I haven’t done a post about the writing life for a while and I know some people like that sort of thing. (Hey, I don’t judge: I just go with things that people respond to.)
So, for any would-be writers wondering how to meet other writers (or even if they want to bother) here are some thoughts.
Writers’ groups online or in real life
Even before I was published I was a member of the writers’ forum – Absolute Write. Absolute Write allows you to share your work and other writers in your genre will critique it. When I was active in it, the Historical writers were a lively bunch. Their critiques were often brutal but I learned a lot. Find a group like that and they will be a really valuable resource.
I know people who have joined ‘real life’ writing groups but listening to their experiences I’m not impressed. There seems a danger that groups can attract people who write occasionally as a hobby and the group can just become a place to pass a pleasantly social hour or two while telling each other how great your work is. If that’s what you want, then fine. On the other hand, if you want to improve your writing, the occasional brutality of the Internet can be your friend – it’s easier to tell somebody that their precious words aren’t really very good if you don’t have to look at them over tea and cake while you do it. And, of course, it’s easier to slip away and digest criticism in private. Real-life writing groups work for some people but I would look seriously at online support.
Online support for writers
Online support for writers goes well beyond critique groups. There are groups on Facebook for people writing in particular genres or for the more commercially minded who want to chat about cover design or marketing strategies. (See, for example SPF Community or 20booksTo50K.)
Twitter fans might be more comfortable limited to 240 characters. There are thousands (I guess) of writers on Twitter and one advantage is that it’s very democratic. You could find yourself talking to Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat), me (@TomCW99) or someone whose first novel is still an exciting gleam in their eye.
Twitter is a peculiar place and there are, indeed, many deeply unpleasant people on it but you really don’t have to see them. There is a ‘block’ function to remove horrible folk (you can use it to block horrible subjects too) and what’s left can be fun. If you’re like me it will be anonymous and pointless fun for a while and then gradually you will make friends there. I’ve even met one or two in real life. Stick at it. As when you first arrived at a new school, don’t expect to make great friends overnight.
Real-life genre specific groups
There are also real-life groups for various genres of writing. These will usually have an on-line presence as well, but once you feel you know them, you might want to venture out of your writing room/shepherd’s hut/cave and see them in the flesh. As I mainly write historical fiction I’m a member of the Historical Writers’ Association and I’ve found them amazingly friendly and supportive. The same is probably true of other genre-specific groups.
But what do I know?
It’s important to remember that all these thousands of writers will have hundreds of different opinions on how to write (and how to sell your books once you’ve written them). Inevitably (do the maths) most of them will be wrong – or, more accurately, wrong for you. Find other writers: use them for support; use them for critiques; use them to get you home when you’ve drunk yourself to a stupor. But don’t, whatever you do, let them tell you how to write. That one’s down to you.
The trouble with being known for one series of books is that it can be tricky to take people with you when you publish something slightly different. In my case, I have a following – unspectacular but much appreciated – for my James Burke books, but that following is not transferring to the John Williamson Papers, which I think is sad. Obviously it’s sad from my point of view, because I’d like more people to read the books, but I think it’s sad from the reader’s point of view because they are missing out on a good read because it doesn’t fit conveniently into the ‘books by Tom Williams’ space in their reading habits.
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 presumptuous 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’ve obviously got a personal interest, having just republished the first two of the John Williamson Papers following the success of my books about James Burke. There is a distinct grinding of gears as readers who enjoy the adventures of my Napoleonic era spy try to adjust to the darker mid-19th-century Williamson stories.
I wish I could warn people not to expect John Williamson to be anything like James Burke. That, in fact, is what I’m trying to do here.
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.
Most of you reading this blog have probably at least looked at one of the Burke books by now, so you can judge for yourself how far they succeed in their 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.
Available on Amazon
The White Rajah and Cawnpore are both available now in paperback or on Kindle. The White Rajah is also available in hardback.
Back Home will be republished soon.
I’ve just had a lovely review of The White Rajahthat said “There are echoes of Conrad’s Lord Jim in this wonderful book.”
There’s a reason for that. The White Rajah is based (quite closely) on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak in Borneo. It’s an amazing tale. A friend said it must have been an easy book to write because Brooke’s biography read like a novel. Unsurprisingly, James Brooke has appeared in a lot of fiction.
The latest imaginative retelling his life was a film which came out this summer: Edge of the World. Given that it’s a Hollywood movie, it’s much more historically accurate than I would have expected.
Edge of the World says that it is “the true story that inspired The Man Who Would Be King,” a novel by Rudyard Kipling. Although the European characters in the novel make a couple of references to Brooke, I wouldn’t say that they are based on him other than that they become monarchs of a small Far Eastern kingdom. The novel that is usually quoted as being strongly influenced by Brooke’s life is Lord Jim by Conrad. In that book, the hero becomes the leader of a local tribe on an island in the South China Seas. He is atoning for failures in his earlier life and devotes himself to the people there, who call him Tuan Jim – “Lord Jim”. It’s not a subtle reference to Tuan Brooke, as James Brooke was often called.
More recently Brooke features in McDonald Fraser’s Flashman’s Lady. As with many of McDonald Fraser’s books, the character is lightly sketched, but he’s recognisably the James Brooke I know and the history is sound.
Before I wrote The White Rajah, Nicholas Monsarrat wrote a well-known novel with the same title. I did try to come up with an alternative, but it’s difficult to think of anything that tells people what they are getting better than ‘The White Rajah’. I did think of ‘Sons of Thunder’ but I suspect most people will miss the reference. (A free e-copy of The White Rajah to the first person to spot it.)
C. S. Godshalk called his version Kalimantaan. That’s a reference to Kalimantan, which is the Indonesian part of Borneo (which, obviously, does not include Sarawak). You see what I mean about it being difficult to come up with a clear title that doesn’t mention White Rajahs.
There are others, including Warren Blake’s A Long Way from Home, which is classified as “adult” although the synopsis looks like quite a serious take on the Brooke story.
James Brooke’s life provides enough drama for a dozen novels. Several of them have already been written, but I’m sure there’s room for more.
It will be a few months (probably) before the next James Burke book. Given that you’ve read all five (yes, really!) out already, you might be looking for an alternative. A series about another dashing military spy whose activities start in the late 18th century, Somebody like C C Humphreys’ Jack Absolute.
It was a really strange feeling for me, reading Jack Absolute. Absolute could be Burke’s older brother. Both are tall, slim, useful with sword and pistol, and have an eye for the ladies. Both are deeply cynical about the wars they have to fight but, in the end, are driven by patriotism to do their duty even when their duty stops them from pursuing their own pecuniary interests as much as they would like.
Burke, of course, is based on a real person whereas Absolute is based on another fictional character – the Jack Absolute of Sheridan’s The Rivals. Burke has William Brown to save him when he has got himself into a pit from which a single bound is not quite enough to free him. Absolute has Até, a Mohican Indian with a penchant for Hamlet.
Like Burke, Absolute is first and foremost a spy but he does find himself putting on a uniform and getting dragged into meticulously researched battles. While Burke is fighting the French in (mostly) Europe, Absolute’s battles are happening about 30 years earlier. He is fighting American rebels (backed by the French, of course, though they don’t actually feature in this book) during the War of Independence. There’s a lot of detail of the battle at Saratoga and Absolute spends a lot of time with General Burgoyne, so we learn plenty about the strategy of the campaign as well as the conduct of individual engagements.
Burgoyne isn’t the only historical figure to feature. Sheridan is there as well as soldiers like Benedict Arnold and the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant. There is a mass of less well-known people too, but you never get the impression that characters are being pushed into the book just so that Humphreys can show off. In fact, he wears what seems to me his considerable historical knowledge very lightly.
There is a satisfyingly evil villain (German, just to ring the changes) and a beautiful romantic interest. Humphreys writes well and I found the story bowled along fast enough for me to overlook some of the implausible coincidences. Até is kept busy arriving in the nick of time as our hero blunders into yet another disaster. I did find myself raising a critical eyebrow, but William Brown explained that that sort of thing happens in the best of novels and it is certainly a well-established trope for this genre.
