumental times in history. His life story is more fascinating than some fiction, and his deep compassion and sense of humor made for a delightful interview.
1. What was your favorite book that you've read in 2022 and why?
Most years this would be a tough question, as there are so many. 2022 is, however, surprisingly
easy. Skyborn, by Andy Cooke, was the stand-out book of the year for me. It’s a young adult adventure set on an airship in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s got a balance of science – Andy is always punctilious in getting the science right – and adventure that appeals to me. In some ways, it is a throwback to the classic SF books, such as those by Arthur C Clarke, where the science contained in the book is clearly explained and accurate. Andy also has the facility to create believable characters reacting in plausible ways. I found the combination of interesting characters, unusual setting, thorough world-building, and exciting plot to be irresistible.
2. What book are you most looking forward to reading in 2023?
That’s a tough one. My to-be-read pile of books is getting larger rather than smaller. I rather fancy it
has a measurable gravitational field, and I worry that it will turn into a black hole, which would be
unfortunate. So many books waiting me to discover and devour them. But if I had to pick one, it would be Secret Pigeon Service by Gordon Corera. It tells of the intelligence gathering conducted by the Allies in WW2 prior to D-Day, using homing pigeons to gather information from those living under Nazi rule.
I guess that combination of the whimsey of the title and the seriousness of the subject attracts me.
I’ll find out whether that appeal is warranted by the content. I have high hopes for the book.
3. What did you most enjoy writing in 2022? Why?
The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Military. It started when I began to get annoyed at the number of times I was seeing nonsense on TV shows and films about pre-gunpowder armies. Things like lead characters not wearing helmets in battle, or Roman legionaries breaking ranks to fight barbarian warbands, or people firing fire arrows and the person hit bursting into flames. It took form when I was proof-reading a book that casually talked of a Roman army 1 million strong marching from the Mediterranean across the Sahara desert to Nigeria. This from a classicist in the AH genre. That, I said to myself, was enough. I ended up writing a book trying to explain how pre-gunpowder armies worked, a primer of logistics of that era, and looking at some of the mythologising about certain weapons. And I got a chance to make fun of a lot of Hollywood productions.
4. What writing projects are you looking forward to in 2023?
I’m editing a follow-up to the Building a Better Future anthology, which was a collection of stories on
that theme, written to support Ukrainian reconstruction. All proceeds from that book went to the Red
Cross Ukraine Appeal. This anthology will be entitled: Ten Years Later ... and it will look at the business of reconstruction after a major traumatic event like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I hope to publish on Feb 24th, an obvious date to use. Quite what it will be like, well, your guess is as good as mine. I’ve only just
started contacting potential authors and putting the word out. Like its predecessor, all proceeds will go to the reconstruction of Ukraine. It’s a tight schedule, but not as insane as the original, which took 17 days from start to publication. By any standards, that was an insanely fast production. This time, I’m giving myself nearly two months.
5. What books and experiences have most inspired you as a writer and reader? Why? Do you have any books that you would recommend that are similar to your own work in style, tone, or theme?
All experience is grist to the mill. I’m lucky in that I’ve had a varied life and met some interesting
people. Not always nice people but certainly interesting. I’ve been in situations that are now part of
the history books – Bangladeshi independence, the Lebanese Civil War, the Falklands War. I grew up
in the East End of London at the same time that the Kray twins ruled it; the Krays being gangsters
who unaccountably became something of a cult in the rather posher West End. All these experiences
and more have been stuff I’ve called on when writing.
As for books that have influenced me: that’s harder. Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads struck a deep
chord with me; he captures the authentic voice of the ordinary soldier. That showed me how important
it is to catch the voice – the way of speaking and the concerns of the character you are writing. Terry
Pratchett taught me that a humorous tale needs to stand as a story without the humour. You can’t get
away with saying: “It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense, it’s only humour.” George MacDonald
Fraser’s Quartered Safe Out Here, like Kipling, captures the voice of the characters. AA Milne’s
Winnie the Pooh stories showed me the need to follow child logic when writing a story for children.
