Sunday, 10 April 2016

The Third USS Enterprise

I'm well underway with the new book (w/t The Blackstrap Station), which takes up immediately after HMS Prometheus and completes many of the stories begun in The Scent of Corruption. It is Christmas 1803, and some of the crew of Prometheus find themselves in in a position that is hardly festive... The tale continues through the spring of 1804, and a good many well known characters are encountered, including Stephen Decatur, then the young commander of the USS Enterprise. I was busy learning more about Decatur and his command when a model of the ship came to my attention. It was being offered for sale “for collection only” and, as the seller lived only a few miles from my home, I could not resist.

She is built to 1.50th scale, making the total length less than 30 inches, including bowsprit and, with a height of 27 inches, the model is hardly large. The detail remains fine, however and, although covered in a generous layer of dust on purchase, I could tell it had been built by a master. Some weeks later I am still cleaning, but she is coming up well, as I hope the attached photographs will show.
The detail extends to the tophamper

And includes deck fittings

Note the foremast pinrail (pins are perhaps a little large!)

Enterprise was built in Baltimore at the well known Spencer yard, and launched in 1799. Her first commander was John Shaw (1773 - 1823), a native Irishman who sailed her to the Caribbean in the midst of the the Quasi-war with France. There he took eight French privateers as well as freeing eleven American traders. Command then passed to Andrew Sterett (1778-1807) who used her to capture the privateer Amour de la Patrie on Christmas Eve 1800. In June 1801 Shaw sailed her to the Barbary Coast where he took the 14 gun Tripoli, a Tripolitan corsair. After further victories, command passed to Decatur in 1803.
Quarterdeck with tiller helm

Looking forward

Further actions under different commanders saw Enterprise take a number of other prizes, including the British brig Boxer while her rig changed from that of a twelve gun schooner to a fourteen gun topsail schooner and, finally, a brig. She was eventually lost on 9th July 1823 when she stranded off Little Curacao in the West Indies; there was no loss of life.

Manning the capstan could not have been easy

In 1800 Enterprise's statistics were as follows: 165 tons with a length of 83.3 feet (keel 60'), and a 22' 6” beam. She carried a complement of 70 officers and men.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Scenes from The Guinea Boat (and a rather spooky connection...)

The Guinea Boat was launched at the end of January, and has been well received – something of a relief to me as I was aware its storyline differed from the usual cut and thrust of a Fighting Sail. Since then, work on the next FS – due in May –  and a close family loss meant I had not been back to the historic Rock-a-Nore area of Hastings. But yesterday the pull of excellent fish and chips became too much and we bundled back down to the narrow streets and quaint buildings of the fisherman's quarter that first inspired me. However it wasn't to be the simple walk in one of my favourite places I had anticipated; there was something strange waiting to surprise me...

ALL SAINTS STREET TODAY, in the Fishermen's quarter of Hastings Old Town
I've mentioned before that naming characters is an important part of the writing process. The title should reflect their persona in some way, enhancing it and allowing the reader to register them in their mind.  It should also be of the era; it's no good having a swashbuckling, alpha male called Barbie, unless it is intended ironically, of course. Tilly Medcalf is a prominent force in the Guinea Boat story. A lass, gullible in some ways, worldly in others – not quite the “I'm a good girl, I am,” type, but I think you get the picture. I knew her name must be right and, after much thought, finally took it from a landmark local to me. Tilly fitted perfectly – individual and slightly quirky, (I have only ever come across one other before, and she was totally different). My Tilly was born on the Rock-a-Nore where her parents kept a pot house, but later moved to All Saints Street, which is literally round the corner. She, and her presence in what was then commonly known as “Fish Street,” is integral to the book.

And so it was that I found myself breathing in the atmosphere, and boring my companions to death by endless references to the plot, that, half way along All Saints Street, I came across... Tilly's Cottage.
THE HOUSE IN QUESTION Did a real Tilly Medcalf live here?

I went slightly cold on seeing the name. Despite some time spent in the area, the house had not been noticed before, and I could not help but think someone was playing some sort of trick. Complaints from the others combined with an offer to alert the police finally persuaded me to move on but, even now, the coincidence seems extraordinary.

They say that truth can be stranger than fiction, and this mixture of both has set my mind racing.

