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.

Buenos Aires: 1806

Buenos Aires: 1806

The paperback edition of Burke in the Land of Silver officially goes on sale tomorrow (27 June) marking the anniversary of the surrender of Buenos Aires to the British in 1806.

Why did Argentina matter?

The British invasion of Buenos Aires is one of the less well-known incidents during the Napoleonic wars, possibly because it does not reflect particularly well on British military prowess. Spain’s South American possessions were important primarily because of the silver that they produced. Britain was anxious that, with Spain about to join the war on Napoleon’s side, the French should not get their hands on South American bullion. South America was also felt to be a relatively soft target, because of the unrest amongst the population there who were growing increasingly unhappy with Spanish rule.

Enter Sir Home Popham

Enter the extraordinary Commodore Home Popham. Almost forgotten until recently, Popham has suddenly become fashionable with both historians and novelists, and keeps on popping up all over the place. He deserves this newfound interest because Sir Home Riggs Popham was an extraordinary character, who will get a blog post of his own next week.

Sir Home Riggs Popham

Popham had been sent to the Cape of Good Hope carrying 6,000 men to capture the place, but the Cape fell unexpectedly easily, leaving him with a small army and no war to use it in. At this point, he decided that he’d head to Buenos Aires, taking 1,635 men with him (the rest being left to garrison the Cape). Deprived of a change for glory in South Africa, he would find it in South America. They sound pretty much the same, so why not?

Historians still argue about whether this decision was politically sanctioned or not. It was certainly never official, but there’s quite a lot of evidence that the government did encourage him to attack Buenos Aires.

Enter James Burke

Either way, Popham arrived in the River Plate in June 1806, where he sails into the story of Burke in the Land of Silver. The Plate is a difficult river to navigate and according to some accounts Popham was helped by a British agent. If so, it’s quite likely that the real James Burke was involved. Was he really? The joy of writing about a secret agent is that what exactly he did do is a secret. He may genuinely have been there, but we can’t know for sure.

A square rigged ship on the Rio Plate. (It’s a very big river.)

Popham was in charge of the force while it was on the water, but once it landed control was handed over to Colonel William Beresford. The illegitimate son of the 2nd Earl of Tyrone, Beresford had served under Wellington and was held by many (though not Wellington himself) to have a less than perfect grasp of military strategy. He landed his troops at Quilmes, fifteen miles from Buenos Aires. The Spanish did not have enough troops to mount an adequate defence and, as Popham had predicted, Beresford had an easy march, brushing aside the meagre forces sent to oppose him. On the 27 June 1806, Buenos Aires surrendered.

Things end badly

James Burke had arrived in Buenos Aires with instructions to prepare the way for a British invasion. He could congratulate himself on a job well done. But with the military victory easily achieved, Beresford had to move from winning the war to winning the peace. He told the locals he had come to liberate them from Spain, but he proved no better at handling the aftermath of war than some more modern occupying powers. A series of missteps turned the population against the British and the locals rose in revolt. The British were driven out of Buenos Aires, their tails between their legs.

Aftermath

With the Spanish rising against the French, Napoleon never did get his hands on that silver. The Spanish colonists became our allies again. James Burke did return to Argentina where I like to think he contributed to the struggle of the locals to free themselves from Spanish rule. Whether he did or not, the population did rise against Spain and the independence of Argentina was declared on July 9, 1816 by the Congress of Tucumán.

Nobody is quite sure what happened to James Burke after his ventures in South America, but evidence from the Army rolls suggests that he remained in the Army with a pattern of movement between regiments and ranks that suggested continued to work in intelligence until well after the war with France was over.

James Burke in my books

The next book after Burke in the Land of Silver is Burke and the Bedouin, which will be re-issued in July. It is set against the background of Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt. This will be followed by a revised edition of Burke at Waterloo.

There are two new books about James Burke planned for later in the year: Burke in the Peninsula tells the story of his involvement in the Peninsular War immediately after the events in Burke in the Land of Silver. Burke in Ireland is the story of his very first foray into intelligence, working in Dublin in the run-up to the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

Picture credit

‘The Glorious Conquest of Buenos Ayres by the British Forces, 27th June 1806’ Coloured woodcut, published by G Thompson, 1806. Copyright National Army Museum and reproduced with permission.