Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Christmas 1855

As we're coming up Christmas, I thought I'd post the opening paragraphs of Cawnpore, which are set in December 1855.

It was in December of 1855 that I left Singapore. My time with James Brooke was generously re­warded and I found myself if not a wealthy man, then certainly in a position to return to England and live out my days quietly and in comfort. 

I was by now approaching my middle years but I felt that I was still too young to retire to some country village. My time in the South China Seas had given me a taste for life in the Orient and James' stories of his experiences in India had left me curious about that country. So it was that when I took ship in the Swallow I paid my passage just as far as Calcutta.

We celebrated Christmas at sea. The captain served a goose at his table and the crew entertained us with an impromptu concert that combined sea shanties and some carols but otherwise there was little to mark Our Saviour's natal day. The sea looked much the same as the day before. There was a stiff breeze and, just before dark, there was a touch of rain.

I hope that all my readers enjoy a more festive Christmas in 2012.

Friday, 14 December 2012

An Andean Adventure

Attentive readers of this blog will know that I recently spent a few days in the Andes, researching for a novel in which my hero, James Burke, makes a crossing rather later in the year than was wise. He's accompanied by his valet, William Brown, and Apala, his guide.

I've just been rewriting this bit in the light of my own experience. My travelling companion read it and says that Burke's trip bore uncanny parallels to ours. (I have to say that we turned back before the pass and spent the night in a stone hut rather than under canvas. But we know exactly how Burke felt.)

Though the trip across the mountains promised to be an adventure, he still found himself reluctant to leave Mendoza. Magnificent as they were, the Andes were unmistakably hostile. The days remained reasonably warm but there was already a nip in the morning air that reminded James that winter was on its way. He put off their departure for one last day of civilised comforts, and then the expedition set out.

As they left the town, they were hardly aware of making any sort of ascent at all. The ground seemed as flat and featureless as it had for days before, but, as their horses trudged onward, Burke was aware of a slight, but steady, gradient. Nothing, though, prepared him for the sudden change from the plains to the mountains. For hours they had moved across the flat, if gently sloping, countryside. Now, suddenly, they were in the hills. The hills, to be fair, were not that high, but the contrast between the plain they had ridden on for so long and this new mountainous terrain was dramatic. 

Apala struck out confidently along a valley which twisted and turned until they were surrounded by hills on all sides. There was enough grass for cattle and horses to be grazing but there were cacti too, yellow and red flowers bursting from their green fleshy bodies. 

After only half an hour, they were at the head of the valley, and in front of them, they could see the towering heights of the Andes. The track that their guide followed rose more steeply, angling up slopes covered with tumbled rock. For a while, they followed the course of a stream carrying meltwater that would feed Mendoza's irrigation channels, but then they struck off, zigging and zagging up a track that was little more than a dusty trail on the bare rock of the mountain. The Andean peaks closed around them. Facing back down the track, sheer walls of red rock blocked off their view, while ahead they saw the ominous white of the early snows already covering the mountain peaks. The sense of isolation was reinforced by the sight of the condors, circling in the brilliant blue of the sky. 

"What do they eat?" asked William.

"They scavenge the dead," Burke told him.

"They're following us."

"We'd best remember not to die, then."

It had been hot in the valley, but, already, Burke was noticing the chill of the air. He called to the guide to stop, so that he could unpack his greatcoat from one of the bundles of baggage hanging precariously from the mules' saddles. Apala, though, insisted that they press on.

"Soon we must stop. We cannot wait for the cold and dark before we make our camp. We will stop in less than an hour. There will be time for you to dress more warmly then."

For another mile, they climbed still more steeply, the track doubling back on itself as they made their way up the mountain. At last it levelled off and, rounding a rocky ridge, they saw a patch of level ground with a shallow stream splashing across the rocky surface.

"Here we will camp," their guide announced. Their porters set to unloading the tents, unused on their travel across the plains. Soon, the sound of mallets on tent pegs was echoing from the rocks as they did their best to secure their guy ropes in the stony soil.

Burke had freed his greatcoat from one of the baggage rolls but, as the sun vanished below the peaks, he felt himself shiver. "We need a fire."

Apala shrugged. "Of course, senor. But first I will have to collect something for us to burn." 

Burke looked about him. There were no trees, not even any shrubs. The only greenery in sight was occasional clumps of what looked like moss clinging to some of the rocks.

He watched, astonished, as Apala strode to the nearest of these mossy clumps and tugged at it. Beneath the green coating some straggly wooden stems grew down into cracks in the stone. Burke heard them snap and realised that they were dry and brittle.