And, to be fair, telling bedtime stories to my children showed me how to think like a child.
“Daddy, will there be a dragon in the story?”
“Funny you should mention that …”
I contend that bedtime stories have a lot in common with the old Skalds, who would tell a tale and
adapt it in flight to the requirements of the audience.
Books that are similar to mine in style, tone or theme? There’s a problem here. I’ve written a variety of
stuff with very different styles, tones, and themes. Christmas With Sergeant Frosty is pure child
whimsey, involving the adventures of a sentient snowman and his friends. If that’s influenced by
anything, it would be Winnie the Pooh. By contrast, Six East End Boys is a very angry book about how people can be ignored and pushed too far and how having sectors of society above the law can lead to trouble.
Books of my style? Early Le Carré gets the feel of the spy stuff I write (Tales from Section D), while a
fusion of Lewis Carroll and AA Milne would be a fair approximation of my children’s tales.
6. Can I call this section "just all the yarns?" I'd love to hear some of your stories about your time in the Royal Marines and when you were a bodyguard. It sounds like there's loads of interesting stories here.
This could take a while. I’ve had what some people have called an interesting life. I’ve single-
handedly invaded the Soviet Union by mistake; I’ve spent three months in the Commodore Hotel in
Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War; I’ve had tea with Gurkhas at Base Camp of Mount Everest, I’ve
been bodyguard to Prince (as he was then) Charles. I could go on. And on and on and on. I’ll stick to just a couple of these yarns. The first tale is from the Falklands War in 1982. I was a Lieutenant in charge of a Troop (platoon) of Royal Marines. The War has been largely described elsewhere, and we played our allotted role in this. I can’t pretend this was much fun. It was freezing; the wind blew straight off the Antarctic. The ground was basically a peat bog, and we had to carry everything we needed as we walked from one side of the island to the other. We came, at last, to the Battle for Mount Harriet. This was fought; we took the hill. Having taken the hill, the Argentine forces started to shell it. I rushed around to make sure all my boys were in cover and as safe as they could be. You’ve spotted the problem. They were in cover. I wasn’t. The inevitable happened, and I was badly wounded. Badly enough that I was put on a helicopter to get to the closest Casualty Clearing Station in San Carlos. The nurse doing the triage there was – amazingly enough – a woman. You have to remember that, back in 1982, the idea of women getting close to where there was fighting was not really something that happened. To cut a long story short, she was told to keep me alive on the next helicopter ride to the hospital ship where the top-line operating theatre and the surgeons were. By the time I was out of surgery, the ship was underway and heading back to England. The nurse had stayed to make sure I pulled through the surgery. By the time the ship reached London, we were engaged. We were married by the end of the year. Remarkably, Mills & Boon rejected the story concept because it was “unrealistic .” That’s the story of my life. Unrealistic.
The second yarn I have is much more recent. It’s also arguably on point as well. A couple of years
ago, just before people learned what the word Covid meant, I was diagnosed with cancer. The details
aren’t important, but it made me very aware of my own mortality. When I was receiving treatment, I saw children with cancer also being treated. That’s just wrong, but there was nothing I could do about it. That was so frustrating. It was also wrong, as my son pointed out to me. “You’ve been grumbling about publishers and how you could do a better job. Why don’t you?” That was how Sergeant Frosty Publications started. A publishing company that produces fiction (mainly) for children and young adults. I donate a copy of each paperback to the Children’s Ward at the Royal Marsden cancer hospital. It’s frankly the least I can do.
7. Let's talk about publishing! What journey has your work taken from draft to
publication, and what advice do you have for aspiring writers? As someone who now
runs their own publishing company, what is it like on the other side of that writing
journey? What observations and thoughts and advice do you have about publishing?
What is the goal of your publishing company, and what projects are you most excited
about? What makes your publishing company unique? If someone wanted to be
published with your company, what steps would they need to take?
