People often ask where writers get their ideas from. In my case, they can come from almost anywhere but, because I write historical novels, my starting point is often a person or an incident that catches my eye in a work of non-fiction. I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t had somebody sitting over me and demanding that I produce a book straightaway so I can usually be quite relaxed waiting for something to strike me.
The James Burke books, though, came from a straightforward search for a commercially viable historical character to write about. I mentioned to a friend that I was struggling and she said that I should look for inspiration in the lives of Europeans living in the area that is now Argentina during the period of Spanish rule and immediately afterwards. She had met me in Argentina and knew I was interested in the country and its history and she told me that there were fascinating lives amongst the early pioneers.
I started reading books about South America, looking for people who were doing exciting enough things to be worked up into a novel. I think my friend was hoping for a serious tale of exploration and triumph over hardship – something like Elizabeth Morgan’s Ticket to Paradise, a brilliant story about early Welsh settlers in Patagonia. What I found instead was the story of James Burke: soldier, womaniser, spy and a crucial figure in the little-known British invasion of Buenos Aires in 1806.
There is very little that is definitely known about James Burke, but the little that there is forms the basis for a wonderful story. Starting his military career fighting for the French, he changed sides and worked as a spy for the English. It seems likely that his lovers included a queen, a princess, and the mistress of a Spanish viceroy. He travelled extensively around South America, riding across the Andes in the snow and gathering vital military intelligence throughout the area. It’s likely that the information he obtained was crucial to the British invaders in 1806. (He can hardly be blamed if the occupation was so badly handled that they were soon driven out again.)
With such gripping raw material, the first book about James Burke, Burke in the Land of Silver, sticks pretty closely to the facts – at least as far as we know them. The story takes Burke from the West Indies to Argentina, Brazil, and Spain. There are devious plots, thrilling fights, wicked women and a villain all the more deliciously evil for being a real historical character. Buckles are swashed and bodices are ripped. I had huge fun writing it and I hope you’ll have fun reading it. And at the end, you will find you have painlessly acquired a basic understanding of Spain’s role in the Napoleonic Wars and some of the early history of Argentina.
Burke in the Land of Silver will be republished by Endeavour Press on 5 January, to be followed by the other two books I have written about James Burke. Two new James Burke books are all ready to follow if all you lovely people buy the first three.