That was the year that was

There’s only a couple of weeks until we break for Christmas, so it’s an obvious time to look back at 2023.

It’s been a bit of an odd year, hasn’t it? I get the feeling that a lot of people are still trying to get back into normal life after all the chaos of covid. Although we visited Argentina at the end of last year and are planning to go to India next year, overseas travel still seems to be much more problematic than it used to be. IT breakdowns, industrial unrest, weather disruption, and Britain’s apparent inability to organise its borders means that travelling overseas has become an adventure again – and not in a good way. Holidaying at home, on the other hand, has been more than usually disrupted by the absence of a British summer.

Still, with nothing better to do, I have been able to knock out two books this year. Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras came out in April and was followed by the third of my Galbraith & Pole Urban Fantasy books, Monsters in the Mist, which arrived, appropriately enough, just in time for Halloween.

Urban Fantasy is quicker to write than historical fiction. The books are shorter and you have to do much less research. It’s easy to think that fantasy doesn’t really need any research at all but Monsters in the Mist had me cramming on gene splicing technology and the history of the RAF base at the end of that road mysteriously signposted ‘Works Unit Only’ on the M4 between Swindon and London. I do enjoy writing them, though. I’ve just read a review that says “Monsters in the Mist reads like this is Williams just having fun, and bringing his readers along on the trip,” which I loved because that is so much the way I feel about the Galbraith & Pole books. The series was inspired by a trip to Argentina which left me wondering how many of the nocturnal population of Buenos Aires were vampires and it has just grown from that. The books are hardly your regular vampire stories and do seem to appeal to people who wouldn’t normally touch this sort of thing with a barge pole, so I hope you will be prepared to give them a go. They’re all available on Kindle Unlimited if you don’t want to part with actual money to read them.

Does this mean I don’t enjoy writing James Burke? Well, there are seven of them and I’ve done my best to make them all different. Some are quite serious (Burke in Ireland stands out), some are spy romps (Burke and the Pimpernel Affair is lots of fun) and some have quite a lot of straightforward military history in them. (Burke and the Bedouin and Burke at Waterloo both seem to be getting a boost on the back of the ‘Napoleon’ film.) Coming up with ideas for an eighth is difficult. I’ve had people on social media pointing me in the direction of the War of 1812 and I suspect that we will see Burke crossing the Atlantic to do his bit against the perfidious Yankees. This would mean, though, getting myself into a whole new field of conflict and one which, like most English people, I know very little about. Still, this pause between books is giving me time to do some reading instead of writing and I already know a lot more about the War of 1812 than I did a month ago.

Mentioning social media brings mind another odd thing that has happened in 2023. Yes, unfortunately there is no escaping the weird little man who bought Twitter and what he has done to the platform. I didn’t used to like Twitter, but I’ve come to really appreciate it. It’s full of people who share my rather offbeat interests, particularly when it comes to Napoleon. It’s a way that I can see what things resonate with my readers and, maybe, even encourage them to buy my books. For self-published authors like me, social media are a crucial way of raising awareness of our work. I’ve tried advertising on Facebook and Amazon and the results seem unpredictable at best. You have to commit quite a lot of money to get measurable returns and, with profit margins on e-books so slim, it’s not something that I think makes sense. So I’m very aware of the fall in engagement on Twitter, which is just one more thing that makes finding readers that much harder.

One recent post that I did engage with on Twitter asked if people would write even if they knew nobody was going to buy their books. My answer was a resounding ‘No’. Life is too short (especially at my age) to write books that nobody is reading. This means that more and more of my time is spent promoting and publicising my books and this leaves less time for actually writing them. I will almost certainly produce another James Burke, but I’m not hurrying to start it. Apart from anything else, I’m enjoying getting up in the morning without thinking that I have to put down some precious words. If anybody feels that they want me to write faster, the answer is to buy my books and give them away as Christmas presents because nothing motivates a writer quite like seeing their books selling. All my books are available in paperback and there’s still more than two weeks till Christmas.

Anyway, that’s been my year. Feel free to tell me about yours.

