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.

More about ‘The White Rajah’ and a free offer.

More about ‘The White Rajah’ and a free offer.

I hope you all saw last Friday’s blog post with my news of the republication of The White Rajah and the lovely new cover. Now it’s time to tell you more about what you get when you buy the book.

The White Rajah is based around the life of James Brooke of Sarawak. An English adventurer, he arrived in Borneo in 1839 and became embroiled in a civil war that was going on there. Although he had only 28 men and six small cannon on his ship, his intervention in the war proved crucial. After it was over, he was rewarded with the rule of one of the provinces there and he became the Rajah of Sarawak, starting a dynasty that lasted three generations and which was known as ‘The White Rajahs’.

James Brooke was almost the ideal Victorian hero and his exploits inspired Conrad’s Lord Jim. It’s not surprising that his adventures, with headhunters and pirates, battles in the jungle, and intrigue with Sarawak’s Malay nobility, have long been considered as the basis for a film. Errol Flynn tried to get such a movie made back in the 1930s (with him as the star, of course). Since then there have been several more attempts, but now one is finally to see the light of day. Sadly, covid means that End of the World will go straight to DVD, but it does look like a spectacular film, even though it may not be that careful of historical fact. (The posters say it is “The true story that inspired The Man Who Would Be King,” which is rather stretching a point to start off with.)

I’m hoping that interest in the film will generate more interest in my book, which sticks reasonably closely to the facts (and reasonable conjecture) about James Brooke’s life. The book may also interest readers who think that there must be more to the arguments about the British Empire than ‘The British Empire was an unmitigated Good’ vs ‘The British Empire was an unmitigated Evil’. Brooke’s rule (and especially the main incidents in my book) captures the ambiguity of British rule. As the epigram in my book (written at the time of his death) says:

‘When his Biography comes to be written, there must be in it, dark chapters as well as bright ones, but while those who loved him the best, could fondly and sadly wish it had been otherwise, they will ever be able to think of their leader, as the Father and Founder of a nation and as one of England’s greatest sons.’

The Monthly Packet, 14 September 1874

The White Rajah was the first book I ever wrote and, unlike the others, it has undergone significant revisions between editions. This edition, though, is identical to the one published by Endeavour/Lume Books, because I think I have finally got the book I meant to write. It will be published on 21 May, but it is already available for pre-order at https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B092XZCZDC

Last year I was asked to write a short story for a collection of stories set in Victoria’s reign. I always wanted to write some short stories of Brooke rule in Sarawak, so I produced a tale about a tiger hunt. Like The White Rajah, it is told by Brooke’s (fictional) companion, John Williamson. If you want a feel for the sort of book The White Rajah is, you might like to read it. It’s just 4,200 words and it’s available on Smashwords at 99p but you can get a free copy (via a Smashwords voucher) if you sign up to my newsletter.

Victoriana

Victoriana

My choice for a book to review this week is a little strange because it’s a book I wrote. Well, not exactly – but I did write 10% of it.

Yes, it’s a book of short stories: Victoriana, produced by the Historical Writers’ Association together with Sharpe books. There are ten stories with the only common theme being that they are all set in the Victorian period. It was not only an honour to be asked to contribute alongside some rather better-known names – like Elisabeth Gifford and Hilary Green – but it gave me an opportunity to revisit James Brooke. When I finished The White Rajah, I knew there were so many more tales I could have told about James Brooke’s life in Borneo, but the sequel saw my narrator moving on to the Indian Mutiny (in Cawnpore) and there was no real chance to revisit Brooke. I’d always thought it would be fun to write some short stories about life in Borneo under Brooke rule and now I had the chance. I’m really happy with it, but I’m not going to review it here because That Would Be Wrong. You’ll have to read that one for yourself and make up your own mind.

As with every book of short stories there will be something that appeals to everybody and not everybody will like all of them. There were a couple that were definitely not my cup of tea, but I’m not going to single them out because I’m sure there will be somebody who will love them. Instead I’d just like to highlight some of my favourites.