Where Alex ran in with the Luck brothers
(The gentry worshiped at St Clements)

 frequently sliced in two.
But could still be used for other purposes.

MINE FOR A FIVER a period pewter tankard bought in the lanes nearby
ABOARD THE ENTERPRISE A later lugger that is preserved and on display at the Hastings Fisherman's Museum (once the fisherman's church) on the Rock-a-Nore

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Guinea Boat Cometh...

Hastings at the turn of the 19th century
Well, my next book, The Guinea Boat, is almost ready to launch. With luck and a following wind, she will set sail mid-January, and be available in all the usual formats. This is not another Fighting Sail story (although the next: working title, The Line of Battleship, should be ready by Easter). Instead expect something a little different, and far more reflective.

Set in Hastings, Sussex during the early part of 1803, Guinea Boat tells the story of two young lads, and the diverse paths they take to make a living on the water.  Britain is still at an uneasy peace with France, but there is action and intrigue a plenty along the south-east coast. Private fights and family feuds abound; a hot press threatens the livelihoods of many, while the newly re-formed Sea Fencibles begin a careful watch on Bonaparte's ever growing invasion fleet. And to top it all, free trading has increased to the extent that it is now a major industry, and one barely kept in check by the efforts of the preventive men.

A revenue cutter
Don't expect major battles – the largest cannon fired are twelve pounders, and fleet actions simply don't figure. But there should be something to satisfy any with a love of the sea, especially those who enjoy their history with the odd whiff of gunpowder.

This is my eighth book, and the third under the Old Salt Press banner. OSP is a relatively new publishing house that concentrates entirely on books connected with the sea. It has a small crew of experienced writers that was recently boosted by the addition of Antoine Vanner, known for his highly acclaimed late 19th century Dawlish Chronicles. Book three of the series Britannia's Shark has just been released, and new work is also expected shortly from OSP writers Rick Spilman, Joan Druett and V E Ullet.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Of books: past, present and future

 (but not necessarily in that order)

This is my first post for far too long, (and I feel suitably guilty). Things have been rather full on the writing front, however; in fact I don't think I can remember a busier time..

The Torrid Zone, the next instalment in my Fighting Sail series, was released at the end of May. The story continues the exploits of Banks, King, Caulfield, et al, this time taking them to the magical and mysterious island of St Helena, where they are to deliver the island's new governor. All the action takes place several years before the South Atlantic island was to receive her most famous visitor, but I trust there is still more than enough intrigue and history for most readers.

I'm hoping Torrid Zone will soon be joined by book seven in the Fighting Sail series. I have the synopsis drafted out, as well as the first 10k of text. More news to follow, but expect a new ship as well as a few changes in personal circumstance for my characters. The target date for publication is June 2015.

Before that, another book is closer to completion. This is on similar lines to my stand alone smuggling tale: Turn a Blind Eye, although taken from a very different perspective. Like Blind Eye, the story takes place about the South Coast of England. This has meant many research trips for my family, digging about in old museums and photographing the landscape.

Research at Hastings Fisherman's Museum

We usually end each day with fish and chips on the whatever beach we are near – there are worse ways of spending a summer. The publication date for what I jokingly refer to as Turn Another Blind Eye, is pencilled in for December 2014.

And finally, the past: there have been badgers...

This is nothing to do with ships, history, free trading or the French Wars; badgers have been an interest of mine for all my adult life. About thirty years ago I wrote a short children's story which had a faint allegorical theme. It was illustrated by Jill Chilton and first published in 2008 where it received some very favourable reviews and is now available as an as well as soft cover. (But there ain't no boats...)

Borrel (UK Amazon)  Borrel (US Amazon)

Monday, 17 March 2014

My Writing Process – Blog Tour

I'm delighted to be involved with this blog tour, and send my thanks to Margaret Skea for inviting me.

Okay the questions:

1) What am I working on?

Currently I'm putting the finishing touches to The Torrid Zone. This will be book six in my Fighting Sail series, which starts with His Majesty's Ship. Each of the Fighting Sail books can be read in isolation, although there is also a definite story arc. Torrid Zone is set just before the Peace of Amiens, HMS Scylla, my current central ship, is in sore need of a refit when she is despatched on one last journey. Her destination is the distant but strategically placed island of St Helena, and her mission: to deliver the island's new governor. But what should be a simple task proves otherwise when the British encounter a powerful French battle squadron, while the governor himself is anything but an easy passenger...

