Saturday, 28 December 2013

Byams House

We had a family Christmas this year, staying in Byams House, the Officers' Mess of 17 Port & Maritime Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps.

Staying at Byams House was not just a lovely way to spend the holiday, but it brought together my interests in the 19th century and the history of the British Army.

17 Port & Maritime Regiment is the regiment that concerns itself with things naval. In the same way as the Army has its own air wing (the Army Air Corps), it also has a sea-going capacity. In the past, this has been much more extensive than now, with Army ships (flying the Blue Ensign with crossed sabres) forming a significant fleet. Nowadays the Army's fleet is much reduced, with most military transport being contracted to private vessels. Even so, while the Navy is responsible for fighting on the sea, the transport and landing of military supplies across water is the responsibility of the Army's seamen navigators. (Don't call them sailors: they don't like it.)

British commitments in Afghanistan and the Falklands mean that supplies are continually being shipped to and from these overseas operations and many of these go through 17 Port & Maritime's own docks in Marchwood, just outside Southampton. In fact, while the Army has seen regular cuts since World War II, these docks have been expanded.

Although there are no stables at Marchwood, the British Army (traditionally run by generals from the prestigious cavalry regiments) is still not sure that the day of the horse is over. So Marchwood is not referred to as an Army Port, or a Maritime Logistic Centre. No, it is the Sea Mounting Centre (and RLC officers in mess uniform still wear spurs to remind them that their job is all about horses). In fairness, Wikipedia refers to it as Marchwood Military Port but no one working there does.

The port was built in 1943, to support the Normandy landings. It was 17 Port & Maritime who were responsible for the Mulberry Harbours. This was a system of prefabricated jetties that could be towed to Normandy to provide a working harbour within hours. It was crucial to the success of the Allied attack and remains a core element of 17 Port & Maritime's capability.

Byams House was a rather splendid house conveniently close to the docks. There was a house there before the 19th century, but it was rebuilt as a grand home in 1878. The Army has built a new accommodation wing, and decorated the exterior with cannon, but the feel of the place is much as I imagine it was in the  

Modern entrance to Byams House. The original building is on the left.

latter part of the 19th century. The number of people staying there varies as officers pass through or are posted away, but at any one time around seven or eight will view Byams House as home. It being Christmas (we don't start wars at Christmas) only our host was at home, so we spread ourselves on the leather sofas round the log fire in the grand hall and unwrapped gifts we had left under a tree that, although around ten 

feet high, was sitting unobtrusively in a corner. We didn't get to use the reception rooms: two rooms separated by folding doors so they can convert to one grand ballroom. The rooms are still used for formal dinners and regimental balls, their elegant proportions and enormous windows ideal for such occasions. Beyond the windows there is a lawn, rather sad in a rain-soaked December, but ideal for summer parties. Byams House also boasts a traditional walled garden, now largely unloved except by officers' dogs who enjoy the chance to run off the lead in safety.

Walled Garden at Byams House.
© Copyright Peter Facey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

We strolled up and down the grand staircase, or clattered less splendidly on the servants stairs that provide a convenient short-cut. We admired the oil paintings (mainly military vessels) and the regimental trophies, and for two days we allowed ourselves to slip back to the 19th century. By 1878, the end of the great houses of Britain was already in sight, but William Gascoigne Roy Esq didn't know this when he rebuilt his family seat. Thirty-six years later the Great War would end the way of life that had supported these grand homes. Now most that remain are corporate headquarters, hotels or nursing homes. A few have become military property. There, in a world where tradition is valued and dinners still end with a loyal toast, we can catch a glimpse of what life then must have been like.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Jingle Bells

It's coming up Christmas so here, for no other reason than that I like the music, are three CDs you might want to buy for a loved one. (All are available as downloads.) And yes, all are by independents who need your support. And I know two of them in real life and one virtually. But they really are lovely songs.

First up: Michael Timothy's Inside Out. Lovely chill-out music. There's a decent amount of sample on the website if you want to check it out.

Next: Bianca Vrcan's Tango for London. If you like tango music, it's lively and danceable and fun to have. If you've never met tango music, give it a whirl. It's not a great classic of the genre, but it's more accessible than a lot of older stuff.

Finally: Amy Saia's Meadowland, channels Carly Simon very sweetly. I must confess that I haven't got the whole CD, but the tracks I've listened to are really nice. And Amy is an unsigned artiste with real talent, so why not support her?

Friday, 29 November 2013

Xmas reads

Every newspaper and magazine seems to be suggesting books you might like to give as Christmas presents, so this year I've decided to join in.

