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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Publicity and more publicity

Wellington Statue, London

Publicity is ruling my life today. I’ve been writing and sending press releases for both areas of my life.  My dance school has just launched a new website and is taking part in a St Patrick’s Day event on Friday so one of them is about that.  I’ve also sent several out publicising the free promotion for A Respectable Woman which is happening from 23rd to 25th March 2017.

The reality is that this is a displacement activity for what I should be doing which is laundry, ironing and cleaning the house.  It’s interesting that I have moaned like hell about the promotional side of being a writer, but given the choice between that and a set of stairs that need vacuuming or a trip to Shoprite, I am suddenly my own publicist.

In between all this I am trying to keep track of which students are and are not attending Friday’s show.  I have come to the conclusion that running an Irish dance school must have been the origin of the cliche about herding cats.  You just think you’ve finally got the hang of who is doing what and going where and it all changes again.  This explains why all over the world, dance teachers are hunched over their laptops hours before the deadline for feis entries mumbling incoherently about slip jigs and reels and drinking endless cups of coffee.

The other thing that I should be doing is beginning to plan for my trip.  I’m off on a tour of Portugal and Spain shortly, visiting sites associated with Wellington’s army.  This is something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I first started doing the research for my series of books set during the Peninsular War and I’m really excited.  Being a writer, however, my excitement leads me to read endless books and articles about where to go and what to see.  It does not occur to me that making lists and organising myself so that my family will survive while I’m away might be a more useful occupation.  Or at least, if it does occur to me I quickly brush the thought to one side in favour of another hour spent with the Peninsular War atlas.

The first book in the series is called An Unconventional Officer and tells the story of a young officer of light infantry and his career in the fictional 110th infantry during the Napoleonic wars.  It’s a big project and I’ve been working on it for a long time.  It is the first time I’ve written a series of books about the same characters and I love the sense of being about to develop themes and relationships gradually.  It is, however, a very different prospect trying to keep track of characters and dates and events spanning a number of years and I have had to resort to meticulous record keeping just to ensure that a soldier who died at Talavera doesn’t accidentally find himself resurrected in time for Salamanca.

Sir John Colborne statue, Winchester (Publicity and more Publicity)
Sir John Colborne statue, Winchester (Publicity and more Publicity)

 

Statue of John Colborne at the military museum in Winchester.

 

In pursuit of research I paid a visit last week to the military museums in Winchester.  This was completely fascinating and as I only had a limited amount of time I intend to go back to do the bits I missed.  The museums are really well set out.  My favourite was the Waterloo section which has apparently won awards, and I can see why.  I highly recommend these museums even if army history isn’t your thing, the stories are told so well.

It made me realise that another advantage of being a writer is the excuse to visit any museum or historic site that has even the slightest connection to the period I’m researching.  No longer can my poor, long suffering family accuse me of being self indulgent when I drag them to Apsley House during a visit to London or insist on visiting some obscure country church because somebody I’ve heard of was buried there.

And in the meantime, I’ve discovered that writing blog posts is an even better displacement activity than press releases…

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Newstead Abbey or how to spend a wet weekend…

I’m in the UK at the moment, and spent a very wet and grey afternoon exploring Newstead Abbey.  I’ve been round the gardens several times but

Newstead Abbey (photo by Lee J Haywood from Wikimedia)
Newstead Abbey (photo by Lee J Haywood from Wikimedia)

never made it into the house, and I have to say it was worth the effort.  It’s on a smaller scale than many stately homes, but in many ways that makes it nicer – it’s actually possible to imagine a family living there.

For those people who don’t know – and I didn’t – Newstead was the home of the Byron family until Lord Byron finally ran out of money and sold it.  Byron is one of those historical characters that I knew vague facts about, and I learned a lot from the exhibition to the extent that I’ve now added a biography and poems of Byron to the list of things I’m going to read when I run out of books about the Peninsular War and Lord Wellington.

Newstead is beautiful in any weather, but go there on a sunny day if you can.  The gardens are huge and truly beautiful, and there are a great selection of events held there through the year.  Take good shoes as it can be muddy even in good weather, and enjoy the gardens, the lake, the ducks, geese and swans, the superb views of the house, and of course the house itself, which has great exhibitions about Byron and his world.

