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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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.