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Author in Search of a Character – Why James Burke?

I’m delighted to Welcome Tom Williams to my Blog today to tell us about how he came to write the Burke series, described succinctly by Paul Collard as ‘James Bond in Breeches.’ Over to Tom:

Why James Burke? Would it make any sense to say I did it for the money?

If I’m being honest, it can’t really have been for the money, because I know that writing fiction (and particularly historical fiction) is never going to make you rich. But I started writing about Burke as a (sort of) commercial exercise.

Let me explain.

My first novel was The White Rajah. It was based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. Like most would-be novelists with my first book, I desperately wanted to write the Great British Novel. I was fascinated by Brooke’s character and the history of how he had come to rule his own kingdom in Borneo and I tied this in with ideas about colonialism and the morality of British rule around the world. Just in case I hadn’t weighted the book down with enough “significance”, Brooke was almost certainly gay and there’s a whole subplot about that. And, as the cherry on the cake, the whole thing is written in the first person and (given that this first person was writing in the mid-19th century) not in the most accessible language.

Despite this, I got an agent! And the agent got rejections from every major publisher he approached. It was, they all claimed, “too difficult” for a first novel. “Why don’t you,” he suggested, “write something more accessible? Still historical, but more the sort of thing people are going to want to read?”

I was stumped. I asked friends for ideas. I even asked Jocelyn, an Alaskan tango dancer I’d met in Buenos Aires (as you do).”Why don’t you,” she said “write about the early European settlers in South America? They have some brilliant tales to tell.”

Jocelyn does not like stories with a lot of violence. I think she was looking more at the explorers and the politicians, or even the ordinary people who left Europe in vast numbers to build a new world in the New World. But when I started randomly looking for European figures in the early colonial history of South America, the one who caught my eye was James Burke.

Burke was a soldier, but we have good reason to believe that he spent most of his time as a spy. The first book I wrote about him, Burke in the Land of Silver, is very close to his true story. Sent to Buenos Aires to scout out the possibility of a British invasion, he explored what is now Chile, Peru and Bolivia, returning to Buenos Aires to assist with the British invasion when it finally came.

I’ve obviously never met Burke, but the little we know about him still gives a strong idea of his character. He was an Irish Catholic who had joined the French army because the British Army did not offer an impecunious Irishman much possibility of advancement. We know he was something of a snob, at one stage changing his name to something that sounded more prestigious than Burke. He ingratiated himself with rich and powerful men, but he does seem to have been good at his job. In any case, there was a James Burke on the Army list long after the Napoleonic wars were over, so he did seem to be kept busy doing whatever it was that he was doing.

It’s this uncertainty about his career that makes him an ideal candidate for a series of books. (If you want to sell nowadays, it’s best to write a series – like Deborah’s excellent trilogy based around Pepys’ life.) He was a spy. He moved in the dark and nobody is quite sure what his missions were. So I can make them up. And what a brilliant period of history it is to make up spy stories about. I’m in a long tradition of sales of derring-do about spies during the wars with France, from the Scarlet Pimpernel to O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin and Iain Gale’s James Keane.

Each Burke story is set around a different Napoleonic campaign. After the British invasion of Buenos Aires (Burke in the Land of Silver) we see him in Egypt’s during Napoleon’s invasion that country (Burke and the Bedouin) and in Paris and Brussels during Napoleon’s textile and returned to power (Burke at Waterloo). The latest story (though not told in chronological order) finds him fighting in the Peninsular War, specifically around the battle of Talavera.

The Burke of Bedouin and Waterloo is entirely fictional, but his adventures in the peninsula are based on another real-life spy, Sir John Waters. In all the books, whether Burke’s adventures are entirely fictional or based on fact, the military and social background is as accurate as I can make it. In fairness I can’t make it all that accurate, but I have gradually found a network of people who really understand the Napoleonic Wars and who have been generous enough to share their understanding with me.

I like James Burke as a hero because he is often far from heroic. Cynical, snobbish, and an inveterate womaniser with an eye for the main chance, it’s easy to dismiss him as an arrogant officer who relies on the solid good sense of his servant, William Brown, to achieve anything. But Brown will be the first to disagree with you, pointing out that when the chips are down Burke will, often reluctantly, always do the right thing. The fact that the right thing isn’t always what his military masters would want him to do, just makes it more interesting. When push comes to shove, he is not only physically but morally brave.