I'm not going to tell you that you ought to be buying all your friends copies of The White Rajah and Cawnpore, because, of course, you've already done that. So here are a couple of alternatives from other authors you probably won't have heard of.

I have mentioned S A Meade here before. She wrote Lord of Endersley, which I reviewed earlier in the year. Like Cawnpore, it's the story of a gay man caught up in the Indian mutiny, but the resemblance pretty well ends there. Lord of Endersley is very definitely a gay romance and will appeal principally to people who like that kind of book. This is, apparently, not only gay men but also straight women, so if you have a female friend who will enjoy an explicit story of forbidden love, this one's for her. S A Meade does also write occasional heterosexual romances (as S A Laybourn) and her latest, Christopher'sMedal, is a well told tale of a man with post-traumatic stress disorder who is redeemed by love. Like Lord of Endersley, this is a story with graphic sexual detail, so possibly not one for your maiden aunt, though the "naughty" bits are easily skipped and the rest of the story is, in its way, quite charming.

I know I'm getting hung up on explicit romance here, but I'm going to mention one more: Where My Love Lies Dreaming by Christopher Moss. It's another gay romance, set on a Mississippi paddle steamer in 1859. Again, it's sexually explicit and not everyone's cup of tea, but Christopher Moss writes well and if you like tales of beautiful men falling in love, it may be yours.

For something completely different, I still love Tracy Franklin's Angst, Anger, Love, Hope. Tracy is a poet and a bloody good one. Tracy has published another collection, Looking for the Sun Door since then. If you like your poetry soulful and sort of poet-y, Looking for the Sun Door might be your thing, but I preferred the earthiness of Angst, Anger, Love, Hope. Both allow you a preview on Amazon, so read a couple and decide which style you prefer. I wouldn't generally buy anyone a book of poetry but I really do think Tracy is terrific, so give her a shot.

If you're buying for a teenage girl, you might consider Amy Saia's The Soul Seekers. It's part romance, part ghost story and part thriller. It's set in a small town in Indiana. Amy Saia knows a lot about growing up in small-town America and she writes about it beautifully. She's another writer who will never get the audience she deserves, so bear her in mind. The paperback has to be shipped from the USA, so you'll have to hurry if you live in the UK and want it by Xmas.

Amy is a lovely singer, too, with definite echoes of Carly Simon. Perhaps I'll recommend some CDs in my next post.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Christmas cacti

The Christmas cacti I keep at home are just coming into flower. While most cacti flower rarely as pot plants, the Christmas cacti bloom regularly at our house, the first sign here that it is time to start thinking of holly and ivy, tinsel and mistletoe.

It's also time to think of Xmas shopping. Now that I have books to sell, I can't ignore the fact that this is the time of year when people are most likely to go on to Amazon (other online stores are also available) and buy a paperback for a friend. For much of the year, I write about all sorts of things here, but I hope you'll understand that the next few weeks will see a certain concentration on the value of buying books, especially books published by independent publishers. Books are inexpensive gifts, but show you have given some thought to what your friends would like to read. And Xmas sales make a huge difference to less well-known authors.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Do historical novels exist?

Another historical novelist was asking recently what historical novelists could do to market their genre. I'm not sure it's entirely the right question. Is there really a genre of historical novels?

I keep reading that historical novels are madly popular right now. This seems to mean that there is a lot of enthusiasm for Hilary Mantel and Phillipa Gregory, partly because of success at the Bookers and on TV respectively. But an enthusiasm for what I (showing my age) still call mediaeval and Tudor fiction is not necessarily going to help me. I did hear on Radio Four that there is a fashion right now for what they called neo-Victorian books, which would help me if anybody had heard of this fashion outside the more aesthetic reaches of the BBC. But that's not necessarily going to sell the books that friends of mine have written set in revolutionary Russia or on the old paddle steamers of the Mississippi.

My point is that because you like the Falco stories set in ancient Rome doesn't mean that you'll like Bernard Cornwell's Napoleonic Sharpe tales. And you might think that a story based in the Korean War isn't historical at all – although, according to many definitions, it quite definitely is. In fact, a recent survey suggests that readers' favourite period is the 13th to 16th centuries (presumably the Mantel/Gregory effect) with the least favourite time periods being prehistory and the 2nd to 5th centuries. So I think we have to get away from the idea that there is one genre of "historical fiction" that people are buying into.

