A Moment of Calm: time management for authors

Quill pen

References to calm and time management for authors generally raise a snigger around here.  In case you hand’t guessed, the title of this post is ironic.  I thought I’d get that out of the way first because I don’t want anybody to read this and think it’s going to be at all zen.  I’d like it to be, trust me, but it’s not happening.  I keep looking at this photograph of me at Bussaco on our recent trip and wondering when I will feel this calm again.  It’s sort of soothing just looking at it, though…

View from the Bussaco Palace Hotel, site of the old convent

I’m sitting here, dodging the battle of Talavera because it’s the first day of the new term of my dance school, we have about a billion new starters and I am surrounded by reams of paper covered in fee notes, terms and conditions, welcome letters and codes of conduct.  I have literally no idea if anybody is actually going to read any of this, but it’s good that they’ll have it.  I’m wondering if I should also give out a free chapter of one of my books as well…

I’ve often wondered if other writers live in the sort of chaos I seem to be surrounded by.  There are days when I have so much stuff on my desk and on the floor surrounding it that I can’t move.  I can’t get to the stuff on the floor (an atlas of the peninsular war, by the way) because there’s a snoring labrador on top of it, neatly hiding a map of the Estremadura.  Yesterday evening I was rampaging about the house searching for a book about the battle of Talavera which I knew I’d had only hours earlier and accusing my family of having moved it.  The response was predictable.

Husband:  Not seen it.

Daughter:  Mum, if I’d found it I’d probably have set fire to it, you have way too many books about Wellington, it’s not healthy.

Son’s girlfriend:  Do you know, I don’t think I even own a book that I could lose.

Son: Try the bathroom

It was in the bathroom.  Don’t even begin to ask why, I can’t tell you.

Perhaps my life would feel less chaotic if I had a normal job where I went out of the house at eight thirty and came back at five thirty to do normal things.  I’ve read a lot about how important it is when working at home to separate out working time from family time, but my family are entirely used to me reading history books or making notes in front of the TV and holding long conversations with Irish dance teachers while trying to do the ironing.  It’s not easy.

Still, I think this suits me.  I did the traditional thing for years and then I was a stay at home Mum.  I’m not sure I was ever that well organised at home, although my desk at work was always a masterpiece of neatness.  Perhaps it’s just in my own environment that I create havoc.  Or perhaps it’s just the way my brain works.

I’m giving Talavera a break today to concentrate on Manx Trinity, but I’ll be back to it tomorrow.  If I can find the book again.

In the meantime, look out for some free promotions coming up over the next few weeks in the run up to the publication of ‘An Unconditional Officer’.  It’s not looking good for the ironing pile…

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Lists

Cannon

Today I have written a list.  In fact several lists.

That in itself is not unusual.  I live by lists.  If it isn’t on one of my lists, it’s very unlikely to get done.  Sometimes, even if it is on my list the chances are not good, but there’s still a sliver of hope.

My current list is of the things I need to do before I go away for the Easter weekend.  Writing a blog post wasn’t on that list so naturally it’s the first thing I’m doing.  But I will go back to the list today.

My list is in a lovely notebook which is full of lists with a cartoon zebra on the front.  I feel very adult when I’m using it.  I’m not sure where I got it from, I probably stole it from my daughter along with the jumper I’m wearing and I think the socks.  My entire family has a weakness for stationery of all kinds, but whereas the men are fairly functional about it, my daughter and I require beauty or at least cuteness.  I used to have a charming notebook with the muppets on which for some reason I decided was the most appropriate tool to use at work when making notes.  My colleagues at the art gallery honestly barely turned a hair at it, but when I arrived with it for the first day of my next job the expression on the face of my new boss as I opened my notebook and took out my white fluffy flamingo pen gave me all the information I needed about my long term suitability for that particular post. Today’s list was on the kitchen table when my daughter joined me for breakfast and she casually reached for the notebook.

“Don’t touch my list!” I snarled.

Teenage eyes rolled.  “Jesus, Mum!”

There are two reasons I don’t want her mucky hands on my list.  Firstly because she has inherited her father’s need to doodle and within seconds the list would have been rendered illegible by swirls, cartoons and helpful statements such as “moo cows fly in the night sky” written in bubble letters.

Secondly because she would laugh at the list.  The list is weird, I admit it.  It’s because there are so many bits to my life.  Some of them are really normal, like laundry and cleaning the living room.  Those look okay on the list.  A lot of people’s lists have things like that on.

Then there is the Irish dance school.  That’s a bit more eccentric.  I mean “book car hire for Killarney” isn’t too bad, but when it comes to items such as “order sock glue” and “buy 15000 hairpins and 2000 sodding blister plasters” people might start to look askance.  The hairpins are only a slight exaggeration, I honestly don’t know what the dancers do with them and I’m afraid to ask.  We’ve got a competition in Killarney in two weeks and sock glue really is important…

As for the writing section of the list, this is the bit I really don’t want my daughter involved with.  It includes such items as these:

  1. Change Anne’s dress
  2. Wellington at Talavera – what the hell was he doing in that tower and who was with him.  Do I need to know?
  3. Update character list NOW before you resurrect more dead people.
  4. Shoot Goodreads

There are others which I won’t bore you with.  The other thing about my list making, is it tends to run away with me.  When I was studying history at university, people would borrow my notes to catch up on missed lectures and then return them either laughing or looking puzzled depending on their level of resilience.  One poor lad handed them back with the remark that he’d read one section three times in case it was a handwriting problem.  He seemed doubtful that I could really have written “Cromwell still buggering about outside Pontefract” in my lecture notes.  He was lucky it wasn’t worse, is all I’m saying.

