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.

James Burke, His Majesty’s Confidential Agent

James Burke, His Majesty’s Confidential Agent

I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about today until I woke up to see a lovely review of Burke and the Bedouin by Berthold Gambrel. You can read it HERE.

The review contrasts it with the political intrigue of Burke in the Land of Silver and says Bedouin is “more like an old-fashioned desert adventure story” which, fortunately, is an approach he likes. He’s not the first person to say something like this about Burke and the Bedouin which delights me because ‘old fashioned adventure story’ is just what I was aiming for.

I’m just finishing the sixth of the James Burke books and it’s made me look back at the series and see how different they are. This may or may not be a good thing commercially, but I’ve deliberately tried to change the mood between books. After a lifetime of hack writing (non-fiction) I am writing now for my own pleasure and playing with different approaches is something I enjoy. I hope it also keeps the books fresh for readers.

So how has this worked out in practice?

Burke in the Land of Silver

The first book in the series is a straightforward historical novel which sticks quite closely to the facts of Burke’s involvement with British adventures in South America in the early 19th century. Even the implausible bits (like his brief affair with the Queen of Spain) are solidly historically based. It’s an amazing story and a lot of fun, although it does have something to say about how ‘wars of liberation’ can go quite badly wrong. (Britain was busy ‘liberating’ Iraq when I wrote it.)

Burke and the Bedouin

Burke was always intended to be the hero of a series of books and the second was always supposed to be an old fashioned bit of fun. It’s not something that garners reviews, but it does seem popular with readers.

Burke at Waterloo

Burke at Waterloo was first published in 2015 on the 200th anniversary of the battle (because that was practically a legal obligation if you wrote Napoleonic history stories). It offers, I like to think, quite a good account of Waterloo and of the very important, but often forgotten, battle at Quatre Bras that preceded it. Burke, though, isn’t Sharpe, so the battle is the climax of what is essentially a spy story based around an attempted assassination of the Duke of Wellington in Paris. There was such an attempt and I’m surprised that it seems to be overlooked by both historians and novelists. Burke is very much a Napoleonic James Bond and this story makes a definite nod in the direction of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Burke in the Peninsula

Having once moved into Sharpe territory, it was almost inevitable that Burke would end up in Spain. Burke in the Peninsula is the most straightforwardly military of the Burke series. He even gets to wear the uniform of a soldier of the Crown, which delights him because he spends the whole series trying to get away from spying so he can become what he thinks of as an honest soldier. The story features the battle of Talavera, which is officially a great British victory. In reality it was nothing of the sort and the story does show some of the reality of Napoleonic warfare. It also gave me the chance to revisit one of the people from an earlier book, who was one of my favourite characters and who I was excited to see again.

Burke in Ireland

Burke in Ireland marks another change of gear in the series as we return to Burke’s earliest experiences as a spy. He’s just one of an army of British agents propping up English rule in Ireland. A friend suggested the plot (based around a famous prison escape at the time) and I started out cheerfully enough, but the more research I did, the more shocked I was by the details of what was effectively the British occupation of Ireland. The result is a much darker book than the others and one which goes a long way to explain Burke’s cynicism in many of the other stories. It’s a more serious story, but it has its share of fights and thrills and, inevitably, Burke finds himself in love. (This being his earliest adventure, it’s his first serious love interest and he’s surprisingly sweet.)

And finally …

So to the latest: I’m almost finished the first draft, but I think there’s still a lot to do. Like Burke and the Bedouin, this is a very old-fashioned adventure story. It’s so old-fashioned I’m referencing Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel in the title: Burke and the Pimpernel Affair. It’s a full-on spy story and very light-hearted as Burke has to free prisoners from a Paris gaol and escape with them across France. Expect the usual murder and mayhem and a guest appearance from the Empress Josephine.

Despite the research (even for Pimpernel which turns out to involve an awful lot more real history than I had expected), I do enjoy writing the Burke books, from the light-heartedly silly to the actually quite serious. The only things you can really be sure of are that there will be daring deeds, there will be a woman and Burke will in the end, however reluctantly, Do the Right Thing.

I hope you enjoy reading them.

The joys of historical research (#125 in a continuing series)

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 V&A says buttons but it looks more like hook and eye to me

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.

Conciergerie today (edited from Google Street View)

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.)

Conciergerie in 1790

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

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.

