Blogging with Labradors – even when it’s too hot to do so

Stars of Blogging with Labradors

Blogging with labradors even when it’s too hot to do so is still a better idea than housework which is my official task for the day.  I am going to get back to it after one little blog post, I promise.  The sheer joy of a clean and tidy living room yesterday has spurred me on.  But I feel as though I’ve neglected the boys in these posts recently in favour of history, art, writing and other stuff that they really don’t care about.  And after all, it is named after them…

Toby and Joey are cross with me.  For one thing it’s very hot which they are not keen on.  It might seem unreasonable for them to blame me for this, but they do.  They’re dogs, so they don’t realise I don’t control the weather.  After all, I can provide food and water on tap and cuddles on demand.  And if they are cold I light the fire for them.  Why I can’t turn off the sun, they cannot comprehend but they’re cross about it.

They’re also cross because people are missing.  My son is in Cyprus and my husband is in London and my daughter is out doing revision sessions and exams.  Toby and Joey disapprove.  They’re fond of me, but one human to adore them isn’t really enough, they like a team.  Usually they struggle to decide who to be with when we’re all here, and pace from room to room like large Tigers.  If we have the audacity to be upstairs where they are not allowed they will stand at the bottom and bark, knowing that somebody will come.

Now there is only me, and to make it worse, I’ve gone mad.  The woman who can pretty much be relied on to sit at her desk for most of the day with their beds either side, has started cleaning things.

Yesterday was the pinnacle of my madness and their irritation.  I took the sofas apart and cleaned the living room.  I washed their beds.  I opened windows and vacuumed noisily for what seemed like hours.  They both got up onto the sofa (minus cushions) and sat there in the chaos, refusing to move and looking grumpy.  I think they’d just about forgiven me by bedtime although I had to sit in the living room with them all evening to make it up to them.

Today they are alone with me again, and looking suspicious since I’ve picked up that vacuum cleaner again and taken it upstairs.  They don’t trust me, I can tell.

I feel as though I have gone a bit mad, but the novelty of actually having time alone in the house has gone to my head.  I know I’ll feel better when the house is at least reasonably clean and tidy, and it makes it easier to work if I’m not constantly irritated by the mess so I’m going to get on with it and feel better despite my allergy to housework.

My dogs will forgive me because I’m going to buy them a paddling pool.  It seems mad on the Isle of Man given our usual weather but it is hotter than usual and at their age, heat stroke is a worry.  Also it will be quite nice to put my feet in if this keeps up…  I’ve read a couple of very sad stories this week about dogs dying of heatstroke, not here but in the UK, which has made me conscious of keeping an eye on my beloved boys.

The Dogs Trust gives the following advice about taking care of your dogs in hot weather.

There are many precautions that can be taken to keep your dog safe and well on a hot day.

Don’t excessively walk your dog
Avoid walking your dog at the hottest times of the day – often morning or later in the evenings can be cooler
Always take plenty of water with you when out with your dog
Make sure the dog has shade to cool off in, either inside or when out
Take your dog to the groomers and keep their fur clipped
Dogs can get sun burned – especially white dogs or those with little hair so try and keep them out of direct sun
Think twice about any car trips with your dog – avoid congested roads or busy times of day when they could overheart in the car if you are caught up in traffic
If driving with your dog plan your journey considering cooler times of the day and places to take breaks
Don’t leave your dog in a car – as temperatures rise, dogs overheat quickly and leaving them for as little as 20 minutes could prove fatal

Many of these are common sense and we’re fortunate to have a big shady garden for our two which they love.  But I hope everybody takes care.  Humans aren’t always that sensible in the hot weather either, especially in places like this where we don’t see it that often – we tend to get over excited and go a bit mad.

For example, some of us decide to clean house on a day when we’d probably be better sitting in the shade with our dogs, a cool drink and a nice gentle proof reading task.  Ah well…

The Peninsular War Saga:The Joy of a Series…why one book sometimes isn’t enough…

Cannon

Many thanks to all of you downloading An Unconventional Officer, the first book in the Peninsular War saga.  I really hope you enjoy it.  It’s a long book and it’s the first in a series so I am hoping that you make a connection with the characters and want to read on.  Discovering a new series of books is something of a commitment.  You can read one book, put it to one side with a smile or a shrug, and not worry about it any further.  But to read a series, the story and the characters have to matter.

All of my characters matter to me but I probably have more invested at the moment in Paul and Anne in An Unconventional Officer because I know a lot more about them.  I’ve worked out where they are going and what happens to them and I know what they have to face along the way.  I know about their friends and their family and their children.

I love reading a series.  There’s a real sense of anticipation about the next book.  In terms of historical novels, these are my favourites, in no particular order:

Sir Robert Carey and the James Enys series by P F Chisholm (Patricia Finney)

Falco and Flavia Alba novels by Lindsey Davis

Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters

Lymond and Niccolo series by Dorothy Dunnett

Amelia Peabody novels by Elizabeth Peters

The Barforth family saga by Brenda Jagger

There are a lot of others but these are definitely my favourites.  I quite enjoy some other series as well.  I like thrillers, and I enjoy Val McDermid, Jeffrey Deaver, Tony Hillerman, Jonathan Kellerman, Colin Dexter, P D James, Tess Gerritson and Elizabeth George.