Carolyn Kirby’s Ladies and Gentlemen is the best kind of historical fiction. It takes an actual event and the author uses her imagination to paint a picture that lets us understand the reality of a situation that, thank goodness, nobody in this country has to face nowadays. I’m being deliberately vague, because I don’t want to spoil the story. It’s not exactly a twist in the tail, but you will enjoy it more for not knowing what is coming next. It’s a stunning story and, given that Victoriana costs only £2.99 on Kindle, it justifies buying it all by itself.

Sophia Tobin’s The Unwanted Suitor is a disturbing tale with fantastical elements that leave you uncertain exactly what has happened but, despite this, it gives a wonderful insight into the way that marriage probably worked (or didn’t) for many “respectable” couples in the Victorian age.

Inevitably there are stories of Empire, reflecting not only how the British viewed the nations that they conquered but also something of how the colonial natives viewed the British. Elisabeth Gifford’s The Last Resort has an unusual take on the way that the British saw some of their colonial endeavours contrasted with how they looked to the natives. It takes a step away from the nowadays somewhat conventional view of exploiters and exploited and provides an interesting insight into the stories the British told themselves about the project of Empire.

A couple of the contributors, like me, have chosen to tell stories about characters who have previously appeared in books of theirs, but all the stories stand up well even if you have read nothing previously by the writers.

There are detective stories and romances. We visit Russia, Greenland, India, South Africa, and, of course, Borneo. It’s a lovely cross section of writers and writing about the Victorian era. Each story is accompanied with a brief interview where the writers talk about their background and inspiration. Some of them might well encourage you to look for more of their work.

Even without my 10% interest, I would be happy to recommend this book of short stories. At £2.99, really what have you got to lose?

How to get your own kingdom: a guide for Victorian gentlemen.

People still seem to be enjoying reading my account of the life of James Brooke, who is the subject of my novel The White Rajah. So here’s a bit more.

Last week we left Brooke about to sail to Borneo for the first time.

It’s important at this point to get some idea of the geography of Borneo. Here’s a map from the period.

The important thing isn’t the detail of where the towns are – there are very few of them in any case. The important bit is the scale up in the top left-hand corner. From one end of that line to the other is 200 miles. So the takeaway from this map is that Borneo is big. In fact, Borneo is the fourth biggest island on the planet (after Australia, Greenland and – just – New Guinea).

Brooke’s initial plan had been to sail to Maruda Bay, not that far from the capital of the island at Brunei. However, when he learned that Hassim seemed favourably inclined toward the British (see last week’s blog post) he decided to sail to where he was currently based at Kuching in Sarawak.

Hassim was in Sarawak, rather than his capital, because of a long-running uprising there.

The politics of Borneo in the mid-19th century were Byzantine. Power was held by Malays. The indigenous people – the Dyaks – were relatively powerless. When Brooke arrived in Sarawak, Hassim was occupied in putting down a rising, of Dyaks, who were supported by a faction within the Malay community – the Siniawan Malays. In fact, they were almost certainly supported by elements within the Malay court who were trying to reduce Hassim’s power. By now the uprising had been going on for four years. Hassim had been in Sarawak for months and nothing seemed to have changed since he moved his court there. Hassim saw Brooke’s arrival as providential.

Hassim’s audience hall in Sarawak

Brooke had taken on additional crew in Singapore (including an interpreter called John Williamson, whose name I stole for the narrator in The White Rajah). Brooke now had a crew of 28 men on board the Royalist. Hassim looked at her six cannon and the White Ensign hanging at her mast and saw her as a symbol of British power. If he could get Brooke involved in the war, he thought he could finally bring things to a conclusion and return to the seat of power in Brunei.

At first, Brooke refused to get drawn in. In the end, though, the temptation was irresistible. Here was a chance for excitement and adventure which could be economically justified as improving his trade prospects and which also appealed to his patriotism as it would strengthen the British presence in the region and put one in the eye to the Dutch. Here is Brooke’s own account of his attitude to intervening in what was, effectively, a civil war in Borneo.

I may here state my motives for being a spectator at all, or participator (as may turn out), in this scene. In the first place, I must confess that curiosity strongly prompted me; since to witness the Malays, Chinese [yes, there were Chinese too, immigrants who essentially monopolised trade], and Dayaks in warfare was so new, that the novelty alone might plead an excuse for this desire. But it was not the only motive; for my presence is a stimulus to our own party, and will probably depress the other in proportion. I look upon the cause of the Raja [Hassim] as most just and righteous; and the speedy close of the war will be rendering a service to humanity, especially if brought about by treaty.