I wonder if other writers have the same problem of being able to keep things short and simple?  For example a phone call to the vet actually reads as “phone vet for mind altering drugs for Toby.”

The above items listed are mostly due to my work on “An Unconventional Officer”.  I’m rewriting the battle of Talavera since the man I married read the book and informed me that although he enjoyed most of it, he couldn’t work out what the hell was going on during that episode.  I really wanted to tell him to live with the pain; the men on the battlefield mostly hadn’t a clue either, but out of consideration for my readers I’m working on it.

Wellington is another matter, he was doing his usual trick of racing around all over the battlefield and losing half his staff on the way.  He did it so often I usually just leave him to it.  It’s convenient in a way because he can turn up at odd moments when his intervention helps my plot and nobody could possibly complain about historical inaccuracy since even his own staff couldn’t find him half the time.  I’m trying to work out in my rewrite if it actually matters where he was at this point of the battle.

Anne’s dress isn’t difficult, I’m changing a description to match my shiny new book cover.  She won’t mind, she hardly ever notices what she’s wearing anyway as long as it doesn’t show the blood.

As for the character list, I’m taking that with me to work on during the journey. It’s been ongoing for a while, but it’s reaching crisis point now that I am actually getting close to publication.  During the books, a large number of men are involved and I often give them names for convenience even if they’re not a big part of the story.  Some of them get ideas once they have a name and start developing a personality and attitude but those are easy to remember.  Others are better behaved and stay where they were put and those are more of a challenge.  Some of them sadly don’t make it through the battle and although they’re not well known and probably nobody has got that attached to them, it disturbs even me to realise that although they may have died at Talavera, they’re up and around and taking down the French skirmishers at Fuentes de Onoro two books down the line.  It’s like an episode of the Walking Dead and I’m not having it.  Hence I’m putting together a comprehensive list of characters to make sure resurrections are a thing of the past.

The bit about shooting Goodreads has already been dealt with by a charming man called Ben who has now attributed The Reluctant Debutante to the correct Lynn Bryant.  I’d spent two hours trying to work out how to do it and it took him all of three minutes, which is a lesson to me about when to give in and ask for help…

For all this I’m not changing my list making techniques any more than I changed the way I wrote my degree notes.  I did all right with it in the end and I never did forget where Cromwell was at a crucial moment.  And reading the endless tasks on my list is somehow less depressing if they make me laugh as I go along.

Right.  Where did I put that list?

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Ways to Write: the value of a good displacement activity.

Quill pen

I’ve been musing this morning about displacement activity.  It’s going to look as though I’m writing two blog posts in one day here.  Technically speaking the other one was written yesterday and uploaded just after midnight, but we’re splitting hairs.  What it tells us is firstly that I ignored all my good resolutions about getting to bed at a sensible time and stayed up researching the battle of Talavera and cooing over my new book cover.  Secondly that this morning I don’t want to deal with reality.

As a displacement activity to avoid writing a blog post, which is in itself a displacement activity, I looked up the official definition of displacement activity.  There were a lot of very technical psychological definitions, some of which involved monkeys and a fair few mentioning seagulls but we’ll skip those.  The Collins dictionary, usually a safe bet, tells us that it is “behaviour that occurs typically when there is a conflict between motives and that has no relevance to either motive” and I thought that was pretty good.  But this time the Cambridge dictionary has them beaten.  Apparently what I am doing here is  “an unnecessary activity that you do because you are trying to delay doing a more difficult or unpleasant activity”  They even go on to give an example; “When I was studying for my exams I used to clean the house as a displacement activity.”

Seriously?  There are people out there who clean house as a displacement activity?  No way that I could have predicted that!  My list of displacement activities is enormous and varies from gardening to reading the new Jodi Taylor or joining in a chat group about Irish dancing.  A lot of the time it involves writing; I’ve seven full length novels which tells you how popular a displacement activity that is.  But house cleaning?  I don’t think so.

This probably gives you a clue about why I’m writing a blog post so soon after the last one.  House cleaning has been happening now for about three days in it’s theoretical form, but the house still looks as though Napoleon’s army has been retreating through it in a bad mood.  I’m away over the weekend for a few days to go to a friend’s birthday party, leaving the teenagers in charge again.  Knowing the mess they’ll be able to create in four days I would at least like to leave them with a clear space to create it in.  But actually doing something about it is beyond me.

Thinking about displacement activity (and once again not picking up a vacuum cleaner, please note) leads me to think about writing and the dreaded writers block.  I seem to have read a lot about how to overcome it, and the advice is so varied that I have come to the conclusion that every writer has their own way of dealing with the problem.