Exploring history and dance in 2023

With the launch of Monsters in the Mist and the excitement about Napoleon out of the way, I’m looking back at all the things I haven’t written about this year. Let’s start back in January.

The Remarkably Talented Mr Weaver Presents

This was an opportunity to combine my interest in the Georgian era with an interest in dance. The performance by The Weaver Ensemble celebrated the 350th anniversary of the birth of John Weaver of Shrewsbury who came to London in 1700 where he created what is arguably the first ballet, The Loves of Mars & Venus. His genius was to realise that you could use dance to tell a story (complete with “passions and affections”) without any words.

The pieces are short, so we got two: The Loves of Mars & Venus and The Loves of Pygmalion. They were both rather fun with the actual dancing in a baroque style. We know what the dances would have looked like because they were notated at the time using “Feuillet notation”. The style lacks the elaborate athleticism that we associate with ballet these days. Even a pirouette was impossible in the dresses of the period and, of course, pointe shoes were unheard of.

Here are some photos from The Loves of Pygmalion, which give some idea of the look of the thing. This Pygmalion is a painting rather than a sculpture: hence the frame on stage. Apologies for the blurriness of the third one but I wanted to give some idea of Pygmalion’s rather splendid hat.

Galbraith & Pole

I imagine that everybody who reads this blog has realised by now that I write historical fiction. What I think some people still don’t know is that I have a sideline in Urban Fantasy.

I enjoy writing Urban Fantasy. It takes more research than I had expected. Sometimes I need to consult 16th century French volumes about werewolves. Other times I’m checking maps of the Palace of Westminster or the type of weaponry favoured by Special Forces. It’s still massively easier than all the historical research that underlies the Burke series. The field trips, too, are much simpler. A visit to Brompton cemetery is much less demanding than a trip to Portugal, although Portugal was a more romantic place to have a holiday.

What exactly is Urban Fantasy? Basically, it’s fantasy stories, featuring such old-time favourites as vampires and werewolves, but set in realistic contemporary settings.

A vampire hero

I’m just finishing the third of my Galbraith & Pole books. These all feature a Metropolitan Police detective, Chief Inspector Galbraith, who has ended up partnering Chief Inspector Pole from the mysterious Section S. While Galbraith is very human, Pole is a vampire. To start with, Galbraith is uncomfortable working with the Undead, but gradually they become good friends. I like to think of the books as police procedurals with added bite.

Why a vampire? The idea came to me on a visit to Buenos Aires, a city distinguished by amazing cemeteries in which the dead rest in little houses that form busy streets. Buenos Aires is, of course, also famous for tango. Tango in South America is mainly a nocturnal activity and I found it easy to imagine the dead leaving their mausolea to dance. Tango songs often feature death and lost love, so I thought they would appeal to vampires.

Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires

My beloved explained gently to me that English readers might struggle with a story set in a country and culture they didn’t know. Could I move my vampires to London, for example? So I came up with a vampire sub-culture based around Brompton Cemetery.

Brompton Cemetery, London

The idea of Urban Fantasy is to have your fantastical creatures firmly based in the real world. Could I make a credible 21st century vampire?

Creating vampires that could live among us involved I certain amount of tweaking of the vampire legend. Obviously my vampires can’t go out in daylight, although high factor sunscreen can extend their operating hours a little. They wouldn’t be vampires if they didn’t drink blood, but they really don’t need that much blood and the vampire subculture does have humans who get a kick out of making donations – or, at a pinch, there is animal blood. Like traditional vampire, it takes piercing the heart to kill them, although a stake is not necessary: a bullet will do the job just as well.

Chief Inspector Pole explains that many of the other attributes people ascribe to vampires are just myths. He enjoys garlic and it’s perfectly possible to take his photo.

Pole dislikes the term ‘vampire’, which he thinks has negative connotations. Instead, he prefers to speak of ‘the Others’, as opposed to the Mortals they live amongst. They are able to hide in plain sight because of a long-standing arrangement whereby they make their services available to the Crown in exchange for a blind eye being turned to their existence.

Pole used to be called Paole. Perhaps he is related to the historical vampire Arnold Paole, who lived in Serbia in the early 18th century and whose vampiric activities were the subject of an official report by the Austrian authorities. Who knows?

