Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Outlaw’s Ransom: Playing with History

Jennifer Ash (aka Jenny Kane) has just had ‘The Outlaw’s Ransom’ republished (it’s all the rage now, as I’m demonstrating with my own books), so instead of a book review my Tuesday book page is being handed over to her so that she can tell you about it.
Take it away, Jennifer.

*   *   *

Many years ago, long before those mobile phone things came along – when laptops were but a pipe-dream and coffee was either simply black or white – I studied ‘Medieval English Economy and Crime’ at the University of Leicester. Basically, I spent five years in historian heaven researching the correlation between the political songs and ballads of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and the real criminal records of the day. I read a lot of Robin Hood stories, a huge number of early political satire and more crime rolls than I can remember.
My research became a PhD, and since that time I’ve wanted to use my work for something more accessible than dry and dusty academic papers. To begin with I tutored medieval economy at Leicester Uni, but then my husband’s job was moved to Scotland, and as they didn’t teach English Medieval history north of the border, my career was somewhat scuppered.
Now, 20 or so years later, after being a professional writer for 13 of those years, I have finally put my efforts and historical detective work to use by writing The Outlaw’s Ransom – my very first medieval mystery. Not only is this my first foray into standalone medieval crime- it is the initial story in a series of novels called ‘The Folville Chronicles.’ (Book 2- The Winter Outlaw, will be published in April this year.)
The Outlaw’s Ransom revolves around the real-life fourteenth century criminal gang, the Folvilles- the very gang I concentrated much of my doctoral research on. This family, made up of 7 brothers (John, Eustace, Richard, Robert, Thomas, Walter and Laurence), lived in Ashby-Folville, Leicestershire, but they ruled a larger area of the country, which included Rutland, Northamptonshire and part of Derbyshire.
I must confess I rather enjoyed taking historical fact and giving it a fictional spin. Although The Outlaw’s Ransom contains many factual events – I have played fast and loose with history. So, please don’t go using any of the information within its pages in a pub quiz without checking it first!
Here’s the blurb-
When potter’s daughter Mathilda is kidnapped by the notorious Folville brothers as punishment for her father’s debts, she fears for her life. Although of noble birth, the Folvilles are infamous throughout the county for using crime to rule their lands—and for using any means necessary to deliver their distinctive brand of ‘justice’.
Mathilda must prove her worth to the Folvilles in order to win her freedom. To do so, she must go against her instincts and, disguised as the betrothed of Robert de Folville, undertake a mission that will send her to Bakewell in Derbyshire, and the home of Nicholas Coterel, one of the most villainous men in England.
With her life in the hands of more than one dangerous brigand, Mathilda must win the trust of the Folville’s housekeeper, Sarah, and Robert Folville himself if she has any chance of survival.
Never have the teachings gleaned from the tales of Robyn Hode been so useful…
If that has whetted your appetite- then here are those all important buy links!
(Please note that if you have read Romancing Robin Hood by Jenny Kane and Jennifer Ash- then you will already be familiar with the story with The Outlaw’s Ransom)
Many thanks for inviting me to stop by today Tom,
Happy reading,
Jennifer x
With a background in history and archaeology, Jennifer Ash should really be sat in a dusty university library translating Medieval Latin criminal records, and writing research documents that hardly anyone would want to read. Instead, tucked away in the South West of England, Jennifer writes stories of medieval crime, steeped in mystery, with a side order of romance.

Influenced by a lifelong love of Robin Hood and medieval ballad literature, Jennifer has written The Outlaw’s Ransom (Book One in The Folville Chronicles) – a short novel, which first saw the light of day within the novel Romancing Robin Hood (written under the name Jenny Kane; Pub. Littwitz Press, 2018).

