Last week I promised that now that we can again travel into Wales I’d give you a break from both The White Rajah and lockdown ennui and give you some photos of the countryside.
It turned out to be a good weekend to get away, didn’t it? The middle of Wales tends to be quiet, even on a Bank Holiday. And the weather was amazing.
There’s no particularly brilliant photos, I’m afraid, partly because heat haze was an issue (though fortunately editing software can take a lot of that out).
I was also mainly using a camera phone rather than an SLR. My SLR is old and heavy. I know it sounds a bit wussy complaining of the weight of a camera, but a lump of metal really can get quite irritating when this is your walk.
I’m also finding that most of the nicest photos have been taken before. This is from the last time we made that steep climb (from about half way up). It seems a bit silly to take it again.
I did take yet more photos of bluebells, though. The bluebells in the hills in Wales are at their best in May and I love taking pictures of them.
I hope you found ways to enjoy yourself over the weekend and that life will return to something more like normal in the weeks ahead.
In the early days of lockdown (can you remember that far back?) lots of us made a point of trying to keep in touch with friends we could no longer meet up with. The more technically enabled went for Zoom while people like me (I don’t even have a camera on my computer) used telephones. It was nice. My son, who is very much of the text based generation being big on things like WhatsApp, said that actually talking to friends was a novel and exciting development.
As time has passed, these conversations have become less novel and exciting. They seem more likely to proceed thus:
“So, how are things with you?” “Oh, you know. Same old, same old. And you?” “Oh same thing. Nothing much is happening around here.”
Long ruminative silence.
I’m beginning to feel the same way about my blog posts and other social media. Time was when every few weeks I would write something about an interesting place I’d visited. Because my blogs are so much about history, this would often be a discussion of a site of some historical interest. Sometimes, though, it would just be a pretty part of the countryside or a tango club I’d enjoyed or some random, but potentially interesting or amusing, happening in my life. As we begin to open up, this may start up again, but so far the Great Reopening has been fairly nominal. Most places can’t survive economically on the income that they can generate from the number of people they are allowed to have in and those that are open can have a distinctly half abandoned and depressing air. So what to write about?
Last week saw the republication of The White Rajah and, quite honestly, I could write about this for weeks. I’ve already discussed the swords on the cover and enough people were interested in that to make me feel that I will soon do something even more geeky about metallurgy and sword-smithing. I’ve written about James Brooke (the eponymous White Rajah) and will doubtless write about him again. I can wax lyrical about Sarawak (where the book is set), its people and history. But I do look quite carefully at the audience for the blog each week and the sad truth is that people are already beginning to feel that I have perhaps overdone it talking about this book.
So what should I write about instead? Every so often I do ask people for ideas – I do believe (up to a point) in giving the audience what it wants. But I get surprisingly little feedback. You can put any ideas you might have in the comments section – I do always read it – or try to reduce them to 280 characters and tweet them to me (@TomCW99). Failing any suggestions, you’ll probably find some photographs of Wales next week, as the lifting of restrictions means that I can at least visit there. Of course, I do post the odd book review through my blog. With life still fairly restrictive in many ways, you can always escape into a book. Speaking of which, have I mentioned that The White Rajah is now available on Kindle and in paperback?
The prospect of life after death is not only the central theme of Things I Should Have Said and Done but also something that fascinates me. The way I see it, whoever or whatever made us wouldn’t have invested millions of years of evolution for us to just live out our three-score year and ten (or whatever the modern equivalent is.) There has to be something after this.
In the book, Ellen dies suddenly and hasn’t had time to prepare herself or put her affairs in order. There are things that she needs to do before she can put this world behind her and move onto the next and with George, her Greeter at her side, she sets about doing them.
This is total fantasy of course and I have as much an idea as the next person about happens when we die but I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I have felt the presence of someone who is no longer with us. Are they paying us a visit? Personally, I often smell cigar smoke and the only person I have ever known who smoked a cigar is my grandfather who died in 1970. I like smelling the cigar smoke because I have very few memories of him but the one’s I have involve him smoking his pipe. He always looked contented when he had his pipe so I get the feeling that wherever he is now he is happy.
Shortly after the book was originally published in 2016, I received an email from someone at Barnardo’s Head Office who had read the book and wanted to tell me what a profound effect it had had on them. They had recently lost their mother and the person said that after reading it, they tried to imagine their mother being happy with her parents and her sisters who were already dead. They said the book had given them hope.
