Monday, 15 December 2014

Merry Christmas

We're definitely coming up to Christmas now and I guess it's Christmas card season. This may well be my last blog of the year, so a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

Round Robin letters seem to have become practically a Christmas institution, so here's mine. This time last year, I was desperately looking for somebody to publish my book set around the British invasion of Buenos Aires in 1806. The news that Accent were going to take it up came while we were away for the holidays and made it my best Christmas ever. Burke in the Land of Silver (originally titled His Majesty’s Confidential Agent) was published in April, followed by Burke and the Bedouin in October. I've just finished Burke at Waterloo and that should be published in time for the 200th anniversary of the battle next June.

Accent have also republished The White Rajah, my story based on the life of James Brooke of Sarawak.

It’s made it a special year. Besides writing, research trips took me to Portsmouth and Paris. We also went to Iceland, because it’s an amazing country and we hadn’t been there before.

Good times!

I hope your year was as much fun.

(The photo shows Ham House in Surrey. I took it in 2009.)

Monday, 8 December 2014

In Defence of Historical Romance

Last week I posted about some books which, while well written and definitely a good choice for some people, really didn't appeal to me because of the genre they were written in. One of them was Crosscurrents by Jane Jackson. I actually wanted to be nice about this book because it is well written and well researched and does have a lot of enthusiastic readers. But I was, undoubtedly, a bit snide about Historical Romance, because I just struggle to read books in that genre. Jane has, quite rightly, taken me to task for this. We shouldn't dismiss any genre out of hand (and Jane listed some of her favourites and she certainly practices what she preaches). So I'm very happy to have her guesting on my blog this week about why we should give her genre the respect it is due.


On Monday 1st December Tom posted a cover image of my book ‘Crosscurrents,’ a historical romance he’d read and reviewed even though he doesn’t like the genre.  (At least he managed to finish it. The other two authors were abandoned.)

I fully accept that taste in books - as in everything else - is very much a personal matter.    But what snagged like a thorn about Tom’s review – and he has generously offered me this opportunity to respond - is the patronising manner men adopt – perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not - when reviewing historical romance. 

(If men asked their lovers, wives, partners, why they enjoy reading romance, historical or contemporary, and took on board the answers, might there be more contented women and fewer frustrated men? Just saying.)

Back to the review:  Those of us who spend months researching the period in which our stories are set, studying the social customs of the day, wars, politics, ship accommodation and sail plans, the effects of wind speed on sea conditions, details of dress, household hierarchy, coach travel, small arms, gaming houses etc, might be forgiven a sigh when reading a review that focuses on clich├ęd stereotypes such as: bosom-heaving, calf-turning, suitable for granny. Oh please!    (Though to give credit where it’s due, he did say it was well-written.)

But more irksome were errors in the review. 
For the record:  1. The new type of engine featured in the story is not powered by steam, but by hot air. This is revolutionary and an attempt to develop a safe alternative because exploding high-pressure steam boilers are causing hundreds of deaths. 
2. There are two couples in this story, and the review wrongly links the girl from one with the man from the other.

All that aside, Tom does have a point regarding a section of the historical romance genre.  On-line publishing means that anyone can write a book, source a cover image and ISBN number then upload their work for sale without any of the screens and checks imposed by publishing companies, such as editing for factual accuracy, anachronisms, etc. 

Professional self-published authors use beta-readers, employ a qualified and experienced freelance editor, pay for an individually designed cover, and go to great lengths to ensure their book is the best it can be before publication. A far greater number don’t.

So books marketed under the heading of ‘historical romance’ range from stories by authors who try to create a realistic setting for their characters, to those featuring situations that in real life could not have happened: marquises marrying servant girls, dukes renouncing their inheritance for love. 

Such books reveal the author’s lack of (research?) understanding of a class system in which breaking the rules resulted in losing your place in society; being shunned by family and friends; and for a married mother the likelihood of being permanently separated from her children.  They are contemporary attitudes in fancy dress.  That an avid readership exists for these books says much for the enduring power of the ‘Cinderella’ story.  But it may also explain the perception of historical romance as ‘fiction lite’ compared to crime or mystery or suspense genres. Yet I have used all those elements to great effect in historically accurate stories that also feature a powerful romance. (And have been short listed three times for major awards) 

With 28 books published in multiple languages worldwide, 13 of which are historical romances, I am proud that they appeal both sexes and all ages. Yes, the majority of readers are women because more women read for pleasure. One chap I know buys each new one for his wife for her birthday or Christmas, but he reads it first. I’m not sure how she feels about that.  He told me he always gets lost in the story, not wanting to put it down yet not wanting it to end.  