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The Fighting Sail series follows the fortunes of a diverse bunch of seamen, ranging from ordinary hands on the lower deck, through petty and junior officers, right up to lieutenants, captains and even those of flag rank. I find that using a group, rather than one central hero, enables me to avoid the “charmed life” that so many fictional heroes seem to enjoy, and gives a more authentic glimpse into the navy of that day.

3) Why do I write what I do?

Several reasons; first of all, the period fascinates me. In the last twenty years there have been many changes in our world: the adoption of personal computers and tablets, mobile phones; the internet, etc. However, I would maintain that anyone living throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars would have seen innovations that were almost as radical, and life changing. By then the Industrial Revolution was truly under way, with steam power and other mechanical marvels fast becoming common place. There were advances in nearly every other field as well, from medicine, science, and communications, through to logistics and transport; truly inspiring times.
And while we are making comparisons, people of the period were not so very distant from those of today. They might have different standards (certainly as far as hygiene is concerned), but a casual glance at the work of cartoonists and caricaturists of the period reveals many familiar faces staring back. 
Seamen at that time had something of the kudos of the modern day astronaut. Despite the draw of city life, most were only starting to become accustomed to travel, and many still lived and died in the same small village. But an ordinary hand could boast of seeing far off countries and cultures that those at home could only dream about. Fortunes were also within reach of the enterprising mariner: ignoring prize money (which was usually as elusive as it was unfairly distributed) the Far East, with all its mysteries and allure, was being made accessible by the East India Company, and a tidy pile might be accumulated through personal trade.
But, getting back to the question, probably the strongest attraction for me is the sea itself. Be it the mighty Atlantic as it is moved by the force of a gale, the absolute calm of the doldrums when a heavy sun loiters above the leaden ocean, or the crystal clear guardian of a coral reef: the sea can be both a magical backdrop or a captivating central character. But in any guise it remains as compelling as it is fascinating, and I can think of no greater accompaniment to telling a story. 

4) How does your writing process work?

I start each book by thoroughly researching the central subject. With those of the Fighting Sail series, this usually means the particular campaign or area where I will be sending my ships and men, as well as any political or social history that is especially relevant. True Colours entailed an in depth look at the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, as well as visiting Duncan's North Sea Fleet, and the Battle of Camberdown, while Jackass Frigate centred on both the Bantry Bay invasion and Jervis' victory at St Vincent. Patriot's Fate concentrated on the Irish rebellion of 1798, viewed, (rather predictably), from the naval angle, and for Torrid Zone I took an in depth look at St Helena, and explored the island's many mysteries.
Turn a Blind Eye was a little different; in fact the whole book was something of a diversion, being based about the smuggling activities that were rampant on England's south coast during the turn of the nineteenth century. Besides reading up on the Preventative Service and our revenue laws, there was a good deal of social and local history to investigate.  I also had to conjure up a whole new cast of characters, along with their own particular peculiarities and histories. It was a fun book to write, but I was quite relieved to go back to series fiction. 
Research, and the first draft, usually takes about six months; the second, and any subsequent re-writes, a further three. After that the beast goes out to a valued team of readers, and is finally delivered to my publisher. Torrid Zone will be handled by Old Salt Press, who cater exclusively for those who love books about ships and the sea. Their writers currently include Rick Spilman, Joan Druett, and V. E. Ulett.
The closing of a book is both a happy and a sad occasion; rather like leaving a much loved child on their first day of school, something that has been so close for so long is effectively abandoned. You can only sit back and wait to discover what the rest of the world makes of it and, when you can summon the energy, get on with the next one...

I'm happy to hand over this blog hop to two excellent writers; Matthew Willis and S.K. Keogh. (My third choice was to have been Linda Collison, but I note that she has already been featured.)