My take on genre switching

I really enjoyed Karen King’s piece last week. She is a consummate professional writer and I wish I had half her energy to write across so many genres. That said, I am not entirely a stranger to writing in different styles myself. In a long career of writing and researching across a range of markets, I have had to learn to write everything from what was essentially boiler-plate text round hundreds of tables of (frankly boring) data to bold selling documents designed to convince advertisers that more pages of tables was the most exciting thing they’d seen in years. Some of them believed it and apparently efforts like my discussion of the readers of children’s comics (even probably including some of the ones Karen wrote for) encouraged a lot of advertisers to take more interest in kiddie print media. I even wrote a ‘proper book’ on complaint handling.

Eventually, though, I produced one too many analyses of the market for paper products in the UK (yes, really) and I gave it all up and started writing fiction.

I had dabbled in fiction before – writing some of those ‘choose your own adventure’ stories that were popular in the 1980s.

My first serious attempt at writing a novel was The White Rajah, first published in 2010. Like many first novels, it desperately wanted to be the Great British Novel and like most first novels it wasn’t. It’s been revised a couple of times since and, though it is still hardly the Great British Novel, I am finally happy with it. It has battles and pirates and lots of traditional adventure, but it is at heart an attempt to look at big moral issues. When James Brooke (a real person) died one commentator wrote:

When his Biography comes to be written, there must be in it, dark chapters as well as bright ones.

The Monthly Packet, 14 September 1874

The book looks at how somebody who wanted to do good (and often did) was responsible for some horrific acts. Brooke seems to me to symbolise much about the British Empire: it didn’t set out to be evil, but it did a lot of evil things.

The White Rajah was followed by Cawnpore which will be republished later this summer. Cawnpore is also full of moral complexity. On the one hand you have English colonialists: some trying to do their best for India, some who are deeply contemptuous of the native people. On the other hand you have Nana Sahib, hailed nowadays as a hero of the Indian independence movement, but a man who was responsible for a particularly outrageous massacre in 1857.

The John Williamson trilogy finishes with Back Home (also to be republished in 2021). One reviewer complained that John Williamson is revealed as morally weak. Well, of course he is! The whole series is about the moral choices people make and they sometimes get things right and sometimes not so much. Poor John Williamson tries so hard. He really deserves to find some sort of salvation, but you’ll have to read to the very end to discover if he does.

The White Rajah had an agent and was pitched to leading publishers who turned it down. “Too difficult from an unknown author” more or less summed up the feedback. Sales subsequently proved them right – hence the move to a much more traditional style of historical fiction with the Burke books. There are some moral issues there, but they are generally hidden away behind conventional tales of derring-do with a handsome hero, beautiful women and lots of Frenchmen to beat. (We’re in the Napoleonic Wars, so beating the French comes with the territory.)

Clicking on the covers will take you to Amazon. All my books are available in paperback or on Kindle.

Technically both the John Williamson stories and the James Burke adventures are ‘historical fiction’ but they are distinct sub-genres and are written in dramatically different styles.

Eventually the sheer quantity of research that historical fiction requires made me want to take a bit of a break. I had a couple of ideas for fantasy stories – one about black magic and the other featuring vampires. The result was Dark Magic and Something Wicked. Apparently the genre is called Urban Fantasy. (I had to look it up.) It’s not just a different subject matter, but a tighter writing style – and an opportunity to give my dark sense of humour full rein.

Every sort of writing brings different challenges and different rewards, but I’ve enjoyed them all. I can only agree with Karen that challenging yourself to write in unfamiliar genres is always worthwhile.

Burke in the Peninsula. Publication day!

Burke in the Peninsula. Publication day!

Today is finally the official publication day for Burke in the Peninsula’. It’s been a long time coming, and I hope you all enjoy it now it’s here.

It’s an inauspicious time to be launching a new novel. It’s not just difficult to whip up excitement while everybody is so worried and insecure. (You’d think people would be buying more books, but they seemed to be turning to Netflix rather than Kindle.) It’s also a strange feeling for an author. I’d normally do something to mark the arrival of a new book, if only a few friends round for drinks at home. That is obviously not going to happen.

The New Normal, though, should be somewhere where books – whether downloaded directly to a Kindle or, increasingly, ordered online – can continue to flourish, unlike theatres, coffee shops and railway companies. So I’m grateful for small mercies and keeping my fingers crossed that you will all be rushing to your computers to buy the latest James Burke adventure.

What will you be getting?

So far, I’ve avoided the Peninsular War, but this book 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 the bloody battle of Talavera.

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.

One of the reasons why you have had to wait so long for this book has been problems with the American rights. Now these are sorted out, you can buy through Amazon in America just as easily as in the UK. I hope some of the many people who read this blog from the USA will be supporting it by buying the book.

I had fun writing this. I hope you have fun reading it.