Feedback shows that women enjoy the depth and complexity of the love story evolving between people who are the product of their background and upbringing and events that have shaped their lives and personalities. Men identify with the male characters’ problems and struggles set against the historically accurate background. In ‘Crosscurrents’ this involves brewing, development of a revolutionary engine to power a ship, revelation of shocking family secrets and the gritty reality of early C19th life in the port of Falmouth.  

Why not try it for yourself? Or give a copy as a gift?

Crosscurrents by Jane Jackson, published by Accent Press as an ebook and paperback.  Available on Amazon or at any independent bookseller.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Books for Christmas

The Christmas cactus is coming into flower, so it must be time to give my suggestions for books you might like to read this Christmas.

Let's get the obvious over with first. Accent publish my books in both Kindle and paperback. People usually prefer to give paperback books as gifts, and it's true that the paperbacks are a little (but not much) more expensive than paperbacks produced in large print runs by bigger publishers. They're still pretty inexpensive, though, and I still think that books make good gifts. If you ever run into me – and a lot of people who read this blog may do that – I'm happy to sign them for you.

Moving on to other authors, I'm going to concentrate on writers who are published by independent publishers. There are a lot of good writers who are published by mainstream publishers, but mainstream publishers have huge marketing and distribution departments and don't need my help to shift books.

Over the last few years I've been reading a lot of books published by tiny presses. Not that long ago, I was published by a tiny press myself. Let's be blunt and admit what everyone knows already: many of these books are badly presented, badly written, sometimes barely literate rubbish. However, many are perfectly good books and a few are really excellent. The best book I read in 2014 was published by a very small publisher in Australia. It was Unforgivable. I've written about it HERE. It's a stunning novel that I am going to keep plugging in the hope that one day it will get the recognition it deserves.

When you are looking at books from independent publishers, the name of the publisher does become rather important. I am published by Accent Press. I am not going to pretend that every book that Accent publishes is absolutely wonderful. I've looked at some and really not been that impressed. But everything they publish has been read by an editor who did like it – and who is to say that they are not right and I am not wrong. All Accent's books have been properly edited and proofread and are presented with the words in the right order on the page. (This should be a given, but trust me, I have been given books to review where it was not.) If you buy a book from a professional publisher like Accent – however small they are – you will have some basic guarantee of quality.

I'm reading an Accent book right now: Just One Damn Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor. I'm only a third of the way through, so I'm not in a position to give a proper review, but yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I sat in the bath reading until the water went cold. It's a story about time travel but, with its beautifully believable female main character, its eccentric English setting and its delightful sense of humour, it's far more Doctor Who than a traditional po-faced piece of science fiction. I suppose I could be disappointed, but I'm prepared to recommend this on what I've read so far.

Another Accent author I have read and enjoyed is Jean Goodhind. Something in the Blood is a traditional murder mystery, though as a whodunnit it leaves something to be desired. What it offers instead is smooth and witty writing, an attractive and entertaining heroine, rounded characters and a wonderful sense of place – in this case Bath. It's not Agatha Christie, but if you are looking for a book that will offer the reader undemanding entertainment on a winter's evening, you could do a very great deal worse.

Public Battles,Private Wars by Laura Wilkinson (Accent again) is a more serious and considered work that has, deservedly, received positive critical attention. A politically committed look at the miners' strike, with a strong feminist perspective, it does not let its ideology get in the way of telling a good story. Definitely a worthwhile read.

Let's finish with a couple of books from other publishers. Drawn to Perfection by Victoria Owens is published by Hookline Books. It was published in 2013, but it has a Regency setting and the style is straight out of Jane Austen's notebooks. There is a plot – actually rather a good plot – but I would recommend this book anyway. The characterisation and the sheer elegance of the writing blew me away. This is a fine example of why we should not dismiss books from smaller publishers. Given the amount of rubbish that mainstream houses push out into WHSmith every month, it's a shame and disgrace that something as beautifully written as this is unlikely to find a mass-market.

