A taste of India

A taste of India

I’m back from three weeks in India. We went out with an Indian friend who has been talking about us visiting the country together for around 20 years. Finally we all decided that we’re not getting any younger and if we were going to do it, we should do it now.

It was a fantastic experience, visiting her family in Bombay (Mumbai) and then doing the tourist bit: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Jodhpur. If you’re not good, I’ll make you look at all of my 500+ photographs.

It was lovely to finally see the country that I’d written about back in 2011 with my book, Cawnpore, set during the war of 1857. It was strange writing a book set in a country I had never seen but, of course, the India of 1857 was very different from the India of today. I relied on accounts of the country by Victorian visitors. (I was writing from the viewpoint of a European living there, so the way that people like Fanny Parks saw the country was particularly useful.) We didn’t go to the city that the British knew at the time as Cawnpore. It’s called Kanpur now and almost all traces of the events of 1857 are gone. We did see some of the famous sites from back then: the Red Fort in Delhi and the fort at Agra (just along the river from the Taj Mahal).

In the Red Fort there are the barrack blocks built by the British on the ruins of some of the Moghul palace, which suffered very badly when Delhi was retaken. And in Agra there are the tiny airless rooms built into one of the corridors dating from when the British ran the province from there. There’s the grave of John Russell Colvin, the Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Province, who died in the fort (of cholera) in 1857 and whose dying wish was to be buried there.

1857 was a long time ago and, certainly for most Indians, hardly a burning source of resentment. If anyone wants to badmouth the British, they are most likely to complain about Partition and the damage that did to their country.

In fact, the way that Indians feel about the British seems conflicted. Staying at the Cricket Club of India in Bombay, or visiting the Yacht Club there, I felt closer to the England of the 1950s than I ever do in London.

Cricket Club of India

Yacht Club

For many Indians, speaking English seems a crucial part of middle-class identity. There are adverts for private schools everywhere and most of these stress that education will be provided in English.

You can see why Prime Minister Modi sees de-colonialisation as unfinished business. Seventy-five years after India achieved independence, he is anxious to see the relationship with Britain defined in a more 21st century context.

Modi (with a white beard) presenting modern India

1857 is now celebrated as India’s First War of Independence, with characters like Nana Sahib (who led the Indian forces in Cawnpore) given the sort of uncritical acclaim that the British used to give their military leaders who might, with the wisdom of hindsight, be seen as having had a problematic approach to the way they treated their enemies.

Nana Sahib’s sword on display in the Red Fort

In reality, the events of 1857 were complex. Decades of mismanagement by the British had led to a burning resentment of their rule from many elements in Indian society and, once revolt had broken out amongst soldiers serving the British, it spread to encompass the old rulers of India and ordinary Moslems and Hindus who saw their religion under threat They were joined by people with grudges to settle and many prisoners, released by the mob in the early days of the revolt, who simply saw the chance to profit from the unrest. Violence and massacres by the rebels led to retaliation on an almost unimaginable scale from the British. It is a story from which nobody comes out well, although there was extraordinary courage and heroism demonstrated on both side.

The amazing thing is that after 1857 the British continued to rule in India for almost 100 years. Indians even volunteered in large numbers to defend Britain during the First World War.

Memorial tablet to men from Jodhpur who died in WW1

Indians believed that the British had promised independence if Indians went to fight in France. After the war, with no prospect of independence, Indian attitudes hardened. In response, the British introduced repressive legislation allowing them to imprison independence activists with no proper judicial process. Inevitably the Black Bills (as the legislation came to be known) led to protests and one such peaceful protest resulted in troops firing on an unarmed crowd with hundreds of casualties. (The precise number of dead is unknown.) This event, which came to be known as the Amritsar Massacre, is thought by many to have marked a turning point in the fight for independence.

India finally achieved independence on 15 August 1947.

Cawnpore

Although it has a fraction of the readership of my James Burke series, Cawnpore is the book I am most proud of. It’s told from the point of view of John Williamson, a British official in the East India Company’s administration, running India on behalf of the Crown. Williamson is from a working class background and does not fit in well with the men he works alongside. He is happier making friends in the court of the local Indian ruler and immerses himself in the culture and the language. When war breaks out in 1857, he finds himself caught between two camps. As he tries to find a way out of his dilemma, the war becomes more vicious and the bodies begin to pile up.

It’s a story with no heroes and I can see why it will never be as popular as the straightforwardly swashbuckling adventures of Burke, my Napoleonic Wars hero. Even so, I stand by it as the best thing I’ve written. It’s an absurdly cheap £3.99 on Kindle. I’d be very grateful if you could read it.

Precious Words

Years ago I started blogging (originally on Blogger at https://thewhiterajah.blogspot.com/) and I wanted to prove that I could produce something every week. I think I sort of hoped someone would notice that I can turn out a regular column and that I might get some sort of writing gig out of it. Sadly, it turns out that the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Rod Liddle have cornered the market in those jobs and I am carrying on with the self-inflicted chore of producing my pearls of wisdom every week just from force of habit.

