Saturday, 6 October 2018

Sealed Orders (and the enigma they contained)

I was recently asked to add a guest post on friend and fellow OSP writer Anton Vanner's blog. In it, I tell much about the writing of my latest book, Sealed Orders and, specifically, one of the historical characters it features.
You can read the blog here:

Friday, 31 August 2018

Historical Novel Society Talk

Straight after the launch of my thirteenth book I was asked to speak at the Historical Novel Society's annual conference where I shared a panel with fellow Old Salt Press writers Linda Collison and Antoine Vanner. The theme we were given was Getting it Right in Nautical Fiction, and I wondered if the following notes made before my talk might be of interest.

Before we talk about getting it right, let us first consider what can go wrong. And here, rather surprisingly, the major weakness is usually not what you don't know, but what you do. Or, to be more precise, what you think you know.

File:Sir Home Riggs Popham from NPG.jpg
Sir Home Riggs Popham
No one sets out to write any form of historical fiction without some degree of love for the subject. With time and dedication a thorough understanding of the basics develops; this is the groundwork on which future reading will be based when writing about your chosen era (a taxi driver might refer to it as “the knowledge”). Future research is likely to concentrate on areas specific to whatever book you are writing at the time; I've just finished working on Sealed Orders: a novel that encounters the aftermath of Sir Home Popham's re-taking of Cape Town, so have been reading extensively about the man and that particular area of the Napoleonic war. But I had to be careful not to switch all attention to the new theatre and neglect my core knowledge because, even in history, things can change.

Take HMS Victory as an example; not many ships can have received so much attention from historians and researchers alike yet only in the last few years her colour scheme has been altered to match that of recent findings. Even the site of Nelson's death on the orlop deck, a place venerated by many for over two hundred years, has been found to be incorrect and moved twenty-five feet further forward.
File:HMS Victory 2015.jpg
Victory in the midst of her repaint.

In the last few years research by the late Colin White revealed that the accepted order of battle for Jervis' action off Cape St Vincent was also wrong, while less dramatic theories, such as the reason for painting a warship's scuttles red – to disguise the blood – are constantly being challenged.

To some extent we have no control over these changes; however up to date we stay with modern research, new evidence will emerge after a book is published and, unless each title remains in a constant state of revision, it can become out of date. What is less excusable are straightforward errors and, there again it is in the groundwork, the basic research, where mistakes most often occur.

New research is simply easier to get right as it involves more recent reading and does not suffer from the brain's tendency to forget. You might be unlikely to confuse the armament of a ship-of-the-line with that of a frigate, or start introducing radar and outboard motors to the Age of Sail, but even the most basic facts should be checked. In this I am strangely blessed by working with a copy editor who knows nothing about ships, the sea or the Georgian era in general. And there are so many surprising facts that I'm constantly getting little notes saying “Surely not,” “Is this right?” or “Are you certain?” and usually I am but, unless there is absolutely no doubt in my mind, I go back and check.

In a different life, I worked in the music trade dealing mainly with string orchestral instruments. It is a field where knowledge is valuable and I soon learned there were some who appeared to have an encyclopaedic mind and hardly touched a reference book, and others who were constantly thumbing through one or other of the standard volumes used for identifying and valuing instruments. I soon discovered the second group knew a lot more than the first, and that became my definition of an expert; someone who is prepared to check. (And, I might add, someone who is prepared to share their knowledge.)

So what is the best way of carrying out research? Obviously non-fiction books are a major source although, as I have mentioned, even the best can go out of date. And then there is the internet...

Now, that really is a two-edged sword. On the plus side, so much information is now available that is solid, reliable and, in many cases, free. Each week it seems another museum opens its archives to the public and the amount of official government data being released is also growing. Books published at the time can also be downloaded; in the past these would have cost a small fortune and have been difficult to locate, but now they can be accessed as electronic files through sites such as Project Gutenberg. Official reports, accounts, newspapers, parish records – even log books can also be read, in fact I would say there has never been a better time for those wishing to research a particular period or subject. But be warned, while the internet provides a mass of good information, it is also a rich source of bad.

File:Contemporary wife selling print georgian scrapbook 1949.jpgMake sure what you are reading really is contemporary, just because it is “an old book” published perhaps only thirty or forty years after a particular event, it might not be as accurate as a truly contemporary account. The Victorians were rascals when it came to tidying up history – you only have to look at the “Kiss Me Hardy” – “Kismet Hardy” controversy to realise that.

And forums, although usually well intentioned, can be a mine of misinformation and a place where facts effortlessly merge with opinion. (There are even some who delight in quoting historical fiction books as the source of their knowledge, which is a dangerous path indeed!)