I resisted buying a book in the gift shop.  There are certain books which can be read on kindle and my bookshelves at home have been out of control for years.  Some books, particularly if I’m using them for research, are hopeless in electronic format.  There’s a very useful little volume about the structure of Wellington’s army which I use all the time when working on my Peninsular series, but trying to find my way around it on kindle took forever so I’ve now bought the book.  I’ve found that, along with the amazing Peninsular War Atlas which I got for Christmas, need to be on my desk all the time.  In fact I’ve used both of these so much while writing that I feel faintly anxious if I’m away from them for more than a few hours.  Once I’ve finished the series I’ll have to wean myself off them gradually.

But I suspect I can learn about Lord Byron and read some of his work in a more portable format.  I’ve always rather seen him as a comic figure, and I suspect that comes from reading Georgette Heyer during my teenage years.  Certainly he was something of a poseur and I’m not sure that his personal life was up to much but he was a fascinating character and I’m looking forward to finding out more.  I don’t think I realised that for all his eccentricities, Byron’s dedication to the Greek cause was very real and that he made genuine sacrifices for the cause.

There are never enough hours in the day for the things I’d like to know more about.  Reading one book or article or visiting one place just leads to more and more.  However, what better way to spend a wet Sunday afternoon than curled up in front of the log burner with a couple of cats (I’m currently cat sitting) reading Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.  And it avoids the essential task of revising my second book which is what I probably should be doing.

Byron here I come…

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What’s in a name – writing historical novels and when is it okay to call yourself a writer?

Stars of Blogging with Labradors
A Respectable Woman my serious  attempt at writing historical fiction and the first published
A Respectable Woman my serious attempt at writing historical fiction and the first published

Writing historical novels is very different to calling yourself a writer.  I’ve not been online for a few days.  In the other part of my life, I manage an Irish dance school called Manx Trinity Academy of Irish Dance which happened to me by accident rather as one trips over a step.  It sounds very impressive.  To tell you the truth the kids are very impressive although we’re still a small school.  I don’t teach dance, having two left feet, I just manage the business side of things and enjoy being involved.  I have two amazing young teachers and the kids have made great progress.  This past weekend we’ve had a workshop running with a visiting teacher from Dublin so I’ve been administering first aid and saying soothing words to a bunch of dancers who have been pushed to their limits.

It was supposed to be a four day workshop, but the arrival of storm Doris put paid to that and poor Michael ended up having to cram four days worth of work into two days.  The fact that he managed it is a credit to him and the fact that they could still smile at the end of it is a credit to my teachers and my students.  In the middle of all this my infant writing career was rather left to it’s own devices.

I reassure myself with the knowledge that at this point it really doesn’t matter since only a few friends actually know of the birth at all.  I have barely put a toe out of the closet although I intend to get braver as the weeks go by.  But today, while working on an author Facebook page, I ran up against an attack of the heebie jeebies over whether or not I am allowed, with only one e-book to my name officially, to call myself a writer of historical novels.

It’s always a challenge for me, laying claim to being able to call myself anything.  I do all right with ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ since they’re fairly standard and besides, other people call me those as well (although if he calls me Wifey one more time we might have a different problem on our hands).  I managed librarian during my early career and then counsellor, but I’d done training and held fairly impressive qualifications in both of those.  I’ve struggled a lot more with the word ‘manager’ in more recent jobs.  Telling people I managed an art gallery, despite the fact that manager was clearly what I was doing, was hard for me.  Often I would mumble something incomprehensible about ‘helping out’ at the gallery which probably gave the impression that I did a couple of hours gentle dusting a week instead of the long hours plus work at home and one memorable occasion writing a funding proposal while sitting by a swimming pool in Tenerife trying to pretend to my husband that I wasn’t working but was actually reading light fiction.

I checked out the dictionary definition, with my usual compulsiveness, and it appears that if I’ve written something longer than a postcard, I am entitled to call myself an author regardless of how many books I have sold so far.  Emboldened by this permission from the Oxford English,  I have decided to come clean and admit that I am an author.  Admitting you have a problem is the first step so I will practice in the mirror for a while, repeating the words in order to get used to them.  “What do you do?”  “I manage an Irish Dance school and I am a writer of historical novels.”  There you see, I can do this thing.  It can’t be as hard as saying, “I am a counsellor and I work for Relate”.  Believe me, that kicks off conversations at parties that you wish you’d never had.