Apart from the whole question of period, there's the issue of subgenres. With historical fiction, the subgenres are not a trivial or artificial distinction. There is a massive market for what is called in the trade "Regency Romance". It is unlikely that a reader of Regency Romance is going to rush to buy my own The White Rajah, although it is set only a few decades after the Regency period. Some of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe books actually take place during the Regency, but I think that Romance readers will not want to read his military fiction. Military fiction is, of course, another subgenre of historical fiction. Cornwell is a particularly strong presence here, but so are the naval adventures of CS Forester and Patrick O'Brian. But is it sensible to assume that same people that enjoy Forester's Hornblower stories are going to read the Empire series about the Roman legions?

The problem is that genre fiction sells. It is much easier to market a book that can be presented as a "thriller", "crime story", "romcom", or whatever than simply as a novel. In fact the books that are left over after genre fiction has been taken out tend to be lumped together as "literary novels", which get far more critical attention but, usually, much lower sales. Unsurprisingly, people like me, who write books that are not set in the present day, would rather have ourselves described as authors of "historical fiction" than as of (in my case) authors writing novels dealing with issues of colonialism and exclusion but with some quite exciting bits in. But I suspect that for every Regency Romance reader who looks my book before recoiling in horror, there is another potential reader who never gets that far because they "don't read historical novels".

What's the solution? I have no idea. If you have, please respond in the comments below and you will have my undying gratitude.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Why words count

Last week's post about word count seems to have attracted more interest than most. The original Linked In discussion was also noticeably more involving than a lot of them. This set me to wondering why so many writers are quite so obsessive about word count.

I was listening to a programme on Radio Four last week (for US readers, Radio Four is the main UK talk radio channel) and it was discussing the difficulty of defining "work". It turns out that most people like to be thought of as doing quite a lot of "work" but nobody is quite sure what to include in it. My personal bete noire is when businessmen say that they work 16 hour day in which they include lunch and dinner because they're talking to colleagues, so this is obviously "work", isn't it? When I was working as a freelancer, there was always the question as to whether journey time counted as "work" or not. Given that I might be expected to travel from London to Manchester as part of the job, this was hardly a trivial issue. For writers, the whole question of what is "work" is even more difficult to pin down. Donna Tartt has apparently said in an interview that she "works" all the time, partly on the grounds that she carries a notebook with her and constantly jots down things that she might put into a novel. Given that she has written three novels in 21 years, her definition of "work" does, I think, stretch it about as far as you can. And in that last, ever so slightly bitchy, comment, we come to the nub of the concern about word count. For when I say that three books in 21 years hardly seems like full-time employment, what I am saying is, ultimately, that she doesn't write a lot each day.

Now I spent my last post ridiculing the idea that your creative effort can be measured in words per day, but here I am, doing just that. Why? Because, like all writers I want to be taken seriously as a writer and, until I win the Booker, how do I define the "work" of writing?

I could, of course, just say that a writer is anybody who writes. But, every so often, someone comes up with the idea that almost literally everybody in the country has, at some stage, started to write a book. I can quite believe it. I have even seen computer programs being sold that claim to enable you to turn your brilliant idea into prose even if you do not really have a plot, any characters or the first clue of how to write. On this definition, we are all, it appears, writers now.

I have a friend with an English degree who decided that she would like to write. She joined a Writers Circle, because people in a Writers Circle will be writers, yes? After weeks of listening to a group of not noticeably talented people reading their Special Words to each other, she gave up. The worst thing, she suggested, was the unspoken social contract whereby you agreed that the other person's Special Words were evidence of real talent in exchange for them doing the same for you. It's quite possible that some of the people in the group had real potential, but in the atmosphere of mutual onanism, nobody was ever going to find out. It does seem fair to say, though, that membership of a Circle does not make you a writer.

Once upon a time, the test of whether or not you were a writer was whether or not you had a book published. But that's hardly a test any more. Many really rather good writers are self-published or published by independent publishers that no one has ever heard of. Unfortunately, so are some people whose work, by any standard other than their own, would struggle to be judged as a "proper book". Some people have tried to replace the test of "had a book published" with "had a book published by a mainstream publisher". But, looking at the books published by mainstream publishers, I don't see that as being any test of quality either. Even after you've taken out the celebrity books (often written by someone whose name is not on the cover) you are left with some works of dubious worth. I'll name no names because it's a grey area, but we can all think of some very doubtful stuff that is getting mainstream publication these days.

So if the test isn't "I've had a book published", what defines somebody as a "real" writer? It would be nice to suggest that it is whether or not you make a living out of writing. Unfortunately (he said with feeling), the last time I looked, which was, admittedly a few years ago, the average amount made by somebody who actually writes for money was £7000 a year. Obviously Dan Brown and JK Rowling manage rather more than that, but for most writers, the idea of it paying a living wage is just ridiculous. At one level, this is quite a good definition of a writer, but it suffers from the opposite problem of defining it as "somebody who writes". While almost everybody is in the first category, practically nobody is in the latter.