Join forums, by all means, and post, if you think it will heighten your profile, which it probably will. Obviously be sure any facts you quote are correct – and you have at least three solid references to back them up. But be very wary of “new information” or “recent theories” quoted by others. Investigate them if you will but, unless or until they can be equally verified, treat them like the gossip they may well be.

File:Royal Tars.jpg
One more point about research, you will learn things, sometimes – often – amazing things, and the temptation to use all of these little diamonds is strong. But the reader will be unimpressed by how much you know unless that information is relevant, and can be incorporated into a story. Throw in too many facts and the book becomes non-fiction, and bad non-fiction at that. So use your diamonds sparingly, put them in places where they can truly shine and be properly appreciated.

So, now you have your information, what are you going to do with it? Once more, let's start with the basics. Ignoring promotion and publicity, the writing process can be broken down to three distinct sections:

Planning and research (including plotting)
Drafting the story

There will inevitably be some degree of merging; however strong your plot outline, you may well discover a wrinkle that will make it so much better when actually writing the story, while editing, both for style and content, begins with the first sentence. But, to my mind, if any one of these sections is ignored, the other two automatically become that much harder, and when writing becomes hard, mistakes are more likely.

The planning stage is where research is most important and a framework for your story can be built on solid facts. That can almost be broken down into two smaller stages; once the framework is secure, and you truly know the time, place and personalities you are dealing with, building a story can begin and will be easier to write knowing you are on solid ground and using sound materials.

By editing, I am not referring to line, copy or proofing as such, but altering the story so that it works within your frame. There are those who stretch history – even one highly regarded HNF author was guilty of this by using a well known historical ship on a particular station at a time when she would actually have been many miles away. (I might add he also set three books in the same year, so allowing his protagonists to be simultaneously on opposite sides of the world.) But we are writing historical fiction, rather than fact, so a degree of licence is allowed, especially if any deviations are mentioned in the end matter, although usually it is as easy to get things right as wrong. I also find accuracy to be rather more satisfying.

File:First letter of Nelson Copenhagen.jpgAnd there is a final point, one that is probably personal, but I still think valid. No one takes the trouble to write about a particular time or event without some degree of empathy for the subject. Indeed, it is what started most of us off and its power remains for as long as we work. It is hard to read reports, accounts and in some cases very personal letters from those actually involved without developing a feeling for the people that made our fiction possible. Frankly I think we owe it to them to get it right, and tell as much of their story as our own.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

The VOC ship Amsterdam

On a recent trip to Amsterdam, I paid a visit to the National Maritime Museum (Het Scheepvaartmuseum).
Inside the museum's impressive entry hall
Housed in a seventeenth-century naval storehouse, it is an impressive place and benefits greatly from the large space provided by its former use. The artefacts are well presented and the building itself has been sympathetically modified to provide good access and excellent displays that cover all aspects of maritime history. But of particular interest to me was an exhibit that rests outside; an all but exact replica of a mid-eighteenth century Dutch East Indiaman.

Carpenter's workshop aboard Amsterdam
The ship's galley
Officers' accommodation
Looking aft from the forecastle
The original Amsterdam was completed in 1748 and began its maiden voyage from the Texel in 1749. After a series of mishaps that included both an outbreak of the plague and a mutiny, her rudder finally broke in a storm off Beachy Head and she was wrecked a few miles from my home in East Sussex. Her remains are often visible during low tides and she still carries a near full cargo of guns and bricks, although the site is covered under the Protection of Wrecks Act.
Part of the hold

Work on building the replica ship began in the 1980s with over four hundred volunteers being involved and many contemporary methods of construction used. The finished result is very impressive with only small modifications from the original plans being noticeable.

Surgeon's cabin
These are mainly confined to the height of the deckhead aft of the half-deck as well as in the master's accommodation on the quarterdeck above. 
However, the atmosphere of one of these long-distance traders is very much in evidence and a visit the ship, and the museum itself, is highly recommended.
From the poop

Looking forward from beneath the quarterdeck

Further details of the museum and Amsterdam can be found here:

Monday, 28 August 2017

Honour Bound: 10th book in the Fighting Sail series

When starting any fresh addition to the Fighting Sail series, the first stage is always research. Usually this begins with the area where most of the action is to take place, including any geographical or meteorological peculiarities that might have a bearing on the plot. Then I move on to the state of the war at the time, together with what could be anticipated in the near future and the general political situation. Any significant figures who could be encountered are also investigated, as well as the mood and condition of the Royal Navy. By the time I am done the tale itself has started to emerge and I can develop it further while referring to observations already made as well as specific reference books that have proved particularly relevant. The entire stage usually lasts about three months and by the time it is finished my notes normally run to roughly half the length of the finished manuscript. However, with my latest offering, Honour Bound, the whole procedure was far more complicated and took a good deal longer.

