I’m pretty well all blogged out this week. Besides my own blog, I’ve been writing on those of several other generous authors who have given me space so that I can encourage people to buy Burke in the Peninsula.
Those of you who have been following me through the year will know that that I’ve been busy with the relaunch of the three existing Burke books before getting this one out. It’s been a new experience for me, this venture into self-publication. Emotionally, and in terms of my development as an author (if there is such a thing), it’s been worthwhile. The books that I have published under my own imprint (Big Red) are all doing better than the ones that were left with a traditional publisher.
It’s been hard work, though. Authors always complain that their publishers don’t give them promotional support. Now I’m my own publisher I’ve learned quickly that promotional support is expensive. I’ve read advice that you should start with trivial sums and see what happens and I can tell you that what happens is absolutely nothing. It may be that I interpreted “trivial” too literally, but I’m not about to put down more money with no evidence that ads on Facebook or Amazon are ever going to pay for themselves.
In the past I’ve given talks at bookshops, book clubs, book fairs, and even a Victorian event where most of the audience turned up in costume.
This year, though, talks are off (though if you work for a college that has an educational exemption, feel free to get in touch).
So if I can’t advertise my books and I can’t talk to people about them, what have I done?
I’ve blogged (on my own blogs and anyone else who’ll have me), I’ve tweaked my website, I’ve posted on Facebook and I’ve worked Twitter for all it’s worth. Does this have any effect? Well, as I’ve said, the books that I’m putting all this effort into are doing noticeably better than those left with a regular publisher. Sales, though, are disappointing – partly because, though you might think that the covid crisis would make people read more, it seems to be having the opposite effect. Many people find it hard to settle with a book. Netflix’s share price gives a fair indication of where people are turning for entertainment.
I’ve read suggestions that I need to make my blogs more focused on action points, which I guess means trying to get you to buy the books. Looking back, I’m delighted to see how many people read blog posts that are about my books and who might, I suppose, go on to buy them. (Given that hundreds of people read the blog posts every week and rather fewer buy the books, I’m not sure that that works, but perhaps you haven’t all got round to hitting Amazon yet.) I can’t help feeling, though, that people do like to read posts that are not primarily about selling my books – like the one on the dangers of using contemporary paintings in historical research or my instant summary of the British invasion of Buenos Aires in 1806.
I enjoy writing random essays on the history behind some of my novels and even more random discussions of totally off topic things like tango. The fact that I do enjoy it is one of the main reasons that I have kept going for several years now producing a blog post practically every week. In fact, many weeks I do a book review as well, so that’s well over 60 blog posts every year, sometimes with a couple of weeks off over Christmas and maybe a week away in the summer. I probably write well over 50,000 words a year this way – or much more than half of a book.
Experience has shown that blog posts only get read if you draw people’s attention to them through social media. In my case, my main social media effort is through Twitter. I used to hate Twitter but, over the years, I have made virtual friends there who I would really miss if I abandoned the platform.
So both blogging and tweeting give me some satisfaction, but what I have learned over the past few months is that self-publishing is time consuming and writing those blogs is time consuming too. Twitter shouldn’t be time consuming but I like to engage with people rather than just tweet and run and that means breaking off from what I am doing several times a day and that cuts into productive time quite a lot too. The result is that, looking back, I see that while I have published a new book and republished old ones, and contributed to a new short story collection, organised covers, checked on sales, responded to reader queries, blogged every week and chatted to folks on Twitter, what I haven’t done is written any books to publish in the future.
I feel that now is perhaps the time to take a small step back from all this promotional effort. I’ve noticed that when covid first struck readership of my blog dropped off. (Back to what I just said about reading and Netflix.) With people relaxing after the end of the initial lockdown, my readership recovered. Now, as we get more nervous, it’s beginning to drop again. So perhaps this would be a good time to recycle some old posts from my previous ‘Blogger’ blog. Most of you won’t have read them and I suspect that, even if you did, you have probably forgotten them by now.
I’ll be cutting back a bit on Twitter too. I’ll still post, but not quite as often.