It doesn’t often happen to me.  If it does, I will tell you now that I don’t clean house to get past it.  Simply looking at the dishwasher is the best way to get me back to my desk.  I’ve found personally that if I’m stuck, the best way is to write.  Sometimes I write complete rubbish which gets deleted the next day.  If I can’t even manage that, I’ll write something else.  My computer is riddled with excerpts from books, sometimes a couple of paragraphs.  Writing about two characters and struggling with a scene, I will open a new document and write something different about them.  How will they be in two years time?  What happens to them?  What would they do in these circumstances?  Sometimes I delete these scenes the following day, sometimes I read them and realise I’ve come up with a genuine idea and they get stored.

This is particularly useful when writing a series.  I’m getting to know my characters over an extended period of time which gives me the chance to develop them.  It also makes me curious about them; not just the main two characters but a whole host of subsidiary ones.  I particularly like to write the opening of another book if I’m stuck on one.  It makes me feel as though I can get past it, and look forward to what happens next.

Sometimes I just need to write something completely different.  I have bits and pieces of at least a dozen novels neatly categorised and filed away.  I recently went through them and ruthlessly deleted a large number which were written years ago when I honestly wondered if I would ever manage to complete a novel.  The only good thing I can say about them is that I have improved…  Still, there were one or two which I think I’m going to go back to and work on at some point.

The other thing about writing a series, is that personally I need a break.  Sometimes I am so immersed in Napoleonic Portugal and Spain that it is genuinely difficult to come back into the real world.  I remember when I was really getting into writing the first novel we went to my sister’s house for Christmas.  I had a lovely time, but I was still desperate to get back to my writing and found myself sneaking off at odd moments to type a paragraph or two.  By now the man I married is wise to me and has firmly stated that this weekend with friends will not require me to bring my laptop.  He’s right of course.  Although he will have his…

Since I can’t stop writing completely, it helps to have two books on the go at once.  I’ve been busy revising my three standalone novels in between rewriting  ‘An Unconventional Officer’ and that’s been fairly therapeutic.  Now that they’re done, I’m resorting to incessant blogging in between dealing with the battle of Talavera but I want to start a new novel as well.  I could go back to one of my excerpts and see what I can do with them or I could come up with something new.

I’m tempted to go Manx.  We’ve lived on this beautiful island now for fifteen years and it’s home but I’ve never written about it.  I know snatches of Manx history, but recently I went to see a play about the Manx hero, Illiam Dhoon and for the first time it made me think that there is a lot of potential for a local novel.  I like the Civil War period; I studied it at University, and wouldn’t mind revisiting it.  Vikings are fun, but I’m not sure that they’re my style.  But we do have the Stanleys, who were given the island in 1405.  They didn’t spend much time here, too busy meddling in English politics, but I’ve always rather had views on the Stanleys (being a Richard III fan) and I’ve got some ideas.

Stars of Blogging with Labradors
Blogging with Labradors, starring Toby and Joey

All of this suggests that writing, rather than housework, is going to remain my favourite displacement activity for some time to come.  Although if I get desperate, the labrador looks as though he’s up for a run….

Blogging with Labradors – And now for the Labradors…

Stars of Blogging with Labradors

The stars of Blogging with Labradors are Toby and Joey and I thought it was time to introduce them in case anybody was wondering how my website and blog ended up being connected to labradors.

Joey and Toby

As I write, sitting at my ancient and falling apart desk in front of a rather nice bay window, looking out onto a front garden which is a complete disgrace, the air is constantly filled with the gentle sounds of labradors snoring.  My dogs have always snored but as they’ve got older it’s become worse.  I actually enjoy the sound.  It is part of feeling at home.  I have one on each side of me, on cushions on the floor, and if I wheel my chair back from the desk to get up to find a book or get a drink, I have to be careful not to run either of them over.

Toby is thirteen now.  My old fella is a bit of a greybeard and his arthritis in his back legs is so bad that sometimes he sits down without really meaning to.  We don’t take him for proper walks now although he likes to potter about the garden and still forgets himself in order to chase birds.  In all these years it still surprises him that they can fly.  Toby’s dad was an Irish show dog and he clearly sacrificed brains in favour of good looks.  He’s very deaf, we think, although I’m a bit suspicious because he still seems able to hear a food packet opening from two rooms away.  He loves to be warm and to sleep and he loves to be as close to us as he can.

DSC_5967.jpg

Joey is eleven and seriously needs to lose weight.  Intermittently we put him on a diet and it gets better, but he’s such a talented food thief that it’s hard work.  He is the brains of the partnership and can open any door in the house if it’s not locked.  He’s slowing down a bit now, but although he can’t race around as much as he used to, he is still convinced that he is a puppy.

DSC_0598.jpg

Writing with labradors just about sums up what I do.  Dogs are the best company, and my two are never really happy unless they have a member of the family close by.  They have been with me through a variety of difficult times and they seem instinctively to understand when I need love or sympathy or a furry shoulder to cry on.