An armed xebec, one of several enemies
King encounters early in the story
To begin with, I had to venture onto dry land. This is always a dangerous move for any maritime writer; a brief sojourn into an enemy port for a cutting out expedition is one thing, but anything more substantial runs the risk of no longer being nautical fiction. However, the previous two books in the series had seen my tight collection of characters mercilessly split, with some enjoying freedom, prosperity and promotion at sea whilst others festered in a French gaol. After so many years in their company, I felt a certain loyalty to this latter group and wanted to do something about it.

HMS Childers, a brig captained by Nelson's nephew that
was present at the time and is mentioned in the book
Now, were I to have been writing from the French angle things might have been easier. Before the construction of Dartmoor and similar depots, many French POWs were housed in obsolete warships anchored within major British ports. In the lunacy that often accompanies the initial plotting sessions, I even flirted with the idea of launching a massive cutting out expedition to seize one of these and tow it out to sea, thus rescuing all contained within. But, despite the many practical and physical restraints on such a caper, prison hulks were very much a British innovation; if I truly wanted my “crazy gang” of officers and men to reunite, I would have to try harder.

Gibraltar, where Kestrel seeks refuge
And so began several months' research into the French system for detaining their captives, something that had changed significantly after 1803. Throughout the Revolutionary War, both sides were far more willing to exchange prisoners with many officers spending virtually no time in enemy hands before being returned. This would either be in direct exchange for one of equal rank, or on the promise that such a trade would later be honoured. However with the resumption of hostilities not only did Napoleon abandon all such niceties, he also authorised the seizing of every British subject between the ages of 16 and 60 who happened to find themselves in France when war was declared. This meant an influx of some 5,000 men and women into French custody; the vast majority being civilians and often either aristocrats or from the higher echelons of society.

Such well-appointed house guests needed to be accommodated, while the possibility that they may not only pay their way, but also become an important source of income, was quickly realised. And so special provisions were made and an exceptional form of detention emerged.

An early map of Verdun
Showing the Citadel
The most famous example of this was in Verdun. The town housed one of many former frontier forts designed by Vauban to protect France from invasion on what had been its northern borders and became the focus of my attention. A good number of civilian captives – known as d├ętenus – were housed there, although it was hardly a prison in the accepted sense. Those who wished, and could afford to, were allowed to send to England for their wives, children, servants – even their mistresses – to join them. These became known as detenues volontaires and were subject to the same restrictions but in theory could return at any time. Independent traders and artisans from all parts of the United Kingdom also applied to set up businesses to serve the lucrative, if captive, market and soon a small piece of England became established in the midst of France. Horse racing, hunting and gaming were amongst the facilities and entertainments provided; a Church, with a retained rector was set up with a small school following shortly afterwards. Residents could take cream teas on the banks of the River Meuse and women formed sewing circles while gentlemen's clubs and coffee houses abounded.

Verdun also became the main destination for captured naval officers so, since many of my characters had been seized a year or so before, it seemed reasonable to place them within this curious environment.Part of what made Verdun work was the system of Parole d'Honneur: one thing Napoleon had not seen fit to abandon. The arrangement allowed prisoners to be given greater freedom if they agreed not to escape, and was honoured by both sides, although the French rather took matters to the extreme. Many of their British captives were allowed to rent houses in the town, with some becoming so comfortable in their new surroundings that they chose to remain at the end of the war.

An officer in the Sea Fencibles
Such a surreal concept was far too tempting a subject for me to ignore, even if the problem of abandoning the sea for part of the book remained. Fortunately my research had also suggested a parallel yet complementary story, one that enabled me to keep in touch with the briny, while exploring further aspects of the complex system of honour recognised during the period. Tying the two tales up took time but was a pleasurable business as it also enabled me to expand on one character who had already appeared at various times during the series. Additionally, I could make use of the Sea Fencibles, the nautical militia that was mentioned in Guinea Boat but had yet to feature in any of my Fighting Sail books. And so a story emerged that, though undoubtedly contained action on enemy territory, also included naval battles on the sun-kissed waters of the Western Mediterranean, a wintry North Atlantic, and the no less hostile North Sea.

A British revenue cutter proves an unlikely
enemy for one of the British characters in Honour Bound
Honour Bound is the longest book in the Fighting Sail series to date, and took more time and energy to write than any other, although it was an enjoyable business and I am foolishly pleased with the result. There are several significant ship-to-ship duals as well as a convoy to defend and one more complex battle involving vessels from four differing forces. And though there might be an excursion on to enemy territory, it is not without interest. Whatever, I hope you enjoy this next segment in the Fighting Sail series as much as I did its creation.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Joan Druett: fact and fiction

From time to time I hope to feature authors who write in a similar vein to me, and the first of these is Joan Druett.

I initially became aware of Joan's books when I joined Old Salt Press, where she is one of the original founders, although her work has also been published by Heinemann, Collins, Simon & Schuster, Routledge - oh, the list goes on! As an historical novelist who also produces well respected non fiction she has her feet firmly set in both camps and, (somewhat unfairly), excels at both.