Finally, I'll mention Ticket to Paradise by Elizabeth Morgan. This is a novel, closely based on historical events, about the movement of Welsh settlers to Argentina in 1865.It’s a fascinating story, well told. Morgan writes well and with a great ear for the cadences of Welsh, which enlivens her dialogue. The history is riveting, and particularly interesting to anyone with an interest in Argentine history, as I know many of you have.

So there you are: half a dozen books from four different independent publishers, none of which you are going to see promoted in your local Waterstones, but all of which are, in their own ways, well worth reading. John Grisham is a great author, but he really doesn't need the money any more. This Christmas, why not give some consideration to books by authors you've never heard of from publishers you didn't know existed?

Monday, 17 November 2014

It's been an exciting few days.

This weekend, Carol McGrath has hosted an article of mine about Waterloo on her blog. It suggests that Waterloo might not have been the British victory it is usually presented as. Why not nip over and have a look at it?

Meanwhile the latest Historical Novel Society reviews are out. These are published once a quarter and simply getting a review means that the book is taken seriously as a historical novel. I had already been very excited by the review of Burke in the Land of Silver (reviewed as His Majesty's Confidential Agent) but I only just realised that the latest reviews also included TheWhite Rajah.
If you want to see the full reviews, click on the links. The highlights are: "An involving tale of adventure, intrigue and unlikely love," (White Rajah) and  "a well-crafted adventure yarn with exotic settings and plenty of suspense." (Land of Silver).

Besides reviews of my books, there's a few reviews that I've written. Given that I blogged on 19th-century history elsewhere this week, I thought I'd take the opportunity to use this post to promote some other authors’ books. Here are the reviews.

The Tsar's Dragons by Catherine Collier

[After I had been given the book to review I discovered that Catherine Collier is also published by Accent. This does not mean I can't review her book honestly.]

In 1869 Tsar Nicholas invited a Welshman to develop mining and ironworks in Ukraine. John Hughes brought with him Welsh miners and iron-workers. They built a new city on the Ukrainian steppe: Hughesovka (now Donetsk).
It was a huge project, and Collier’s account is on a similarly mammoth scale. The Tsar’s Dragons has 552 pages and is the first volume of a trilogy. It is more family saga than history, although there is a lot of historical detail, which certainly reads convincingly. There were some points where I stumbled (could a photographer then have taken a candid “snap” without the subjects being aware?), but I was more worried about social attitudes. Whilst anti-Semitism and the abuse of women are realistically (and sometimes graphically) portrayed, almost all the characters are noble and liberal, with just a couple of ‘baddies’ for contrast. Theirs seem 21st-century attitudes transplanted to 19th-century Russia. The repressive nature of the regime is not mentioned, although we are reminded that the serfs had recently been emancipated. Whilst Nicholas did start to liberalise Russia, things here are progressing so well that the Russian Revolution seems unnecessary.
The modern attitudes of the characters make the primitive conditions of life in the Welsh mining villages and the cruel realities of living and mining in Ukraine both even more horrifying by contrast. Collier is unsparing in her descriptions of beatings and rapes, and her account of a mine collapse is gripping. Like all family sagas, this has its share of passionate love and illicit liaisons, much of it setting up a situation which should make the second volume satisfyingly dramatic.
If you like family sagas and want to learn more about an unexplored bit of 19th-century history, this is for you.

Ticket to Paradise by Elizabeth Morgan

In 1865, the English were giving the Welsh a hard time. (Nothing changes.) Desperate to preserve their language and way of life, some emigrated to Patagonia. This story follows those who founded the town of Rawson, on the Argentine coast. It follows their struggles as they finally make a viable settlement but, at the same time, see their identity subsumed into the wider Argentine society.
It’s a fascinating story, well told. Morgan writes well and with a great ear for the cadences of Welsh, which enlivens her dialogue. The history is riveting, and I was interested enough to find Rawson on the map. The map does confirm my suspicion that the area is not surrounded by grassland, as described in the book. That was always incompatible with the problems that the settlers had in growing crops. It’s a shame that Morgan’s geography isn’t as good as her history.
The story-telling is let down by some neat moralising (the Reverend is a pious and unpleasant man, put in his place by the atheist hero), an unnecessary (and unhistorical) aside involving Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and an unconvincing battle between the Welsh and a band of bloodthirsty Indians. There is also an unfortunate epilogue set in the Falklands War, in which the language and attitudes of 2013 civilians are written unconvincingly into the dialogue of 1982 soldiers. These failures, though, are trivial when set against the gripping accounts of daily life and the relationships between the characters. The book provides a useful introduction to an important period of both Welsh and Argentine history. Strongly recommended.