"They will not burn for long," said his guide. "We will need a lot. Do you want to come and help me collect it?"

Though he was tired from his day in the saddle, Burke was more than happy to explore the area around their camp. He remounted and set off with Apala, leading one of the pack mules with them. Every time that they saw any of the mossy shrub, they would dismount. The young bushes were no use to them but most had at least some older, dry parts that could be ripped from the ground and roped onto the mule's saddle. Each clump was small, though, and protected by sharp thorns that tore at their hands. It seemed to take forever to collect enough and it was almost dark when they turned back toward their camp, the mule almost hidden under a great pile of brush.

The brushwood needed no kindling, burning fast and brilliantly. For several minutes they all huddled round the fire, enjoying the blaze. But, all too soon, the fierce heat was dying and they threw on more wood to protect themselves against the cold of the night. In less than an hour, what had seemed like a huge pile of fuel was almost exhausted. Reluctantly, they abandoned the fire. They took the sheepskins from their saddles to spread on the ground inside their tents and, wrapping themselves in blankets, lay down to sleep.

James did not sleep well. Several times, he woke and lay shivering in the thin mountain air. At last, the sky began to lighten and he heard the crackle of the flames as porters relit the fire to brew coffee and warm themselves before they started that day's ride.

When he left the tent, it was to find that it had snowed during the night. There was only a thin scattering of white on the ground, but it was a reminder of the dangers of travelling this late in the season.

"We must push on hard," said Apala. "We have to cross the pass before nightfall. It will be too cold to camp up there."
The porters were already packing away the tents while James and William sipped at their coffee. Barely an hour after sunrise, they were back on the horses and pushing on up into the mountains.

There was no snow falling now but, as they climbed, the snow lying on the ground grew thicker. The path rose steeply and, after an hour, the landscape was distinctly wintry. As they neared the pass, the wind, moving through the gap in the mountain range, grew stronger and the snow covering was blown about. In some places reddish or black rock lay bare to the sky while, in others, the snow was banking to the point where the horses would stumble, unable to see their footing beneath the white covering.

"We can't stay on the track," Apala said.

He was right. The snow was drifting off the steeper rocks at the side of the track and banking on the path to the point where there was too much danger of a horse falling and breaking its leg. They urged their reluctant mounts from the apparent smoothness of the path onto the ragged rocks alongside it. Though these were steeper and, under other circumstances, would have made for more difficult riding, the snow lay thinly here and the horses could pick their way in comparative safety. Inevitably, though, leaving the path slowed them down and Burke saw Apala casting increasingly worried eyes upward as the day progressed. 

Looking in the same direction, Burke could see nothing. Mist covered the top of the mountains and merged with the snow to make it a blank wilderness of white. He was astonished that their guide could navigate confidently through this emptiness but Apala push them on with no hesitation as to their route. His sole concern was that night might fall while they were still too high on the mountain.

The horses struggled as the snow grew thicker. Sometimes they would stumble in the steeper drifts and everyone would dismount to lead their beasts, which were less likely to fall when relieved of their weight. Climbing through the snow, even for short distances, was exhausting, though. The damp began to leak into Burke's boots and he found himself panting for breath in the thin air. He longed to rest and make a fire to be warm and dry, if only for a few minutes, but Apala drove them on.

Now the mountains closed around them and they were struggling through deeper snow, against a wind that howled through the gap between the peaks ahead of them.

Then the wind fell and Burke was aware that the path was dropping beneath them as steeply as is had been rising before. They were through the pass.

Monday, 10 December 2012

A scary story

I have been plugging more blatantly than usual just recently, mainly because Christmas is coming and, if my books don't sell at Christmas, when will they sell?

I hate pushing my books at people. I keep hoping that one day I'll be a big successful author with a major publisher and I won't have to do this. So this story was quite scary.

I had persuaded an independent bookseller to take a couple of copies of my books and he remarked that he had a friend whose novel had made the Times best-seller list, somewhere in the Top 20. Yet bookshops were often out of stock of his book. In order to make sure that his book was there for people to buy, this really successful writer would spend his time visiting bookshops and asking them to reorder his books.

It never stops.

Please buy my books. Otherwise I'll have to go down to Waterstones and grovel again.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Snow scene

The Winter edition of our local magazine, My St Margarets, has just come out and the cover photograph is one of mine. Readers who remember last year's effort might feel that I need to get out and take winter pictures that don't just show this bit of London looking lovely in the snow. It is very seasonal, though, isn't it?

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Cawnpore: what happened next (and for 150 years after that)

I've just been watching a short video on the history of Cawnpore and how it has changed into modern Kanpur. I was interested to see film of the decline of the cotton mills.

