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!