Brooke provided advice and encouragement to Hassim and finally, when things seemed likely to drag on even with his urging Hassim to attack more vigorously, he sent for two of his six-pounder guns and some of his men to be despatched from the Royalist to the front-line (for want of a better word) at a place called Balidah, just upriver from Kuching. Within days of their arrival, the rebel defences were breached, but Hassim’s army refused to storm the breach. Brooke, despairing of any end to the fighting, made plans to return to Singapore.

His diary tells what happened next:

I explained to [Hassim] how useless it was my remaining and intimated to him my intention of departing; but his deep regret was so visible, that even all the self-command of the native could not disguise it. He begged, he entreated me to stay, and offered me the country of Siniawan and Sarawak, and its government and trade, if I would only stop, and not desert him.

Brooke did not immediately accept this offer but he did decide to stay and support Hassim’s efforts in the war, where the man of the Royalist soon proved decisive.

With the war over, Hassim vacillated on his promise to make Brooke ruler, but ultimately he seems to have felt that the benefits of retaining Brooke’s support were worth the cost of allowing him to govern a province which Hassim regarded as not that important and which probably, because of the insurrection, seemed more trouble than it was worth. He may also have considered that having the province under the control of an Englishman would offer some sort of protection against Dutch expansionism. He will certainly have considered that it might bolster his own position in the intrigues between himself and other powerful Malay factions.

Kuching

Negotiations dragged on for almost a year with Brooke often threatening to sail away and leave Hassim to his own devices. Eventually, though,Hassim drew up and signed a document giving Brooke the government of Sarawak and on 24 November 1841 he was ceremoniously declared Rajah.

The White Rajah

The White Rajah is a fictionalised account of the true story I’ve outlined above. It tells how Brooke came to rule Sarawak and something of what happened afterwards.

British colonialism (though Brooke’s personal kingdom was never technically a colony) was neither the unmitigated good that it was presented as up until the late 20th century, nor the straightforwardly exploitationist affair that we are often told it was nowadays. The White Rajah tries to tell a good tale while exploring some of the moral nuances of the Age of Empire.

The White Rajah is available in paperback or, in this age of lockdown, is rather more easily obtained on Kindle where it is ludicrously cheap at 99p. Click on mybook.to/TheWhite Rajah.

You may have difficulties buying The White Rajah in the USA while some international rights issues are being resolved. It will be available again shortly (if it isn’t already).

James Brooke’s adventures in sea trade

James Brooke’s adventures in sea trade

Last week’s blog post ended with James Brooke, Victorian merchant-adventurer, setting off to the Far East on his ship, the Findlay. It was to be, he hoped, an expedition to bring both pleasure and profit. In fact, it was a disaster. The whole enterprise was ill-conceived.

The Findlay expedition is the starting point for my book, The White Rajah. My narrator is a seaman, hired for the voyage. As an experienced sailor (which Brooke was not) he could see immediately what the first of the mistakes is.

The Findlay was to be no gentleman’s pleasure yacht but a working ship, paying her way on the short but busy passages between the islands of the Indies. With all her pretty paint, her toil would be much the same as that of the colliers I had sailed for ever to and fro between Newcastle and London. Such work could well be handled by a schooner, but the Findlay was a brig. The square rigging took a full crew to handle. There were 32 seamen and a full complement of officers and officers’ servants, making the Findlay an expensive ship to run.

This gives an idea of how much rigging there is on a brig

As it became increasingly obvious that the Findlay expedition was never going to be profitable, rows between him and the Master – a professional seaman – became more and more vicious, until eventually Brooke decided to give up the enterprise and return to England, leaving the Findlay in the East.

That should have been that. Brooke should have learned the lesson of his youthful escapades and settled down to responsible employment. But Brooke seemed incapable of settling down to anything. His father’s pension meant that there was no urgency in finding alternative employment and he remained in England doing nothing in particular. Not that long after his return, though, his father died, leaving him with enough money to relaunch his idea of voyaging in the Far East.