Amongst her fiction output is The Wiki Coffin Mysteries, a thriller series in the best traditions of both nautical history and crime fiction. The hero, a mixed race seaman with remarkable, if sometimes lateral, detective abilities is a wonderful creation in himself. Through the course of several books he takes on a series of diverse crimes and equally eclectic enemies, all within a strong maritime setting.

Lady Castaways is an example of her non-fiction output, and one of several that centre on female mariners. As an enthusiastic researcher myself, I am often amazed at the wondrous stories that can be uncovered with a little effort. In Lady Castaways Joan has taken several such tales, knocked off the dust and presented them in a way that gives some long forgotten nautical heroines their deserved prominence.

One of her most recent offerings is The Money Ship. In any style of fiction it is unusual to come across such a complex plot, and one that covers so great a range of years, yet Joan's writing style effortlessly keeps the reader informed. And there are so many fascinating facts rolled up with the fiction, although at no time did I find myself being lectured, or bored in any way – just an old fashioned good read and I commend it, and all of Joan Druett's work, to you.

You can find out more at Joan's website: or click on the link above.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

A Taste of Blackstrap

There are no two ways about it, I have been neglecting this blog, for which I sincerely apologise. But, if there was an excuse, is has to be that I have been heads down writing.

Since my last visit I have finished one book and prepared another to the stage when it is almost ready for delivery. Both are in the Fighting Sail series, and I will do my best to make up for lost time by adding a brief outline for each in what should now become more regular visits to the blog.

Sunset on the Med. Much of the action in Blackstrap
takes place on the inland sea.
The first book is The Blackstrap Station. This saw light in September 2016 and has sold consistently well since. After the somewhat dramatic ending to HMS Prometheus I was apparently left with a number of options, many of which were anticipated by my readers. In fact, until Blackstrap was announced, I had a succession of emails asking if the series was going to end (never an option), as well as suggestions for how it might continue. These were welcomed as I always enjoy hearing from readers although I actually already had a plan, even if it needed taming.

Entering Grand Harbour - the Seige Memorial
can be seen to the righ

I had intended to include the American Navy, in the form of the USS Enterprise (see my last post) but sadly could not make the time-line work for that particular vessel. However, research on the American War against the Barbary States led me to Malta, one of my favourite islands, and gradually a story emerged.

 Malta was a pivotal station during the latter part of the Revolutionary and much of the Napoleonic Wars, with its very existence being a factor in the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens. After several adventures, King winds up there although he is very definitely “on the beach” with seemingly little chance of a sea-going post.
Kin'g place of work. The Auberge d'Italie was the base for
British administration in 1804.

His luck soon changes, however, and this is principally due to the 'intervention' of a non-fiction character; one of many who appear through the Fighting Sail series. Sir Alexander Ball was a Royal Navy Captain who had been given the unenviable job of Civil Commissioner to the island. With the versatility that has made the service famous, Ball took to the task and did much to secure and stabilise the small outpost. He truly was a magnificent figure who, as with many, has not received enough attention.

Before his admirable work on Malta his ship, HMS Alexander (74), was part of Nelson's force in the Mediterranean. When they first met Nelson gained a poor impression of Ball, believing him to be far too flamboyant for a sea officer (criticism indeed!). However, the Admiral's opinion improved following Ball's rescue
Much of Malta remains unchanged
since the 19th century
of Nelson's dismasted Vanguard and was further cemented by his exemplary performance at the Battle of the Nile. In this significant action Alexander was the second ship to engage the French flagship, the far more powerful L'Orient (formerly Dauphin Royal and Sans-Culotte) that carried over 118 guns.
The memorial to Sir Alexander Ball in the Lower Barrakka Gardens.
I was last there in November and left my poppy in respect.

Ball went on to be instrumental in wrenching the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino from the grasp of the French and bringing them under British protectorship. Throughout his association with them, Ball treated the indigenous population with such care and respect that, even more than two hundred years after his death, his memory remains revered on the island.

I hate spoilers, so won't elaborate too much on the book; suffice to say King does not remain a land creature for long. We are soon under sail once more and in a trim little craft ideally suited to the inland sea. There is a deal of naval action, as well as intense personal dynamics in the sub-plots, one of which verges on the macabre! Writing about Ball was a positive pleasure while the period, which is just prior to Trafalgar, gave scope for plenty of tension.
The Seige Bell Memorial viewed from the
Lower Barrakka Gardens

I was especially pleased with Blackstrap's ending; this was the ninth book in the series and there comes a time when most angles seem to have been covered. I think I found a slightly different slant though, and one that enabled me to continue with the next, Honour Bound, without too much prompting from my readers!

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.