I have some writing-related projects I’ll be able to put more time into and I can work on my tango. We haven’t made a video since May and I’d like to do another. I’ll be able to visit Wales without climbing to the top of a hill so I can update the website. It will be fun. And when I get bored, I’ll come back. (Not that I’ll ever really be away.)
And now, in the spirit of my more relaxed approach to the blog, here are some photos from a summer that, when all is said and done, had some lovely bits.
The Action Point
Do you like exciting stories set during the Napoleonic Wars? (Like Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe stories?)
Do you like stories about British spies confounding the country’s enemies? (Like Ian Fleming’s Bond?)
Do you like war stories?
Do you like Napoleonic history?
Do you like strong, sexy heroines?
If the answer to any of these questions is ‘Yes’, then why aren’t you already reading Burke in the Peninsula?
It’s real history – but not like you learned it at school.
People seem to have enjoyed the accounts of my trip to Talavera which have popped up on various websites while I’ve been promoting Burke in the Peninsula. I’d like to say that the whole experience was massively less chaotic than I depicted it, but sadly my beloved was with me and she keeps a diary. So, for those who want the full, unvarnished story of the battlefield reconnaissance that never was, here’s her account, written at the time and including an even more embarrassing error.
Our notes for Day 2 said take the old road to Talavera. Look at battlefield. Continue to Trujillo, via fort at Oropesa.
Seemed like a lot, so we get into the car and set off, straight after a fantastic hotel breakfast. I can’t say I was exactly relaxed – I tensed every time we passed something – and even if I didn’t scream I did make little squeaky noises from time to time. But we reached Talavera without incident. Only problem – Tom had no idea where the battlefield was. A ridge going north from the town probably. We set off northwards, trying to find the road out of town. As we passed an Aldi, I suggest grabbing something to eat. Went in, found some pears and croissants and pork scratchings. Tom started to get antsy. “We need a drink,” he protested, “and we can’t hang around.”
I went to grab a drink as quickly as possible. There was a large one and a half litre bottle of something green and sparkly which advertised itself as “fresh apple”. It clearly wasn’t apple juice. It was probably some chemical, sweetened concoction, but I didn’t have time to try to find something better. Grabbed and paid.
Once we’d found the road, we drove to a ridge. Was it the ridge. Who knew? It was surprisingly steep and stony above the flat, dry plain. As we wandered around, lost, Tom said he was thirsty. I gave him the apple juice and he took a large gulp. “Yuck. It’s disgusting,” he said, handing it back.
Not that bad, surely. I’d give him all the tea I put in the flask and drink the stuff myself. I took a glug. Okay. Not a drink. Clearly some cleaning product. Closer inspection showed it to be fabric conditioner. With a poison warning on the back. If drunk, seek medical advice.
Tom was not amused. He said a lot on the subject. We tried to wash away the taste with tea. And check to see just how ill we felt. Not quite right. But not exactly sick. Maybe the poison warning was exaggerating.
We pressed on and wandered around the fort in tiny Oropesa, and admired the storks’ nests on the towers, and burped a strong chemical taste of apple. Found some cough sweets in my bag, which reduced the odd taste in our throats. By the time we got to Trujillo we were feeling quite cheerful. And not at all hungry. If you are ever on a diet I recommend fabric conditioner as an appetite suppressant.
It hadn’t actually been a bad day and Trujillo turned out to be absolutely stunning. It was February, but freakishly warm, so we had the place to ourselves and the weather to enjoy it. Tammy (whose diary does contain quite a lot of detail on food, even when not washed down by fabric conditioner) loved our romantic meal in the plaza and our hotel – a 16th century palacio – was one of the nicest places we’ve ever stayed.
The taste of harsh words and chemical apple was all forgotten.
Burke in the Peninsula
We were visiting Talavera because the battle features in the latest book about the adventures of James Burke, Burke in the Peninsula.
So far, the Burke books have avoided the Peninsular War, but the latest goes back to 1809. Fresh from his adventures in South America (Burke in the Land of Silver) James Burke is dispatched to join Wellesley’s army in the peninsula. To his disgust, he is not to be fighting as a regular soldier, but is again spying – this time travelling ahead of the army to try to build links with the Spanish guerrilla forces. But the conflict is a dirty war and Burke learns the hard way that not all the guerrillas are everything they might appear to be. It’s not long before he’s fighting for his life, but which of the Spaniards can he trust?