Book Two of The Folville Chronicles – The Winter Outlaw – will be released in April 2018. (pub. LittwitzPress)

All of Jennifer and Jenny Kane’s news can be found at www.jennykane.co.uk

Friday, 9 March 2018


Endeavour are continuing to republish the John Williamson Chronicles and last week the second in the series came out.
Cawnpore is a story about the Indian Mutiny (or First Indian War of Independence). When I wrote it, I thought everybody would understand that it was going to be a tragedy because when I was a child we were still taught about Cawnpore at school. It was one of the most famous massacres of the British Empire – by which I mean a massacre in which local people were killing the British, rather than the other way about. It turns out that nowadays people are blissfully unaware of the implications of the title, so some of them seem to have been taken aback when, essentially, everybody dies. That may be a spoiler, but the way things work out in the book was never intended to be a surprise. The story is closely based on an actual historical event and “everybody dies” is what this historical event was all about.

What intrigued me about Cawnpore was that the horror seems to have arisen from the structural problems of colonialism. The British at Cawnpore were not generally bad people and the leaders of the Mutiny were not, by and large, the monsters that they were later represented as. The events that led to slaughter on a horrific scale, carried out across India by both Indians and Europeans, seem to have been the inevitable result of a clash of cultures. Certainly the British did exploit India economically, but Indian rulers had exploited their populations for centuries without rousing the people to revolt. When the British had first arrived in India, they had shown a lot of respect for native customs and culture, but, over time, muscular Christianity and the growing self-confidence of the British in their natural “right to rule” led to increasing contempt for the Indian way of life. Even what the British saw as positive steps, such as the banning of suttee (widow burning), were resented when they showed contempt for ancient customs.
John Williamson seemed the ideal person to tell this story. Although he was part of the machinery of Empire, he was himself an outsider. His homosexuality and his working class origins meant that he was never truly comfortable with the men who ruled India. In fact, his only true friend was an Indian, a prince in the court of Nana Sahib, the man who would eventually lead the Indians at the massacre of Cawnpore. Williamson therefore sees both sides of the conflict, sympathising with each in turn, desperate to stop the killing but, in the end, doomed to see the tragedy unfold without being able to prevent the atrocities of Indians and Europeans.

It’s not a cheerful book, but it’s my personal favourite. Although most of the characters are real people and the events follow very closely on the historical facts, the story really centres on Williamson. We see India and the events of the Mutiny through his eyes and I felt I grew to know him much better. It’s also an amazing story, for which I can take very little credit, because the story is the one history wrote for me. The Indian Mutiny was a war where the personalities of individual leaders made a huge difference to the outcome. People decided on their loyalties based as much on their evaluation of the personal worth of the protagonists as on race or creed. It was a time of deeds of great military valour and courage and, on both sides, a time of appalling cruelty and mass killings. It was, indeed, a clash of civilisations. It ended the rule of the East India Company, which had run India as a private fiefdom, and initiated the period of Imperial rule and the Raj. It also, though no one could have known it at the time, started India on the road to eventual independence and the end of the princely states. It is one of the great stories of the 19th century and, with Cawnpore I’ve tried to capture something of that story.
I hope you read it. Let me know what you think of it.

Important bit

Here’s the buy link. (I nearly forgot.)

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

'Tipping Point' by Terry Tyler

War, they say, is 98% boredom and 2% terror. I suspect that the end of the world, when it comes, will be much the same. This can pose a bit of a problem for a dystopian novelist.

Terry Tyler's Tipping Point draws together several contemporary issues to make a worryingly convincing scenario for the end of the world. The population is growing out of control. The government builds up dossiers on people by spying on their social media feeds. When a virus is deliberately released in Britain, the poor, the unemployed, the sick, immigrants and political troublemakers are left to die, while useful citizens are vaccinated and survive.

That's the plan, anyway. Almost inevitably, the plan goes wrong. The virus makes its way into the population before the vaccinations are completed and a pandemic more or less wipes out the population of Britain. There are suggestions it's rampaging across the world, but with no communications, no TV, no Internet, nobody is really sure what's going on anywhere.

Tipping Point follows the lives of a few of the survivors as they make their way through a landscape of burned-out villages, looted shopping centres, and abandoned towns. Everybody has to come to terms with the reality of life without electricity or running water. People band together and arm themselves in a world where order has broken down and the strong take what they can from the weak.