When I set up this website and was trying to learn how to use wordpress, I typed in ‘Writing with Labradors’ as a joke.  Somehow once it was there, it just felt right and blogging with labradors was the natural progression.  I’m not sure how my lads feel about my writing career, but as long as I stay at my desk and keep them company, they don’t care.  I would really recommend Labradors as a valuable asset to any aspiring writer.

Although that snoring really is extraordinarily loud…

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Historical Romance

A Redoubtable Citadel (Original Paperback Cover) a historical romance of Wellington’s armyAs an author of historical novels, and specifically historical romance, I will own up to being  a bit of a romantic.

A lot of people who know me would be surprised at that.  I don’t come across that way at all, but I like a good love story.  I love the classics: Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and Jamaica Inn.  I love a happy ending and I’m not averse to a couple walking off into the sunset holding hands.

But what happens after that?

My three first novels are all standalone historical romances so far and I enjoy each of them for different reasons.  In A Respectable WomanKit and Philippa are fighting against the rules of society which says that marriages need to be made between social equals.  In A Marcher Lord the conflict between Will and Jenny is that of patriotism and national loyalty during a time of war.  And for Giles and Cordelia in The Reluctant Debutante we have a comedy of manners, a couple from very different backgrounds whose courtship is beset by difficulties.

And then we come to An Unconventional Officer, the first book in a series set during the Peninsular War.  For Paul and Anne nothing is simple apart from their feelings about one another, feelings which prove impossible to fight or to hide.  They are are about to create one of the big scandals of Wellington’s army, to upset the social norm and shock the officers and their ladies.  And quite simply, neither of them gives a single damn.

The challenge of Paul and Anne is that on this occasion, the story doesn’t end when he picks her up and carries her to bed.  The story carries on, and it is happening during wartime when fighting and dying and burying comrades leaves little time for romance.  In writing the story of Paul and Anne, I have had to adapt what I intended to fit around the relentless and exhausting pace of Wellington’s war.  There is no time to pause and reflect, no time to hold hands and gaze into one another’s eyes, no time to plan.

Because of that, they are people of action.  Both of them have their part to play in the conflict and both, over the years, will suffer and struggle.  The challenge of writing a series is to follow their love story through the ups and downs of war without any possibility of closing the door and setting the violins playing before it all gets too difficult.  I’m looking forward to seeing how Paul and Anne cope with the challenges which lie ahead.

 

 

Coming Home

Bussaco Palace Hotel

It can be difficult sometimes, coming home at the end of a holiday, especially a holiday as great as the one we’ve just had.

An Irregular Regiment

When Anne was not busy at the hospital or working with Paul’s quartermaster she rode up to watch training. Her husband and his officers became accustomed to her presence, and took turns to spend time with her explaining what was being done and why, and she was fascinated to watch the process which had made a legend of the 110th. She suspected that very few of the other regiments were working quite so hard with no immediate prospect of a battle and she began to realise with some amusement where Paul’s reputation for perfectionism had come from.

In the relative comfort of their billet she had time to settle in to the life of the regiment and to get used to being married to Paul. Up and down the lines the officers hunted and gambled and attended parties, and she watched her husband rise each day to join his officers and men on the training field, observed his watchful eyes scanning the lines for mistakes and inefficiencies, and laughed at their grumbles as they left the field, knowing that what had already been good was expected to be perfect.
“Every other bloody officer in this army is applying for leave!” she heard Carter commenting, after a particularly gruelling afternoon of skirmish drill. “What the hell is wrong with him? Can’t he take furlough and give us a break? Or even a day off!” He caught sight of Anne’s laughing face and grinned. “Sorry, ma’am. Didn’t see you there. You sure you aren’t due a honeymoon?”
Anne laughed. “Not sure what my chances are, although I hear that even General Craufurd is going home to see his wife for a while. You’re just unlucky that I’m out here, Danny. But it’s looking good.”
“It is bloody good, ma’am. But according to him, it needs to be bloody perfect!”
“It does,” Paul’s voice said, coming up behind Carter. “Stop complaining to my wife, Carter, she doesn’t care.”
In the relative isolation of the convent, the 110th maintained it’s usual level of informality. The officers ate together in the main convent building, but during the evening most of them drifted down to the field behind one of the barns where the men tended to congregate on fine evenings. Two of the women had set up informal grog tents there, and Private Flanagan of the light company was often to be found playing his fiddle, sometimes accompanied by one or two of the drummer boys. Anne would perch on a hay bale at the edge of the barn sipping wine and laughing and talking with Paul and his officers and men. It was a very different experience to life in the army with her first husband. She was busy and challenged and realised, when she gave herself time to think about it, that she had never been so happy in her life.  (From An Irregular Regiment, book 2 in the Peninsular War Saga by Lynn Bryant)

It’s cold and wet and there is a mountain of laundry.  Welcome to the end of a holiday.

Usually I’m in a completely foul mood by now having left both the sunshine and the relaxed feeling of no responsibilities behind but this time I’m still surprisingly cheerful.  I have a feeling that is because I’ve come back with so many new ideas that I can’t wait to get started.

