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.
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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.