Sometimes a series starts well and then tails off so that I lose interest.  That definitely happened with the Alex Cross series by James Patterson.  I enjoyed the early ones enormously but then for me, the stories became too similar or sometimes too bizarre, in an effort to keep the series going.  Sometimes I suspect it is time just to find an ending and move on.

Sometimes a series just wears me out.  I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones and have followed both the novels and the TV series with considerable enthusiasm.  But the last book was a struggle and although I’m still enjoying the series, I’m not sure I’ll read the next book when it arrives.  It had become unremittingly depressing and hard to follow even for me, and I’ve waited too long for it.  I think he’s an amazing writer, but I’m just done with them now.

Writing a series brings both opportunities and challenges for an author.  There are challenges of continuity, of making sure no glaring errors occur with events and characters and history.  List making, chronologies and obsessive detail is essential here.  There is the challenge of keeping your readers interest.  No matter how much your readers love your main characters, if all the books are about them and nothing else they are going to get bored.

I think historical novelists have an unfair advantage here, because unless we want to rewrite history, we can’t cheat.  The events of the day are going to happen to our characters whether we like it or not so it forces us to think about how they might genuinely affect our protagonists.  A good example of this is the growing friendship between Colonel Paul van Daan, my fictional hero of the Peninsular Wars saga and General Robert Craufurd, the irascible, brilliant commander of the light division.  There are no spoilers here.  Both Anne and Paul are very attached to Craufurd but anybody can check Wikipedia and realise that at some point they are going to get very upset.  Craufurd died in the breaches of Ciudad Rodrigo and his friends were devastated.  I can’t rewrite that to make my characters feel better…

Those are the challenges.  The opportunities are equally important.  A series means you get to find out what happens next.  You don’t have to tie up all the loose ends in one book.  You can start and end each chapter when it makes sense.  You can explore other characters alongside your leads.  And you can develop people in the way that happens in real life, gradually, in a series of conversations and events not in a three paragraph summary which is all you have time for.

The established wisdom of publishing now seems to be, that with very few exceptions, long novels don’t work.  It is assumed that modern readers simply can’t cope.  In my opinion this has more to do with publishing costs than public opinion and I do understand why a publisher who is struggling with the advent of the internet and self publishing might not be willing to take on a new author. But for me, because I’m a realist, the phrase “you’re not marketable” actually means “you’re new and therefore too much of a risk”.  And that’s fine.  I’ve accepted it and moved on.  But since I can’t stop writing, I’ve decided to put my books out there and see.  And the good news is, they’re selling.  And getting good reviews and ratings.  Not thousands of sales yet, but hundreds.  Not dozens of reviews yet but a few and very good.

“An Unconventional Officer” was a difficult novel to publish.  It’s long.  Less that the Harry Potter book “Deathly Hallows” which was for children.  Less than War and Peace or Catch-22.  About the same as Fellowship of the Ring.  I thought about splitting it into two books when I was trying to find a traditional publisher.  They would either have told me to cut it or to split it into two books.

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

In the end I’ve published it as it is.  For those of you who give it a try I hope you enjoy it.  I loved writing it and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series, most of which will be shorter books covering a shorter time period.

 

 

 

 

Creating a book – an interview with Sarah Hendy on Manx radio

Manx Radio on Douglas Head (Photo by Nigel Williams)

I had a lovely time today recording a radio interview for Manx radio with the fabulous Sarah Hendy whom I used to work with at the Sayle Gallery in Douglas.  Sarah now presents Spotlight, the stations weekly arts programme and asked me to come for a chat about my books and in particular the latest

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

release, An Unconventional Officer.

It took me right back to my first ever post when I wrote about how difficult it was for me to ‘come out’ and admit that I write historical novels and consider myself to be an author.  I was writing when I was working with Sarah but we didn’t talk about it because at that stage only my closest friends and family knew that I wrote at all.  I’m not sure why, looking back on it, except that it is a slightly unusual hobby.  A lot of people put reading or hiking or cycling at a hobby on their CV but writing tends to raise eyebrows.

I enjoyed the interview.  It helps a lot to know the person interviewing you and Sarah and I know each other very well.  But I also enjoyed some of the questions, in particular the one about the process of creating the story.

I don’t know how other authors put together their novels.  Do they start by typing chapter one and then write through in a logical order until the end?  I’ve never been very good at doing that.  I tend to write a selection of scenes involving my characters and then string them together.  Once I’ve got a fair chunk of the book, I can go back and fill in the gaps, and a lot of rewriting is done then.

It sounds like a slightly mad way of doing things, but my books are very character driven.  One of the comments made by Sarah today was that it sounds at times as if my characters get away from me.  It’s really hard to explain it, but they do.  Sometimes they seem to behave in ways that I find very difficult to understand.  Heroes behave like idiots, heroines lose their marbles at an unexpected moment and a villain who up until now has been completely dislikable will step up and do something good which I then have to deal with.

