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.
So today is publication day for Monsters in the Mist.
I’m excited. I hope you are too, but I can understand that you’re probably a lot less excited than me.
Why am I excited about Monsters in the Mist?
Galbraith and Pole are leaving London to solve a murder in mid-Wales. The story is set in a beautiful part of the world where, until a couple of years ago, I used to spend several weeks every year. I miss it horribly and in the story I was able to set off walking across hills I know well.
The Galbraith & Pole books are what they call Urban Fantasy, a genre I hadn’t even heard of when I started writing them. A key point about Urban Fantasy is that the fantastical elements are set in a very real world. Many of the places in Monsters in the Mist are easily identified on the map, but some details are wrong, mainly because I don’t want the places where the villains live to be identifiable locations. There aren’t a lot of people living in mid-Wales and it would be embarrassing to suggest that some of my former neighbours have been out on a killing spree on the hillsides. I hope, though, that I catch some of the things that make mid-Wales special and that you might decide to make a visit.
Not all of the story is set in Wales. Pole spends a day in Porton Down, the all-too-real secret government research establishment in Wiltshire and the story climaxes in an RAF base which is not nearly as fictional as most readers will think it is. Look out for the ‘Works Unit’ sign on the M4 and ask yourself if you think it is really a Works Unit.
If you’ve liked the previous Galbraith & Pole stories, you’ll enjoy learning more about the mysterious Section S and meeting more of the people who work in it. If you haven’t already read Something Wicked and Eat the Poor, you’re missing out, but you should still be able to enjoy this one. It’s got mad scientists and agents of the Deep State, special forces soldiers and helicopters, and, of course, tango.
It’s just a week until the publication of the latest Galbraith & Pole adventure, Monsters in the Mist, with my Undead hero, so please forgive me for another post about vampires.
What do vampires mean to you?
The ultimate vampire, of course, is Dracula and the classic book about him is Bram Stoker’s novel. But if you want to write about vampires nowadays, you need to take a long, hard look at the myth. Can vampires really turn themselves into wolves or bats? Do the laws of physics not apply, so they throw no reflections and cannot be photographed? The vampires of the 19th century were truly supernatural beings, but nowadays there is so much that is almost magical about science that it seems better to make our vampires something that can at least partly be explained rationally.
My vampires like to fit in unnoticed around humans. They do, it’s true, avoid daylight – but many people nowadays live much of their lives in the dark With the aid of sunglasses and high factor sunscreen, vampires can get by. Many of them don’t like garlic, but who can blame them? Garlic certainly won’t kill them. Neither will most things, though a stake through the heart really is fatal – but so is a bullet.
My vampires like to hang out round Brompton Cemetery with its baroque sepulchres. Some even live there, but most prefer the comfort of regular houses. With money carefully invested over centuries, many can afford apartments in the nicer parts of Chelsea.
The whole ‘drinking blood’ thing can be problematic, but as illegal highs go, blood is quite easy to get hold of and it isn’t as if they don’t enjoy a good meal or a fine Scotch. They enjoy a lot of the finer things in life: if you have hundreds of years to develop your taste, you can become quite a connoisseur.
There are murderous vampires, of course, just as there are murderous humans. Given that the first Galbraith & Pole story, Something Wicked, is a twist on the police procedural genre, there has to be a murderous vampire or there wouldn’t be a story. But there are vampire policemen too, tidying up after the renegades like my vampire hero, Chief Inspector Pole.
If vampires were living among us, you’d think that somebody would have noticed something odd. And people do. But the government colludes with the vampires to cover things up. It’s convenient for governments to be owed favours by immortal beings who have been forced to learn how to move silently and undetected through the night and who can, when necessary, kill before vanishing away without trace.
What would happen if one of these vampires met a down-to-earth human policeman who was less than happy to keep their secret? How does a policeman solve a case when the chief suspect is a creature that no-one can know exists?
Meet Chief Inspector Galbraith and join him on a journey through a London nobody knew existed.
Something Wicked did not set the bestseller lists ablaze, but enough people liked it for me to produce a sequel, Eat the Poor, which has a definite satirical edge as Galbraith and Pole hunt down a werewolf with links to the world of Westminster.
With Monsters in the Mist, Galbraith and Pole have been taken out of their comfort zone as they investigate a killing on the mountains of mid-Wales. Could this be another werewolf or are there even darker forces afoot? It’s story that takes us from an isolated farm to the government research centre at Porton Down and an explosive climax at a secret military base just off the M4. Some of the locations are entirely fictitious, but they’re not the ones you’re thinking of.