The journey my work takes depends on the publisher. Each has their own idiosyncrasies. Most are
incredibly slow, and a few are quite opaque. Finding out what stage of the decision process your
submission is at can be painfully difficult, but it’s as nothing compared to trying to find out how far
along the production process your work is at once it has been accepted. Now that I sit on the other side of the writer/publisher divide, I try to give swift answers to questions. I know how unprofessional it feels to have questions sitting unanswered. What I see too much of is writers who have not done their background work. I publish fiction for children and young adults. However good a submission is, if it contains swearing and adult content, I’m not going to publish it. You wouldn’t believe how many people get that wrong. When I point out that their submission is aimed at a different readership to that which I aim for, I often get long explanations why the swearing and adult content is appropriate for the story. It’s not going to help. All that will do is make me less inclined to take future submissions from that author. I don’t have the time to argue a point I’ve decided upon.
That’s the key to understanding how to get the best response from a publishing company. Know what
they are looking for, provide them with that, and keep your pitch short. No one would submit a
traditional SF story to Mills & Boon, and the same principle applies to all publishers. And keep it brief. Publishers have many, many calls on their time and, to put it bluntly, there’s more writing talent looking to be published than there are spaces for publication. To give an example, I get 6-10 queries each month. I publish 2-4 titles each month. Simple maths means that I’m going to turn away some perfectly good pieces.
And time. Only a small part of my time is available for choosing manuscripts. I’ve got to sort out the
front cover, pay people (authors and cover artists like getting paid), marketing, checking schedules
such that what I publish when makes sense and can actually be delivered, checking sales and trying
to work out what trends are going on, delivering copies to the Royal Marsden (the actual point of the
company), arranging interior artists, proof-reading text, checking copyright and checking for potential
plagiarism, writing my own stuff … the list goes on. I’ve not even touched having a life outside of
publishing. If my response to a potential author is brief, that’s the reason why.
I’ve touched on the objective of Sergeant Frosty Publications earlier. Fiction for Children and Young
Adults. To expand on that, I take a Reithian (1) view of what I am trying to do with books I publish.
Entertain, Educate, and Inform. If a book does all three, then I am very satisfied. If it simply entertains,
I’m still happy. I know it sounds terribly pompous; Sergeant Frosty Publications is a one-person company, and I’m taking as guidance the principles used by the BBC, which is rather larger than I am. However, as
guidance, I rather like them.
First and foremost is Entertain. If a book doesn’t entertain, no one will read it, and any message it
may have will be wasted. Inform and Educate are secondary, and in most cases, get smuggled into
the story. Andy Cooke is excellent at this; his latest book, Skyborn, is set on an airship. Details of how
airships work come naturally into the adventure, and it fits the Reithian ideals perfectly. If someone wants to be published by SFP, all they need to do to start the process is drop me an email, available from the website ( www.sergeantfrosty.com ), outlining their proposal. The proposal needs to be brief, and explain:
What the book would be about.
A rough and short (no more than 200 words) summary of the story.
An indication of word count.
What the target age range for the story is.
How soon a full outline, a first chapter, and a first draft would be available.
From this, I can either say “No” or “Tell me more.”
I would say at the outset that no-one gets rich writing for tiny publishing houses, and SFP is no
exception. The one thing, on top of all that I have mentioned before, is that I am keen to prioritize people at the start of their career over those at the end. For example, my regular cover artist started when she was at school and is still at university. The work is giving her a modest amount of money but, more
importantly, is helping her build up a portfolio of professionally published work that she can show to a
potential future employer. Whether or not she takes advantage of the opportunity, that’s in her hands.
All I can do is give her an edge.