There are some nice touches. The whole thing, it is suggested, was an American plot. The virus was first released in Britain, with British government consent, because the islands provide a convenient area for a field test. (That seems to nail the special relationship more accurately than many more overtly satirical books.) There is the social media app that has been set up to guarantee your privacy that is owned and run by the government who access all of it. The plan eliminates the intellectual and scientific classes as well as the poor and useless because, as one character conveniently explains, “We want the worker bees. Mr and Mrs Average, of commonplace intelligence, who – if they ever stopped to think about it, which they don't – know that society works best when the masses take direction from the few, without question, and everybody knows their place.”

The main insight, though, is that life after the apocalypse is, once you have survived the immediate conflagration, extraordinarily dreary. Survivors raid toy shops for board games, unable to play on their computers. With no TV or video, they are reduced to reading – and reading real books, rather than Kindles.

Anybody who has read Terry Tyler's Twitter feed will know that she is a big fan of The Walking Dead and Tipping Point sets us up nicely for the zombie apocalypse (people even refer to it in conversation) except that there are no zombies. The result is that, despite a large cast of characters – nicely defined and easily kept track of – there is really not a lot happening.

Terry Tyler writes very readable and pleasant prose, which makes it easy to carry on despite a lack of incident. When exciting things do happen (escaping through a checkpoint, fleeing a would-be rapist) the story rattles along and the underlying ideas are genuinely interesting, but every 50 pages or so I find myself agreeing with the characters that life after the apocalypse is really, really dull.

The book is the first of a trilogy and by the end of Book 1 different characters – the good, the bad, the ditzy and the borderline psychopathic – have all independently decided to flee to Lindisfarne. It wouldn't be my choice of refuge, but I'm not writing the book. Volume 2 may well see more incident. But in the end, there's not that much that can happen. Most people are dead and those who are left are battling to cope with the day-to-day business of survival. It’s 98% boredom and, though Terry Tyler’s writing isn’t boring, I can’t help wishing there were zombies …

Monday, 5 March 2018

Why are you still here?

After years of coping with the idiosyncrasies of Blogger and having to explain why I don't have a "proper" website, I have given in and my blog now appears on my shiny new site tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk. Old posts are still archived here and, for now, I copy blogs from the new site to this one – although they may turn up here a little late.

I'd really appreciate it if you would start looking at the new website. It's much easier to contact me or comment on posts using tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk and it's a good place to find news about my latest books – or latest anything else that might be of interest. More importantly, spreading readership across two sites means the both of them become relatively difficult for search engines to pick up. So if everybody uses the new site, it will be easier for people to find in the future and you'll be part of a growing community (as all these social media gurus say). And it really will make my life easier.

As far as I can see, there is absolutely no downside to visiting the new site. When I refer back to old blogs, links on the new site just come through here the same way as they do at the moment. And any improvements that I make in the way stuff is laid out or bonus bits and pieces (like the newsletter I'm trying to start) will only be working on the new site. Why not click through and have a look at it today?

Thank you.

Friday, 2 March 2018

‘The White Rajah’ – new and improved!

