Sunday, 29 December 2013

An Action Starting Point

Research is crucial to any historical novel. Dates have to be right or someone is bound to notice. Not the average reader, but the pedantic one who will take the trouble to check up on every detail. I planned on opening my second WW1 novel with the siege of Antwerp and the military evacuation which began on 5th October 1914. That would give me an exciting start to the story. But I also needed to work in a meeting between Commander Smith-Cumming (head of the Secret Intelligence Service) and one of his agents. That had to happen before Cumming had his bad car accident on the evening of 2nd October. How could I start with something exciting when the first thing to happen was a meeting? The answer came with a bit more research. Churchill was then First Lord of the Admiralty and he was sent to Belgium to see what could be done to help the defence of Antwerp. He was there about the time Cumming had his accident and he went out to the front to see for himself what was going on. When the Belgian troops were retreating in disarray and his vehicle was trapped in the melee, Churchill took it upon himself to try to bring about some discipline. There was my starting point, action close to the front line.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Writing a Sequel

Amongst my novels, I have completed two trilogies and one five-book series. I am now working on the second of my WW1 novels. I find that writing the first book is relatively straightforward because I will create new characters specifically to fit that first plot. The third book is also relatively straightforward because I now know those characters inside out. I can readily design the plot to suit them. Book two is the most demanding one. I must ensure continuity of character with the first book. I must also design a plot to fit characters who have surfaced only in one book. I wonder if other novelists have that problem. I haven’t seen it discussed elsewhere. It means this second WW1 story may well take a little longer than the five or six months I usually need to complete a novel.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Bad Weather

Yes, of course this bad weather is terrible. Travel has been disrupted, power has been lost to thousands of homes and millions have had a thoroughly miserable day. But I try to look on the positive side. Forced to stray indoors, I’ve devised a PowerPoint presentation for the first of my 2014 Swanwick Summer School lessons on editing, and I’ve made progress with my next WW1 novel. As a pleasing extra, I’ve discovered that 2013 was a far more productive writing year than I had realised. Six old novels were re-edited and re-released by Cloudberry Books. Two complete novels were written from start to finish and were put on Cloudberry’s publishing schedule. Three partly-completed novels were finished off. And I wrote a short manual on how to construct a novel. To cap it all, “In Foreign Fields” hit the ground running just a few days ago. Reckon I’ll take a break over Christmas, if only I can keep my fingers away from that darned keyboard!


Sunday, 22 December 2013

War and Violence

I’m now well into my second WW1 novel, ‘In Line of Fire’. Writing about war must lead to descriptions of physical violence. You just can’t get away from it on a battlefield, but that doesn’t mean you have to describe every violent action in blood-soaked detail. A better way of doing it is to describe just enough to allow the reader’s imagination to take over. And then, very often, that imagination will work wonders in ways you might never achieve with words on the page. It’s all a matter of balance.

Using that technique shouldn’t be limited to scenes on a battlefield. In my novel, ‘The Long Road to Sunrise’, a girl from an Amazonian tribe is caught and raped by fierce warriors from another village. I didn’t sink to describing the rape in detail. That would have been gratuitous. Instead, I chose to describe just enough for the reader to appreciate the horror of the situation and left the rest to the imagination. Once again, it was a matter of balance. The way I chose to set about it was to describe in detail the run-up to the rape, highlighting the girl's fears and her sense of extreme horror. Then, at the moment of attack, I stopped and let the reader imagine what came next. I think it worked.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Learning from fiction

Most people think of the First World War in terms of muddy trenches and appalling slaughter. True, much of it was like that, but not in the first few weeks. Certainly not in August 1914. In fact, had the Schlieffen plan worked, Germany would probably have been victorious within thirty days and there would have been no drawn-out trench warfare.

When I set about writing “In Foreign Fields” I wanted to depict that other aspect of the war, the bit we rarely think about. The bit most people know little about. So I started at the beginning with the retreat from Mons. It’s easy to say that we think mostly of the trench war because it lasted so long, but there’s another side to it. It instantly comes to mind because that’s how books and films usually portray it, ignoring earlier aspects of the war. Most people remember well what they see in the cinema or read about in novels. Most people do not study the academic history of the war.

I plan to write sequels to “In Foreign Fields”. The second book, “In Line of Fire” will cover the siege of Antwerp and the First Battle of Ypres. I won’t describe life in the trench war until later.



Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Up and Running

In Foreign Fields, my WW1 novel is now up and running on Amazon. The blurb reads:

August 1914. The Great War is only just beginning and already things are looking bad. The British Expeditionary Force is retreating in disarray from the Battle of Mons. But, in the midst of the confusion, two British officers on a top secret mission are moving forward, ready to cross the German lines.
To complete his assignment, Captain Victor Wendel knows his life will depend on his cunning and ingenuity as much as his courage. He doesn’t, however, know that he is also at the mercy of a double agent.
Lieutenant Charles DeBoise, a reluctant recruit to British Intelligence, is sent after Wendel to assist him. Will he reach Wendel before the double agent sabotages the mission? And will they be able to complete their task before it’s too late?