I was brought up in the North West of England, where cotton used to be a huge industry. (According to the video, Kanpur was called 'the Manchester of India', a reference to the cotton mills of Manchester in England.) When I was a child, the cotton mills began to close. Whole communities that relied on this industry were decimated and the economic damage inflicted still leaves its mark on the region today.

Many people blamed the decline of the UK cotton industry on the development of industry in India, where Kanpur was building cotton mills that, despite UK tariff barriers, were undercutting UK cotton manufacturers and destroying their markets.

Looking at the video, the scenes of the derelict mills in Kanpur echo the sights I saw in the villages of Lancashire. The industry has moved on, I'm guessing to China, where wages are lower and there are more profits to be made. The result has been a flood of cheap Chinese cotton goods into the UK. I imagine it's been the same elsewhere, but I know the UK from personal experience. A friend who works in the fashion industry says that they have shifted all their manufacturing to China and increasingly the design work is based there too.

People like the cheap clothes and China benefits from economic growth. But I wonder how long it will be before China sees derelict plants as manufacturers move on to the next country to provide even cheaper labour.

Global capitalism brings huge benefits, but there is a downside too. Watching what happened in Lancashire repeated in Kanpur highlighted this.

I have no answers. But one of the useful things about looking at history is that it can raise interesting questions.

Hill walking -- on a horse.

Burke in the Land of Silver is a historical novel set around the Napoleonic wars. It's based on the life of a soldier who spied for the British, working in what is now Argentina. I love Argentina and have visited there quite often, so the idea of basing a book in the country appealed to me. And back at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Spanish America was an exciting place to be. The story has wars and princesses and romance and death, all reasonably faithfully based on the goings on at the time.

One of my hero's exploits was a trip across the Andes so that he could examine Spanish defences in Chile. In the book, he makes the crossing around April, in the southern autumn. The crossing at that time of year is considered dangerous because of the intense cold at altitude. When I was writing about it, I found it very difficult to visualise, so, in the interests of research, I went to the Andes and tried to ride across. We did it in October, so conditions shouldn't have been that different, except that we had to face the winter snows that had yet to thaw. Eventually the snow got too deep for the horses and we had to give up. It was an amazing experience, though, and I'm looking forward to incorporating it when I rewrite that part of the book. I may well post some of the descriptions here but, for now, I'll just post a few photographs that give you a flavour of what it was like.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


US readers may not know it, but Amazon isn't exactly flavour of the month in the UK at the moment, as it turns out that they feel that multi-national companies shouldn't pay tax like the rest of us. There is talk of a boycott.

There's no doubt that Amazon is a great deal from the customer's point of view. Most places selling my books will charge you more than Amazon. The Book Depository often offers better prices, but they are owned by Amazon as well.

UK purchasers will find e-book versions of The White Rajah and Cawnpore cheaper on Google Books. This is useful if you're trying to save money, but not a lot of help as a political protest because Google has been known to dodge the odd tax bill as well.

Of course, you can always buy either of my books through an old-fashioned bookshop. People in London could try Foyles, who may have it in stock. Branches of Waterstones should have it on their system, so they should be able to order it easily. Other booksellers should also be able to order it in for you. Bookshops do still serve an important role in publicising books and getting people to read and they do seem to pay their taxes.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Royalty free fiction

One fun thing that happened while I was away was that my book was featured on 'Royalty Free Fiction'. It's a blog about books about historical figures that weren't kings and queens. As it says on the Home Page, "History is full of ordinary people with extraordinary stories." James Brooke definitely qualifies. He was the son of an East India Company official whose main achievement in his youth was running away from his English boarding school. He could so easily have become just another dodgy merchant, doing a bit of smuggling here and a dubious deal there, but history took him to Sarawak at a vital moment and the rest really is history.

The blog is unusual in that it doesn't invite writers to tell people anything specific about their book. Instead it asks why people were moved to write about particular historical figures. If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you probably know why I chose to write my first novel about James Brooke. If you haven't, then why not check out And, while you're at it, have a look at some of the other titles. There's some interesting stuff out there.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Reviews of 'Cawnpore'

Following my post with some short reviews of The White Rajah, I thought I'd post some of the comments about Cawnpore. Most of the reviews are quite long, so I'm just putting some excerpts. Do you think any of you can come up with a comment about the book in less than 50 words?

Evocative and haunting. I couldn't put this book down. Not only is it a solid account of the tragic events at Cawnpore, it's a rattling good adventure and a gentle, understated love story. It's one I'll return to. 
               - Goodreads

In short, this is a fine work of historical fiction, faithful to the events but able to reveal far more about them through the interpolation of self reflective fictional characters.                                                    
 - Goodreads

It has a personal narrative that moves beyond the preconceptions of LGBT fiction and approaches that ranks of Sarah Waters in storytelling.                                                                                                
 - Goodreads

This is a very well presented book; I can find no errors. The author has researched this subject well and obviously has a fondness for this era of history. For anyone who has a love for this period, Cawnpore is probably one for you.                                                                                      
 – Historical Novel Society

Overall, I found the story compelling and a surprisingly easy read given the difficult and multi-faceted subject matter. The author expertly dissects and lays out the intricacies of the complex interactions between the British Raj and East India Company with the locals; the simmeCaring tensions between them are well written as the convoluted social-polical structures of the Local Muslim / Hindu populations with the religious differences; the caste system and the contentious doctrine of lapse are well construed.               
– Amazon

And, from a blog posting I saw only this morning:

The very best historical fiction involves you in its characters' stories whilst teaching you about the historical background in a non lecturing way. Cawnpore does exactly that. I knew very little about the Indian Mutiny and had not even heard of the siege at Cawnpore so I have learned something while enjoying the story.  The narrator, John Williamson is in a unique position to see the conflict from both sides. This is done very cleverly by the author and the narrative had me hooked from the very first page. The character of the narrator comes through very strongly. He is every inch the formal Englishman and he writes in a very formal unsentimental way, yet we still see the strength of his feelings and the inner turmoil as he is forced to decide where his loyalties lie. There are no flowery descriptive passages, but the scene is set skilfully. As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this novel. Highly recommended. 

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Reviews (again)

A couple of months ago, a friend said that I should get more reviews of my book. "All you need is a couple of hundred reviews and you could be just like Shades of Grey." 

Well, yes. Yes I could. In fact, if everyone who had promised they would write a review for me had actually done so, I'd be well on my way there. 

There's all kinds of reasons that people don't write reviews. Some people find that the technology defeats them. They just need to go to Amazon, find my books (they're HERE and HERE), and click on 'Write a customer review'. (It's at the top of the 'Customer Reviews' section, just after the author information.)

If you want to post a review at Goodreads as well, that would be nice.

A lot of people, though, say that they have no idea how to write a review. It only needs to be twenty words. Here's some examples of short reviews of The White Rajah that people have posted.

I was really surprised how much I liked this book  as it is not my usual type at all. The main character James Brooke really lived and this fleshes out his extraordinary thrilling and deeply moving story in Borneo .It is excellently written and very highly recommended.

Read this book whilst on Holiday in Mexico. Whilst not an avid reader and certainly not my favourite genre of novel it had been recommended to me. I found this book a splendid read, extremely well written and researched. A thoroughly absorbing read which left me wanting to read more about this extraordinary man. If in two minds whether to purchase it buy it you won't be disappointed.

Ripping yarn. A fictionalised account of the life of James Brooke who had a key role in shaping the trading port that is now Kuching, the capital of Sarawak in Borneo, Malaysia. I read it prior to holidaying in Kuching and it made a very entertaining and informative prelude to our travels. Worth reading regardless, but a great way to get some context if you're travelling to Borneo.

I loved this book. At first I was wary since I don't usually read naval stories. While the story does have a naval backdrop, it's really about power, revenge, politics, and love. When I finished the book, I wished there was a sequel!

PLEASE post reviews. They make such a difference.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

An unashamed plug for someone else

Michael Timothy is a fellow skater and, more importantly to you, an excellent musician. His debut CD has just come out.

There's lots of samples here. Give it a listen. And if you like it, buy it. (But only after you've bought my books.)

Friday, 7 September 2012

Beware of imitations

'Cawnpore', a novel by Scott Rhymer, has just been self-published. It will shortly be available on Amazon. Please note that this is NOT my book. 'Cawnpore', published by JMS Books, appears under my own name: Tom Williams. You can buy it here (or here, if you're not in the UK). 'Cawnpore' is also available as an e-book.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

An Author's Life

So the summer holidays have ended. With the rain finally stopping (more or less) and the sun coming out, we've been getting out of London as much as we can. This was Cornwall. Who knew that England could be so beautiful once the sun shines?
Cliff walk, near Penzance.
Anyway, now that the fun is over, I have to get on with this "trying to make it as an author" business. Gosh, it's complicated. It makes me almost pine for the straightforward awfulness of the years I spent doing (sort of) regular work.