I need to rein in on diving straight in to the Peninsular Books as I still need to finish getting The Reluctant Debutante ready for publication.  I had visions of working on that while I was away but that went out of the window on the first day.  We managed to cram so much into nine days that I was falling asleep in the evenings almost before I’d finished dinner.

I want to go back to Portugal and Spain.  Perhaps next year I can come up with another list of battles and locations.  We missed Talavera and Porto, and I’d like to travel up to Vitoria and perhaps even on into the Pyrenees and into France.  Those books aren’t even started yet although I’ve a fairly good idea how some of them will go.

We have a huge collection of fantastic photographs, courtesy of Richard, and we need to go through them and make sure they’re properly labelled before we find ourselves struggling to work out where they were taken.

It was an amazing trip and I loved every minute of it.  In the chaos of trying to pick up the various threads of my life again, I’m aware that being busy suits me.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve passed that particular trait onto several of my favourite characters.

Just as well, when I look at my to do list…

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the Peninsular War Saga Tour: From Sabugal to Fuentes de Onoro – Battles Galore…

Goats in Belmonte

Our Peninsular War Saga tour took us off the beaten track in places, especially when we were trying to find the site of the battle of Sabugal.

Sabugal, 1811….

They moved away at a run and Manson went forward to join Michael O’Reilly.  The Irishman grinned at him.  “Welcome to the light company, laddie.  You all right to fight, you’re as white as a sheet?”

“I’m fine, sir.”  Manson gave a brief smile.  “Why is he so insistent on us obeying orders?” he asked.  “He doesn’t normally say that.”

Michael glanced across at him with a quick smile.  “Clever lad,” he said.  “No he doesn’t.  He wants it to be very clear that we all have absolutely no say in this.  No democracy here.  He didn’t ask for Johnny or Carl’s opinion back there although he normally does before he makes a decision.”

Manson studied him through the mist.  “Because if it goes wrong it’s his responsibility.  Nobody else can be scapegoated.”

“That’s right.”

“Wellington’s a bastard,” Sergeant Carter said beside him.  “He lets them go yapping at the Colonel’s heels he’s going to get more than he bargained for.”

“You threatening the General, Sergeant?” O’Reilly said, lifting his arm to call his men forward.

“I wasn’t talking about me, sir.  It’ll be the end of kissing her hand and whispering sweet nothings at the headquarters ball.  I don’t know if he realises it, but she’ll carve his liver out and send it to Horse Guards in a box if he does anything that hurts her man.”

“Christ, yes,” Michael said, looking amused.  “Hope this goes well for his sake.”

They marched into eerie silence.  Paul had drawn his sword.  Across the lines his drummers beat a steady marching rhythm, which made it easier for his men to keep in touch.  They made their way steadily up the hill.  He watched his light company moving ahead.  Their line was uneven, each pair of men covering each other, running up and past each other then dropping into firing position.  He had watched them so many times on the training field, had run with them and yelled at them and called them names, and he felt his stomach clench knowing that the decision he had just taken might get many of them killed.

(From ‘An Irregular Regiment’ by Lynn Bryant, book two of the Peninsular War Saga)

We started this day driving out to the little town of Sabugal.  It isn’t one of the better known battles of the Peninsular War and many people have never heard of it.  Sadly it wasn’t included in my battlefield guide, but I found a brief description online of how to get to the site here.  It was surprisingly easy to follow and we drove down to the simple plaque which commemorates the battle and then on down to the edge of the Coa to look across at where the light division advanced from.

Sabugal Battlefield

The river here has been dammed into a lake, but even so it is very easy to look up the hill and imagine how it must have felt marching up into the fog without being able to see the enemy.  It was one of General Erskine’s worst blunders during his time with Wellington’s army.  General Craufurd was on leave in England and the half blind and very mad Erskine is in temporary charge of the light division.   In my novel, Lord Wellington has given the job of babysitting Erskine and keeping him from making any disastrous mistakes to the recently promoted Colonel Paul van Daan at the head of the 110th and 112th infantry along with a battalion of Portuguese cacadores.  Paul is faced with the decision to follow the first brigade of the light division into the fog against orders or letting them get slaughtered.

Memorial to the Battle of Sabugal, 1811.

Sabugal itself has a pretty castle and a tiny interpretation centre dedicated to the Sephardic Jews of Portugal who either fled or went into hiding under the inquisition.  This part of our trip was nothing to do with my writing, but was something of a journey into family history for Richard, whose family on his mother’s side were called Nunes da Costa, and were from this part of the world originally.  From Sabugal we drove to the little town of Belmonte, with which I fell in love.  It helped that the sun shone but we were entranced by the lovely little houses, with flowers everywhere and delighted by the castle, the various churches and the pretty synagogue along with the fact that boards outside cafes and restaurants advertised kosher food.  There wasn’t enough time to do Belmonte justice although we did enjoy a picnic in the central square next to the fountain, but it is on my list of places to come back to.