Do I believe in vampires? Let’s put it this way: in the tango clubs of London I meet people who seem to have been dancing for decades but who never show signs of aging. And I’ve never seen them out by daylight.

Monsters in the Mist

I’m just finishing the third Galbraith & Pole story, which finds them out of London, hunting a mysterious killer in rural mid-Wales. Both Galbraith and Pole are creatures of the city and entirely out of their comfort zone on open moorland with nothing to disturb the silence but sheep. There is something out on the hills, though: something that has killed once and may well kill again.

Our heroes’ search for the secret behind the monsters takes them to Porton Down, where scientists are pushing genetic research into dangerous areas. It ends in a bloody climax at a secret military base hidden at the end of a service road on the M4.

Porton Down is a real place as is the secret military base. In this crazy 21st century world, is it really the vampires that are the hardest thing to believe?

The Galbraith & Pole series

The first Galbraith & Pole book, Something Wicked, sees Pole working with Galbraith to track down rogue vampires who have killed a member of the House of Lords. There’s a lot of tango. (I told you that vampires like tango.)

The second book, Eat the Poor, asks, if your MP was a werewolf, would anybody notice.

Both books are available on Amazon as paperbacks or on Kindle.

Monsters in the Mist will be looking for beta readers in the next week or two. I’m hoping it will be ready in time for Halloween. That seems appropriate.

Summertime and the writer is lazy

It’s Thursday and I have to turn my mind to tomorrow’s blog post. My mind, though, is resolutely refusing to turn itself to anything remotely useful.

We haven’t had a summer holiday this year – just a few long weekends in England. The last week has seen some of the nicest weather we have had since June, so we’ve been taking advantage of it to do things outside. We’ve been walking in Richmond Park, dancing tango in the open air and skating through the streets of London. Yesterday I even took my bike on a quick run along the Thames for the first time in months. It’s been lovely, but it’s left me tired and unenthusiastic about putting together another post about something excitingly historical.

I’m not even working on a historical novel at the moment. I’m doing edits on the latest Galbraith & Pole book. If you haven’t met Galbraith & Pole yet, do have a look at the first two.

These are as far as I can get from my historical writing (although there’s a historical back story in Something Wicked). Chief Inspector Pole is a vampire, but rather different from most vampires you will have met either in fiction or, quite possibly given the sort of creature he is, in real life. He enjoys garlic and avoids human blood and is quaintly old-fashioned rather than terrifying. And, like me, he loves to dance tango.

As you may have noticed, I don’t take my vampires too seriously (one reviewer regretted the absence of significant quantities of gore) but they are fun reads and huge fun to write and, even if I had to brush up my 16th century French for some background reading, they are easier to research than most historical novels.

Anyway, potentially long blog post cut short: I’m not writing anything historical this week so you’ll have to make do with photos of some of the tango events I’ve been at over the last few days. It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about tango, so it’s about time.

OK, maybe one historical reference. Here, thanks to the wonders of AI, I can combine both my interests with a picture of Napoleon dancing tango.

Enjoy the end of summer!

Researching a ride across the Andes

Researching a ride across the Andes

Over on Twitter I’ve been joining in with #HistFicMay. It’s a lot of fun and if you are on Twitter yourself you might try having a look at the hashtag. Each day historical novelists are invited to tweet about some aspect of their work. The last few days have been research, an area where the average historical novelist can talk until the most enthusiastic reader has beaten themselves unconscious head butting a wall in the hope that they will stop.

One question was ‘What was the hardest thing to research?’ It’s a beautifully open question. Most difficult fact to track down? Most traumatic? (One person said that researching the slave trade wasn’t a lot of fun and my own research on the English occupation of Ireland left me a bit shaken.)

I’m going to go for ‘Most likely to have you freeze to death in a snowstorm while sheltering in an unheated stone hut 3,000 metres up the Andes.’

It’s a good story and every so often I tried to interest people in it and they completely blank me. Whether this is because they’ve all secretly done something equally daft or whether they can’t believe I’m not making it up, I don’t know. But here goes again.

When I was writing ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’ I described him crossing the Andes, which the real James Burke did on his way to spy out the possibilities of a British fleet making a landing on the west coast of South America. Burke misjudged the time to travel and ended up crossing in snow. The account of the trip makes up half a dozen or so pages in the book, but they worried me because I had no idea what crossing the Andes was like in snow. There are accounts of crossing in summer but I felt that the experience at the beginning of winter must be very different. In the end, I decided that the best way to find out would be to do it myself.

Somehow I persuaded my wife (who hates riding) that this would be a good idea.

Burke had made his journey at the beginning of winter but our schedule meant we had to make it in October, in the southern spring, but still snowy in the Andes. We weren’t going to be able to cross down to Chile as the pass was officially still closed, so we couldn’t legally take our horses over. We decided that we would climb to the summit of the pass and turn and come back down.

We were following the route taken by General San Martin, who had crossed the Andes on his way to liberate Chile in 1817. Wisely, he had done it in high summer. When we arrived at our starting point, a ranch outside the city of Mendoza, the rancher who was to guide us up said that he strongly advised against doing it until the weather had improved.

We went ahead anyway. The idea had been to see what it was like for Burke and we found out.

It was cold. Very, very cold.

The road up starts easily enough. People take four wheel drives up there to admire the view. Gradually, though, it gets steeper. Quite a lot steeper.

We rode all day, until we arrived at the only refuge: a stone hut at 3,000 metres.

There were some bed frames and we took the woollen hides from the Western-style saddles and those were our mattresses. We piled any spare clothing on top of our sleeping bags and that was our beds for the night.

It’s not true that there was no heating at all. There are some very dry scrubs growing on the mountain, easily uprooted and carried back to the hut, mainly because they weigh practically nothing.

The good news is that light, dry wood burns very easily. The disadvantage is that the fire lasts hardly any time at all. Still, apart from the smoke blowing back down the chimney, it created a lovely warm spot immediately in front of the fireplace for as long as it lasted.

You could cook on it too.

Water came from  a stream that ran past the hut. First thing in the morning, it was covered in ice.

One of the horses decided that a night up there was no fun at all and ran off. Fortunately we had a spare (and the first one was safely waiting for us at a frontier post at the bottom of the mountain when we returned).

Despite the cold, I was stunned by the beauty of the place.

The next day we made a serious attempt to get to the summit of the pass. We almost made it too, but, in the end, the snow defeated us.

It was the coldest I have ever been in my life and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I’d love to do it again in the summer (apparently a week after we went the weather changed completely and people travelled up in T-shirts). My wife, though, has vetoed the idea.

And did it make any difference to the book? A few paragraphs may be more convincing.

I thought it was worthwhile anyway.

Cover reveal: Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras

I’ve just finished the latest of my books about James Burke. It’s been over a year since the last one but I produced the second Galbraith & Pole fantasy novel in between. (If you haven’t read Galbraith & Pole yet, do give them a try. They will make you see vampires in a whole new light – and they could have you looking carefully at some political figures as well.)

Anyway, Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras has been written and re-written and read over by lovely people who pick out what’s wrong with it and by now it’s almost ready for you. One of the last things to be done is the cover and now I can reveal it to you in all its glory.

The map shows the area north of Lisbon where the Lines of Torres Vedras were built. You can see a picture of the remains of one of the forts today down in the bottom right. I took it on a visit to the Lines the year before covid put a temporary end to such expeditions.

Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras is first and foremost a spy story. The Lines were built in great secrecy, quite a feat given the scale of the project. We know that the French had spies amongst the Portuguese and that some of them were identified and fled Lisbon. Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras gives the story of what might have happened.

Although most of the story takes place in Lisbon, we do not forget the Lines themselves. Fans of military history will find plenty for them as Burke visits some of the forts in the company of Colonel Fletcher — the man who realised Wellington’s grand plan and constructed one of the greatest defensive works until the Maginot Line of the 1930s. (And, unlike the Maginot Line, it worked.)

Burke and the Lines of Torres Vedras will be published early in April. Watch this space!