The White Rajah was the first book I wrote. Naturally, it has always been my darling – first-borns are like that. But, as with most first novels, it’s unlikely that it’s my best work. This has always worried me. Although The White Rajah was originally conceived of as a stand-alone novel, it ended up being the first of three books narrated by the fictional John Williamson. When people asked me which books they should read first, I always wanted to say Cawnpore or Back Home, both of which were better reviewed and which, I think, were better books. But surely it would be best to start at the beginning with The White Rajah? Except that they might end up being put off the series.
Endeavour are now in the process of republishing all three books. Cawnpore and Back Home are unchanged from the editions published by Accent, but I asked for the chance to make changes to The White Rajah.
When I sat down to read it again for the first time in years, I was nervous. I thought it was going to be an embarrassing experience and that I was now committed to months of rewriting. To my surprise and delight, I found myself really enjoying it. By now, with the trilogy completed, I knew what the book was really about. Because I write fiction that is very closely tied in with historical facts, I have to plot my books very carefully and, because all this was new to me when I started The White Rajah I remember writing a very detailed plot outline before I started. Back then, though, I didn’t even realise that John Williamson was the most important character in the story. I thought it was a story about James Brooke, the White Rajah of the title and a real person.
It’s odd that you can write a book and only afterwards realise what it was about. Rereading it I was able to move the focus at some key points onto Williamson and show how his experiences with James Brooke shaped the man he was going to become in the next two volumes. I was pleased to realise that these changes didn’t take months after all. The basic structure of the plot still worked – it seemed only to need tweaking here and there.
It’s still not the Great British Novel that I wanted to write – what first novel ever is? (All right – I can think of several, but you don’t have to rub it in.) But it is no longer a book that I feel uncomfortable recommending. Some people have given it quite remarkably lovely reviews and I’m happy to recommend anyone interested in John Williamson’s adventures to start here at the beginning.
The young John Williamson meets James Brooke in a London tavern. He’s poor, not long out of Devon with little experience of the world. He can neither read nor write and he is nervous of those he sees as his social betters. From that meeting he sets out on a journey that will take him half way round the world, only to end up back home in Devon, a vastly different person from the young lad we met at the start of The White Rajah. It’s a journey that has him meeting head-hunters in Borneo and a rebel prince in India. Along the way he faces horror and loss and has to come to terms with the things that set him apart from the men he lives and works with before he returns to England and, in a London slum, finds the possibility of some sort of salvation.
I grew very fond of John Williamson. With the new edition of The White Rajah, I hope you will get the chance to grow fond of him too.


Because, as is well-known, if anything can go wrong, it will, the changes I had lovingly made to The White Rajah failed to make it into what actually appeared on Kindle a couple of weeks ago. It’s right now, and if you bought yours as soon as it was released, it should be automatically updated if you download it (free) again. Just sign in to Amazon, go to Manage my Kindle, find the book file and then download the updated version.

Friday, 23 February 2018

The John Williamson Chronicles

Last weekend Endeavour republished The White Rajah.
The White Rajah was the first book I ever wrote. When I wrote it, I had no idea that it was going to turn out to be the first of a trilogy: the John Williamson Chronicles.

Like many people starting their first novel, I wanted to write something very serious – not, perhaps, the Great British Novel, but definitely a meaningful book. Whether I succeeded or not is really for you to judge, but publishers certainly told me that it was too serious for a first book. My agent urged me to go away and write something more commercial. The result was the Burke books, which Endeavour republished over the last few weeks and which I hope you are enjoying.
I was worried that people who had read The White Rajah would be a bit thrown by the change of tone that came with the move to James Burke. I wrote a blog piece about this, which I felt the time was amazingly self-indulgent and I did wonder if I should publish it. It turned out to be one of the more popular things I’ve posted. So now I’m reposting it although my concern this time is that after the relatively light-hearted (if bloody) adventures of James Burke the rather heavier themes of John Williamson might come as a shock.

Apples and oranges

Graham Greene divided his work into ‘entertainments’ and ‘novels’. Some people find this an unsatisfactory split. All fiction, they say, should entertain. Suggesting that some have a higher purpose and are ‘novels’ and not mere ‘entertainment’ is presumptious and unhelpful.

I think the separation can be useful. If we sit down to read a book by John Grisham, we have different expectations from if we are tackling John Updike. It helps to know what we might have coming. At the end of a long day, more people will want to turn to Wilbur Smith than Salman Rushdie. The problem comes when the same author writes two different kinds of books. Some use a pseudonym to separate the two sides of their output but, as J.K. Rowling has discovered, that doesn’t always work.