I have come to be quite fond of James Burke. His next adventure will see him in Ireland in 1793 where he is charged with infiltrating the Irish nationalist movement. Perhaps this early mission explains much of his cynicism, for it is his darkest and most morally dubious adventure in the series. But that’s to come. For now, we can relax and enjoy the fun as his schemes, fights, and romances his way through the chaos that is the Peninsular War.

Burke in the Peninsula will be published on 25 September. It is available on Amazon at £3.99 on Kindle and £6.99 in paperback.

You can read more by Tom Williams on his blog, http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/. His Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/AuthorTomWilliams and he tweets as @TomCW99.

And The White Rajah did eventually see publication and is worth your time. Here’s the link: mybook.to/TheWhiteRajah

Categories
Blog Reviews

Fortune’s Hand – a novel of Walter Ralegh

 

The Boyhood of Raleigh 1870 Sir John Everett Millais

I knew nothing about Walter Ralegh, except the legends I’d been told at school; about how he lay down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth I. Was this legend true? Read more here on History Extra to find out.

In his novel, Fortune’s Hand, R N Morris treats us to a visceral interpretation of Ralegh’s life. This is an extraordinary novel. We experience it from multiple points of view, from the acorn that will grow to become the oak timbers of the ship he will sail in, to the teeming life within an old ship’s biscuit. Much of Elizabethan life on board ship is ugly and brutal. We are shown a thief having his hand cut off, and later we witness a massacre in Ireland, and wince at the way a horse might pick its way across a corpse-strewn field. Yet the writing of it is always lyrical, and Morris gives these events a strange kind of beauty. What impresses is that Raleigh experiences these things as part and parcel of his life – to him they are every day occurrences. We are really treated to the mind-set of an Elizabethan man.

Ralegh is of course obsessed with gold, and we see his ambition and his turbulent relationship with the Queen. Yet his literary ambitions are also on show – the novel includes a whole scene after a tennis match written in blank verse, where the dialogue zips back and forth like a tennis ball as if we are in a Shakespeare play. Above all, this is a novel that explores what it is to be a historical novel. It is unlike any other historical novel of the period, and its skilful research and execution are much to be admired.

Categories
Blog

Bob Robbins Home Front Mysteries – J.G Harlond on writing about life in wartime England

P jane author shot1 CORRECT VERSION FOR PUBLICITYI’m delighted to welcome J.G Harlond today, for a post about memory and research, and the writing of her cosy Bob Robbins Home Front Mysteries.

J.G Harlond is a British author of historical crime novels. After travelling widely, Jane and her Spanish husband are now settled in rural Andalucía, Spain. Do grab a coffee and sit to enjoy this interesting insight into a writer’s process.

Over to Jane:

Like Deborah, I write fiction set in the 17th Century and World War Two. I enjoy the hard work that goes into writing about both epochs, but I have to admit my new story, Private Lives (set 1942), has been challenging. On the surface, writing a cosy historical crime with a touch of black comedy should have been easier than writing The Chosen Man Trilogy, for example, but it wasn’t. 

Ludo da Portovenere’s wicked adventures in Europe and India in the mid-seventeenth century are all based on documented history. Each story includes facts, researched social and commercial data, plus a few lesser known historical details such as what happened to some of the most valuable English Crown Jewels during the English Civil War: what happens to Bob Robbins in Devon and Cornwall during the nineteen-forties also includes researched data and surprising facts, but Bob’s stories also draw on personal memory. Not that I lived through the Second World War: I’m not that old! The background and ambience of Local Resistance and Private Lives, however, rely to an extent on how I interpreted wartime life from my parents’ and grand-parents’ references and anecdotes. This in turn involves a certain amount of speculation on how other ‘ordinary’ families lived in small towns, rural and coastal communities.

imagesIn my mind’s eye, while I am writing, I can see what is happening in those days: the hand-knitted cardigans and walnut-laminated wireless sets, wooden draining boards and rolled newspapers fanning flames out of a few bits of coal. I was a post-war baby, born while the war and food rationing were a recent memory. Little was said in my hearing about the war itself, but the Home Front, that was a different matter. Tales about how goods fell off the back of a lorry, reminders to wear something white at night (to avoid getting run over in the black-out), to make do and mend; anecdotes about fire-watch duties, poker games and local dances . . .  These must have settled into the back of my mind the way popular song lyrics do.