I think it is the absence of any useful definition that makes us so obsessive about word counts. It's almost as if, in the community of "serious writers who haven't had a bestseller yet", we define a writer as "somebody who writes down about 1000 words a day". It's a measure of our insecurity. And we are all so very insecure. It's a lonely life and we look for all the validation we can get. And in the absence of Amazon reviews (hint, hint) and massive sales (even bigger hint), we look to our word count for the validation we aren't getting anywhere else.

That's a thousand words.

I'm a proper writer, I am.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

How many words must a writer write down, before he can rest with a beer?

There's a writers group online (it's a Linked In group) where there's been some discussion lately about the number of words that people should aim for in a day. In so far as there is a consensus, it seems to be around 1,000 words a day.

It seems a strange notion to me. Some people have argued that you have to know the number of words you will write in a day if you are writing commercially. There is some truth in this. For many years I was a hack writer – that is, I would write pretty well whatever I was asked to write for a commercial rate. This was non-fiction and it was usually written to a very tight deadline and sometimes on the basis of a competitive tender. There would usually be a contractual requirement to produce a certain number of words. Even if there wasn't, the client had an idea of the sort of length of the document that he expected to get. Knowing roughly how much I could write in a day was essential if I was going to make a living out of it, which I did reasonably successfully. However, even in these particular circumstances, the idea that I had a general "average number of words written in a day" is misleading. In some cases, I was essentially rewriting material that was provided to me, or writing something based on information readily available online. Here I would write a lot of words in a day. In other cases, I was being paid not only to write, but to research. Typically, if I was writing a project that was going to take two months, about a month might be spent researching and the second month writing. In these cases, the "number of words written per day" in the first month could well be zero, while the second month would involve quite intensive typing.

Now I write fiction, I have a completely different approach to putting words on a page. With non-fiction, written to a deadline, the important thing is to get words down. You have to write fast, sometimes to a template and usually using a kind of business language that does not concern itself overmuch with the finer points of style. Even here, there are quite significant differences in the amount of attention that has to be given to the detail of the writing and, hence, the number of words you can produce. I had a friend who wrote documents presenting government policy. Much of her work involved putting forward ideas using language that would make people more favourable to them than they might otherwise have been. She wrote far more slowly than me but she was paid much more highly because her clients needed the level of craftsmanship she brought her work. In fact, only yesterday, another friend who writes policy for government described a long exchange of e-mails over the changing of a single word. She doesn't write 1,000 words a day, and nor would anyone expect her to.

Writing fiction, I am trying to put over ideas in the most vivid way that I can. I will spend a while thinking about a situation and getting a clear idea in my own mind of what was happening and only then will I start to write it down. Sometimes, once the words start to flow, literally thousands of them will come out at once. More often, after a few hundred, things will stutter to a halt and it is only after a significant pause looking out of the window, doing the washing up and staring aimlessly into space that the next few hundred may emerge. It's often even worse than that because I write historical fiction with a very firm basis in actual events. Before I even start writing, months may be spent reading about a period without anything more than a few scratched notes emerging in the way of solid output.

I do notice that the people who most enthusiastically espouse writing high word counts often express their views with a remarkable lack of punctuation and more than occasional typos. There is, for most people, a trade-off between speed and accuracy. One person in the discussion I've been reading dismisses anyone who does not set a high word count target and stick to it. He is even more abrupt at the suggestion that anyone should spend time editing and rewriting their work. This is a man who does not use capital letters. at all. he's not that big on full stops either. If he is getting published, some editor is putting in the hours to correct this and, once we take account of that, his average is going to drop quite a bit.

If you're writing fiction nowadays, you are also expected to spend quite a lot of time writing to promote your work. That, in the end, is what this blog is all about. If I included the words I write for this in my daily target, I would have already achieved almost 1,000 words. Does that mean I only have to scratch out a few more paragraphs and then I can put my feet up with somebody else's good book? Alas, no.

In the end, writing is not a competition, won or lost on the number of words you produce. It's a completely meaningless figure. For what it's worth, the average novel nowadays probably has about 80,000 – 90,000 words in it. (Mine are a bit longer, but historical novels usually are.) My impression is that most well-known full-time authors produce, very roughly, a book a year.  That's around 230 words a day. Does this mean anything? No, it doesn't. But if somebody asks how many words you should write a day, you can tell them that 230 is a reasonable sort of average. So I've written over four days' worth now. See you next week.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Change of address - for one week only

I'm not doing a regular blog posting this week because my blog on the rise and fall of the East India Company has just been published on 'English Historical Fiction Authors'. Go and visit and read it there.

