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.

Monday, 8 July 2013

You've read the book. Now see the film.

Rob Allyn, an American film producer with a solid, if unspectacular back catalogue, has been travelling around Sarawak scoping out the possibility of making a film about Sir James Brooke, provisionally titled 'White Rajah'. With official backing from the Sarawak government and the descendants of the Brooke family, I'm guessing that the plot won't dwell on some of the more controversial aspects of the first Rajah's rule. Still, if it's based on James Brooke's life, there's going to be a lot of overlap with the book.

The producers have announced a $15 million budget and say that some leading stars have been lined up for the movie, though no names have been mentioned yet. What we do know is that the film will be shot largely on location in Sarawak and that they are planning to build a full size replica of Brooke's ship, The Royalist.

The Sarawak government hopes that any film will put Sarawak more firmly on the tourist map, while people like me are hoping for an upsurge of interest in James Brooke. It's early days yet, though. There have been plans to film Brooke's story before and they have all come to nothing. Fingers crossed it happens this time!