I regularly say I’m going to take a break and, for the next few weeks, I’m going to be away. For this week, though, I’m reposting something that first appeared on Blogger back in 2013. Some of the details have dated (I think the average published writer might clear over £11,000 a year these days) but I stand by the general idea.

I hope you enjoy it anyway.

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A recent post about word count seems to have attracted more interest than most. This set me to wondering why so many writers are quite so obsessive about word count.

I was listening to a programme on Radio Four last week (for US readers, Radio Four is the main UK talk radio channel) and it was discussing the difficulty of defining “work”. It turns out that most people like to be thought of as doing quite a lot of “work” but nobody is quite sure what to include in it. My personal bete noire is when businessmen say that they work 16 hour day in which they include lunch and dinner because they’re talking to colleagues, so this is obviously “work”, isn’t it? When I was working as a freelancer, there was always the question as to whether journey time counted as “work” or not. Given that I might be expected to travel from London to Manchester as part of the job, this was hardly a trivial issue. For writers, the whole question of what is “work” is even more difficult to pin down. Donna Tartt has apparently said in an interview that she “works” all the time, partly on the grounds that she carries a notebook with her and constantly jots down things that she might put into a novel. Given that she has written three novels in 21 years, her definition of “work” does, I think, stretch it about as far as you can. And in that last, ever so slightly bitchy, comment, we come to the nub of the concern about word count. For when I say that three books in 21 years hardly seems like full-time employment, what I am saying is, ultimately, that she doesn’t write a lot each day.

Now I spent my last post ridiculing the idea that your creative effort can be measured in words per day, but here I am, doing just that. Why? Because, like all writers I want to be taken seriously as a writer and, until I win the Booker, how do I define the “work” of writing?

I could, of course, just say that a writer is anybody who writes. But, every so often, someone comes up with the idea that almost literally everybody in the country has, at some stage, started to write a book. I can quite believe it. I have even seen computer programs being sold that claim to enable you to turn your brilliant idea into prose even if you do not really have a plot, any characters or the first clue of how to write. On this definition, we are all, it appears, writers now.

I have a friend with an English degree who decided that she would like to write. She joined a Writers Circle, because people in a Writers Circle will be writers, yes? After weeks of listening to a group of not noticeably talented people reading their Special Words to each other, she gave up. The worst thing, she suggested, was the unspoken social contract whereby you agreed that the other person’s Special Words were evidence of real talent in exchange for them doing the same for you. It’s quite possible that some of the people in the group had real potential, but in the atmosphere of mutual onanism, nobody was ever going to find out. It does seem fair to say, though, that membership of a Circle does not make you a writer.

Once upon a time, the test of whether or not you were a writer was whether or not you had a book published. But that’s hardly a test any more. Many really rather good writers are self-published or published by independent publishers that no one has ever heard of. Unfortunately, so are some people whose work, by any standard other than their own, would struggle to be judged as a “proper book”. Some people have tried to replace the test of “had a book published” with “had a book published by a mainstream publisher”. But, looking at the books published by mainstream publishers, I don’t see that as being any test of quality either. Even after you’ve taken out the celebrity books (often written by someone whose name is not on the cover) you are left with some works of dubious worth. I’ll name no names because it’s a grey area, but we can all think of some very doubtful stuff that is getting mainstream publication these days.

So if the test isn’t “I’ve had a book published”, what defines somebody as a “real” writer? It would be nice to suggest that it is whether or not you make a living out of writing. Unfortunately (he said with feeling), the last time I looked, which was, admittedly a few years ago, the average amount made by somebody who actually writes for money was £7000 a year. Obviously Dan Brown and JK Rowling manage rather more than that, but for most writers, the idea of it paying a living wage is just ridiculous. At one level, this is quite a good definition of a writer, but it suffers from the opposite problem of defining it as “somebody who writes”. While almost everybody is in the first category, practically nobody is in the latter.

I think it is the absence of any useful definition that makes us so obsessive about word counts. It’s almost as if, in the community of “serious writers who haven’t had a bestseller yet”, we define a writer as “somebody who writes down about 1000 words a day”. It’s a measure of our insecurity. And we are all so very insecure. It’s a lonely life and we look for all the validation we can get. And in the absence of Amazon reviews (hint, hint) and massive sales (even bigger hint), we look to our word count for the validation we aren’t getting anywhere else.

That’s a thousand words.

I’m a proper writer, I am.

Hello 2024!

Hello 2024!

Here we are, five days into the New Year. How’s it going for you?

We started the year’s tango early with an afternoon of dancing locally on New Year’s Day but I must admit that, with that on top of the excesses of New Year’s Eve, Tuesday was a bit of a blur. Despite this, it’s been a good New Year so far, with a lovely review of Eat the Poor turning up on amazon.com (“Two of the best written characters ever”) and one for Something Wicked from Rosie Amber’s Book Review Team (“Clever, with sharp edged humour that is sure to delight”). It’s fantastic to see my Galbraith & Pole Urban Fantasy books getting some love. Will 2024 be the year they take off?

