Friday, 15 July 2016

A funny old week

It's been a funny old week, hasn't it? If you're in the UK, watching your government morphing overnight from a bunch of old-Etonian posh boys to a rather more state-school educated group of people reporting to our second-ever woman Prime Minister has been interesting. Even more interesting will be seeing what policies they will come up with, given that they seem to be moving in a dramatically different direction to the people they replaced, and all without the distraction of any sort of election. Without the distraction of any sort of Parliamentary Opposition, too, because Labour MPs have decided that fighting their own distinctly uncivil war is massively more entertaining than doing the job they're paid for, which is to provide some sort of critical analysis of the Government.

I usually don't do politics (at least not overtly) on my blog, but there are times when what's happening to your country is so big, so potentially significant and all-embracing, that it becomes impossible to ignore. Ever since the Referendum, life in London has become dominated by political chat, even amongst people who professed to be profoundly unpolitical before all this kicked off. (In fact, many of those complaining that Britain is now on its way out of the EU were so unpolitical a month ago that they didn't actually get round to voting in the Referendum that started this mess.) There are people who have lost long-time friends in the flurry of insults currently passing for political debate and I'm avoiding parties where I just know that more cross words will make things even worse.

With all this going on (and even before the awful events in Nice which are only just sinking in as I write), I'm finding it quite difficult to concentrate on my books. It's a particularly bad time to discover that your work in progress needs significant tinkering to make the chronology of the plot fit the few facts that we absolutely have to incorporate into what is, after all, a historical novel based around real events. The changes are nothing too dramatic - the same incidents will happen but shifted to a different locale; the army corps that my hero infiltrates will be a different corps; crucial messages will be sent on slightly different dates. It's all under control and in some ways it's this jigsawing of real and imagined events that is the fun part of historical fiction, but it can be quite tedious to plot and, with real life increasingly resembling a particularly exciting episode of Game of Thrones, I find my attention keeps drifting away from the plains of 19th century Spain and towards 21st century Westminster. I'm expecting dragons over Big Ben any moment.

Image from 'Reign of Fire'

The last week has also made me wonder how much people want to read historical novels based around wars and battles. (My books are not, strictly speaking, military history, but they do have quite a lot of war in them.) Most books in this country are bought by women and what women want in a historical novel (to generalise wildly, but we're talking marketplaces, not individuals) does seem rather different from what interests men. In my last blog post, I reviewed Jane Jackson's The Master's Wife and compared the way she approaches her historical material with the way that I would tackle the same stuff. What came out very clearly is that her books and mine take very different approaches to often very similar subject matter. Neither approach is 'better' than the other. I did wonder if a book combining both would be the ideal historical novel and realised that one well-known title does. It's War and Peace and, whatever its literary merits, I think it would struggle to find a publisher or a market these days.

This exercise in comparing and contrasting was interesting in itself, but what I found astonishing was the response to the blog post. A week after writing, it is one of the three most-read (or at least, most clicked-on) blogs I have ever posted. By this evening, I'm pretty sure it will be in the #2 spot. (#1 is a post about Nana Sahib, the 'villain' of Cawnpore, who gets a lot of views because he's an important historical character with not that much written about him in the UK.) In the five and a half years I've been blogging, my readership has increased, so recent posts are more likely to have got more readers, but that can't be the reason for such overwhelming interest. Looking at other popular posts, though, I see that #4 is a review of Laura Wilkinson's romantic novel, Redemption Song. It beats into fifth place my account of the battle of Quatre Bras, the little-known but decisive conflict that preceded Waterloo. Published on the 200th anniversary of the battle, it was the sort of post that appealed to people with an interest in military history but there were far fewer people wanting to read about that than there were wanting to read about a romance.

Black Watch at the Battle of Quatre-Bras, 1815, by William Barnes Wollen. Quite an important battle.

All this, at a time when everyone in the UK is having to come to terms with a very rapidly changing world, is making me wonder if I have to accept that the market for the sort of historical novels I write is just not big enough to make sense. There are still people succeeding there: my personal favourite is Paul Collard. Antoine Vanner also writes well in this sub-genre, but without great commercial success. Authors such as Bernard Cornwell, though, have moved away from the 19th century to more profitable tales of much longer ago. Other well-loved writers of 19th century military fiction, like Patrick O'Brian and George MacDonald Fraser, have sadly parted this world. I feel that, perhaps, the 19th century military boat has sailed. The problem is not that books about this period are not appreciated by their audience - my books, like those of Collard and Vanner, have had some very favourable reviews. It is just that the size of that audience seems to be becoming too small to support more than one or two commercially successful writers.

What to do? I'm really not sure. I'll finish the book I'm working on now - I've written 40,000 words and it seems to be ticking along quite nicely - but then I'm going to have to give it quite a lot of serious thought. Everyone I know seems to be giving quite a lot of things serious thought right now and the future of James Burke - His Majesty's Confidential Agent - is hardly that significant in the scale of things. If you do like reading about 19th century military history, though, might I suggest you buy some? Not necessarily by me: buy the latest Jack Lark by Paul Collard or something in Antoine Vanner's Dawlish series. But do buy something. Because if people don't buy the books, authors will stop writing them. And that, I think, would be a shame.

Why not try these? (Click for Buy link.)

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Tom Williams writes books about the Napoleonic era spy, James Burke. He's a spy and the books are full of beautiful women and dastardly plots, but, yes, they do have the odd battle. The history is quite well researched too, but they are, above all, fun. Give them a go.

If you like your history a bit more serious, try the Williamson Papers. Set in the mid-19th century, they see the height of the Colonial Era through the eyes of a man who is never entirely comfortable with what he is doing in the name of Britain and Christian civilisation. But these books have battles in too. 19th century history was like that - rather dominated by men with guns.


  1. What's the second most popular blog post then??

  2. Fishing, are we? But yes, you're right: it's yours.

  3. Very interesting and enjoyable piece Tom, thanks so much for sharing. A week is a long time in politics - too right.