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.


  1. I would have loved to read your blog, but with the black writing against navy blue background, I couldn't read a word.

  2. Hello Rose - the writing should be white on navy blue; what format are you using to view – I will certainly investigate!


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