The Art of Killing Well by Howard Curtis (trans.), Marco Malvaldi

It’s 1895. The famous cookery writer, Pellegrino Artusi, has been invited to spend the weekend with a baron and his family. At the castle, there is a murder. (At least we know the butler didn’t do it: he’s the victim.) It was carried out by one of the house party or one of the household servants. A policeman arrives. Suspects are interviewed, the policeman solves the crime. It’s a classic country house murder mystery in the English style, but set in Italy. There’s no real sense of period. I’m not sure that the concept of the weekend was even around in 1895 Italy (the phrase only became common in England in the 20th century). The style is (as the author post-modernly points out) late 19th century, except for the frequent post-modern intrusions. The historical Pellegrino Artusi is not particularly rounded, except in girth, and the other characters have the two‑dimensionality of most country-house murder suspects. The recipes, though, are convincing. All-in-all it’s a pleasant read for Agatha Christie fans, but hardcore historical novel enthusiasts should look elsewhere.

I'll post again soon with recommendations for books for Christmas. Until then, happy reading!

Monday, 10 November 2014

1066 and all that

I think it's time for a post about history. This week, we're going way further back than the Napoleonic Wars that feature in my books about James Burke, or the mid-19th century of The White Rajah. Instead, my guest blogger, Carol McGrath, takes us back to 1066 and the Norman Conquest.

Two Noble Women of 1066

As we know women are often the footnotes of history. When a writer sets about telling their stories she has set herself a demanding investigative task. My thought is that for a writer of serious historical fiction it is necessary to excavate the facts where these exist and then embed these within the story she is telling.  I wanted to bring these women’s lives to life and to recreate a semblance of the world in which they dwelled. What did they eat? How did they clean their teeth, where did they go to the loo, how did they raise their children, to what spiritual beliefs did they adhere and, importantly, how did they cope with dramatic change. The Norman Conquest did bring turmoil and change to England. How did noble women cope not only with the loss of their men but with changes imposed on them in the immediate aftermath of Conquest? After all, the noble women were the survivors. They were also, importantly, heiresses.

As I wrote The Handfasted Wife and latterly The Swan-Daughter, I had to do much research in chronicles to find snippets about these noble women’s actual lives. I also had to reconstruct the day to day realities of women’s lives through much further reading to disperse any big sense anachronism creeping into the novels. Of course, I am a modern woman looking back to the eleventh century so modern sensibility some must creep in. I also hoped that these heroines would be feisty enough to appeal to today’s women. I was taking them out of their domestic comfort zone in a world that had been turned upside down by conflict.

By creating both a pacey adventure narrative and female personalities whose story a reader wants to follow, I hoped to hoodwink that reader into believing that that he/she was immersed in the experience of the eleventh century. I do care about historical integrity but admit that where fiction is concerned there will be imaginative invention.

The Handfasted Wife takes place in the year 1066. Edith Swanneck is set aside for a political marriage when her husband Harold is crowned king. According to Chronicle it is she who recognises his broken body after the battle according to marks only known to her. We all know the story of the Battle of Hastings but little is known about Harold’s true love and mother of his six surviving children, four boys and two girls. Researching this book enabled me to discover that women, before The Norman Conquest, owned property separately from their husbands and that they made wills. They could, in theory, do what they liked with their own possessions. When this came to land, in reality, pressure was often put on women by male relatives. After the Norman Conquest a woman’s property became his property. If she became a widow she received a third of their possessions as the widow’s portion until she remarried. Edith Swan-Neck, called so because to possess white skin and a long neck like a swan’s neck was a sign of great beauty, had title to lands in Kent, Essex and Cambridgeshire. She owned properties in Canterbury. We know all this because it is recorded in The Domesday Book of 1086.

