William Dalrymple reveals how he once plagiarised the style of Robert Byron and describes his love for Cormac McCarthy's work.

William Dalrymple is a multi-award-winning historian, writer and broadcaster. He’s also co-founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literary Festival. His latest book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, about the first Afghan war (1839–42), is out now.

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

The summer after I left university, I embarked on a trip tracing Marco Polo’s journey from Jerusalem to Mongolia. During those four months I kept a diary, and it was Robert Byron’s style that I plagiarised. I’d read The Road to Oxiana at Cambridge and it was different from any travel book I’d ever opened—stylish and substantial, witty and romantic. I savoured every word. Better than any creative-writing course, Byron was my tutor. This is surely the greatest modern travel book.

Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox 1740–1832 by Stella Tillyard

When I was making the transition from travel writer to historian and wondering how to use primary sources to best effect, I read this eye-opening book based on the letters of the Lennox sisters, who were at the centre of Anglo-Irish society and politics in the late 18th century. Their letters were filled with topics ranging from the high drama of elopements and unsuitable marriages to very intimate details; reading them feels like eavesdropping on private conversations. As my first history book White Mughals was also largely based on letters between siblings, I was inspired by the way Tillyard brought all the characters to life in non-fiction, while also succeeding in making it a gripping read.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

To my mind, McCarthy’s descriptive powers make him the best prose stylist working today, and this book the Great American Novel. It’s a beautifully written, dark, bleak western—but unlike any western I’d ever known. In my latest book Return of a King I had to write scenes of extreme violence and I turned to Blood Meridian to work out how to do that well. There’s a great art in learning not to overplay violence and McCarthy is a master. He pares it down, often using unemotional, matter-of-fact descriptions that heighten the horror. So while the atrocities that occurred during the retreat from Kabul in 1842 form the emotional centre of my book, that chapter was also the shortest.

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