I wish that I could quote the email directly but thanks to being furloughed (three times) and works network clearing all computers that aren’t used for five weeks I’ve lost it but I will always remember how good it made me feel that something I had written had helped me through a difficult time. However, this is a direct quote from one of the reviews Things I Should Have Said and Done received the first time around.
“I loved this book Collette ! After the loss of my husband Mark at 47 it helped me and made me laugh – not quite sure about Marks greeter tho ! – Who is she! What’s her name and is she thin ????”
I had a lot of fun writing this book because there were no rules for Ellen to conform to. Like I said before none of us know what it’s actually like to be dead. Maybe I have described it perfectly. Maybe there really is a Gerald making big decisions and an officious Arthur with his black hair and his white suit. Who knows?
I’d like to leave you with my late mother’s thoughts on death. “It can’t be bad because no-one ever comes back to complain.” The simple logic of a simple woman who, when her time came, was happy to die.
Colette was born and raised in Sheffield but now lives in North East England. She has had a wide range of jobs from ledger clerk to school dinner lady and lots of things in between but in 2001 she found her calling in the world of charity retail. After working for CR UK for 10 years she now works for Barnardo’s and while it’s a job that she loves, writing is her real passion. When she is not working or writing there is a good chance you will find Colette, baking, gardening or walking the dog in the beautiful countryside that Co Durham has to offer. She has been married almost forty years and has two grown up sons.
I really enjoyed Karen King’s piece last week. She is a consummate professional writer and I wish I had half her energy to write across so many genres. That said, I am not entirely a stranger to writing in different styles myself. In a long career of writing and researching across a range of markets, I have had to learn to write everything from what was essentially boiler-plate text round hundreds of tables of (frankly boring) data to bold selling documents designed to convince advertisers that more pages of tables was the most exciting thing they’d seen in years. Some of them believed it and apparently efforts like my discussion of the readers of children’s comics (even probably including some of the ones Karen wrote for) encouraged a lot of advertisers to take more interest in kiddie print media. I even wrote a ‘proper book’ on complaint handling.
Eventually, though, I produced one too many analyses of the market for paper products in the UK (yes, really) and I gave it all up and started writing fiction.
I had dabbled in fiction before – writing some of those ‘choose your own adventure’ stories that were popular in the 1980s.
My first serious attempt at writing a novel was The White Rajah, first published in 2010. Like many first novels, it desperately wanted to be the Great British Novel and like most first novels it wasn’t. It’s been revised a couple of times since and, though it is still hardly the Great British Novel, I am finally happy with it. It has battles and pirates and lots of traditional adventure, but it is at heart an attempt to look at big moral issues. When James Brooke (a real person) died one commentator wrote:
When his Biography comes to be written, there must be in it, dark chapters as well as bright ones.
The Monthly Packet, 14 September 1874
The book looks at how somebody who wanted to do good (and often did) was responsible for some horrific acts. Brooke seems to me to symbolise much about the British Empire: it didn’t set out to be evil, but it did a lot of evil things.
The White Rajah was followed by Cawnpore which will be republished later this summer. Cawnpore is also full of moral complexity. On the one hand you have English colonialists: some trying to do their best for India, some who are deeply contemptuous of the native people. On the other hand you have Nana Sahib, hailed nowadays as a hero of the Indian independence movement, but a man who was responsible for a particularly outrageous massacre in 1857.
The John Williamson trilogy finishes with Back Home (also to be republished in 2021). One reviewer complained that John Williamson is revealed as morally weak. Well, of course he is! The whole series is about the moral choices people make and they sometimes get things right and sometimes not so much. Poor John Williamson tries so hard. He really deserves to find some sort of salvation, but you’ll have to read to the very end to discover if he does.
The White Rajah had an agent and was pitched to leading publishers who turned it down. “Too difficult from an unknown author” more or less summed up the feedback. Sales subsequently proved them right – hence the move to a much more traditional style of historical fiction with the Burke books. There are some moral issues there, but they are generally hidden away behind conventional tales of derring-do with a handsome hero, beautiful women and lots of Frenchmen to beat. (We’re in the Napoleonic Wars, so beating the French comes with the territory.)