I must declare a personal interest. Accent are now publishing a new edition of The White Rajah to follow Burke in the Land of Silver and I wish I had some way to warn people not to expect the second book to be anything like the first.The White Rajah was the first book I wrote. Like all first novels, it has its flaws but, like, I suspect, many first novels, it was trying very hard to be a serious book. It’s based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak and the model for Conrad’s Lord Jim. Like Conrad’s protagonist, Brooke was a flawed hero. I’ve tried to use him and his personal relationships to say something about British colonial rule. Nowadays, we generally like heroes to be basically good people and we think colonialism was essentially bad. What I try to do in The White Rajah is to suggest that life is a bit more complicated than that. The result is a book that I hope people will find reasonably exciting (there’s battles and pirates and evil plots) but which is, I have to admit, hardly a bundle of laughs. I hope it’s entertaining but I don’t think of it as primarily an entertainment. Graham Greene might not have thought it a particularly good novel, but I think he would accept that a novel is what it set out to be.
I hope that by now you might have read Burke in the Land of Silver, so you can judge for yourself how far it succeeds in its primary intention, which was simply to entertain. James Burke (an unfortunately similar name to the Rajah’s) was also a real person, but his adventures are just that: intrigue and derring-do set in exciting places with wicked foes and beautiful women. I hope that the story is not without some more serious content, but my main aim was to send you away entertained.

There is, I hope, room for both kinds of book in the world. Indeed, I fervently hope that there’s room for both on your bookshelves (or, more likely, your Kindle). Please buy both, read them and, I hope, enjoy them. Just don’t expect them to be the same.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The truth about publishing then and now.

I’m still catching up with book reviews, so here is another of my Tuesday Book Blog specials. This week I’m combining a book review with a quick look at Victorian England as we discuss New Grub Street. It’s a wonderful insight into the world of writers and publishing at the end of the 19th century, with a surprising amount to say about that world today.