If you enjoy posts about the history of India and the events leading up to Cawnpore, you could check out these earlier blog posts here: Indian Mutiny or War of Independence?, Nana Sahib, It was 155 years ago today, and The aftermath of Cawnpore.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

My books are available in paperback or as e-books through Amazon and most other major online sites (even WH Smith).

You can contact me through Facebook.  Or you can comment on any of the posts here.

Writing can be very lonely. It's always good to hear from readers.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

General Havelock

Here's another London statue to go with the one of Clive. This one is in Trafalgar Square. (The pigeon on his head is a clue.) It commemorates General Havelock. He commanded the column sent to the relief of the Cawnpore garrison, arriving just after the massacre of the women and children.

Havelock was a small man, rather stiff in his bearing as well as his manner. People who knew him said that the statue in Trafalgar Square was a reasonable likeness, except that it showed him clean shaven, while he actually had a moustache and a full beard, both vividly white against his tan.

Havelock was rather a stuffy, pompous man, not greatly admired by his troops. His wife was the daughter of Christian missionaries and he became a Baptist, being baptised in India. His proselytising Christianity typified the mid-19th century approach to religion in India, which contributed to the tensions that led to the Mutiny.

Despite the reservations many people held about his personality (he had been slow to be promoted to command), he proved a sound strategist. His march from Benares to Cawnpore – almost 200 miles in the heat of an Indian summer – was a remarkable achievement. The troops showed undoubted valour in their advance through hostile countryside in conditions that saw many die from heatstroke and cholera. At the same time, their behaviour toward civilians was appalling. There were almost indiscriminate attacks on villages and individuals believed (often with no evidence at all) to have assisted the rebels.

Havelock made considerable use of spies to gain information about the enemy as he advanced. As he approached Cawnpore, a spy named Anjoor Tewaree gave him information about the Nana Sahib's positions, which enabled Havelock to crush the last opposition standing between him and the town. The incident appears in Cawnpore as Williamson tries to redeem himself for standing by as the Europeans were killed.
I had removed my turban and made a bundle of my uniform jacket, so when I ran into General Havelock’s scouts, they did not shoot me before I had time to greet them as friends and tell them that I had urgent information for their general.
“Have you, indeed? And who the hell are you, when you’re at home.”
I opened my mouth to give my name and then I hesitated. As soon as I was known as John Williamson, I would be gathered back into the bosom of the European community. What then of Mungo, waiting trustingly for me to return to him? What of Amy Horne? Even Jonah Shepherd’s life was safer for as long as I could pay his jailer to make sure he came to no harm.
I had a whole life as Anjoor Tewaree. I had friends and responsibilities. I had someone who loved me. It was, I knew, a life that couldn’t last. One day I would have to return to the world I had known before Mungo, but not today. When Anjoor Tewaree departed this earth, he would not be sacrificed to a brutal trooper like this fellow.
“I am Anjoor Tewaree,” I said. “I have intelligence of the enemy’s position and it is vital that I give it to the General as soon as may be.”
While we were talking, an officer had ridden over and now demanded to know what was going on. I gave him a quick summary of my news and he recognised its importance immediately. Ten minutes later, I was standing before General Havelock.
The British were making a quick breakfast of biscuit and beer, anxious to be on the march. The General must have eaten already, for he was on his feet when I was brought before him. Short, like Wheeler, he seemed to stand constantly at attention, brimming with an energy that belied his white hair and the evidence of age in his craggy features. He scarcely deigned to look at me but barked questions about the exact placement of artillery, the numbers in each of the units and the morale of the men. He asked about fodder for the horses (we had none but that close to the Ganges would have no trouble foraging) and the condition of the ground (firmer where it drained into the river, marshier on the other flank). There was question after question and I was not sure that he really attended to my answers until he bent down and, with a stick, sketched an astonishingly accurate map of the rebel positions in the dust at his feet.
“Is that right?”
“Yes, sir, you’ve got it exactly.”
“Good man. Well done.” And he just turned away.
I hesitated for a moment and the trooper who had escorted me hissed in my ear. “You’re dismissed, you little runt. Now bugger off.”

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Reviews of 'Cawnpore'

About a month ago, I blogged some of the reviews that I've had for The White Rajah. I thought it was about time to do the same with Cawnpore. (It is a year since I last did this.) Here they are. I'm not putting on the Amazon ones, as I imagine most people will already have seen them.

an excellent introduction to India as part of the British Rajah, and to the siege of Cawpore. The author does not deviate from the facts and the novel is a solid piece of history turned into a fascinating story and well worth a read. 