There are various surprise revelations that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise if you have been paying attention, but this does have the advantage of allowing the reader to feel rather smug. And I suppose it’s reassuring to know that even a man with a brain so sharp he can look at a line of code and read it straight into English with minimal effort can fail to spot the secret agent under his nose. And, as Lee Child has observed, every hero should have one – and only one – flaw. Given Absolute’s martial skill, courage, strength, charm, and cunning, an inability to play Agatha Christie and work out whodunnit is only fair.
I found myself reading long into the night. It’s a little before my period and I know practically nothing about the American War of Independence, so it may be riddled with errors, but if it is I certainly never noticed. I was happily immersed in the 1770s and the life of a hero even more unlikely than James Burke. If you enjoy Burke, I’m confident you will enjoy Absolute. And, if you’re reading this because you have enjoyed Absolute but have never read Burke, might I suggest you will probably like him if you give the books a go?
I’ve been talking a lot about Cawnpore lately because I’ve just republished the book and I’d like you all to have a chance to read it, but this week I’m writing about James Burke and an incident from the very first of my books about him: Burke in the Land of Silver.
A bit of historical background
In 1808 Napoleon “invited” the Spanish king, Charles IV and his heir, Ferdinand VII to Bayonne in France. They never returned to Spain. Napoleon installed his brother, Joseph, as King.
The British had seen this coming. They had evacuated the Portuguese Royal Family ahead of the French invasion of Portugal, moving them to their colony in Brazil. They planned to do the same thing with the Spanish king and queen. In the run-up to the French invasion, Charles had left Madrid for Aranjuez, where he had a new palace. Significantly, Aranjuez was on the Tagus. The British idea was to evacuate Charles and his wife down river and then across the Atlantic to their South American colonies. The British agent charged with arranging this with the Spanish monarchy was James Burke.
James Burke’s role in fiction and history
In Burke in the Land of Silver I have my hero travelling across France and Spain where he approaches the queen and offers her British assistance. He is, however, just too late. Before he can get the king and queen out, the French mount their coup.
It’s a fictionalised account of a real historical event, but last week Rob Griffith, a brilliant military researcher, sent me a copy of a letter he had come across in the National Archives. It is from James Burke and it describes what really happened in 1808. He’s writing from HMS Alacrity off Cadiz. His handwriting is a great deal more legible than that of many other people of this period, but I can’t guarantee that there aren’t errors in my reading of it. All the plans have been made to get the king and queen to safety but before he can land to put them into effect a revolution (the first stage of the French coup) breaks out:
we were favoured with the timely lamentable intelligence of a most unhappy revolution having taken place in the government of Spain
The details clearly differ from the way I tell it in my book, but here we are at that critical point where Burke realises that nothing can be done to save the Spanish monarch and his wife. As in Burke in the Land of Silver he’s all too conscious that he was almost in time. In fact, he was even closer than in the book.
had I been dispatched immediately on my arrival in England I would have prevented that awfully disturbing catastrophe
For me, seeing this letter in his own hand has brought me closer to Burke. It was actually quite an emotional moment.
I do worry sometimes that my fictional Burke is painted as a more significant figure than he was. Actually, this letter suggests that he was heavily involved in diplomacy at the highest levels and was even more significant than my hero. He does seem to have been quite a remarkable man to be so overlooked by history. I hope that, with all their imaginative license, my books will still go some way to restoring this extraordinary figure back to us.
Rob Griffith – writing fact
Huge thanks to Rob Griffith for finding this letter and sending a copy to me. Rob is a remarkable military historian who has featured on my blog before. [https://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/riflemen/] I do recommend his book, Riflemen, to anybody interested in British light infantry of the Napoleonic era.
Me – writing fiction
Burke in the Land of Silver is the first of several books about James Burke. His adventures in that one are closely based on fact, while his later escapades are more the product of my fevered imagination, but the character is true to what we know of the real man. The next in the series will see him dallying with the Empress Josephine, which I thought was probably a stretch too far until I realised that they had almost certainly met. Yes, James Burke certainly knew how to live!
You may also be interested in my books about the fictional John Williamson, whose adventures in the mid-19th century are closely based on actual historical events.