William Brown is with him, of course, but when the pair have to split up, Burke takes the war to the enemy behind French lines while Brown ends up fighting alongside the infantry at Talavera. Hence our trip.
So you get James Bond heroics and military historical fiction. There’s a girl, too – somebody from Burke’s past who I’m delighted to meet again. That’s adventure and romance and history: all for £3.99 on Kindle and £6.99 in paperback.
I always used wonder why people like Bernard Cornwell wrote their books in such a strange order. Why does Richard Sharpe not start his adventures in India and then just stick with Wellington, fighting battle after battle until ending gloriously at Waterloo? Now I have my own Napoleonic hero, I realise what the difficulties are with this approach.
The first book I wrote about James Burke was Burke in the Land of Silver. This is based closely on the adventures of the real-life James Burke who was the inspiration behind the series. It starts with him leaving home, fighting with the French army, and then being recruited into British intelligence. This is almost by way of a preface (it’s the first chapter of the book) before we get to Burke’s actual activities as a spy in Argentina. Burke arrives in Argentina in 1805, over 10 years after he joined the British army. His adventures in Burke in the Land of Silver see him travelling between Europe and South America and he eventually leaves Argentina in 1809.
I’d always considered that Burke in the Land of Silver would be the first book in a series. If you’re writing a series set in the Napoleonic wars, having the second book starting after 1809 doesn’t leave you an awful lot of time to pack the rest in. When I came to write the second book, then, I went back to 1798 in the gap between Burke joining British military intelligence and setting off to Argentina. Burke is dispatched to Egypt where he (with a little bit of help from Nelson) foils Napoleon’s plans. Burke and the Bedouin first came out in 2014 so the publishers were quite keen that I write another book the following year to mark the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. It probably wasn’t that great an idea really, as when Burke at Waterloo appeared it was rather lost in the plethora of books celebrating the bicentenary.
Having got to the end of the Napoleonic wars in three books, I had lots of other ideas for Burke, but these inevitably meant going back out of chronological order. Hence the next one, Burke in the Peninsula, sees him joining the Army in Spain, just ahead of the battle of Talavera in 1809. In terms of the chronology of the books, it follows immediately after Burke in the Land of Silver. If you read the two one after the other, you have a continuous narrative.
After I finished writing Burke in the Peninsula, I cast around for other possible plot lines. A fellow historical novelist had been doing a lot of research on Wolfe Tone, the Irish Nationalist who was executed by the British after the 1798 rising. She had decided to not to pursue the idea of writing a book about him and suggested I might be interested. (Huge respect to Jane Jackson and I do recommend her books.) Reading into the period, I could see why a book about Wolfe Tone is a bit problematic: Irish nationalist hero he may be, but he really isn’t a very sympathetic person. However, the situation in Ireland in the run-up to the 1798 rebellion does offer an awful lot of plot possibilities and I ended up writing a story in which Wolfe Tone does indeed feature, though only as a comparatively minor character. Burke in Ireland (yes, there is a pattern developing in the titles) should come out toward the end of the year – in plenty of time for Christmas if you are already looking for gift opportunities.
Burke in Ireland is therefore the last (so far) of the Burke stories, though the main events take place earlier than those in any of the other books. The action all takes place after Burke’s adventures in the West Indies described in the first chapter of Burke in the land of silver but before any of the other stories. In fact, I’ve sneakily have him leave the West Indies a few months earlier than he really did just to get him to Ireland in time to fit in with the historical timetable of events there.
So there you are: just like Bernard Cornwell my stories are, chronologically speaking, all over the place. Still, he hasn’t done so badly out of the Sharpe series, so maybe emulating his approach may yet make me a bestseller.
A Word from our Sponsor
Speaking of bestseller status, I have had people ask if there are going to be any more Burke books. I’d quite like to do another one set in Spain. I went on a research trip there last year and would love to feature some of the places we visited, but the sad truth is that it takes me about a year to write one of these books and I can only justify it if I sell a reasonable number of them. Now I self-publish, I’m reading a lot about how to make money out of writing and one thing that I have learned is that, except for some well-known names, mainly writing in the Tudor period, straight historical fiction (as opposed to historical romance) is not a way to make a lot of cash.
