Monday, 20 October 2014

One Lovely Blog Award

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations to:

Diane L Major – prolific blogger, as-yet-unpublished author, scarily erudite amateur historian and generally interesting person

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 October 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 13 October 2014

On blogging

I’m not sure how much I trust the stats that Google gives me about this blog, but, according to them, I got over a thousand page views last month. That’s pretty good for me – especially lately, as Google seems to have changed the way that it weights blogs on its search function, so a lot of people have reported a reduction in hits. It's made me stop and think, not for the first time, about why I write this blog and why you, dear reader, have clicked on it.

First up, I write this to try to boost sales of my novels. If you enjoy reading the blog and you haven't bought the books, please do. (Click on the cover pictures on the right.) They'll cost you less than a couple of quid each and you can view it as a donation to keeping this going. If everybody who clicked on the blog bought a book, I'd be well on my way to being a bestseller. That would be nice.

Another reason for blogging is that writing can be a lonely business. You finish your book; your editor says that they enjoyed it; your publisher produces a cover and sends it out into the world; and then – nothing. Well, almost nothing. Every so often somebody takes the trouble to put a review on Amazon or Goodreads and I'm terribly grateful for that. Some authors claim not to read their reviews but I am not one of them. Reviews are brilliant, but I know that not everybody wants to write them, so you have the chance to "talk" to me in the comments section here. I have a couple of virtual friends that I've met that way and it's surprising how real such friendships can be, but not many people do respond directly to the blog. It would be lovely if you did. Just use the comments to say, “Hi!” if you want to.

But why are you reading this? I have posted all sorts of things over the years, but most posts are about the history behind my books or various aspects of writing. Then there’s some completely random stuff. What fascinates me is what, according to Google, gets you all going.

I am a keen tango dancer and, when I can afford it (buy more books, people!) I like to go and dance in Buenos Aires. When I was last there, I wrote about some of the places we’d visited for my Facebook friends. One of them suggested that I should publish some of these accounts in my blog, so I did. And one of them (just one) is one of the most popular posts I have ever written. What it is about a review of an evening at Milonga 10 that has you all so gripped, I don’t know. And why you would rather read about that than the milonga at Porteno y Bailarin or any of the others?

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about the differences between the books I write about John Williamson andthe Burke series. (The second Burke book will be out in the next week or so and Cawnpore will be republished later in the year.) It got some things off my chest but I felt that it was a rather self-indulgent piece. To my surprise, it has proved particularly popular.

I'm happy that people are reading this stuff and (as they seem to come back for more) apparently enjoying it. I don't think there are many writers who write for the money or the glory. We write because we want to be read, so thanks for being here. And if there's something that you would particularly like me to write about in the future, let me know. That's what the comments box is for.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Historical fact and historical fiction

So how much does historical accuracy matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Last chance for a free book

The chance to get a Kindle copy of The White Rajah for free is a September thing, so today should be the last day. If you haven’t already downloaded it, get it today! You don’t have to read it straightaway, but you have to download it now.

Why do authors get excited about giving their work away for nothing? In my case, The White Rajah is a second edition of a book initially published in 2010 by a very small publisher in the USA. It did quite well, but Accent took it on in an attempt to bring it to a wider audience. But how to do that when all most obvious ways had been tried with the first edition? The answer is to give it away and hope that people will read it and talk about it to their friends.

I hope that you have downloaded it (or will today) and that you read and enjoy it. And then, do tell your friends. Better yet, please review it on Amazon. Don’t be put off by the word ‘review’: all you need is a few words to say what you thought about the book. As to the star rating: well, I hate star ratings too – the words are much more important. It’s worth being aware, though, that Amazon considers a 3* rating a ‘negative review’. I know it doesn’t make sense and I’d rather three stars than a deafening silence, but I thought I ought to mention that.

I hope you enjoy the book and I look forward to reading what you have to say about it.


Friday, 26 September 2014

The Kilmorey Mausoleum

The next Burke book to be published will be set around Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. Although the campaign never achieved its military objectives, the French efforts generated a lot of interest in Ancient Egypt – interest that eventually extended to the UK.

Last weekend, we took advantage of London Open House to see (among other things) the Kilmorey Mausoleum. This is quite near where we live in west London, but it is not generally open to the public. It is the last resting place of the Second Earl of Kilmorey and his mistress Priscilla Hoste. It was built in 1854, well after the initial passion for all things Egyptian, but the design is thought to have been based on a plate in a French book, Description de l’Egypte, published in 1809.
The mausoleum is an interesting piece of architecture, although I was more interested in the idea of building a private burial place in your back garden, which is essentially what the Earl did. It was a curious coincidence, though, to find that I live so close to something that would not exist were it not for the military adventure that I had just finished writing about.

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.