He had originally intended to buy a schooner and he was now in a position to do so. In March 1836 he offered £2500 for a 142 ton ship, the Royalist. The illustration below is not the Royalist, but a schooner rigged vessel very like her. You can see how much less rigging there is.

It was, Brooke wrote:

… as trim a craft as you could wish, ideally suited to trading in these waters. As if to demonstrate she was no mere merchant, though, she mounted six six-pounders and a number of swivel guns. Most important, her mainmast carried the White Ensign, for though she was a private vessel, the Royalist belonged to the Royal Yacht Squadron and, in foreign ports, she had all the privileges of a man-of-war.

Because a schooner has so much less rigging, it is much easier to handle and Brooke needed a crew of just 19.

After a proving trip in the Mediterranean he set off again in December 1838. He had announced that he was to sail to the South China Seas where the Royalist would ostensibly work as a trading vessel. Trade, though, was never his primary goal. For him the emphasis was on adventure. At the time Britain and the Netherlands were disputing for advantage in what was then called – tellingly – the Dutch East Indies. Brooke had decided that the power of the Dutch was in decline and that now was the time to expand British influence in the area and that he was the man for the job. He would sail to Singapore, which Raffles had recently developed as the centre of British influence in the region, and using that as his base, he would explore into Borneo.

Luckily for him, he arrived in Singapore at the ideal time to build links with Borneo The political buzz there was all about Muda Hassim. Raja Muda Hassim was the Bendahara of Brunei. The Bendahara is an administrative position within classical Malay kingdoms comparable to a vizier. Essentially he runs the place, though he is nominally responsible to the Sultan. However, the legitimacy of the Sultan lies with the bendahara. If you think of Muda Hassim as the Sultan of Brunei, you will be hopelessly wrong in terms of the formalities of the Brunei court, but you’ll have a fair handle on the realities of the situation.

Muda Hassim

Anyway, a few months before Brooke’s arrival in Singapore a British brig called the Napoleon had been wrecked in Borneo. Muda Hassim had treated the crew with every courtesy, fed and clothed them at his own expense, and arranged for their safe return to Singapore.

This is how my narrator viewed the situation in The White Rajah:

In part of the world where piracy was still widespread and where a lost sailor was an easy victim for all manner of thieves and rascals, this was more than a common politeness. It reinforced suggestions that the Sultan was tired of the way the Dutch were lording it over the China Seas as if they had a divine right to colonise the place. If he were cooling toward the Hollanders and turning toward Britain as the rumour said, then Borneo offered wonderful opportunities for trade … opportunities the merchants of Singapore would be anxious to exploit.

As you have probably already realised, Brooke was not a man to set out a plan and stick carefully to it, but rather somebody always more than willing to take advantage of any change in his circumstances to strike out in a new direction. He decided to seize this opportunity to develop a relationship with Hassim.

Back to The White Rajah.

[Brooke] came up with the idea that [Hassim] should be thanked in a formal letter, beautifully penned by one of the Governor’s clerks on the finest parchment available – which in Singapore, in those days, was probably not saying much.

The letter was produced and ceremonially signed by the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and half the nabobs of the European community. Mr Brooke undertook to deliver it personally and, on the strength of the goodwill generated, persuaded the Governor to produce an official introduction for him which, taken together with the White Ensign fluttering proudly from the Royalist’s mast, was likely to suggest his expedition had more authority than an impartial judge might understand to be the case.

On Saturday, 27th July 1839, the Royalist slipped quietly away from Singapore and headed East to Borneo.

Brooke had taken the first step on the road to running his own country.

The White Rajah

As you will have gathered from the passages quoted above, my novel The White Rajah is based quite closely on the adventures of James Brooke in Borneo. It is an exciting story but it also tells you a lot about the history of British influence in the South China Seas in the mid-19th century.

British colonialism (though Brooke’s personal kingdom was never technically a colony) was neither the unmitigated good that it was presented as up until the late 20th century, nor the straightforwardly exploitationist affair that we are often told it was nowadays. The White Rajah tries to tell a good tale while exploring some of the moral nuances of the Age of Empire.

The White Rajah is available in paperback or, in this age of lockdown, is rather more easily obtained on Kindle where it is ludicrously cheap at 99p. Click on mybook.to/TheWhite Rajah.