Synagogue in Belmonte, Portugal

Back to Wellington’s army, we drove on to the ruins of the immense fortress at Almeida and retraced the steps of General Robert Craufurd’s near disaster at the bridge over the Coa.  This was one of those battles I had found hard to understand and standing on that bridge it all fell into place.  In An Unconventional Officer the action at the Coa takes place off stage although it was important and is often referred back to.  I have a feeling it would make a good short story later on.

Memorial to the Battle of the Coa, overlooking the bridge

After the Coa we drove up for a brief photography stop in Freineda, Wellington’s winter headquarters for two seasons, both 1811-12 and 1812-13.  I had seen so many photographs of the house it was odd to see it in real life. Sadly it wasn’t open and our tour is too rushed to work out how to get the key so we’ll have to wait for another trip for that.

Wellington's Headquarters in Freineda

We drove back through Vilar Formoso, although there is little sign of the pretty village which housed one of the hospitals where wounded were taken from the battle of Fuentes dOnoro.  Many of Wellington’s staff and officers were billeted there and after the battle, grave pits were dug behind the large house where the hospital was located.  In the book, Anne van Daan is initially billeted there but moves on fairly quickly to avoid the smells of the hospital and the graves.

Our final stop of the day was Fuentes d’Onoro.  Thanks to our brilliant battlefield guide, we were able to stand by the Dos Casa stream where the English and French exchanged cigarillos and food during a brief break in the fighting and look up at the ridge where Wellington temporarily overextended his line and was saved by the brilliance of General Craufurd and the light division, which by then, in my saga, included the men of Colonel Paul van Daan’s third brigade.

Fuentes d’Onoro looking up from the French position.

An amazing day.  By the end of the day I felt as though I’d been walking in the footsteps of Wellington’s army and I loved every minute of it. I’m so grateful to the man I married for acting as driver and photographer and for letting me bore on about history for the whole week and I think the books will be the better because of it.

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The Lines of Torres Vedras – Day Two

The Palace at Mafra

The Lines of Torres Vedras were an extraordinary achievement, their existence hidden from the French for many months.   

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army
Book 1 in the Peninsular War Saga

“This is a matter of the utmost secrecy, Major,” Wellington said. “I do not wish this to reach anybody, even your own officers. Before we proceed, I need your word on that.”
   Paul was puzzled. “You have it, sir.”
   “Good. Because Sir Richard has some drawings to show me, and I would like to know what you think. Come over to the table.”
   Paul got up and followed his chief to a long table at the other end of the room. There were a number of maps and drawings laid out upon it. Fletcher drew one towards him and pointed. It was a map of Portugal, with drawings and notations over it. Paul studied it for a moment. Then he set down his glass, leaned on the table and looked closer. Nobody spoke for some minutes.      After a while, Paul looked up at his chief.
   “Bloody hell!” he said. “Is this how you’re spending the winter?”

(From An Unconventional Officer by Lynn Bryant, to be published in May 2017)

The meeting above was Major Paul van Daan’s introduction to the Lines of Torres Vedras, Wellington’s ambitious defensive system which created three lines of fortifications to stop the French taking Lisbon again.

Touring the lines for the first time, I was surprised at the sheer scale of the project.  Driving through the countryside, there were signs everywhere  pointing to ruined forts and redoubts, and we visited various visitor centres and interpretation centres.

It rained all day which was a shame, because the fantastic views from the heights which we saw yesterday were shrouded in mist.  Still it was atmospheric driving up the unmetalled road around impossible bends to the high point of Serra do Socorro which was the main semaphore station during the war.  There is a hermitage at the top with an exhibition which concentrates on Wellington’s communication system along the lines.  Wellington used to ride up here most days from his headquarters in Pero Negro.

Going back down the hill we drove to the little village of Pero Negro where Wellington had his headquarters during the winter of 1810.  The house, Quinta dos Freixos, belonged to Baron Manique and is now privately owned but can be photographed.

Wellington's house in Pero Negro

From Pero Negro we drove along winding roads through valleys and up and down hills, following paths which must have been daily ridden by the officers of Wellington’s army during those difficult days.  Arriving at the pretty town of Arruda dos Vinhos we visited the small visitor centre at the Centro Cultural do Morgado.  This area was the centre of operations for Robert Craufurd’s light division and the streets would have been populated with Portuguese cacadores mingling with the redcoats of the 52nd and 43rd light infantry along with the green jackets of the 95th rifles.

From there we followed the trail to Mafra to the magnificent National Palace.  This building was occupied by the Portuguese royal family before they fled to Brazil and subsequently by the French, Spanish, British and Portuguese armies.  The English established a military hospital there and later, Marshal Beresford requested permission to establish a recruitment and training centre for the Portuguese army there.  Today it is the home of the Escola Pratica de Infantaria training the modern Portuguese army.  The visitor centre gives fascinating insights into how the presence of foreign armies affected the ordinary people of the region, especially in terms of provisions and the requisition or purchase of supplies.