Although this novel stands alone, The Swan-Daughter picks up the theme of land ownership by women which was introduced in The Handfasted Wife

Gunnhild, King Harold’s daughter, was in Wilton Abbey for her education at the time of Conquest, 1066. After the Conquest, many heiresses took refuge in abbeys as King William encouraged inter-marriage between English and Normans. It was one way to make the take-over easier. It provided reward as it gave unmarried Norman knights the opportunity to claim legal tenure to English lands.

Gunnhild was a child in 1066, but as her aunt, Edith Godwin, had been the wife of Edward the Confessor, thus a queen, and also the patron of Wilton Abbey, it may have been that Aunt Edith hoped that one day Gunnhild would become a novice, take vows and rise in time to the top job , that of Abbess. Gunnhild clearly had other ideas. She did apparently elope with Alan of Richmond, a Breton cousin of King William, who may have through his marriage gained title to her mother, Edith’s lands. When Count Alan married Gunnhild the fact is that the lands came into his possession. I posit in the story, that Wilton Abbey also claimed some of Gunnhild’s wealth. It makes for an interesting historical fiction. The story becomes even more fascinating because after Alan’s death Gunnhild took up with his younger brother. The evidence for this comes from a correspondence between Gunnhild and Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury dating to 1092/3. She would have been in her mid-thirties by then.

We do not really know what happened but Anselm clearly disapproved of her relationship with Alan’s brother. The Anglo-Saxon heiress was a valuable woman, a woman of substance in her own right and after the Battle of Hastings there were many of them, widows and daughters to whom land rights reverted as well as what they may have already had title to.

All this is great material for stories and an important inspiration for The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy. 

Finally, I would like to thank Tom for hosting me on his blog. It is a wonderful opportunity to explain the history behind my novels. Well, as far as I could unearth it! The novels are stories of historical adventure and if you read them I hope you enjoy them.  

Follow me on Twitter @carolmcgrath

Thursday, 6 November 2014

It seems it's that time of year already...

With Xmas on the way (aaargghhhh!) I'm already beginning to see posts on Facebook calling on people to support local retailers rather than large chains. In a similar vein, could I ask that you support writers who are published by independent publishers rather than those from mainstream publishers? Dan Brown doesn't need a bigger audience, but some books from independent publishers struggle to be seen in the mass of pre-Christmas book marketing.

I was thinking of posting here with a list of possible 'independently published books for Christmas' but it seems a bit on the early side. When would you like to see this?

Monday, 3 November 2014

A truly amazing Saturday

Saturday was, as all my younger friends would say, a pretty awesome day.

It started with the paperback of Burke and the Bedouin arriving in the post, so the book is now definitely officially out there. I think Accent are doing a lovely job with the covers. Don’t they look impressive?

Then I saw that the Historical Novel Society's review of Burke in the Land of Silver (reviewed under its original title of His Majesty’s Confidential Agent) had come out.  HNS reviews matter: they are selective about what they review so just getting a review from them means that your book is taken seriously as a historical novel.

Here’s what they said.

This tale of espionage is set against one of the lesser-known fields of conflict in the Napoleonic Wars – South America – with the real-life British secret agent, James Burke, as a dashing protagonist. In the early years of the 19th century, Burke and his servant, Private William Brown, are dispatched to the Spanish province of La Plata in South America in order to find a way to prevent its riches finding their way into Napoleon’s coffers – but once in La Plata, “our man in Buenos Aires” finds himself becoming drawn to the idea of the province’s independence and to the lovely (and married) Ana O’Gorman. He makes a very dangerous enemy and discovers to his cost that idealism has no place in politics.

The action gallops along, taking us with Burke from the Caribbean, through the capitals of the Europe, to the colonies of the New World. Burke holds the narrative together. He is the most strongly realised character – an ambitious, ruthless man, committed to kill, deceive and seduce in order to promote Britain’s interests – but who sometimes makes errors of judgment, who can let his emotions sway him but who is steadfastly loyal to those close to him.

There are occasional jumps in viewpoint, which can jar the flow of the narrative and a couple of characters are rather one-dimensional (Molly, the patriotic “tart with a heart” comes to mind), but overall this is a well-crafted adventure yarn with exotic settings and plenty of suspense. I wonder if Tom Williams has any more adventures lined up for James Burke.