Galbraith and Pole explore the world outside the M25 and you may never look at it quite the same way again.
Monsters in the Mist is on pre-order for Kindle (£3.99) at mybook.to/MonstersInTheMist. It’s also available in paperback from Thursday at £6.99.
I imagine that everybody who reads this blog has realised by now that I write historical fiction. What I think some people still don’t know is that I have a sideline in Urban Fantasy.
I enjoy writing Urban Fantasy. It takes more research than I had expected. Sometimes I need to consult 16th century French volumes about werewolves. Other times I’m checking maps of the Palace of Westminster or the type of weaponry favoured by Special Forces. It’s still massively easier than all the historical research that underlies the Burke series. The field trips, too, are much simpler. A visit to Brompton cemetery is much less demanding than a trip to Portugal, although Portugal was a more romantic place to have a holiday.
What exactly is Urban Fantasy? Basically, it’s fantasy stories, featuring such old-time favourites as vampires and werewolves, but set in realistic contemporary settings.
A vampire hero
I’m just finishing the third of my Galbraith & Pole books. These all feature a Metropolitan Police detective, Chief Inspector Galbraith, who has ended up partnering Chief Inspector Pole from the mysterious Section S. While Galbraith is very human, Pole is a vampire. To start with, Galbraith is uncomfortable working with the Undead, but gradually they become good friends. I like to think of the books as police procedurals with added bite.
Why a vampire? The idea came to me on a visit to Buenos Aires, a city distinguished by amazing cemeteries in which the dead rest in little houses that form busy streets. Buenos Aires is, of course, also famous for tango. Tango in South America is mainly a nocturnal activity and I found it easy to imagine the dead leaving their mausolea to dance. Tango songs often feature death and lost love, so I thought they would appeal to vampires.
My beloved explained gently to me that English readers might struggle with a story set in a country and culture they didn’t know. Could I move my vampires to London, for example? So I came up with a vampire sub-culture based around Brompton Cemetery.
The idea of Urban Fantasy is to have your fantastical creatures firmly based in the real world. Could I make a credible 21st century vampire?
Creating vampires that could live among us involved I certain amount of tweaking of the vampire legend. Obviously my vampires can’t go out in daylight, although high factor sunscreen can extend their operating hours a little. They wouldn’t be vampires if they didn’t drink blood, but they really don’t need that much blood and the vampire subculture does have humans who get a kick out of making donations – or, at a pinch, there is animal blood. Like traditional vampire, it takes piercing the heart to kill them, although a stake is not necessary: a bullet will do the job just as well.
Chief Inspector Pole explains that many of the other attributes people ascribe to vampires are just myths. He enjoys garlic and it’s perfectly possible to take his photo.
Pole dislikes the term ‘vampire’, which he thinks has negative connotations. Instead, he prefers to speak of ‘the Others’, as opposed to the Mortals they live amongst. They are able to hide in plain sight because of a long-standing arrangement whereby they make their services available to the Crown in exchange for a blind eye being turned to their existence.
Pole used to be called Paole. Perhaps he is related to the historical vampire Arnold Paole, who lived in Serbia in the early 18th century and whose vampiric activities were the subject of an official report by the Austrian authorities. Who knows?
Do I believe in vampires? Let’s put it this way: in the tango clubs of London I meet people who seem to have been dancing for decades but who never show signs of aging. And I’ve never seen them out by daylight.
Monsters in the Mist
I’m just finishing the third Galbraith & Pole story, which finds them out of London, hunting a mysterious killer in rural mid-Wales. Both Galbraith and Pole are creatures of the city and entirely out of their comfort zone on open moorland with nothing to disturb the silence but sheep. There is something out on the hills, though: something that has killed once and may well kill again.
Our heroes’ search for the secret behind the monsters takes them to Porton Down, where scientists are pushing genetic research into dangerous areas. It ends in a bloody climax at a secret military base hidden at the end of a service road on the M4.
Porton Down is a real place as is the secret military base. In this crazy 21st century world, is it really the vampires that are the hardest thing to believe?
The Galbraith & Pole series
The first Galbraith & Pole book, Something Wicked, sees Pole working with Galbraith to track down rogue vampires who have killed a member of the House of Lords. There’s a lot of tango. (I told you that vampires like tango.)
The second book, Eat the Poor, asks, if your MP was a werewolf, would anybody notice.
Both books are available on Amazon as paperbacks or on Kindle.
Monsters in the Mist will be looking for beta readers in the next week or two. I’m hoping it will be ready in time for Halloween. That seems appropriate.