Clicking on the covers will take you to Amazon. All my books are available in paperback or on Kindle.
Technically both the John Williamson stories and the James Burke adventures are ‘historical fiction’ but they are distinct sub-genres and are written in dramatically different styles.
Eventually the sheer quantity of research that historical fiction requires made me want to take a bit of a break. I had a couple of ideas for fantasy stories – one about black magic and the other featuring vampires. The result was Dark Magic and Something Wicked. Apparently the genre is called Urban Fantasy. (I had to look it up.) It’s not just a different subject matter, but a tighter writing style – and an opportunity to give my dark sense of humour full rein.
Every sort of writing brings different challenges and different rewards, but I’ve enjoyed them all. I can only agree with Karen that challenging yourself to write in unfamiliar genres is always worthwhile.
Burke in Ireland is the fifth book so far in the James Burke series but it is an account of Burke’s first adventures in espionage.
Burke in the Land of Silver, thefirst of the James Burke books, starts in Saint-Domingue where Burke is fighting in the French army. France and England weren’t at war at the time and many Irishmen fought under the French Crown. The real James Burke was one of them, which explained his excellent French. By the end of the first chapter, though, France and England are at war and Burke’s regiment (almost all Irishmen) is beaten by the English and, as was quite common at the time, they simply changed sides and joined the British Army. Burke is detached for espionage activities and Chapter 2 starts with him about to start on his mission to Argentina, twelve years later. This makes perfect sense for a story that is based closely on the adventures of the real James Burke.
We have no idea what he was doing in those 12 years and I have had fun filling them out. I’ve put him in Egypt in 1798 (Burke and the Bedouin) but that still leaves a few years. Burke in Ireland fills a bit more of the gap.
The action of Burke in Ireland takes place immediately on his return to England after the surrender of his regiment. (In fact, in order to accommodate the actual historical events that happen in Burke in Ireland I’ve nudged his surrender back a few months. The real James Burke was still in the West Indies as the story starts. Don’t tell anybody.)
Burke in Ireland is thus Burke’s first adventure as a spy. All the Burke stories stand alone but if you haven’t read any of the others and, for whatever reason, don’t fancy starting with Burke in the Land of Silver, this is an excellent introduction to the character.
The Burke of Burke in Ireland is noticeably younger than the Burke of the later stories. Although he doesn’t want to be a spy, he still thinks that he can behave honourably in the service of his country doing undercover work. It’s unfortunate, then, that his first mission takes him to Dublin, where the English have been behaving dishonourably for centuries. Things are slowly improving, but Burke is still up to his neck in a very dirty little war. The cynicism that we see in the later books has its origins in his experiences here.
He’s also more innocent in his attitude to women. Burke in Ireland finds a young Burke falling in love and learning the hard way that love does not necessarily conquer all.
What else is different? Well, it’s the first book that doesn’t feature any actual battles, although it has its share of violence and sudden death. And, notably, Burke has to work alone without the estimable William Brown to back him up.
Burke in Ireland, then, shows a different Burke from the earlier books and it has a darker tone. The history of British involvement in Ireland deserves a more sombre plot.
I hope you enjoy the adventures of the younger Burke and, never fear, the next book is shaping up to be a much more light-hearted affair – but I’m afraid it’s not going to arrive for quite a while. Until then, pour yourself a drink and settle down to Burke’s return to his homeland.
The universal link for the Kindle edition of Burke in Ireland (ie one which should take you to the appropriate Amazon page wherever you are in the world) is https://mybook.to/Ireland.
No stirring military imagery on this one. This story is Burke’s first adventure in espionage — before he went to Egypt (Burke and the Bedouin) or Argentina (Burke in the Land of Silver). Seconded from the Army to assist the Alien Office in its dirty work spying on French sympathisers in Britain, Burke is sent undercover to Ireland.
It’s 1793. Ireland is just five years off an armed uprising against the British Crown, but for now resistance is underground. While the Nationalists print their pamphlets and talk of revolution and burn the occasional barn, the English respond by infiltrating their ranks and picking off their leaders. It’s dirty work in a dirty war. There’s no room here for an officer and a gentleman. Burke has to grow up quickly.
Burke in Ireland publishes on Kindle next Friday (19 March) and is available to pre-order now at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08YMMG4YH. A paperback will follow soon.