Although S. K. Keogh lives far from the ocean, she is surrounded by water in the Great Lakes state of Michigan, where she lives and crafts her nautical series following the adventures (and mis-adventures) of Jack Mallory. Her “real life” job is in the health care field. Her hobbies include “horsing around” as an equestrian in the hunter/jumper/dressage world and travel (preferably to warm places).
The Prodigal was published in 2012 by Fireship Press. Her follow-up novel, The Alliance, was released in late 2013. The third book in the Jack Mallory trilogy will be released later in 2014. You can find out more about S.K. Keogh and her books at her website:

Matthew Willis, 37, is a writer and journalist living in Southampton, England. He is the author of the nautical adventure Daedalus and the Deep, published in 2013, and a number of books and features on historic aviation. Prior to this he worked as a journalist for motorsport titles such as Autosport and F1 Racing after completing a Master's degree in history and cultural studies of science at the University of Kent. 

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Background to a Book

One of the draft covers for Torrid Zone
I've now finished the second draft of The Torrid Zone, the next instalment in my Fighting Sail series. There is still much to do, of course; the actual book is not due to appear until April or May but at least we have the roof on, as it were. This time I have strayed from home waters; HMS Scylla is heading for the South Atlantic, her destination: the small island of St Helena, and on board she has Sir Terrance Hatcher, the island's new governor.

The history has been augmented slightly (that's why they call it Historical Fiction), but like most such tales my story has a firm basis in fact. Torrid Zone is set during the interregnum between two actual governors of St Helena: Robert Brooke, (retired March 1800), and Robert Patton who arrived two years later. Between those times Francis Robson acted as governor and appears in the book, although Sir Terrance Hatcher and his charming wife – you may learn more than you wish of her later – are totally figments of my imagination.

Mixing reality with fiction is always a dangerous business. Care must be taken not to distort what actually happened, and there is an unspoken undertaking to represent the facts as honestly as possible, if only out of respect to the memory of those who took part. But when such an important outpost as St Helena is left effectively unattended for so long, the opportunity is just too good to pass by. Then the research begins, and that is one of the most enjoyable parts. The history of St Helena is every bit as fascinating as any novel, and some of the people who feature almost cry out for a good deal more attention.
Robert Brooke (1744 - 1811)

Take Robert Brooke for instance. As the previous governor, he had departed before the tale begins and is only mentioned fleetingly, but in reality he properly deserves an entire book of his own.
Brooke was born in Ireland and first joined the HEIC as an aspirant officer in his early twenties. Following a period of illness, he moved back to his homeland where he established Prosperous, an industrial town in County Kildare, to serve the cotton industry. It was an ambitious project and received generous government support, but soon proved far too expensive, consuming all of Brookes' personal fortune. In the space of a few years he went from employing over three thousand people, to losing all of his property and owing what was rumoured to be an amount approaching that of Great Britain's entire national debt.

The town bell at Prosperous
Undeterred, he reapplied for service with the East India Company and, after initial rejection, (he had previously outstayed his leave) was finally accepted. Then, almost immediately afterwards, he found himself somewhat bizarrely appointed governor of St Helena, replacing Daniel Cornelille, and in control of one of the most important bases in Britain's burgeoning empire.

Despite his somewhat disastrous record in business, Brooke was to become one of the most successful governors of the island. St Helena's defences were improved to no small degree while under his control; he also instituted a better method of signalling, and extended the harbour installations that were both inadequate and dangerous.

The disaster at Prosperous clearly had not dulled his enthusiasm for enterprise; his plans to irrigate the island involved many miles of pipes, gullies and open streams, and were heavily opposed. But Brooke had the determination to see the scheme through and, on its completion, fresh water could finally be distributed to some parts of the island for the first time. Suddenly visiting fleets could be served in a more efficient manner, while the Company's considerable herds of cattle were not only able to survive the occasional drought, 
but also increased by 20%.

During his tenure Brooke also did much to improve the lot of the common soldier. His “miscreants' mess” was a particular case in point; until that time military discipline rested almost entirely on corporal punishment and did little to actually modify bad behaviour. Brooke decided that regular floggings promoted an ethos of bravado amongst the men, some came to regard such punishment as a sign of masculinity while a few even claimed to enjoy it. Instead he ordered offenders to be removed from the rank and file, provided with poor accommodation and victuals, and employed in a variety of laborious and mundane tasks. This evoked an element of social disgrace that made the punishment truly corrective, and also provided St Helena with the many gardens and military installations that are still to be seen today.
In 1795, and based on news received from a visiting warship, Brooke initiated an expedition using HEIC ships and Corps to reinforce General Craig's recently captured Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope. Brooke's force also assisted in the taking of a fleet of valuable Dutch Indiamen, an act that won him praise, promotion and a considerable increase in salary.