It’s not helped by the fact that so many of my books seem to be available from pirate sites. I had thought that this couldn’t really be making much difference, but I find that I get a lot of interest in my blog (yes this one you’re reading now) and a lot of clicks on my book links, but not that many actual sales.
I’m afraid I know more and more people who are just giving up on writing quality fiction because the number of books that they sell does not seem to them to justify the effort that they put into it. None of us expect to make serious money out of writing. (Those who do are foolish and would be well advised to give up now.) In fact, if I were a commercial publisher, I don’t think that I would publish the Burke books myself. The way that the e-book market works there are a comparatively small number of books that take most of the sales. Not a lot of those are going to be Napoleonic era fiction and Cornwell has already cornered what market there is. But actually seeing real sales that indicate people might be reading your books is terribly important. Not a huge number but more than, say, will probably read this blog post.
If you enjoy my books (or my blog), it would make a huge difference to me if you would buy one of the books. (All my books are on Kindle at £3.99 or less. You can see details of all of them on this site at http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/my-books.
In our fast-paced world the conveyer belt of online bookshops zooms by at the speed of light. We writers and our books may only have one chance to catch a reader’s eye and make a good first impression. Browsing is not what it used to be. Readers don’t hang about in bookshops, sieving at their leisure through tomes of leather-bound sameness to discover the literary treasures that hide inside. They don’t pause by every volume, pull it out, blow off the cobwebs and read the first chapter to see if the story is to their liking. Those days are gone. Nowadays, our book’s debut on the literary catwalk may be no more than a flash of pixels, a click of a button, or a slip of a finger on the keyboard.
We have entered the era of fast food not only for our bodies but also for our minds. Book covers amount to the virtual sugar coating designed to whet readers’ appetites. The attraction to our book has to be generated before our potential reader contemplates reading the blurb on the back cover or on the Amazon web page. We have one shot at getting it right.
Our publishers and graphic designers rely on us to come up with ideas for the cover. We know our books intimately. If anyone can describe our books in one word – or in one image – it is us. When contriving a cover for our books we look for a symbolic expression that will best represent our book. We can’t go too far or too deep into the story. We don’t want to retell it on the cover, or even summarise it in wide strokes. A good book cover will only just hint at what is to come when the book is opened and read.
Below are three brilliant examples of conceptual book cover designs. The matchstick-house of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine hints at a burnout, at several false starts – prematurely extinguished, at an existence unfulfilled, at loneliness and emptiness. Slaughterhouse Five delivers an ingenious image of an alarm clock with missing hands and two unexploded bombs waiting to be struck – the time has come to an end and history has stopped in its tracks. The symbolism on the cover of Atwood’s The Testaments is effortless because we are already familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, and what that lampshade-shaped wimple stands for. Colour is drained away from the woman’s face – she doesn’t need a face to express her feelings, she’s not allowed to feel.
Not all covers represent books using highly conceptualised symbolism. Different genres abide by different rules. Romance frequently features idyllic watercolours with flawless silhouettes of romantic heroines and heroes that melt your heart at first sight. Horror covers do the opposite – they make your blood run cold.
Below are examples of historical fiction covers. Again, apart from the obvious symbolism of 12 Years a Slave, they bear stylised references to the eras and locations the books are set in: The Interpretation of Murder in turn-of-the-century Manhattan, New York, and The Innocent in Cold-War Berlin. The reader is given a clear message: this is your destination if you choose to journey into this story.
Crime fiction covers are the least predictable or standardised. There are only so many ways in which one can depict death. Crime fiction goes for diverse ways of intriguing the reader without betraying any of the plot. My new DI Marsh mystery, due to be published in October, features a grand old public-school edifice as its focal point. That’s because all the roads – or, as in this story, all the clues – lead to that school. Even the sky plays its part to perfection: the clouds are gathering and darkening the horizon. There lurks the present and imminent danger. The book cover is an invitation to come in and play with that danger.