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.

… approaches that ranks of Sarah Waters in storytelling.

An intriguing tale of the imbalance between two worlds, and the ultimate clash between the love of another man and love of one's country... The details are well researched and the storyline concurs well with the known facts …

a well-written adventure tale.

… 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.

…  I really enjoyed this novel. Highly recommended.

 a fine work of historical fiction …

Reviews remain, for books without marketing budgets, the most important way to encourage new readers. If you have read and enjoyed Cawnpore please take the time to post a review. It doesn't have to be long.

Thank you.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Truth may be stranger than fiction.

Some readers have told me that they have a problem with Cawnpore because our hero disguises himself as an Indian and gets away with it.

In my book, I do tell the story of Jonah Shepherd, who passed himself off as an Indian, although he was in fact an Anglo-Indian ie he had an Indian mother and a European father. Nowadays, people might think that such a deception would have been easy to pull off, but at the time of the Mutiny people were very sensitive to the difference between Anglo-Indians and Indians. Anglo-Indians were seen by many of the rebels as traitors and subtle distinctions of skin tone, accent or bearing could be the difference between life and death. The success of Shepherd's impersonation was therefore by no means assured.

Shepherd disguised himself in native clothes and had his hair cut short all round his head leaving a tuft of long hair in the centre, over which he wrapped a piece of cloth as a turban. Just the change of clothes seemed to make quite an effective disguise. As he left the British camp he was challenged by sentries who failed to recognise him as one of their number. He was, however, seen leaving by some of the rebels and taken for questioning. The episode where he is questioned in Cawnpore is based on his own account. He was worried that he might be asked about his religion. As a Christian, he did not know the Muslim creed to convince the questioner that he was a Muslim or enough about Hindu gods to pass himself off as a Hindu. He decided to pass himself off as a Chummar, which he said was a very low caste that held no particular creed and he got away with this deception.

His main concern was to disguise his height, which he did by the simple expedient of stooping a lot. Apparently he was significantly taller than most of the natives. He was also worried that he might be recognised by somebody who knew him from before the Mutiny, so he would pull a cloth about his face whenever he could. These crude devices kept him alive until Cawnpore was relieved.

As Jonah Shepherd was leaving the British lines, a European friend of his suggested that he disguise himself too and join him. Although his friend later thought better of the idea, this does suggest that Europeans did believe that they could disguise themselves effectively.

In fact, there was evidence that a European could get away with such disguise. At the siege of Lucknow, Henry Kavanagh, one of the European volunteers in the garrison, offered to pass through the rebel lines to guide in the relief column. He dyed his skin and dressed himself in native clothing before passing around the European camp and ensuring that he was not recognised for what he was. He escaped from the siege by swimming across a river but soon ran into an enemy sentry.

"I thought it prudent to be the first to speak, and remarked, as we approached, that the night was cold, and after his repeating that it was cold, I passed on observing that it would be colder bye-and-bye."

He passed several other sentries without his disguise being penetrated. At one point, he and his native companion were stopped and questioned. The native became visibly frightened. Kavanagh wrote:

"I drew their attention to his fright, and begged that they would not terrify poor travellers, unaccustomed to being questioned by so many valorous soldiers."

The sentries were satisfied and let him go.

The fictional John Williamson, of course, gets away with much more than this, but then he is a devotee of Indian culture and has his local love to help him. His exploits are fictitious, but the historical evidence suggests that he may well have had a better chance than a modern reader might expect.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Castles, Customs and Kings

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that The White Rajah and Cawnpore had both been featured in 'English Epochs'. This is a blog covering much of British history and books written about it. 

The blog owner is Debra Brown, an American author with a passion for British (or she keeps insisting "English") history. She has just (together with M M Bennetts) edited a chunky book, Castles, Customs and Kings which will be published by Madison Street Publishing next month. As she was kind enough to draw my books to the attention of her blog readers, I'm returning the favour.

Castles, Customs and Kings is not a book to be read from cover-to-cover: the paper version comes in at about 500 pages. In any case, it's an anthology, rather than a single narrative. An impressive array of historical novelists have each contributed a short chapter on some aspect of British history that interests them. Obviously, most have chosen to write about the eras that they cover in their novels and a certain amount of more or less blatant plugging rears its ugly head.

As with all anthologies, there are significant differences in quality and style between the different chapters. However, the editors have done a good job of making sure that all of them pass muster. There are some contradictions between different authors discussing the same period. However, history is not an exact science, and I appreciated seeing the way in which different commentators came to different conclusions. Some chapters carried more authority than others and this is reflected in the fact that some produce bibliographic references and others do not.

I was surprised at the distinctly 'old-fashioned' feel of much of it. It reminded me of history is that I read as a child – books which were quaintly out of date even then. This is history as Michael Gove would have it. There is some social history, but generally the writers concentrate on battles and Kings and the doings of the rich and famous. I found the approach charming and reassuring. In the end, most people are more interested in the steps of the dances in the Regency period than they are in the detail of a skivvy's timetable. As an author who is unashamedly old-fashioned in my approach to historical writing, I rather enjoyed it. It did tell me things I didn't know and sparked an interest in some people and places I hadn't heard of before, but it is in no way a textbook. It's an amusing trot through British history and excellent bedtime reading, but don't expect it to help your children with their school exams.

Many of the authors seem to write historical romances and it is a book which will appeal particularly strongly to readers of this genre who want a little more history and a little less fiction. For me, it was literary comfort food – a recollection of childhood, warm and satisfying, if a little on the sweet side.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Love has no boundaries. Discuss.

Apparently, the planned film on James Brooke's life may feature his romance to a Brunei princess. Of course, I'm sceptical about this 'romance' as I am firmly convinced he was gay, but there are stories that he married a local princess. (Not that the two possibilities are entirely mutually exclusive.)

The person who told me this wondered if the idea of an inter-racial romance would work in a Hollywood movie. That raised an interesting point.

In Cawnpore, John Williamson leaves Borneo and travels to India, where he falls in love with an Indian noble. Although reviews of Cawnpore have been very good (better than for TheWhite Rajah), sales have been disappointing. I asked my publisher if she had any idea why this might be and she came up with a few. For example, things like the cover design might have put Cawnpore at a disadvantage. I think her instincts are sound and her ideas made sense. Then she said that she had noticed that stories featuring inter-racial romance generally did not sell well.

I was shocked. Yet it fitted with stuff I remembered from years ago, when I worked on romance magazines for teenage girls. Studies have shown that romance magazines featuring mixed-race couples on the cover sold significantly less well than those where the couple were both of the same race.

I wonder if this is still true. I have a horrible feeling that it is. I am sure everyone can tell me about Hollywood movies that do star a mixed-race couple, but they seem to be a tiny minority of all the hit films that Hollywood turns out. In an attempt to see if I was imagining this, I checked out Sky Movies' "
Top 100 Rom-Coms at the box office" and didn't even see a black face until number 30, Coming to America. This starred Eddie Murphy. The love interest here was Shari Headley, who is also a person of colour. In fact, based on the top 30 films listed there, the love interest is as likely to be a different species (the mermaid in Splash) as a different race.

I know that, statistically, people are more likely to settle down with someone from their own racial group. But, living in multi-cultural London, I see mixed-race couples all the time. Only this morning, my Facebook feed was full of photos of friends of mine who married at the weekend and who are definitely not both the same skin colour. So why do we apparently struggle to accept in fiction what we see all around us in fact?

There is an obvious example of a successful movie featuring an inter-racial romance and that's Disney's hit, Pocahontas. But then, that's a cartoon.

Do we find it so difficult to accept that real-life people can love other real-life people with a different skin colour to their own? And, if this is the case, what does that say about us?

Monday, 12 August 2013

Reviews of 'The White Rajah'

I keep saying how important reviews are. It's not just Amazon. A lot of people are becoming disillusioned with Amazon reviews and there is a school of thought that says that the reviews on sites like Goodreads are a more reliable guide to the quality of book. So, for those of you who haven't seen them, here are some of the things people have said about The White Rajah in places other than Amazon.

On Goodreads:

A great 'little' read… It is written with a delicate touch, very cleverly taking the reader to the time and place, the characters, mainly based on real people, are believable, likeable and hateable with all the human frailties and characteristics that draw the reader in… Would recommend as a good read for one and all.

… full of rich details …

… This well-written biographical novel is a young man's adventure story as well as his moral coming-of-age…

Ripping yarn…

... Worth the read, that's for sure.

I loved this book…

Very well written and nicely done…


Absolutely brilliant. A fast paced, perfectly edited, superbly written novel that kept me enthralled from the first word…

Bloomsbury Review

... An interesting tale, well told...

Any reviews, anywhere, help sales (and The White Rajah is still selling, slowly but steadily). A few sentences saying what you like (or even what you hate) about the book are more important to potential readers than a star rating, so go ahead and knock yourselves out. Thanks.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

English Epochs

I've just got back from a few days away, to see that 'English Epochs 101' featured Cawnpore last week, having covered The White Rajah the week before. Every Wednesday, 'English Epochs' features a few historical novels, giving some less well-known writers a chance to be seen. It's a useful service to readers and invaluable to writers, so I'm happy to mention it here.

When it's not helping out new writers, 'English Epochs' has posts on all sorts of oddities from English history. Whether it's health and medical treatment in Victorian England or the story of Simon de Montfort, there are some nicely laid out little snippets that may inform or entertain. They're not that easy to find, though. Look for the 'Popular Posts' listings toward the bottom of the right-hand side of the homepage or the index to the blog archive below that.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Why I should have settled for writing contemporary fiction

I'm working on a new book set around Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. At present (in my very first draft) it has this paragraph:
On Thursday 28 June, Burke and William walked as usual to the granite column and saw, but a few miles offshore, the sails of a naval squadron. Burke focused the telescope and saw, to his relief, not the tricolore of France but ...
I was about to write 'the White Ensign' when I thought to check. And yes, the modern White Ensign was only introduced as the standard flag for British warships in 1864. Thank you Wikipedia. Also courtesy of Wikipedia we have:
"Ships flew the colour of ensign corresponding to the squadron to which they were attached, which was in turn determined by the seniority of the admiral under whose command the ship sailed (a rear admiral of the red was senior to a rear admiral of the white)."
At the time of the Battle of the Nile, Nelson (who commanded the British force) was Rear Admiral of the Blue, so my sentence now ended with 'the Blue Ensign'. At this point a friend (well, he was a friend then) pointed out that the Blue squadron was generally assigned to patrol the Pacific. (Hence, he said, the fact that the Australian and New Zealand flags are based on the Blue Ensign.) Was I sure that it was the Blue squadron at the Battle of the Nile? And, to worry me further, he produced a painting showing one of the ships involved flying the White Ensign.

I shouldn't have let that painting bother me. Paintings are not photographs and battle pictures were very seldom done by artists who were actually at the scene. Sometimes I have seen quite famous paintings of incidents that I have researched thoroughly, and the paintings are simply wrong. In this case, I have had a look at a couple of paintings that were done not that long after the events. 'The Destruction of 'L'Orient' at the Battle of the Nile' is quite a famous painting done early in the 19th century and it shows a Red Ensign. Thomas Luny's much reproduced painting shows a White Ensign.

Still, there was clearly room for doubt, especially as none of the contemporary paintings I found had a Blue Ensign. So I started through the accounts of the battle. Most serious histories point out that Nelson was an Admiral of the Blue, but they say nothing about his ensign. I even found a contemporary account by someone who was there and who had logged every incident his ship was involved in, but, of course, he would have assumed that anybody reading his work would know what the colours were, so he doesn't mention them.

Finally, after a fruitless couple of hours, I decided to stick with the Blue Ensign. But I might call in on the National Maritime Museum to make sure.

And what difference does all this research make to the finished novel? One word. One word in a paragraph which may not even survive to the final draft.

And that, my friends, is why historical novels take so long to write and are worth every penny of their pathetically inadequate cover price.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Thank you JK Rowling - and thank you, readers!

So JK Rowling's latest sold 1,500 copies when published anonymously (having been turned down by one publisher who said it was "well written but quiet"). That's with proper distribution in bricks and mortar shops and with an endorsement by Val McDermid on the cover. It had good reviews too.

Although there has been the odd bitchy remark from fellow writers, JK Rowling does not attract the sort of loathing that is reserved for the likes of Dan Brown. This latest effort has probably increased the affection that many of us seem to feel for her. It was brave to publish anonymously and the good reviews suggest that there is more to her than hype. (Although I would have thought most people who had read her work should have realised that already.) Most importantly, it has made the rest of us feel a lot better about our own sales.

I got my latest royalty statement this week and, instead of burying my head in my hands and weeping, I consoled myself with the fact that, although I have practically no bricks and mortar distribution and Val McDermid doesn't know me from Adam, 'The White Rajah' has sold getting on for half as many copies as JK Rowling. The sad truth is that only 2% of published works sell more than 500 copies. I am delighted that 'The White Rajah' is part of that 2%.

Thank you to everyone who has put their hands in their pockets and bought a copy. Most of the people I know would say that they think that books are generally a good thing. But unless people are prepared to give unknown authors a chance, the reality is that we will end up with a few very popular authors producing new volumes featuring established characters while original writing that is not aimed firmly at the bestseller chart simply languishes and dies. JK Rowling has done everyone a favour by highlighting the difficulties that most authors face.