The Fort at High Knoll

At a time when slavery was generally accepted in British colonies, Brooke was one of the first to bring in legislation to improve matters, making the importing of new slaves illegal, and introducing harsh penalties for “owners” found abusing their charges. His measures effectively raised the status of such labour to something nearer to that of serfdom, but by no means ended the atrocity: it would be another forty years or so before St Helena's last 800 slaves began a programme of phased emancipation. That was still ahead of any government ban, however, and Brooke's efforts certainly signalled the start of the later war against slavery that the British were to take up with all the gusto of reformed sinners.

Brooke is certainly mentioned in The Torrid Zone, although I was not able to give him the prominence he deserves for fear of making it less of a novel and more a work of reference. It is good to say more about him here however, and perhaps he might indeed feature later in a book of his own.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Of Christmas Sweaters, Socks and a rather special South Atlantic Island

I'm currently working on the sixth instalment in my Fighting Sail series. With a working title of The Torrid Zone much of the book's action takes place on or about St Helena, a small island set in the midst of the South Atlantic that would later become home and prison to a defeated Napoleon. Obviously a good deal of reading up is needed, and I am hoping to actually visit later in the year to get a true impression, although the island's magic shines through from even the dullest of accounts. But research is addictive; when ploughing through reference books or contemporary accounts I am frequently side tracked, and so it was I came to learn a little more about Tristan da Cunha, an even smaller island that sits roughly fifteen hundred miles further south, and is considered to be the world's most isolated settlement.

Tristan was first sighted in 1506, although it was not until almost a hundred and fifty years later that anyone actually landed, with the first permanent settler arriving in 1810. During the War of 1812 the Americans used it as a base for their cruisers, and the United Kingdom formally annexed it in 1816. The island became a garrison for the Royal Marines while Napoleon was in residence on St Helena, a whaling station was set up, and a civilian settlement soon followed.

The main island houses a large volcano which towers up nearly seven thousand feet (the entire area is less than thirty eight square miles), and was last active in the early 'sixties. I was at primary school at the time and can remember the inhabitants being evacuated to Hampshire and, most of all, the surprise when the majority wanted to go back once the danger was over – even then I felt a South Atlantic Island must be preferable to an inner city housing estate, but I digress...

Many of the current population of 264 inhabitants can trace their lineage back to the original settlers and share a mere eight surnames between them. The principle industries are lobster fishing and sheep rearing, in addition to the marketing of stamps and coins that seems to have become common in many small communities. But Tristan also offers something else, once more following the traditions of other islands, it produces a range of fine quality woollen handicrafts, and they really are exceptional.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not normally a great fan of jumpers and the like; usually winter is spent in the company of two Navy woolly pullies and a Guernsey, the latter having been bought while on honeymoon (and has lasted surprising well...). But the idea of being able to get a decent sweater that had been handmade in such a remote location and from locally sourced wool certainly appealed. We made an initial 'phone call (a London number, wouldn't you know – the island also has a UK postcode), then the rest was done by email. Our final order was for four hats, four pairs of socks, one skein of local wool and a gansey – a traditional sweater made from undyed wool with an attractive cable design running throughout. Measurements had to be given for all; speaking personally I've never even bought a made to measure suit, let alone socks, but it is nice to be accurate. Then, just a few weeks later, we received photos of the finished articles.

 That was in July – sadly we had just missed the summer ship, but the items (paid for by Paypal), were sent during October, and arrived with us in Sussex, England late December.

Yes, I know...
They're great. The wool is of a wonderfully soft texture, yet has the feel of something that will wear and wear. I married a professional chef who has also knitted for a living, (no fool me), and she is mightily impressed with the workmanship which is of a very high standard. Each item comes with a certificate of origin and would make a truly unique present. And the price? Expect to pay something approaching that of standard chain-store woollen goods. But these are far superior; you can choose the colour design and size, and there is more than a dash of nautical history thrown in for good measure.

Further details of Tristan, and the goods produced there,
can be found on the island's official website: