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 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.
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.)
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 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.
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.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
So here we are: The White Rajah is back on Amazon after a break while I did all the boring stuff that let me get the rights back and put it out again under my own ‘Big Red’ imprint.
It’s a big day. What can I say that I haven’t said already? Not a lot really.
It’s the first novel I ever wrote and it’s been tweaked a couple of times, though what I’m publishing here is the same as the version published by Endeavour.
When I first wrote it, it was turned down by several mainstream publishers as (according to my agent) “too difficult for a first book from an unknown author”. He told me I should write some more accessible mainstream historical fiction first. Hence the Burke books – all five of them so far and a sixth in progress.
Meanwhile The White Rajah was published by a one-woman publisher in the USA (JMS Books) who did an amazingly good job with it. The Burke books, though, weren’t a good fit for her company so they went to a small UK publisher and The White Rajah went too.
It was not the best of times for publishing. The White Rajah was eventually followed by two more books to make a trilogy, but the books remained “difficult” and though there were occasional promises of more aggressive marketing, sales languished.
With the change in the way books are sold, I decided to self-publish. I started by republishing the first three Burke books and the results showed conclusively that my books do better with the marketing love that self-published books get lavished on them. Two more Burke books and two contemporary fantasies followed and were successful enough for me to decide to add The White Rajah to the self-published list. (The two other books will follow.)
So here we are. The White Rajah is a more reflective novel than the Burke books. There are fights and dashing adventures. There is even a love story (though not a conventional one). But the book raises issues about colonialism and the Empire project. There are a lot of questions but ultimately no answers. Perhaps as we are all encouraged to look again at Britain’s 19th century history, this is a book whose time has come. Hollywood seems to think so: a film based on the life of James Brooke (the eponymous White Rajah) is due out next month.
I hope you read it and enjoy it. Let me know what you think. As life moves back to normal I hope I may be able to get out and talk about it if any of you want to ask me.
I’ve been working on the next book about James Burke and I have a scene where he is fighting his way out of the Conciegerie in Paris. (This one is a lot of fun and a bit of a relief after the rather heavy story in Burke in Ireland.) I was looking up some floor plans of the old Conciergerie building when I realised that some key elements are still standing and the building is open to the public. I got quite excited. I could make a trip to Paris and explore the building. It would be fun and it would get me into the zone for writing Burke’s adventures there.
Only, of course, I can’t. Paris really isn’t a good place to be right now and, besides, the Conciergerie is closed.
It’s thrown me rather. I’m only working on the first draft and, unusually for me, my first draft is fast and dirty. (Most people say you shouldn’t edit as you go, but I can’t leave a mistake on the page once I notice it.) So I should be able to just leave this bit open and carry on with the rest. But writing (even though I write spasmodically) has been one of the things that I have been able to keep going through the last year. There has been little or no chance to dance with tango friends, going abroad to ski is out of the question, we have, for months on end, been unable to visit our son and even the street skates have been cancelled. Now covid is coming for my writing!
I think this period, where we are finally supposed to be able to leave home but all the places we might go remain closed to us – this is, in many ways, harder to deal with than just being stuck in place. As we re-emerge, blinking, into what I think will be a very changed world, we will, like all animals coming out of a long hibernation, find the transition back to daylight quite difficult.
Stay well; remember your mental health is as important as your physical health. Look after yourselves.