Edging back to normal

Edging back to normal

I don’t have a whole lot to say about books or writing or history this week. I’m still revelling in the opportunity to do things that we once took for granted.

We’ve been allowed back into Wales for a few months now, so we took advantage of the heatwave to get out of London and enjoy somewhere cool.

And, yes, that little orange blur on the right-hand picture is a dragonfly! They grow big in this heat. (As with all the images, you can right click to open a larger version.)

Speaking of heat, water levels are again very low. It’s a concern in an area where most of the farms have no mains water and rely on natural springs. For now, though, it’s a time to enjoy the summer.

And get in the hay.

For us, though, it was mainly about staying in the shade.

Back from Wales, we discovered that the tango scene is returning to life.

Yes, there were fewer people than usual so we had more space, but clubs are already getting more like normal – or at least the “new normal”. Fingers crossed things can stay that way.

As life opens up, it’s a wonder I still find time to write, but the next Burke book is coming along nicely and a week away has given me ideas for a new Urban Fantasy novel.

Enjoy the summer. Remember to buy some books to read on the beach/in the caravan/hiding in a forest. Have fun.

Chat next week.

Thoughts from a week away

Thoughts from a week away

I’m sitting in Wales looking out the window at a landscape hazy in the heat of a July day. It’s a wonderful, lazy place where we walk and read and chat aimlessly about all sorts of things, usually pointless (Can analysis be worthwhile? Is the theatre really dead?) but sometimes a little more down-to-earth, like am I going to keep writing about James Burke and how am I going to persuade more people to buy the books?

I’m definitely writing one more, because I’m already well into it. Burke and the Pimpernel Affair is going to be an escapist bit of fun after the seriousness of Burke in Ireland, featuring the Empress Josephine, daring escapes from prison, secret agents and a very good tailor. But after that? I’m not sure. I’d like to write about the Lines of Torres Vedras because, back in the days when international travel was practicable, I visited Portugal and I’d love to feature the fortifications there in one of Burke’s adventures. But even here in Wales, with my very limited internet access, I’m getting Twitter messages suggesting that there is more to historical fiction than the Napoleonic Wars.

The Lines of Torres Vedras. So good I want to write a book about them.

The trouble is that people really enjoy reading about the Napoleonic Wars. I love all my books, but every parent has a secret favourite child and I think John Williamson (from my John Williamson Papers) is a more interesting fellow than James Burke. But Williamson – solid, reliable Williamson who agonises about the right thing to do and ends up trapped in one moral quagmire after another – he’s never going to sell like James Burke. Not only is the market for moral ambiguity more limited than the potential readership of books with gallant strapping heroes who slay the villain, win the girl and ride off into the sunset (though that’s a cruel over-simplification of Burke’s character because he has his demons too) but Williamson is having his adventures in the mid-19th century. The Williamson books are all about the age of Empire and as we re-evaluate what Empire meant, it’s become a period that people don’t seek out for easy reading. It’s a shame but (as the kids say) it is what it is.

There are three John Williamson books. I’ve just republished the first, The White Rajah with the other two to come. It’s a trilogy that starts in England, travels to Borneo (The White Rajah) and India (Cawnpore) before returning to England (Back Home). I am not planning any more, but I do hope to pick up new readers this year. (I really do recommend The White Rajah. I hope you read it.)

So where to next? Should I send Burke to America to fight the damn Yankees? Or start off with a completely different hero?

I am tempted to write more Urban Fantasy like Something Wicked. Urban Fantasy does not require weeks spent reading dusty volumes of history or visiting old forts in Portugal (however much fun that was) or checking fashion details in the V&A. And people read it. They read it enthusiastically and write about it and tell their friends. Urban Fantasy is, not to put too fine a point on it, just more profitable than historical fiction.

The sad truth is that the market does decide what people write. Even if, like me and most authors I know, you don’t write for money, it is dispiriting (utterly, hideously dispiriting) to write books that don’t get read. And the best measure of how many people are reading them is sales.

So if you like books of a certain type (by me or anyone else) do get onto Amazon (other booksellers are also available) and buy them. And tell your friends. Or, better yet, buy them for your friends. (Amazon now allows you to gift e-books.)