Speaking of Urban Fantasy, my son gave me three short graphic novels spun off from Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series. I do love his books (there’s a review HERE), even if the plots are becoming insanely convoluted. I discovered them when a friend said that the Galbraith & Pole books reminded him of them. There’s a definite similarity, but I swear I wrote G&P before I read Aaronovitch.

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A more weighty Xmas gift was ‘A Mohawk Memoir from the War of 1812’. It’s hardly a fun read but I’m reading my way into that war because there is just a chance that James Burke might find himself in North America. It will be a while though. It’s going to take time before I know enough about the 1812 conflict for me to feel comfortable writing about it.

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That’s all for the future, anyway. For now I am quite enjoying not having to get up and pound at the word processor. It turns out that while I was writing two books last year there was a certain amount of domestic administration that wasn’t getting done, so 2024 is going to see quite a lot in the way of builders and decorators.

Like a lot of people (at least among my friends) I felt that 2023 didn’t fill me with enthusiasm. I had fun certainly. But life wasn’t notably better at the end of 2023 than at the beginning. I’m hoping that a certain amount of clearing away of dead wood and making some space in life could mean a much more exciting 2024. I live in hope, anyway.

Does anybody else have exciting plans for the year ahead?

Why I don’t say I’m a historian

Why I don’t say I’m a historian

Over on Twitter people are reviving the old Academic Historians vs Historical Novelists debate. I’d been vaguely thinking about writing something about this and had just decided not to when this discussion got me thinking about it again.

I’m not going to get into the whole argument about whether academic historians are stuffy or whether historical novelists dumb down their subject matter. There are obviously academic historians who can completely kill the subject and historical novelists who aren’t safe outside of the 21st century, but many academic historians write fascinating and lively accounts of their periods and many historical novelists are almost obsessive in their grasp of the detail of what they’re writing about. In the former category, I can give Jacqueline Reiter as an example. She’s engaging and her biography of Lord Chatham reads like a novel. I’m waiting desperately for her biography of Popham, which is bound to be a brilliant piece of historical research but which people who know her can reasonably expect will also be hilarious.

There are loads of historical novelists whose understanding of their periods is quite astonishing but the one I’ll pick out is Lynn Bryant. Her accounts of Napoleonic battles are spectacularly well researched and she can give many military historians a run for their money.

If many professional historians are great writers and many novelists really know their history, then what is it that distinguishes them?

I have I clear interest in this. Occasionally, it is suggested that I should set myself up as an “expert” in Napoleonic history – especially some specifics like the Battle of Waterloo. The Daily Mirror actually quoted me as a “historian” in a feature about James Brooke from my book, The White Rajah. (That’s me highlighted at the bottom right.)

I’m very reluctant to claim to be a historian, having no qualifications beyond O-level (yes, I pre-date GCSEs) and knowing a few ‘real’ historians who are far better informed about history than I am. My main reason for not wanting to be thought of as a historian, though, is that ‘real’ history is hard.

I do know quite a lot about Waterloo and the history of the period so I did wonder if I could publish some of my notes and blog posts as a simple historical introduction. The book I had in mind started with a quick portrait of the two main protagonists: Napoleon and Wellington. This being an introduction for the casual reader, I could hardly not mention the whole business of Napoleon’s height. (Spoiler alert: he wasn’t short.) I remembered reading that the Emperor of Austria used to ensure that when Napoleon visited he was always surrounded by the Emperor’s own guards – men selected as being particularly tall. It’s a nice story and a good example of the way in which Allied propaganda sought to literally diminish Napoleon.

Napoleon looks small compared with the soldiers in this Gillray cartoon. (NPG)

I remember reading it and I’m pretty sure it’s true. I’d certainly be confident in making a reference to it in a novel set in the period. But if I’m writing nonfiction, I need to put in references. And could I find any actual evidence to support my claim? No, I couldn’t. Even though I was pretty sure I could remember which book I’d read it in. Rather than let it go, I took to Twitter, where I know quite a few Napoleonic historians and several tried to help. They even asked their friends. It is, after all, a really good story and I’m probably not alone in wanting to pin it down. In the end, several historians turned their mind to this and the result was – absolutely nothing.

This was practically the first thing that I wanted to check in the whole book and it made me realise that it was going to be a major undertaking, even though I already knew, with 99% certainty, most of the things I was writing about. Like I say, real history is hard – far too hard for me. Real historians find it hard too. It’s just that they’re made of sterner stuff than me. Jacqueline Reiter, who I mentioned above, complains that she has just produced over 18 pages of bibliography for her next Popham book. That’s going to be a lot of references.

Sadly, it looks as if my nonfiction account of the Waterloo campaign will never see the light of day. I’m happy to give talks on it if anybody wants them. The picture at the top of the page shows me and Lynn Bryant (the Lynn Bryant who writes brilliant military history) talking about historical fiction in the pre-covid days when things like this happened. (If you want me to talk at one of your events, you can find out more about author talks HERE).

When it comes to writing history, though, I will spend the time and energy I save on proper note-keeping to write stories that are generally true to the historical facts but which lack references. But I’m very glad that there are professional historians around, so that I (and all the other historical novelists like me) can take their hard work and turn it into entertainment.

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.