I always wanted to write a novel and, back at the end of 2010, The White Rajah finally saw the light of day. It was published by JMS Books, who are an independent (read "tiny") publisher in the USA. This meant that, though JMS did a really good job on producing the paperback and getting the e-book onto Amazon and zillions of other websites, there wasn't any marketing budget and you're unlikely to see it in a bookstore. (Though some really well-known stores, like Foyles, do stock it.) Still, despite not a lot of people hearing of it, The White Rajah got decent reviews including coverage in The Bloomsbury Review. JMS were pleased enough to ask for a sequel and so, at the end of February this year, they published Cawnpore.

Meanwhile, I was working on revising a book I started ages ago. Called His Majesty's Confidential Agent, it's a very different kettle of fish from the two novels published so far. Publishers who turned down The White Rajah said they thought it was "too difficult" and my agent (yes, I even had an agent before he decided to represent people whose books would be easier to sell) suggested I do something more cheerful. I had thought of advertising Cawnpore as "will make you cry or your money back" so you can see that it wasn't quite what my agent had in mind. Instead, I wrote another book, set about fifty years earlier and featuring a dashing hero who duels with evil villains, wins beautiful ladies and finally puts Johnny Foreigner in his place. It's based on a true story and it's a lot of fun and pretty sure not to make you cry. All I have to do now is to find a new agent who thinks there might be room for it in a world where any novel not including sado-masochistic porn seems to start at a marked disadvantage.

What people fondly imagine writers do is write their books, but it doesn't quite work like that. The books I have out already won't sell themselves, so a lot of my time is spent trying to help them along. Much as I enjoy chatting to you, dear reader, the principal reason for this blog is to encourage you to read the books and, if you've read them to review them and tell everyone how wonderful they are.

Besides writing the blog, I chat to other writers online and try to learn from them. Some, like S A Meade, have been kind enough to support my book and I try to return the compliment from time to time. I pester libraries and I turn up at any book groups that will have me.

Besides trying to sell the books that are already out there, I'm trying to find an agent for His Majesty's Confidential Agent. That's a soul-destroying business, involving researching possible agents, writing desperate letters begging them to look at your masterpiece and then waiting two months (more if they're busy) before getting a reply that starts, "We are sorry that we are unable to respond individually..." Actually, I have begun to get personalised rejection letters, which is a definite step up the food chain. But my research suggests that on average successful authors (ie those who eventually get representation) can expect to be rejected by around 40 agents before they strike lucky. And, after each rejection (besides the deep depression and suicide attempts), the synopsis and the covering letter are tweaked, the sample chapters are re-read and edited (again) and a virgin is sacrificed at the full moon (increasingly tricky, given the times we live in).

Meanwhile, I am researching another book. I often think I should have gone in for crime writing or vampire tales, where you don't have to spend forever reading accounts of life in the Far East under the Raj or checking the uniforms worn by the Native Infantry on the North West Frontier. At least if I was working on Twenty Shades of Magnolia the research might be more fun. I'm looking at two possible areas. There's Britain in around 1860, if John Williamson is given another airing, or the Napoleonic Wars, if I'm going to start a sequel to His Majesty's Confidential Agent and cross my fingers that the first one sees the light of day. Both periods have a lot to offer and I'm torn. Of course, I could just write something completely different, but the commercial reality is that series sell and I don't think I could bear to be hawking two different novels around agents at the same time. Do you, dear reader, have any suggestions? Spying and skulduggery in the world of Trafalgar and Waterloo, or dirty deeds in Dickensian London? Let me know if you have any preferences.

So, there we are: the life of a modern author. Next time you say, "That must be fun, just sitting and writing your books all day," don't be surprised when you are stabbed with a quill pen. The Mystery of the Critic's Pen. I wonder... Let me just check what kind of quill they wrote with in 1862.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Historical Novel Society reviews 'Cawnpore'

I'm back in London and excited about the news I promised.

Cawnpore has been reviewed by the Historical Novel Society and got four stars. It's not up on Amazon yet, but it should be there any moment now. I saw the review a while ago, but I only just had the star rating confirmed. I know star ratings shouldn't be important (see my note here), but I also know that, in practice, they are – so I've waited until I had the confirmation before I posted this.

As I keep saying, reviews are terribly important to people who are published by small publishers like JMS Books, and a review by the Historical Novel Society is especially important because the Historical Novel Society make a thing of only reviewing 'proper' historical novels. Just getting a review from them means a lot.

This doesn't mean I don't need reviews from YOU. If you have read either The White Rajah or Cawnpore, PLEASE put a review on Amazon. Reviews are the reason why you have heard of 50 Shades of Grey but not any of the many (probably rather better) similar self-published works on Amazon. Yes, it really does make that much difference.