Similarly, I have a couple of authors who wrote their submission when still at school, and who are still
at university. If either of them goes on to be famous writers, I’ll be able to say I gave them their first
chance. Admittedly, one is studying Maths and the other Medicine, so it is likely that they will be
hobby writers rather than professional writers. This prioritization goes hand-in-glove with my objective of providing something for the children at Royal Marsden hospital. It’s not much in the grand scheme of things, but we do what we can to help other people. Which all sounds terribly pretentious. I must add that in doing this, I’m having a barrel-load of fun. I’m coming across new and interesting people, and it’s wonderful to see people grow in confidence because of what I’ve been able to allow them to do.
8. What questions does your writing explore or try to answer? What kind of characters do you like to create, and what, to you, makes a great story?
For me, what makes a good story can be summarized as: “A simple story, well told.” A lot of the
classics fall into this category. Dickens, Shakespeare, Twain, Verne, Priestly, Homer and many others
all followed this guideline. The stories are straightforward and consistent, and they are told very well
indeed. I’m not as good a writer as those I have mentioned, but that’s what I try to achieve. I break a story into three aspects: characters, plot, and setting. People doing things in interesting places. A perfect story
will have great characters, a strong and engaging plot, and a believable setting. If two out of the three
are great and the other “merely” good, you have a great story. But you do need at least two out of three for a good story. Different people will have different ways of developing each. For me, I write a lot of little 500-1000 word vignettes to help develop ideas. For example, I will take a specific character, put them in an unexpected position, and see what they do. Thomas (the central character in Green and Pleasant
Land) has to find a present for his best friend; Sergeant Frosty meets Aragorn; Colonel Blood (the
magpie from Escape From the Tower) gets his claws on the crown jewels.
For the plot, I’ll set up a list of milestones along the way, and navigate the story between them.
Once I know the plot and the characters, then it’s “just” a matter of writing. Since I write a lot of different styles of fiction, my characters tend to vary. One feature that crops up a lot is that quite a few of them try to do the right thing, by their lights. I’m not sure my writing seeks to answer or explore any big questions, with the exception of Six East End Boys. That is an angry piece, written at a time when the elite in Britain (and elsewhere in the world) were ignoring the wants and needs of ordinary people, combined with the laws not being applied to that same elite – who enthusiastically demanded that the full force of the law be applied to ordinary people doing basically the same thing. That fed through into the story, where a theme that runs through the book is: “It’s not Justice if it doesn’t apply to everyone.”
9. Lastly, what else should we know about you as a person and/or writer?
Now that’s impossible to answer briefly. I’m on the grey side of 65, and have had a varied life so far.
I’ve been a bodyguard (the position was a little more complicated than that, but it works as a first
approximation) to Prince Charles (as he was then). Twice. I’ve met a lot of interesting people and
been involved – on the periphery – of a lot of events that are part of the history books.
I could write a book, possibly several books, although the period 1984-1996 could only be covered by:
“I did this and that, but can’t really talk about it.” Which would leave a bit of a hole. We don’t have that much space, so I guess I’ll summarize with an anecdote. Obviously.
When my wife died of cancer, her last words were: “It’s been a lot of fun.” It was a tragedy that she
died at the stupidly young age of 42, which is no age at all. Still, there are worse ways to check out
than to be able to say that. I can’t quite say the same thing. There have been a lot of things in my life that haven’t been fun. Being blown up, having my leg broken, getting cancer, stuff like that. I’m a Francophile, so when it comes to looking at a way of summarizing my life, I naturally turned to
French culture. I wondered about Madeleine LeBeau, the last of the actors from the great film
Casablanca to die. But, in the end, I have to turn to Edith Piaf, and the song: “Je ne regrette rien.”
“I regret nothing.” Yep, that’s me. When I finally shuffle off this mortal coil, that will do nicely for my epitaph.That and what I always try – without a great deal of success, it has to be said – to tell my son. “Always leave a room tidier than when you enter it." I try to apply that philosophy to my life. I want the world to be a better place for my having been in it. If everyone did that, a lot of the problems we face would be solved.
(1). John Reith was a Director General of the BBC who set up the guiding principles of what the BBC
does. He described that the BBC should produce programmes that educate, entertain, and inform.