When a body is found in the grounds of a prestigious Wiltshire private school, DI Gillian Marsh takes on the case. The young groundsman, Bradley Watson, has been shot dead, pierced through the heart with an arrow.
As the investigation gathers pace, DI Marsh is frustrated to find the Whalehurst staff and students united in silence. This scandal must not taint their reputation. But when Gillian discovers pictures of missing Whalehurst pupil, fifteen-year-old Rachel Snyder, on Bradley’s dead body – photos taken on the night she disappeared, and he was murdered – the link between the two is undeniable.
But what is Whalehurst refusing to reveal? And does Gillian have what it takes to bring about justice?
Anna Legat is a Wiltshire-based author, best known for her DI Gillian Marsh murder mystery series. A globe-trotter and Jack-of-all-trades, Anna has been an attorney, legal adviser, a silver-service waitress, a school teacher and a librarian. She read law at the University of South Africa and Warsaw University, then gained teaching qualifications in New Zealand. She has lived in far-flung places all over the world where she delighted in people-watching and collecting precious life experiences for her stories. Anna writes, reads, lives and breathes books and can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction.
Apparently I’m not alone in struggling to remember what day it is. This has been a strange few weeks, hasn’t it? Obviously, as I sit at home and write most days, it’s made a lot less difference to me than to most people. Even so, it’s been rather weird. My beloved, who has been frantically busy the past few months, is still working, but from home. It’s strange having somebody else in the house all the time, but quite nice. Outside the wider world seems so dislocated from its normal self that is difficult to connect to things. I had expected to see a massive increase in the amount of activity online, but I find both Facebook and Twitter oddly quiet. I guess most of us feel we have nothing to talk about except the virus, and we really don’t want to talk about that more than we have to. Instead I’m spending more time on e-mails and messaging and much more time on the phone. My son, who is of a generation that will always rather text than make a phone call, says he has been rediscovering telephone calls and talking to friends he hasn’t actually had a conversation with in ages. We all reach out in the ways we can, I guess.
It seems to have affected the way people read as well. Readership of my blog is down. (I hope you’ll forgive this light-weight post because it seems a bad week to write anything heavy that I suspect people won’t read.) I’m hoping to see some increase in the sales of my books, though. Or, at the very least, an increase in the readership of Dark Magic on Kindle Unlimited. (It’s the only one of my books on Kindle Unlimited, so if you are a member you can read this one for free.)
Somebody on Twitter asked if people were changing the sort of books they read. Were they using the opportunity to catch up on really heavy things?
It made me think about my reading recently. One nice thing is that I’ve been doing rather more of it. Unable to go out dancing or skating (which between them would usually account for about four afternoons/evenings a week) I’ve definitely been reading a bit more. The things I’ve read have been either the literary equivalent of comfort food, or heavy books I’ve been putting off.
I finished Riflemen, which was a Christmas present. It’s a history of the 5th Battalion of the 60th (Royal American) Regiment, who were active in the Peninsular War. It’s an absolutely brilliant book (my review is here: http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/riflemen/) but it’s not what you’d call an easy read. It was lovely to have the time to sit down and finish it. I also finished a short book of Lt Thomas Blomfield’s letters to his family from the battlefields of the Peninsula. The letters are fun to read, combining family gossip (“Give my love to Louisa and tell her I hope she is a good housekeeper”) and accounts of the horror of events like the sacking of Badajoz (“The town was given up to plunder for 24 hours and such a scene I never before saw.”) Even the bowdlerised accounts of some of the war, designed for reading by his family, are horrific. It’s a fantastic read for anyone interested though.
I’ve also been reading about police procedures for another contemporary novel I’m working on and I’m starting on Carol McGrath’s latest, The Silken Rose. It’s based on the life of the 13th century Ailenor of Provence which is rather outside my comfort zone, but Carol is a great writer, so I’m expecting to enjoy it.
At the other extreme, I’ve been indulging my not-so-secret vices: chick lit (Sophie Kinsella’s Sleeping Arrangements) and thrillers like Lee Child’s brilliant Reacher series and even the odd graphic novel (which is the posh name for comic books). Writers aren’t supposed to admit to that sort of reading, but it’s great – and it’s particularly great at a time like this.