If you don’t, slowly but surely, writers will stop writing the books you enjoy.

It was Paul Simon who asked if the theatre was really dead. (Ten house points if you picked up the reference.) He didn’t ask if literature (or historical fiction, or space opera, or magical realism) was dead because he wrote the song before the publishing revolution that means the world has never had so many books and never had so many without sales. Books are now so cheap that many people see them as something they shouldn’t have to pay for at all. But authors need sales. They are the easiest way to show book love.

Support the arts. Buy a book.

A few days away

A few days away

Ever since I discovered that about half my Twitter followers seem unaware of my blog, I’ve been telling everyone that I blog every Friday (and occasional Tuesdays). So it’s a bit embarrassing to admit that I don’t really have anything to say this Friday. That’s because I’m away in Wales again, fleeing what seems likely to be an unpleasantly hot weekend in London. So while my neighbours are fanning themselves and drenching their clothes in cold water, we’ll be here:

I did do an extra blog post on Tuesday. I could have held that over until today, but I wanted to get it out in the world because I was hoping someone out there was going to help me write my next book. It’s going quite well so far, but feel free to jump in with your own suggestions. (A detailed knowledge of the Parisian prison system in 1809 is helpful but not essential.) 

Sometimes people say that they are interested in how writers like me come up with the stuff that you (hopefully) buy and read. Here’s your chance to find out. It’s at https://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/the-joys-of-historical-research-125-in-a-continuing-series/. I may not read any of your replies for a few days (internet in mid-Wales is not the best) but if you do have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

The joys of historical research (#125 in a continuing series)

I’m writing the next James Burke book. Or rather, I’m trying to write it but instead I am alternately bashing my head against a keyboard, playing an inordinate amount of Spider Solitaire, and writing this.

Burke in Ireland was a rather more downbeat book than most of the James Burke stories. I had set off to write the usual adventure yarn, but I was distracted by the sheer awfulness of British rule in Ireland at the end of the 18th century. The story I told was closely based on an actual historical event and historical facts meant it had to go in a rather gloomy direction. (Plus I thought that reading about Irish history might help people understand how we got to where we are today.)

Anyway, after that I decided I wanted to get back to the more light-hearted Burke (if stories that regularly feature torture and brutal death can really be described as light-hearted, but they sort of are). So the next book in the series is to revisit Baroness Orczy territory with Burke and the Pimpernel Affair seeing our hero freeing some British agents from a French gaol. The idea was something light and frothy with not too much need to get caught up in the historical detail.

Oh how the gods of HistFic must have laughed. It turns out that almost every element of the plot has involved quite a bit of actual history, from the routes used to smuggle British agents into Paris to the organisation of the gendarmerie. One scene, in which Burke is for once helping a woman to dress rather than undressing her, meant a visit to the V&A to see just how the dress would have been fastened. (My subsequent correspondence with the V&A is still on-going at this point.) Probably the nadir was reading the memoirs of Napoleon’s chief of police, Fouché (really not a nice man).

The V&A says buttons but it looks more like hook and eye to me

The thing that is driving me mad, though, is that the book features an escape from the Conciergerie in Paris. At the time of the story (1809) the Conciergerie was used to house political prisoners and spies. (There were some regular prisoners but they seem to have been there just until trial and they were probably housed in a separate area.)

Now the Conciergerie still exists. I’ve often noticed it on the Île de la Cité and now I know what it is I fully intend to visit. Only that’s tricky now because of covid. Plus even when I do visit it won’t help me that much. The Conciergerie has been substantially rebuilt since 1809 and an initial draft put the whole place the wrong way round because nowadays you enter through a completely different side of the building.

Conciergerie today (edited from Google Street View)

I’ve found plans of the ground floor in 1809, but they aren’t that useful because political prisoners were almost certainly kept one floor up. Part of that area has been “preserved” but preserved in a way that has completely destroyed the original architecture to make what is effectively a shrine to (of all people) Marie Antoinette. (And that, in a sudden burst of good taste, seems to be no longer open to the public.)

We do have descriptions of the first floor – or at least of parts of it. So, in an attempt to be realistic, I’ve had to try to reconstruct the plans of somewhere the actual geography of which is almost totally lost. The problem is that ‘almost’. Just enough is known to pretty well guarantee that, whatever I write, someone will explain that the corridor I’ve put from A to B would actually have had to have gone by C. (I’ve even found an old account that explains that pretty well the only specific location I’ve given must be wrong. Rewrites beckon.)

Conciergerie in 1790

So there are the geographical problems. Now we come to the organisation.

The Conciergerie is part gaol, part court-house, part archive, and part administrative office. It’s an old royal palace. If Fouché had an office there (and it’s quite credible that he did) security would have been an issue. It’s the sort of building where there might well be some civilian gaolers but there are also likely to have been military guards. I’ve assumed that with the fighting in the Peninsula and the recent war with Austria, quite a few of these will be veterans who have returned to France injured and who are either being allocated to less demanding duties or awaiting postings back to their regiments. Do I know this? No, but I do have some idea how armies work and it seems a reasonable assumption (and one of the reasons I’m mentioning it now is so that anybody who knows different can correct me). It seems that prisoners who are being held there for interrogation as spies will be under special guard and I’ve assumed the military. Probably not the gendarmerie, who consider themselves above that sort of thing. (Gendarmes were elite troops.) So I have guards watching over a small number of political prisoners/spies. I’ve put on just a couple of guards doing the actual static guarding. I think they will spend most of their time sitting down, looking at an empty corridor with a few cells, and being bored out of their minds. But eventually (and let’s not go into the details because spoilers) there’s a breakout attempt. There will be a fight. It’s the dramatic climax of a James Burke novel: of course there’s a fight. So the question of what the soldiers are armed with becomes pretty crucial. At which point I turn to the wonderful hive-mind that is Napoleonic enthusiasts on Twitter and they say (without having been given all these details): muskets.

At one level, muskets make a lot of sense. But they are heavy and these guys spend most of their time sitting in a guard room. And if you are, for example, entering a cell to kick someone who is making too much noise, a musket not only gets in the way but can rapidly become a liability when the prisoner leaps up and grabs it off you. It’s not as if you are going to have it loaded in any case. If you carry it loaded as you go about your daily business I reckon the chances of an accidental discharge are very high and the chances that it will fire when you want it too are quite low (but again this is an expert’s chance to tell me I’m wrong).

I’m guessing that you might have muskets in the guardroom so that you can present arms and generally look soldierly for officer’s inspection, but that they mostly stay there. I think by 1809 the chances of you having an infantry short sabre are low but that you might well carry a bayonet on your belt and use that at a pinch.

Who knows? Hopefully someone reading this who will put an answer in the comments or (given that this is WordPress and commenting isn’t always as easy as it should be) write to me at tom@tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk.

Anyway, those are some of the things to consider in escaping from the Conciergerie. Let’s not even start on court protocol in the Tuileries (I’m sure Napoleon had it all documented but I think I can assume nobody’s read it lately so that’s something I don’t have to worry too much about), or the state of the road from Paris to Malmaison.

When I wrote my contemporary fantasy Something Wicked, research meant a couple of trips to Brompton Cemetery. (There’s quite a lot about tango in it, but I knew that already.) It was much easier to write than historical fiction and (because fantasy fans are voracious readers) very profitable. No wonder I know several HistFic authors moving into fantasy.

I’m planning to stick with historical fiction for now – and not just James Burke. (If you haven’t read The White Rajah yet, please give it a go.) But I am tempted by Urban Fantasy. Meanwhile, if any of you have an encyclopaedic knowledge of French prisons in 1809, with special reference to the Conciergerie, please do get in touch.

The history behind the film ‘Edge of the World’ (and my book ‘The White Rajah’)

Last week’s blog post brought us up to the point where the new film, Edge of the World, picks up the story of James Brooke.

Edge of the World has Brooke’s party landing rather randomly in Borneo and promptly being captured by a party of native Dyaks.

Brooke landing in Borneo. (Probably didn’t happen quite like this.)

In fact, Brooke arrived in Kuching, the capital of the province of Sarawak, where (as we learned last week) he knew he would find the de facto ruler of Borneo, Muda Hassim.

Hassim was in Sarawak, rather than his capital, because of a long-running uprising there.

The politics of Borneo in the mid-19th century were Byzantine. Power was held by Malays. The indigenous people – the Dyaks – were relatively powerless. When Brooke arrived in Sarawak, Hassim was occupied in putting down a rising, of Dyaks, who were supported by a faction within the Malay community – the Siniawan Malays. In fact, they were almost certainly supported by elements within the Malay court who were trying to reduce Hassim’s power. By now the uprising had been going on for four years. Hassim had been in Sarawak for months and nothing seemed to have changed since he moved his court there. Hassim saw Brooke’s arrival as providential.

Hassim’s audience hall in Sarawak

Brooke had taken on additional crew in Singapore (including an interpreter called John Williamson, whose name I stole for the narrator in The White Rajah). Brooke now had a crew of 28 men on board the Royalist. Hassim looked at her six cannon and the White Ensign hanging at her mast and saw her as a symbol of British power. If he could get Brooke involved in the war, he thought he could finally bring things to a conclusion and return to the seat of power in Brunei.

At first, Brooke refused to get drawn in. In the end, though, the temptation was irresistible. Here was a chance for excitement and adventure which could be economically justified as improving his trade prospects and which also appealed to his patriotism as it would strengthen the British presence in the region and put one in the eye to the Dutch. Here is Brooke’s own account of his attitude to intervening in what was, effectively, a civil war in Borneo.

I may here state my motives for being a spectator at all, or participator (as may turn out), in this scene. In the first place, I must confess that curiosity strongly prompted me; since to witness the Malays, Chinese [yes, there were Chinese too, immigrants who essentially monopolised trade], and Dayaks in warfare was so new, that the novelty alone might plead an excuse for this desire. But it was not the only motive; for my presence is a stimulus to our own party, and will probably depress the other in proportion. I look upon the cause of the Raja [Hassim] as most just and righteous; and the speedy close of the war will be rendering a service to humanity, especially if brought about by treaty.

Brooke provided advice and encouragement to Hassim and finally, when things seemed likely to drag on even with his urging Hassim to attack more vigorously, he sent for two of his six-pounder guns and some of his men to be despatched from the Royalist to the front-line (for want of a better word) at a place called Balidah, just upriver from Kuching. Within days of their arrival, the rebel defences were breached, but Hassim’s army refused to storm the breach. Brooke, despairing of any end to the fighting, made plans to return to Singapore.

His diary tells what happened next:

I explained to [Hassim] how useless it was my remaining and intimated to him my intention of departing; but his deep regret was so visible, that even all the self-command of the native could not disguise it. He begged, he entreated me to stay, and offered me the country of Siniawan and Sarawak, and its government and trade, if I would only stop, and not desert him.

Brooke did not immediately accept this offer but he did decide to stay and support Hassim’s efforts in the war, where the men of the Royalist soon proved decisive.

With the war over, Hassim vacillated on his promise to make Brooke ruler, but ultimately he seems to have felt that the benefits of retaining Brooke’s support were worth the cost of allowing him to govern a province which Hassim regarded as not that important and which probably, because of the insurrection, seemed more trouble than it was worth. He may also have considered that having the province under the control of an Englishman would offer some sort of protection against Dutch expansionism. He will certainly have considered that it might bolster his own position in the intrigues between himself and other powerful Malay factions.


Negotiations dragged on for almost a year with Brooke often threatening to sail away and leave Hassim to his own devices. Eventually, though,Hassim drew up and signed a document giving Brooke the government of Sarawak and on 24 November 1841 he was ceremoniously declared Rajah.

The White Rajah

The White Rajah is a fictionalised account of the true story I’ve outlined above. It tells how Brooke came to rule Sarawak and something of what happened afterwards.

British colonialism (though Brooke’s personal kingdom was never technically a colony) was neither the unmitigated good that it was presented as up until the late 20th century, nor the straightforwardly exploitationist affair that we are often told it was nowadays. The White Rajah tries to tell a good tale while exploring some of the moral nuances of the Age of Empire.

The White Rajah is available in hardback for £14.99. You can also buy it in paperback for £6.99 or, if you prefer Kindle, just £3.99.