The next thing I need to get brave about is telling people what I write.  It’s historical romance.  I think.  The trouble is, I’m not sure myself.  I mean it’s set in the past, which makes it history.  And there are often real people involved in it, although so far the main characters are all fictional.  It’s not too deep but it isn’t all fluffy bunnies either.  One or two of my characters have had a fairly tough time, which often happened in days when the rules weren’t really the same as they are now, although that needs to be a subject for a whole different post.

I wonder sometimes if I would be more comfortable about it if I were writing something challenging and difficult to read and possibly in line for a prize that somebody has heard of.  Writing books which are intended to entertain people while maintaining a degree of historical credibility and not winding up too many special interest groups along the way is the sum of my aims in life.  Mostly, I realise, I want to write books that people are going to want to read.

So what’s in a name?  I suppose calling myself an author is a step in the right direction and after a time I’ll be just as comfortable with it as I am with some of the other roles and titles I’ve had.  In the meantime I’ll just have to pretend.

 

 

 

Blogging with Labradors: History, Writing and Life

Toby and Joey

Welcome to blogging with labradors – my very first post.

I’ve read so many times about how daunting it is to be faced with a blank page.  That’s probably very true for normal people, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been normal.

From a fairly young age a blank page has always been a challenge for me. I can fill it with ease; with stories, with doodles, with information, with ideas.  Writing things down has always come more easily to me than speaking the words, although having said that, I quite like to talk as well.

So Blogging with Labradors is my author website and blog.  Wow, that sounds mad.  It means that after years of prevaricating and making excuses and sending endless manuscripts and sample chapters I am finally going to take matters into my own hands and publish what I’ve written.

As I said, the writing was never the problem.  I’ve always written.  The business side of writing, the risk of putting my ideas out there and letting people read them hasn’t come as easily to me.  It’s not that I’m shy.  I’m actually not.  It’s just that it feels slightly arrogant, slightly conceited to assume that just because I’ve written something people will want to read it.  I don’t even tell most people that I write.  It’s been like a guilty secret for most of my life, draft after draft of novels and stories hidden away.  I used to write in exercise books and then on an old manual typewriter.  Now I have laptops and Word and Scrivener.  It doesn’t matter what you use to write with.  What matters is finding the courage to let people read it.

The world of publishing has changed beyond recognition.  Self-publishing used to be called vanity publishing and involved paying a large sum of money to print a book which might never sell.  These days we can all do it online, and somehow it seems to have less of a stigma attached. But there’s a bit of me that still wishes I’d found an agent or a publisher.  I did try, although not as hard as I might have done since I lack the patience to wait four months every time.  I’ve entered competitions and done quite well.  I’ve joined new writers schemes and tried Mills and Boon because at least I know they read the stuff.

I’ve had some great comments.  To summarise all of them, I have learned that I don’t write pure romance and I don’t write literary historical.  They don’t fit the Mills and Boon mould.  I can write, and people seem to like my characters.  My research is excellent and my books are apparently easy to read.  But they don’t fit.  They’re not currently marketable.  They’re not particularly strange or wild or unusual.  They’re just not part of a current trend.

That might be true.  If it is, I don’t really mind any more.  I’m putting them out there into the world of e-publishing and I hope some people find them and enjoy them.  I’ve realised, at this advanced age, that I’m not going to stop writing.  I love what I do and perhaps some other people will enjoy it too.  If not, I’ve lost nothing but the time it took to create them, and since it was a joy that’s no loss at all.

Lurking in the bowels of my computer I’ve found three standalone novels which I’m going to publish first after some revision, more as a test run than anything else, although I’m fond of them.  I’ve also been working on a series of novels set during the Napoleonic wars which I’m going to revise and start publishing.

My late onset of publishing bravery has taken me into a whole new world of technology.  It’s never been my strong point, and I’m lucky that the man I married is a software developer and resident genius, although if he has a fault it’s his passion for finding out every single feature of literally everything before writing a single word.  I owe him so much for all the work he’s put in on this website and on helping me work out how to publish the books.  More impressively he’s even read one of them, came up with several intelligent ideas on improving it, and genuinely appeared to enjoy it.  Blogging with Labradors, and it’s website, Writing with Labradors, is written by me but would never have existed without his help and patience.

I’m intending to upload the first book within the next week and I hope people will read it.  If you like it please review it and recommend it.  If you hate it, feel free to review it anyway.  I’ll be upset because I’m human but I might learn something from it, this whole thing is a learning process.  So far it’s a process I’m enjoying.  I hope some of my readers enjoy it too.

Toby, Joey and I welcome you all to Blogging with Labradors.