Thursday, 11 September 2014

Why write about the White Rajah?

This is an edited version of a post I wrote for Michael Mandrake's blog back in 2011. With the republication of "The White Rajah" I thought I'd post it here again.


Many, many years ago – decades, in fact – I found myself spending a few days on a holiday in Sarawak. We had signed up with a company that took you up river from Kuching, then a really small town, to visit the famous longhouses. Here we met the indigenous Dyak people who, not that long ago, had been headhunters and many of whom still lived on the most basic slash and burn cultivation and the food they could catch in the jungle. We even caught a tiny mouse deer ourselves and contributed it to the collective pot. It was a magical few days and almost certainly unrepeatable, for the last couple of decades have seen logging destroy much of the habitat the Dyaks rely on to live while mass tourism means that trips like those we made then are probably by now impossible.

It was on that trip that I first came across James Brooke. The museum in Kuching had an exhibition of Sarawak's history with a large display on 'The White Rajahs' next to a much smaller display on 'The Colonial Era'. I was confused. The White Rajahs were clearly, well, white. Why was it that while the tone of 'The Colonial Era' was rather disapproving (it mainly seems to have consisted of killing the Governor), 'The White Rajahs' display hinted at a Golden Age?

The answer seems to have been the extraordinary relationship the first White Rajah, James Brooke, had with the people of Sarawak. Sarawak then was a province of a much bigger country ruled by Muda Hassim in Brunei. Hassim gave the rule of Sarawak to James Brooke as a reward for Brooke's help suppressing a rebellion there. Brooke insisted that Sarawak was not part of the British Empire and he set out to rule as an enlightened despot.

At the centre of the exhibition was a portrait of James Brooke. It was a copy of the one in London's National Portrait Gallery.

Portrait of Sir James Brooke by Sir Francis Grant
National Portrait Gallery London. Used with permission

I saw it and just wanted to know more about this astonishingly handsome, dashing man who had taken a tiny country halfway round the globe from his home and made it his own. When I got back to England I started to read all I could find about him. It wasn't that difficult. His diaries were published, as were those of Keppel, the admiral who helps him defeat the pirates. I found myself getting more and more caught up in his story and, because I had always wanted to write, I decided to turn it into a novel. What I aimed for was an old-fashioned yarn with an old-fashioned hero and, up to a point, I succeeded. But in the end, although it got representation by a well-known agent, it really wasn't good enough for publication. I put it away and forgot about it.

Years passed and I found myself writing lots of non-fiction, often anonymously. I decided that I owed it to myself to write the novel I've always planned for. We were moving into an age when Western armies were invading remote countries, often with noble intentions but sometimes with terrible consequences. I wanted to write about how good people could end up involved in questionable wars and horrifying massacres. I remembered that James Brooke had himself been involved in a massacre which, at the time, had horrified liberal opinion in Britain and resulted in a Commission of Inquiry in Singapore. I decided to go back to my original novel and rewrite it as a much darker piece with a flawed hero.

I wanted to get close to Brooke as a man, rather than just as a historical figure, and I thought this could best be done through the eyes of someone who knew him and shared his experiences. I tried to think who this could be and came to the idea that the story could be told from the point of view of a sailor on his ship, the Royalist. And that was how John Williamson came into being. Unlike Brooke, who is very closely based on the historical figure, Williamson is almost entirely fictional. The real James Brooke had an interpreter called John Williamson and I just borrowed the name. (The real Williamson was half-Malay and died quite early on.)

Once Williamson came into the story, his role just grew. He had started out as a narrative device but, as time went by, he became central to the story. Partly, I think, this is because everything was seen through his eyes and so I found myself thinking more and more about how he felt about things and partly because I tried to use Williamson as a figure who reflected Brooke's relationship with the Dyaks. So Brooke 'educates' him but at the same time Williamson finds that the relationship stops him developing fully as his own man. By now, what had started as a historical novel with a bit of romance became much more a romance set in a historical story.
The whole 'gay' bit never seemed that important. The real Brooke was almost certainly gay, all the characters around him were men: if he was going to have a relationship, it was always going to be a gay relationship.

John Williamson has grown on me since I invented him and Accent are planning to publish another John Williamson story. Fortunately the date on which Williamson departs Singapore at the end of "The White Rajah" means that I can put him in India just before the Indian Mutiny breaks out. So that's what I've done: Williamson travels to India, falls in love (again) and is once more caught up in historical events that leave him making uncomfortable choices about who he is and where his loyalties lie. 

Friday, 5 September 2014

Taking liberties with history

I got 'talking' (virtually) with Jenny Kane because she's another Accent author. She's best known for her erotic writing under the name of Kay Jaybee. I said that it was a shame that she didn't write historical novels because, if she did, I would love her to write something for this blog. At which she explained that she's a trained archaeologist and her new (definitely not erotic) novel has a historical theme.

So: over to you, Jenny.

I’ve been writing short stories and novels for many years and yet, despite my background as a historian and archaeologist, I’ve never written a historical piece.