Nobody belittled the difficulties they endured, but in the daily struggle – and it was a struggle – there was a lot of humour. Life was dangerous and unpredictable, even in rural or coastal areas where a random bomber might dump unused bombs on the way back to base. This happened. I remember distinctly being told about a primary school where the only child to survive had been at home in bed with a sore throat.

People were stoic, but not passé, although a survey conducted in London in November 1940 revealed only 40% of the population went into an air-raid shelter on a regular basis. Most Londoners preferred to risk sudden death in their own beds. Anderson shelters constructed in back gardens were chilly, relatively flimsy affairs, and must have been very unpleasant on winter nights. Morrison shelters, large steel tables with inbuilt cages that took up most of the floor space of the average sitting-room were preferable, but offered only limited safety. Larger homes created well-prepared refuge rooms in basements. Londoners who had access to none of these installed themselves in underground Tube stations, where there was no sanitation or comfort beyond the company of strangers. The inhabitants of Plymouth pushed blankets and thermos flasks into babies’ prams or garden wheel-barrows and trekked out of the city to sleep under the stars on Dartmoor.

Think about that for a minute: how did mothers with young children cope? How did the elderly cope with the long walk and discomfort? Yet cope, they did.

In both town and country, people relied on the black-out to keep them safe. Thick black curtains were hung at all windows: no home, no car or bicycle could show a beam of light for fear of attracting enemy bombers. Road accidents on winter evenings were commonplace.

Daily life, the basic domestic round, goes on under the most extreme of circumstances everywhere, of course, even today. Children have to be fed and educated; homes need to be clean and kept warm. Parents in every country involved feared for their offspring at the front between 1939 and 1945, and they themselves had to get to work in appalling circumstances after sleepless nights. But life went on.

In Britain, there was the added, critical risk of imminent invasion. Cinema news reels showed footage of Poland, the Netherlands and Channel Islands: this could happen in Britain. It was a terrifying thought. Something modern film-makers and writers frequently overlook. The detail about the German U-boat surfacing off the Cornish coast to take on fresh water in Local Resistance was taken from a German sailor’s account. I didn’t invent that. 

With all these threats and challenges, how on earth did the British maintain a positive outlook, or morale as it was called then? The answer lies largely in our idiosyncratic sense of humour and capacity for self-mockery, bolstered by light entertainment on the wireless and at the cinema.

Mrs.-Minivers-kitchen-1-611x458Mrs Miniver demonstrated how even the most polite of middle-class women can be as tough as steel when a Nazi appears at their door. 

All this, family anecdotes, academic research, and a particularly English brand of humour slips into my Home Front mysteries. How a Cornish fishing village called on its ancient smuggling tradition to evade rationing while preparing to defend their country when ‘Jerry’ landed forms the background to Local Resistance; how people as diverse as Land Army girls and unemployed London actors coped with the daily drudge three years into the war underlies the shenanigans and criminal activities in Private Lives.  

The Welsh poet and playwright Dylan Thomas has a wonderful line in the opening of his memoir about growing up in Wales during the Great War: beyond his Wales, he says, “lay England, which was London, and a country called ‘The Front’ from which many of our neighbours never came back”. The Front was obviously perilous, but how life went on in unoccupied Britain, how people coped in the face of incessant difficulties and dangers required its own form of bravery, which deserves to be celebrated.

©J.G. Harlond

cover193221-mediumREAD THE OPENING CHAPTER!  Read the first chapter of Private Lives 

Read about ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ in Local Resistance: http://getbook.at/LocalResistance

Read about the criminal activities of Devonshire farmers and London actors in Private Lives: http://viewbook.at/PrivateLives

Find Jane on: www.jgharlond.com

Blog – ‘Reading & Writing’

Picture Credits: The picture of Mrs Miniver’s kitchen

The picture of a farm kitchen is from the Museum of English Rural Life

 

PRIVATE LIVES – Cozy crime with a sinister twist in wartime England.
While reluctant wartime detective Bob Robbins is enjoying a few days’ holiday he becomes involved in a shooting incident on a derelict farm. An elderly farmer lies injured, then disappears. A young man is found dead in the barn. Bob reports the incident to the local police but they are so over-stretched with Home Front duties he finds himself in charge of the case. In urgent need of assistance, Bob requests the help of the young police recruit Laurie Oliver. They take rooms at Peony Villas, an unusual sort of guest house where a troupe of London actors are in residence, and where Bob soon finds himself involved in yet another peculiar mystery.