Then there was the Halloween skate to round off the day. Hundreds of people in fancy dress skated through the centre of London and on to a truly horrifying party. I didn’t take many photos myself, but here’s a tiny sample of the costumes on display.

All in all, this has to have been one of the most comprehensively excellent Saturdays I’ve seen in a while. I hope your weekends were even half as much fun.

Monday, 27 October 2014

I can see clearly now ...

With a new book to plug (Burke and the Bedouin is now out on Kindle), now might seem an odd time to be writing a post that has nothing to do with my books at all, but please bear with me.

Both my mother and my sister suffered from glaucoma, so I'm probably more careful about getting my eyes checked than most. Because of the family history, I don’t pay anything for a thorough examination every year.

Something over a year ago, I was told that I had the beginnings of a cataract in my right eye. Both the optician and I were surprised: I'm not that old. But it was, she assured me, just the beginning. It might not cause a problem for years.

A year, later, though, it was getting worse. I could still see well enough for daily life. (Unusually, the other eye was fine.) But the sight in my right eye was deteriorating quite fast. The optician suggested I consider surgery.

There was a hiccup at this stage, because the National Health Service isn’t set up for younger people with a problem in one eye. I didn't actually need surgery. Having just one eye (and that one short-sighted) wasn't crippling, just inconvenient. But I went to my doctor and pointed out that I have an active lifestyle and two eyes are useful. Because I was younger and the eye was deteriorating, it would need surgery eventually. Surely it was better to have it done now.

Luckily, my doctor agreed and referred me to an eye clinic. Again, I was lucky in living close to a specialist eye hospital. A few weeks after I had seen my doctor, I visited a consultant at the hospital who agreed that surgery was appropriate.

Last week, I attended the hospital and, a couple of quite scary, but painless, hours later, I walked out, cataract free.

As I write this, there’s a certain amount of discomfort, which is already diminishing. More to the point, the screen is back to being a convenient distance away and I am writing without spectacles.

It’s true what they say: sight deteriorates slowly, and you only realise how much once you get it back.

I know I have a lot of American readers on this blog, so I need to point out that this entire process has, literally, not cost me a penny. I had a cataract, which can happen to anyone. The NHS fixed it, as it would do for anybody in the country. That is one of the things I have paid taxes for all my life.

Surgery – even minor surgery like this – is always a concern. There are lots of things that you worry about. Whether or not you can afford it shouldn't be one of them.

There is a lot wrong with the NHS. There is room for improvement. But the basic idea of a system that heals the sick, which we all pay for through our taxes, is really important. There have been lots of attacks on the NHS lately, and many of us wonder if some of this is motivated by a political desire to change the basic model of UK health care: universal medical treatment, free at the point of delivery. It’s easy to forget, as we go about our daily lives, just how important this is. It’s amazing how quickly the need for medical care can change your perspective.

So, I’d like to finish by saying three things.

Firstly (though I doubt they’ll see this): a big thank you to my optician, my GP, my surgeon, the nurses, and everybody else who made this as easy as possible, and thanks to whom I now have two good eyes.

Secondly, to readers in the UK: however fit you are, however young you feel, one day you, or someone you love, will need medical care. When this happens, you don’t want to be worrying about whether or not medical insurance will cover it. (I doubt it would have covered me, as my problems didn't even meet written criteria for the NHS – hence my pleading to my GP.) The NHS is a wonderful British institution. Be prepared to fight for it when politicians threaten it.

Finally, to my US friends: free medical care does not make this a communist country. Yes, it puts up taxes – but it costs much less per patient treated than most other health care systems (and much, much less than the US system). Looking after sick people is something that a civilised society just does. I think that those who see it as a threat just can’t imagine how much better life would be if you had it. Like my newly restored vision, it’s a shock how much difference it makes once it’s there. Don’t be afraid of socialised health care.

Next week I’ll be back to writing about 19th century history. Until then, take care and (if you have been) thanks for listening.

Monday, 20 October 2014

One Lovely Blog Award

Fellow writer J.E.Wyatt has tagged me for the One Lovely Blog Award (to participate in a blog tour where we share 7 curious facts about our life). Be sure to check out her lovely answers!
Here are the rules.
1.       Share 7 Lovely Facts about myself
2.      Link to 15 blogs (or as many as possible) that I enjoy reading….I don’t read that many blogs regularly, so I’ve just added the ones I do.
3.      Nominate the authors of those blogs to participate and do the same, linking back to the original Lovely blog. (That would be this page)
Without further ado, here are some curious facts about me!

I like to rollerblade on London's streets. A bit like this:

My first book, The White Rajah features head-hunters in Borneo. I have a Borneo head-hunter’s sword on the wall. I bought it while I was visiting a longhouse in Sarawak.

In Burke in the Land of Silver my hero travels across the Andes on horseback while the mountains are still covered in snow, which is considered a dangerous time of year to make the trip. I wanted to know what it would be like, so I decided to try it myself:

I love dancing tango and have danced in London, Paris, Buenos Aires and in Reykjavik in Iceland.

I used to keep a ferret, who loved to go out for walks on a lead.

They once changed the direction of the skating on the big ice rink in Central Park so that my partner and I could dance anti-clockwise patterns on it. It was amazing and I still can’t believe they did it for us. (Thank you, lovely people in Central Park.)

In one of the chapels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem there’s a mosaic that was made in the 1970s. I put in one of the stones. (I knew the mosaicist.) The church might still be there in a thousand years and, I hope, there’ll be one stone in one mosaic in one chapel that was done by me. I feel quite good about that.
Photo by Jorge Lascar. Creative Commons licence 

Now, who's up next? Here are some writers (and stellar bloggers) it would be nice to know more about. (If you’ve already done this blog hop or don’t have the time, please feel free to decline.)

Congratulations to:

Diane L Major – prolific blogger, as-yet-unpublished author, scarily erudite amateur historian and generally interesting person

Amy Saia – writer, musician and artist who somehow gets to bring up her children and write her blog. Not only talented but beautiful.

Sharon Robards – author of (among other things) Unforgivable, which is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Tracy R Franklin – a talented poet who has had more experiences in her first few decades than most of us manage in a lifetime. It will be interesting to see how she limits herself to seven things.

Marie Antoinette's Diamonds That’s the name of the blog, not the blogger, obviously. She’s anonymous and has been working on a novel about Queen Antoinette’s diamonds more or less forever. She has researched this (and everything related to it) in massive details. Anyone interested in late 18th century France (Oh, go on! You must be!) should read this blog

Kit Moss is particularly interested in the way that history treats gay, lesbian and transsexual characters. Interesting subject, interesting person.

S. A. Meade Another author who likes to write about gay people, often in historical settings. She loves to cook and that means she blogs some rather nice recipes as well. (Not that I’m ever going to cook them because they involve actually working in the kitchen, but I can dream.)

Jenny Kane. Some writers reach out and support others for no particular reason at all. Jenny is one of those lovely people. I’m happy to plug her and her blog because, heaven knows, she’s plugged me often enough.

Friday, 17 October 2014


See the changes on the right of the page? Yes, the second book about James Burke is out!

That sort of crept up on me. It was something off in the distant future and suddenly it's out. I'm up to my ears writing the next one and I've let this go without ceremony or fanfare. Whoops!

Now that the second book is published, Accent have taken the chance to relaunch the first. I really like what they've done with the new covers. This is clearly a series about BURKE and the sepia images more closely represent his undercover work than the original picture of a soldier, however accurate his uniform. The title of the first one has been changed too. I liked His Majesty's Confidential Agent but even I found it a mouthful and I wrote it. Burke in the Land of Silver is simple and clear and puts the centre of the book unambiguously in Argentina.

Burke and the Bedouin is pretty straightforward too. There's even a convenient map on the cover to remind us that we are in Egypt. It's 1798 and Napoleon is invading the Middle East. It's another part of our history that we are forgetting about. The Battle of the Pyramids and the Battle of the Nile were the sort of thing that every school child was supposed to have studied once, but no more. It's not the end of education as we know it (though it did leave me in Acre, on the coast of Israel, wondering how Napoleon had ever got there), but it has deprived us of some good stories.