The main reason I haven’t taken the plunge is simple. The fear of getting things wrong. There are so many pitfalls to trip over- getting the fashion just right, the wording, the conversational phrases, the legal terminology, making sure the correct King or Queen is on the throne – or not – that the local Baron is a Baron and not a Lord, or a Lord and not a Baron … and so on, and so on …

When I completed my PhD many years ago, I spent some time teaching undergraduate students in tutorials and seminars. Although I loved my subject (thirteenth- fourteenth century English economy and criminal law), with each and every lesson I got more and more unsure of myself. I have never been blessed with confidence, and although I knew my work well, I was persistently plagued with doubts as I entered my little office. What if the students knew more than I did? What if they asked me a question I couldn’t answer?

These are the same basic reasons I’ve never written a historical novel – fear of getting the details wrong.

To tackle these paranoiac shortcomings, I decided to turn this very problem into a novel.

Romancing Robin Hood is a contemporary romance centred around the world of history lecturer Dr Grace Harper, who is obsessed about Robin Hood and the historical outlaws that may have inspired him.

As well as telling the story of Grace’s fight to find time for personal romance in her busy work filled life, Romancing Robin Hood also tells of Grace’s fight with her conscience. For she is writing a novel about a fourteenth century criminal gang- but should she toe the historical line and make her novel as factual as a textbook, or should she write a more accessible romance which might teach a little bit of history along the way?

Shamelessly using the work I did for my own PhD, I had the character of Grace researching the Folvilles. A notorious criminal family, based in Ashby-Folville in Leicestershire in the 1320’s-30, the Folvilles were accused of murder, rape, kidnap, and ransom - and then they either got away with their crimes, or were convicted before being quickly pardoned in return for fighting for the King’s forces.

In Grace’s book, her fourteenth century protagonist is 19 year old Mathilda, a young woman who suddenly finds herself in the custody of the Folvilles, and then under another very frightening type of suspicion ...

Romancing Robin Hood – Blurb
Dr Grace Harper has loved the stories of Robin Hood ever since she first saw them on TV as a girl. Now, with her fortieth birthday just around the corner, she’s a successful academic in Medieval History, with a tenured position at a top university.
But Grace is in a bit of a rut. She’s supposed to be writing a textbook on a real-life medieval gang of high-class criminals – the Folvilles – but she keeps being drawn into the world of the novel she’s secretly writing – a novel which entwines the Folvilles with her long-time love of Robin Hood – and a feisty young girl named Mathilda, who is the key to a medieval mystery…
Meanwhile, Grace’s best friend Daisy – who’s as keen on animals as Grace is on the Merry Men – is unexpectedly getting married, and a reluctant Grace is press-ganged into being her bridesmaid. As Grace sees Daisy’s new-found happiness, she starts to re-evaluate her own life. Is her devotion to a man who may or may not have lived hundreds of years ago really a substitute for a real-life hero of her own? It doesn’t get any easier when she meets Dr Robert Franks – a rival academic who Grace is determined to dislike but finds herself being increasingly drawn to…

If you’d like to buy my latest novel, it is currently available in e-format (paperback coming soon.)

Jenny Kane is the author of Romancing Robin Hood (Accent Press, 2014), the best selling contemporary romance Another Cup of Coffee (Accent Press, 2013), and the novella length sequel Another Cup of Christmas (Accent Press, 2013)
Jenny’s next novella, Another Cup of Mulled Wine, will be published in November, and her third full length novel, Abi’s House, will be published by Accent Press in 2015.
You can keep up to date with Jenny’s book news via her blog -
Twitter- @JennyKaneAuthor
Facebook -

Monday, 1 September 2014

A few words about 'The White Rajah'

I realise that I haven’t said a lot about The White Rajah lately.

I’m in an odd position with this book. It was the first novel I had published, back in 2010. It was put out by a tiny press in the USA and was, by the standards of independently published books, reasonably successful. But the publisher wasn’t in a position to get it widely seen and I was delighted when Accent Press said that they would publish it over here. I made some revisions, which I think improved a few of the scenes in the book, but it is essentially the same novel as the one published four years ago. This has left me feeling that there’s not a lot left to say about it and so it has languished in the book charts without much attention from anyone, including me.

That’s a pity, because (though it has many of the failings of a first novel) it’s quite a good book. Here is the start of a review that appeared on a blog that I would never have read if it were not for the wonders of Google:
It's ages since I've started reading a book and then been 100% annoyed at the world that it won't let me just sit there and finish it all in one go, but The White Rajah by Tom Williams has totally been that book! 


There are authors who claim that they never read their reviews. 99% of them are lying. When I feel that it’s hardly worthwhile sitting down and writing another few thousand words to add to the Work In Progress (another Burke novel, as you ask), it’s reviews like that that make me settle down and get on with it. And, at a grimy economic level, it’s reviews like that that make people buy the books (especially if they’re posted on Amazon).

If you’ve read one of my books and enjoyed it, could you please go onto Amazon and say so? It will make me feel it was worthwhile and it will encourage other people to try a book that you have enjoyed. The White Rajah is not the world’s greatest novel, but a lot of people have really enjoyed it. (“Absolutely brilliant. A fast paced, perfectly edited, superbly written novel that kept me enthralled from the first word … - Smashwords.) It deserves an audience and you can help to find it one.