I plan this to be the first in a trilogy or – who knows – a series based upon the Great War. The second book, In Line of Fire, is beginning to take shape on my computer.

Friday, 13 December 2013

In Foreign Fields


Earlier this year, in the course of a friendly chat with an agent, I was warned that numerous books set in WW1 will come onto the market next year. The centenary of the opening shots will spark off a media interest in that war. If my own novel is to have a chance it has to get near the head of the queue. That advice spurred me on.

Tonight I completed the final run-through of In Foreign Fields, the first in a trilogy of stories set in the Great War. My publisher hopes to have it on Amazon before Christmas. I set this story in August 1914, at the time of the retreat from Mons. I was giving myself plenty of leeway for later stories should this one catch on. The second book – I’m already fifteen thousand words into it – will concentrate on the first battle of Ypres.

When Bernard Cornwell was writing his Sharpe novels he was faced with the problem that no single soldier would have been present at every battle in the Peninsular War. Could I take one soldier all the way through the major battles of WW1? In order to make that a viable option, I made him an agent of Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service which later became MI6. My big fear is that I may have set myself a huge mountain to climb if I am to take my soldier all the way through to 1918.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The first job in editing

As a novel writer, I like to keep in mind the age old adage: If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never know when you’ve arrived.

When I’ve finished the first draft of a manuscript I ask myself the question, “Have I arrived at my planned destination? Have I written the novel I set out to write?”

At the outset I planned to write a novel that answered certain questions:

1.     Who is the story about

2.     What was that character’s problem?

3.     What was the main obstacle to a solution

4.     How was the obstacle overcome

 Now I look at that first draft and ask myself if I’ve answered all those questions. If the answer is yes, I’ve got a plausible novel. I can then set about tweaking the minor points and amending the typos with an easy mind.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

More on Editing

While you are editing your manuscript you will need to constantly jump between three different mind sets in order to judge the sense behind the text.

First, your own view point
This is the viewpoint you had when you wrote the manuscript. Ask yourself: do the words say exactly what you meant to say? Sometimes the words that end up on the page are not the same as the words you had in our head. Read the text carefully. Are you quite sure this is what you meant to write? When you wrote, Jane leapt at the opportunity of a new job, did you mean that she physically leapt into the air? Or did you mean that she took the opportunity joyfully? When you wrote, Tom saw the mess his dog had made and realized he’d put his foot in it, is that really what you meant?

Secondly, your main character’s viewpoint
This is particularly important when you write in a first person singular viewpoint. The words should reflect what your main character was thinking. Those words came from you but you are not your main character, however much you might like to be. Your character will think and act differently to you, and that must be reflected in the manuscript. Try once again to see inside your character’s mindset to see if your written words really do reflect his or her thoughts… not yours.

Thirdly, the reader’s viewpoint
This is the really important one. Can your reader enjoy the book because you have chopped out or corrected anything remotely confusing? You know what you meant when you tapped out those words, but now you must ask yourself if your readers will actually get it.


I have been asked to present a short course on fiction editing at next year’s Swanwick Summer School. It should be an interesting course to deliver.

Writing a first draft takes only one third of my story development time. One third goes on research and another third is expended on the editing process. In times past I tried to do as much editing as possible on my computer screen but I soon learned that a print-out was essential. It was the very fact of seeing the text in a different format that made the errors stand out. But my printer ink cartridges are expensive and I couldn’t easily carry around with me a wad of five hundred A4 pages. That was when I started uploading my manuscript onto to have a single paperback copy printed. The formatting is easily done and the cost is very reasonable.

I now use this technique constantly. The errors stand out on the printed pages and I can easily carry the paperback copy around with me. I can edit anywhere at any convenient time without carrying a laptop and without worrying about battery power.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

How to Swear

I enjoy reading historical novels that have been well researched, but I quickly put aside those which show a complete disregard for historical validity. Whether it’s thirteenth century Scotsmen wearing kilts or Tudor English women wearing panties, I give up reading the novel.

My publishing editor has a PhD in history. She’s also an acknowledged expert in research and writes about research in a writing magazine. It works strongly in my favour. After one read-through of my manuscript she will compile a list of things she wants me to check for authenticity. The book has to be right before it is published. I really value that approach.

In my latest manuscript I had medieval knights exclaiming, “God’s teeth!” Check it out, my editor told me. “They were much more religious in those days.”

I duly checked it out with Melissa Mohr’s book, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. It’s a useful research work in which she talks about curse words from the ancient Romans to the modern day. Like with many aspects of medieval society, the way they swore in medieval times was different from the sort of thing we would say today. They had no compunction about using F and C words as an accepted part of everyday language. Such words were common enough to have no marked effect. Much more effective were swear words or phrases that referred to the Almighty. People believed if you swore by parts of God’s body you were actually affecting Him up in Heaven. That made the swearing really potent.

It turned out my use of that exclamation was authentic, but the fact of verifying it was a pleasing reassurance.