New Grub Street by George Gissing

In last week’s review of Ed Reardon’s Week, I mentioned New Grub Street. This week, having reviewed the light-hearted modern take on the subject, I’m going back to the 1891 original.
New Grub Street was written by George Gissing, a jobbing writer of his day, little appreciated for most of his life and largely forgotten now. The story tells the life of Edmund Reardon, a writer who, after one reasonably successful novel, is on the road to obscurity. The parallels between author and protagonist are so marked that the story often reads less like a novel than a memoir.
George Gissing
New Grub Street is a flawed book and one which, interestingly, makes it flaws part of its story. In order to make money from writing, Gissing had to produce ‘three volume novels’, the preferred choice of the publishers of his day. Yet many books really can’t justify three volumes. Gissing has his characters rage against the necessity of stretching work out to that extra volume: “A triple-headed monster, sucking the blood of English novelists.” The second volume, he points out, is usually weak “simply because a story which would have made a tolerable book… refuses to fill three books.”
New Grub Street is a clear example of exactly what Gissing complains of. The second volume demonstrates exactly those faults which Reardon identifies in his own work. It consists “almost entirely of laborious padding”. In fairness, Gissing is being unduly critical: there is good stuff in the second volume, but you have to wade through an awful lot of superfluous dialogue to find it. Dialogue, as Gissing points out means “the space is filled so much more quickly, and at a pinch one can make people talk about the paltriest incidents of life.” It’s a shame because, particularly nowadays, people are unwilling to work their way through 550 pages of Penguin paperback to extract the 300 or so pages of excellence hidden therein.
Gissing has a sharp eye and if he makes Reardon sometimes rather cruel and cynical, that reflects Reardon’s increasing desperation as he moves further and further into poverty. Gissing was almost obsessed with poverty and its social implications, largely because he spent so much of his life poor himself. Gissing’s author characters starve in garrets not figuratively but literally. Even so, many of his observations on life read well in today’s world. One of his minor characters administers a charitable trust – “a charity whose moderate funds were largely devoted to the support of gentlemen engaged in administering it.” Another makes his living by private tutoring in a world where exam results are increasingly viewed as a path to what we would now call ‘upward social mobility’. “The teaching by which he partly lived was a kind quite unknown to the respectable tutorial world. In these days of examinations, numbers of men in a poor position – clerks chiefly – can see the hope that by ‘passing’ this, that, or the other formal test they may open for themselves new careers.”
Teaching “quite unknown to the respectable tutorial world” is now available online
Most of Gissing’s observations, though, are confined to the effects of poverty (Reardon lives close to a workhouse and is terrified he will die in there) and to the iniquities of the publishing world. It is his comments about publishing that might be expected most to touch a nerve with today’s writers, for they suggest that many of the issues that we see as being unique to the 21st-century have afflicted publishing since the 19th.
Reardon is writing in a world where the market is saturated with cheap books.
“The quantity [of literary work] turned out is so great that there’s no hope for the special attention of the public unless one can afford to advertise hugely.”
It’s a complaint I hear all the time from authors today and, like today, it leads publishers into arrangements for profit splitting which were relatively uncommon later in the 20th century but which, with the glut of e- books, have come back with a vengeance.
“[A publisher] offered to bring it out on the terms of half profits to the author. The book appeared, and was well spoken of in one or two papers; but profits there were none to divide.”
The secret, Gissing says, is to be well-connected in society so that your book is talked about by people who matter.
“Year by year, such influence grows of more account. A lucky man will still occasionally succeed by dint of his own honest perseverance, but the chances are dead against anyone who can’t make private interest with influential people.”
Nowadays, of course, we don’t need to invite influential people (or ‘influencers’ in 2018) into our homes. That’s what social media are for. Here’s Rachel Thompson (book marketing guru) on Twitter [https://bookmachine.org/2017/12/10/twitter-guide-will-make-see-youre-wrong-make-right-authors]:
“Twitter is a wonderful way to connect with readers, book bloggers, and book reviewers if you are connecting with them strategically. Many writers are completely flummoxed how to do that … I love Twitter because it’s the best way I know to connect with readers quickly and without having to write novels (hello, Facebook) to connect. My goal here is to help you change your paradigm from selling to connecting.”
So much of what Gissing says is relevant to publishing today, it’s almost uncanny, but the most uncanny of all is his understanding of the appeal of modern media like Twitter. Here one of Reardon’s friends comes up with the idea for a new magazine – one which eventually makes his fortune:
“I would have the paper address itself to … young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on ‘buses and trams.… What they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information – bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches.”
The idea for a typical modern media offering is worked out in immense detail – right down to the click-bait headlines. It’s a terrifying foresight into modern publishing.
Gissing also has a way with words. I particularly liked his description of Reardon trying and failing to extract the ideas from his brain and put them down onto paper – surely an experience all writers have had.
“Twice or thrice he rose from his chair, paced the room with a determined brow, and sat down again with a vigorous clutch of the pen; still he failed to its excogitate a single sentence that would serve his purpose.”
‘Excogitate’ is a word I would love to see in common currency.
There is a lot wrong with Gissing’s book. His love life was a miserable failure (he quite probably died from the effects of tertiary syphilis) and misogyny is a recurring theme. It’s too long, possibly too bitter and remorselessly cynical, but it remains a fascinating insight into writing and writers, just as true now as when it was written. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
New Grub Street is available free on Amazon.

A word from our sponsor

Gissing identified the problem with getting your books seen at the end of the 19th century and that problem remains today. I write this blog because I enjoy it, but I’m also hoping that if you enjoy reading what you see here for free, you might consider buying some of my books. Have a look on the books page of this website.
Nowadays we don’t have many literary salons and I’m not about to invite you all over for afternoon tea and a discussion of the latest novels. But we do have a virtual equivalent and, just as having a circle of literary friends was essential for a successful writer in New Grub Street, so a virtual circle of friends is essential today. I tweet as TomCW99 and I have a Facebook author page at www.facebook.com/AuthorTomWilliams. I’d really appreciate it if you could ‘follow’ and ‘like’ these. And, almost invisible at the bottom of the page, there’s a sign-up box for a newsletter that I keep promising to start. Don’t worry about being overwhelmed with spam – with the blogs and the tweets and the Facebook posts, I wouldn’t have the energy even if I wanted to spam you.
Thanks for reading. Do feel free to comment, and I hope I’ll see you here again.