Mafra - Palace

I went back to Torres Vedras feeling slightly sobered.  I have tried to give some indication in the books about the impact of war on the local population, but I feel somehow that I’ve missed something and might want to revisit it.  We have both been slightly surprised by how important this war seems to have been in this part of the world.  For many English people, the Peninsular war is just part of the great war against Napoleon and very few are aware of the huge number of refugees who were displaced from homes and farms and villages, fleeing with the English behind the lines so that Wellington could proceed with his policy of scorching the earth and starving out the French.  Even worse, and this was not really mentioned anywhere we went today, was the fate of those Portuguese people who chose not to follow instructions and flee south.  For them, the starving French army was a plague of locusts who stripped them of everything they owned.

When finally Massena was obliged to give up and retreat back to Spain, pursued by Wellington’s army, their fate was even worse.  The Anglo-Portuguese army was able to follow the French by the plumes of smoke rising from burning villages and towns, and writings of the time report civilian bodies lying in the streets.

In a small town in England, the central square is likely to be occupied by a monument to those who died in the first or second world wars.  In Torres Vedras, outside our hotel, the monument is to the horrors of the French wars and for me being there brought a genuine sense of the impact of that war on this country.  Wellington was here fighting the war and English soldiers died, but the tragedy behind it was that of Portugal, of the men, women and children who suffered as the armies marched across their homeland.

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The Reluctant Debutante – A Regency Romance – Coming Soon

The Reluctant Debutante

My next book to be published, ‘The Reluctant Debutante’ was originally aimed at the Mills and Boon market.  A number of people in the publishing world who had said fairly complimentary things about what they’d seen of my writing had urged me to try to make my books more marketable by aiming them at a specific market, and Mills and Boon were one of the places suggested, notably by the readers on the amazing Romantic Novelists Association New Writers Scheme.

I took a long, hard look at the Mills and Boon historical fiction line and read a fair few of them before I decided to make the attempt.  I will be completely frank when I say I hadn’t read a Mills and Boon since I was a teenager, and I’d always assumed that I’d grown out of them, but I have to say I did them an injustice.  The point about Mills and Boon is that although they have the reputation of writing to a formula, actually there’s a huge variety of styles and published authors, some of whom I quite liked and others not so much.  There are very definite conventions about the structure of the books and what is and is not considered a good idea.  When I decided to take advice and try to write a Mills and Boon historical, I did a lot of research into this.

My first two attempts were complete failures.  I had already written ‘A Respectable Woman’ and A Marcher Lord’, and I tried hard to adapt both of these to fit the Mills and Boon requirements, but it became fairly clear early on that I wasn’t going to manage it.  ‘A Marcher Lord’ is very much a historical novel, set in a specific place and time.  There is a lot going on which is crucial to the plot and try as I might I could not adapt it enough.  ‘A Respectable Woman’ seemed like a better prospect, but I ran into difficulties immediately because I was told that it was important for the hero and heroine to meet early on in the book and then to spend most of the rest of the novel either in each other’s company or at least thinking and talking about each other.  It’s fair enough.  Mills and Boon readers have come looking for love, and that’s what they expect to get.

My problem was that both my heroes and heroines flatly refused to cooperate.  Jenny was better behaved in terms of showing up and being in the right place to fall in love with Will, but he was completely uncooperative and cleared off to fight a war almost immediately.  It probably wasn’t his fault because the English had just invaded, but it rather left the poor girl hanging about, and far from waiting eagerly for his return, the wretched girl was still dreaming of the man she left behind her.  That was a complete disaster in terms of Mills and Boon, by the way.  They were not happy about Jenny’s adolescent crush and needed him gone.  I did try, but it immediately took out a huge chunk of my plot, and that left me stranded.

Philippa and Kit were even worse.  They barely met for five minutes before taking off at speed to do other things.  He went off to fight the Crimean War: soldiers are completely unreliable when it comes to location, by the way, the only way you can keep them in one place is to injure them.  As for Philippa, not only did she put herself firmly beyond the pale by killing a man – in self defence, admittedly, but it’s still not okay for a Mills and Boon heroine, I’m told – but she then took herself off and got a job, and not a particularly glamorous one.  Once again, I did my best to make the necessary changes, and I think I could have got Kit under control, but Philippa was having none of it.  I either had to change her behaviour so much that she turned into a different person, or I needed to think again.

Out of this frustrating process, was born ‘The Reluctant Debutante’.  I grew up reading Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer and Jane Aiken Hodge books and I loved them, so when I decided to try a Mills and Boon historical from scratch, the Regency was the first period that came to mind.  The stylised tradition of the genre would hopefully make it easier to keep my somewhat wayward characters under control, and I rather liked the idea of a bit of glamour and sparkle for a while after struggling with the blood and gore of sixteenth century battles and the slums of Victorian London.  I was very strict with my characters, I moved the action firmly to post-Waterloo London and gave Giles a very good reason to have sold out, and I gave Cordelia a fairly conventional background with no incentive to go taking off saving lives or earning a living.  This time, I thought I had cracked it.

Sadly not.  Once again, the novel came back with a selection of very complimentary remarks about style and characters, but it was not for Mills and Boon.  This time, although my characters were in the right place, doing roughly what they were supposed to be doing, it appeared that there was not enough conflict between them.  Reading between the lines, I think Cordelia was simply too down to earth and sensible.  I tried a few rewrites on this, but every plot device I came up with to heighten the sense of drama in this relationship was immediately shot down in flames by my alarmingly level-headed heroine, who raised a supercilious eyebrow and simply picked up a book.  It wasn’t happening and I put Cordelia and Giles sadly to one side and accepted that despite my huge admiration for the women and men who write for Mills and Boon, I’m simply not one of them.

Still, I admit I had a lot of fun trying and it was very good experience.  It made me practice sex scenes, since a lot of Mills and Boon books are very keen on those, and that’s been useful since.  It did make me think very seriously about the kind of books I write.  I wasn’t sure at the time if I would write another   Regency romance, but it did make me do a lot of research into the period and it reminded me how much I enjoyed it.

The Reluctant Debutante has changed a good deal since it’s first incarnation.  Once I realised that Giles had fought at Waterloo, and knowing the type of person he is, I felt very strongly that fighting under Colonel van Daan in the 110th would do him a great deal of good.  The Reluctant Debutante has proved my most popular book so far and from that has come my other

A Regrettable Reputation

Regency, A Regrettable Reputation, about another of Giles’ old Light Division comrades.  For those who have read neither of these, A Regrettable Reputation comes first in the series and there’s a cameo appearance from Giles.  Several of these characters also appear in the Peninsular War saga.

 

 

 

 

The Big Trip – the Portugal and Spain of An Unconventional Officer

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army

Only three days to go before I set off on my trip to Spain and Portugal where I’ll be researching the settings for the first of my Peninsular War novels, An Unconventional Officer and as usual I’m behind with everything.  No matter how well prepared I intend to be and how many lists and promises I make myself, I always end up rushing out of the door in a trail of chaos, vowing that next time I’ll be better organised.

This one ought to be easier.  For one thing, the man I married, who is coming with me as driver, photographer and entertainment, is working in London this week so had to do his packing ahead of time.  His chaos occurred on Sunday, but at least it wasn’t happening at the same time as mine, so for once we are likely to start this holiday on speaking terms.  If that works well, I think we’ll arrange to start all future trips from separate locations, it will be well worth it.

Secondly I am not leaving an empty house, so there is no rush to get dogs to kennels, bathrooms vaguely clean and bins emptied.  Of course I am leaving all this in the hands of my teenaged children, so whether or not I’ll have a house to come back to is something which will vaguely haunt me throughout the holiday.  I trust them not to host a drunken rave (or not a very big one anyway) and not to forget to feed the dogs (they’re labradors, you try forgetting a meal for them).  Whether or not laundry, cleaning or basic hygiene will be maintained is another matter, but I’ve decided that they have to learn some time.

My preparations have been somewhat delayed this time by a sudden and unexpected burst of activity in my Irish Dance school which has suddenly and accidentally become the most popular school in town.  I would like to say that this is the result of a carefully thought out publicity campaign but then I’d be lying to you.  It is more to do with St Patrick’s Day, a last minute press release and a new babies class starting after Easter which is apparently what the local community has been waiting for.  Whatever the reason, we’ve been flooded with enquiries, so when I come back I shall have a lovely little mountain of work to get through.  Still, having lengthy planning conversations with my teachers has been an excellent way to avoid any actual packing.

The trip is something of a working holiday for me.  I’m currently working on a series of books set during the Peninsular War and we are doing a tour of some of the sites and battlefields I’m writing about.  I feel unbelievably excited and also slightly apprehensive about how much rewriting I’ll need to do once I’ve actually been there and seen places like Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo.

The first book in the series, which I aim to bring out in May, is called “An Unconventional Officer” and is the story of Paul van Daan, a young officer who joins the fictional 110th Infantry in 1802 and sails to India to fight the Maratha under General Arthur Wellesley, a relatively young and inexperienced commander with a reputation to make.

Over the course of the book, Paul develops a talent for command alongside a somewhat unusual approach to the hierarchical army of the early nineteenth century.  The book charts his development as an officer alongside his friends and enemies in the army and his relationships with the women in his life: Nell whom he saves from her drunken husband; Rowena, the gentle girl he seduces and then marries and Anne Howard, an unconventional young woman who turns his world upside down.

I love weaving historical fact with fiction and it always surprises me how often an idea I have come up with for a plot fits seamlessly into the facts as I begin to research them.  During my research for the 110th books I have discovered enormous amounts about the working of Wellington’s army and a collection of bizarre facts about the history of surgery and the geography of the Portuguese-Spanish border.

One of the challenges in threading a love story between the battles and skirmishes of Wellington’s war is the relentless pace of activity once Sir Arthur Wellesley took over command of the British army in Portugal.  I have spent hours struggling to work out how my hero and heroine could possibly have time to fall in love while racing from one battlefield to another.  My admiration for the men and women who marched with the army in those days has risen as I’ve learned more and more about what they endured.   On the other hand, there is never any need to invent or manufacture dramatic incidents to keep the reader interested.  

Dramatic incidents aside, the trip will probably never be made unless I stop writing blog posts and get on with laundry and packing.  I’m hoping to post regularly on the trip and to share some amazing photos and that isn’t going to happen unless I get on the flight…

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