Burke and the Bedouin is an old-fashioned adventure yarn. There is an evil villain, a beautiful damsel in distress, midnight rides across the desert, and desperate fights with kidnappers and assorted evil-doers. And while Burke is doing all this, there's the little matter of trying to stop Napoleon from leading an army across the desert to India. It's yet another of those amazing military adventures you've probably never heard of.

I'll be writing more about it next week, but feel free to buy a copy right away!

Friday, 3 October 2014

Historical fact and historical fiction

So how much does historical accuracy matter?

I’m not talking about the big stuff. James Burke really was a spy; he really was in Argentina ahead of the invasion, which really did happen pretty much exactly as described in my book. James Brooke did become ruler of Sarawak; there really was a Chinese rebellion; the pirates really were massacred. I’m worrying about the little details.

Some authors (and my suspicion is that it is authors rather than readers) revel in the tiny details. If you take the trouble, you can establish what the weather was in London on a given day in (say) 1850. So if you write It was a dark and stormy night you can check to see that it was. And I know published authors who will change the line if it wasn’t.

There is no way I would ever do that. If I want the face of my villain illuminated by a flash of lightning, I’ll put it in. In the first chapter of The White Rajah there’s a storm at sea. I put it in to help establish the characters (and to get a bit of excitement into what might otherwise have been a dull part of the narrative). Was there such a storm? I don’t know and I don’t care. Storms were common and led to situations like the one I described. If someone told me I had the details of the rigging wrong, I’d change them (and many a happy day has been spent in the National Maritime Museum trying to get them right). But a particular storm on a particular day? I really don’t care.

So why did I spend a couple of hours last week trying to establish where the Duke of Wellington lived in Brussels in the run-up to Waterloo? And then went on to Google Earth to have a look at the street now? I’m really not sure. It only features in passing in the story, but I wanted to be able to imagine taking a carriage to a party there and, to do that, I needed to know where I was going.

As I lose myself in peculiar little bits of research, I often wonder what difference they make to the finished article. In The White Rajah some of the dialogue includes actual words written by the characters themselves. I haven’t credited each use of letters or diaries and I struggle now to pick them out, but I felt they helped me to keep my own dialogue more in period. Do readers notice? Do they care? Does it matter?

It can be that historical accuracy gets in the way of good story-telling. One Amazon critic considers that details of colonial administration in Sarawak make the book a big yawn. (I think that was his phrase: I can be pardoned for not going back and checking.) But, for me, the details of how Brooke attempted to establish a postal service (all true) were one of the parts I particularly enjoyed. This isn’t a Boy’s Own Paper adventure: it really happened and in between fighting pirates (true) and putting down rebellion (true), they really did try to set up a post office. Details such as the flowers available for the garden and the armaments on the boat are true too – and a lot of time was spent scouring picture books and the internet to get things right. But then there’s the pet orang-utan, which is a complete fiction. It’s a story, after all.

Part of the value of getting details right is that it helps get the made-up bits right too. So I was trying to make the negotiations that led to Brooke becoming ruler a bit less dull than they really were and I decided that someone might try to murder Brooke by poisoning him. Only after the book was published did someone in Kuching write to me to say that just such a plot actually happened. I don’t think this was just a lucky guess. Getting into the heads of the real characters meant that sometimes I could act like them, even when there were no published facts to guide me.

I’m writing this in an attempt to put off writing a scene set in the Duchess of Richmond’s Ball on the eve of Waterloo. It’s one of the most famous balls in history and I know I’m going to get it wrong and it worries me. It probably shouldn’t: I’ve just been watching a scene from a film of the battle which features the ball and it’s just about as wrong as it could be and, as far as I know, no one cares. But I’ve already read a lot about it and I’ll read more and I’m wondering about having a go at reading Vanity Fair, which features it. And then it will be a few paragraphs and it will probably still have a mistake in it.

But in the first edition of The White Rajah I wrote ‘hansom cab’ when I meant ‘hackney cab’ and a well-regarded critic took me to task for putting the cab on the street a few years before it could have been there. So somebody cares, if only to maintain their illusion of superiority. I can’t say I was grateful to that critic, but we need her and people like her, because it’s easy to slip from historical fiction to fantasy. But in the end, I still can’t give a precise answer to my opening question: how much does historical accuracy matter?