I’m very lucky in being able to dance tango at home and we’ve started to video our efforts so we can identify the bits that need improvement. It turns out there are a lot of them, so we won’t be bored.
All in all, we’re lucky. The virus passed over without doing any significant damage, though my beloved has lost her sense of smell, which is more upsetting than you’d think. I’m honestly not sure if I’ve had it or not, though being in the same house gives that day of feeling a bit unwell a whole new significance. Every time I coughed we got nervous. We know people who have been really sick, so we appreciate how lucky we are.
Stay at home. Stay safe. Let me know how you’re spending your time.
Here is a question a reader posed to Tom,
who tossed it over to me, and I gladly caught it because it was exactly what I
was trying to decide at that moment. The question was, “How do writers
decide what to write about?” Serendipity, really, because I’ve always been
a writer of daily happenings, circumstances, and daydreams.
Writing is a lonely business. I never minded, because I’ve never been uncomfortable alone with my thoughts. I’m afraid I day-dreamed most of my time in school – and I still tend to do that – I’m lost in thought as I take the train (one of the reasons I love trains!), as I walk or bike to work, and as I lie in bed waiting to fall asleep. And my mind is always making up stories. “What if?” is a favorite game I play with myself – and I can go on for hours. For my Alexander series, it started as a “What if someone went back in time to interview someone famous – let’s say Alexander the Great?” and seven books later, I ended the saga! On science blog, I came across a smilodon skull, and the fact that scientists are not sure how smilodons (sabre-toothed tigers) killed their prey. From that photo, and that idea, I wrote a book (which will be out in August 2020) set in the paleolithic, with smilodons, people from the future, and a lethal virus!
My books come from “What if?” games, from a photo and blog article about a skull – and one came from a dream. My YA book, “Horse Passages”, came from a very vivid dream that just wouldn’t leave me alone until I’d finished the book. My latest book is set in the Middle Ages during the ill-fated 8th Crusade. The idea behind the book came from a visit I made to the Saint Chapel in Paris, which had been built by St. Louis to house the crown of thorns.
That got me interested in St Louis, his life
and times, and I ended up thinking the 8th Crusade would make an interesting
background for a story. And so “A Crown in Time” was born. The heroine, Isobel,
is a woman from the future sent back to save a young man who has embarked on
the Crusade and whose actions have drastically changed the course of time. As a
Corrector, Isobel is sent on a one-way trip back – basically a death sentence –
but she accepts, because she was already in prison and doesn’t have anything
left to lose.
One writer I know gets her ideas from he
headlines in the press. Another writer uses photos or paintings for
inspiration, and yet another uses objects for her stories: an old watch, a
ring, or a teacup, for example. I admit that when I write a historical novel it
is very helpful for me to actually see objects used during the time period I’m
writing about, which is why you can find me peering at displays in museums and
poring over old maps. We have a nymphorium nearby and when I pass by I often
stop and visit – the ancient Roman temple dedicated to a nymph has been rebuilt
to what it must have looked like over two thousand years ago, and I love trying
to see past the mists of time to imagine people leaving offerings to the nymph
– what did they pray for? What did they leave? What were they like?
Once an idea has taken hold and the story
begun, it’s just a matter of writing – one word after the other. Ideas are easy
to come by. The hard part is writing it all down. It’s a lonely job, often
without reward, but it’s one I love with all my heart! Thank you, Tom, for
giving me a chance to write about how I find my ideas – I hope this is helpful
to aspiring writers! Try the “What if?” game, and see what you can
come up with! But above all – have fun!
A Crown in Time
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group (paperback copy) ISBN: 9781786157768
Jennifer is an American living in Paris. She likes to read, eat
chocolate, and plays a mean game of golf. She grew up in upstate New York,
Samoa, and the Virgin Islands. She graduated from St Peter and Paul High School
in St Thomas and moved to NYC where she modelled for five years for Elite. She
went to France and met her husband at the polo club. All that is true. But she
mostly likes to make up stories.