That’s why writing individual scenes often works well for me.  I can throw a collection of people together in a situation and see how they behave.  Sometimes it works really well and I will incorporate the scene into the book and at other times I decide I don’t want to use it.  But even the unused scenes have developed relationships between my characters and I think that makes the scenes I do use a lot stronger.

The exception to this slightly off beat way of writing has been the Peninsular War Saga.  Initially I began with the same approach but once I got to grips with the research, it was obvious I needed to focus a bit better or the whole thing was going nowhere.  Lord Wellington did not hang about during the war and my poor characters are constantly on the move, constantly busy.  Scenes I particularly wanted to include needed to be ruthlessly adapted to fit in with what the commander in chief wanted.

I didn’t mind.  Wellington was giving the orders here, it’s our job just to get on with it.  In many ways it makes the whole situation more realistic.  The number of times one of my characters needs to march out to battle just as a crisis occurs at home is numerous but completely real.  It must have happened in real life, which is probably why Wellington didn’t really like his officers and men to be married at all, and if they were, preferred their families to be left at home.  He needed his army to focus and became annoyed very quickly at requests for leave to deal with family crises, romantic interludes or personal bereavement.

Wellington remained in the field for the whole of the war apart from the one occasion right at the start when he was recalled with the other commanders to answer for the fiasco of the Convention of Sintra.  While he was away Sir John Moore marched into Spain, a disastrous campaign which ended with his death at Corunna.  I rather suspect that didn’t help with Wellington’s conviction that everything tended to go wrong if he wasn’t there to personally take charge.

With the Peninsular books I now have my characters, and a fairly fixed timeline, and all I need to do is work out what happens to them during that time period.  It’s fairly obvious where Paul needs to be.  Battle follows battle and he’s going to be involved in them.  Occasionally there’s a short break during winter quarters, but I tend to find him a job elsewhere during those periods.  He doesn’t like to be bored.

I’d like to thank Sarah and Manx Radio for letting me ramble on about my books.  It’s something I love to do.  The programme is aired on Wednesday 7th June at 5.30pm.

 

Writing with Labradors… An Unconventional Officer, The Reluctant Debutante and Hilary Mantel

Lynn Bryant and Writing with Labradors
Local news story on Writing with Labradors

Writing with Labradors, and Blogging with Labradors came about as something of a joke when I was first setting up my website.  It’s proved popular and I’ve stayed with it…hence the presence of Toby and Joey in our local newspaper this week.

Anybody looking at this post is going to work out from the title that I’ve a few things on my mind this morning.  One of them is recovering from my birthday yesterday.  Not, as you might think, a wild night out on the town, but a rather lovely meal at home (main course courtesy of my son and his girlfriend, cake courtesy of my daughter) followed by Prosecco and Trivial Pursuits.  You can tell that I know how to live…

I spent some time thinking about publicity yesterday now that An Unconventional Officer has been published.  There was a nice article in our local paper the Isle of Man Examiner about the release and I’ve been asked to do Manx Radio as well.

I can remember one of the first posts I wrote on this blog talked about my concerns regarding publicity.  I’ve never been much of a self-publicist and I honestly thought I’d struggle more than I have, but I’ve made myself do it because once I had taken the plunge and published the books it seemed pointless just to let them sit there and take their chances.  And I’ve actually quite enjoyed it.  For anybody interested in psychology, marketing and reaching the right audience is a nice little challenge.  I’m still learning but I think I’m getting better.

It helps that the books are selling – not in their thousands, but steadily.  It also helps that I’ve had one or two nice reviews and some four and five star ratings on places like Goodreads and Amazon.  There’s something very encouraging about knowing that people are reading and enjoying the books enough to review them.  All my reviews are from complete strangers, I hope they have some idea how much it makes me smile.

One of the interesting things I’m learning is what people like.  I grew up with Regency novels and loved them, and I’ve read a few more recent ones.  The Reluctant Debutante was my tribute to those and I’ve been astonished at how popular it’s been.  I had already thought I would write another Regency just because they’re so much fun, but I’m already planning it.

An Unconventional Officer is also set in Regency times and although it’s a far cry from the London Season of Cordelia and Giles, it is about the war which affected everything during those years.  It’s a longer book than any of the others and is the first in a series which follows the men and women of a fictional regiment through the years of the Peninsular War.  I loved working on this book; it’s a bigger canvas with a large cast of characters and the best part is that I don’t have to say goodbye to them at the end of the book.

I’ve done a lot of research for these books.  Earlier I saw an article in the Guardian which caught my attention about the relationship between academic historians and historical novelists which I found really interesting.  I’m sure there are a lot of academics who dislike historical novels, particularly where they take very obvious liberties with history.  Equally there are non-academics who don’t like them much either.  And there are people who like science fiction and chick lit and thrillers and even, so I’m told, those who love Fifty Shades of Grey.  It takes all sorts.

I think I can understand the frustration of an academic historian.  After publishing a book which took years of painstaking research, gained excellent academic reviews and sold very few copies it must be infuriating to see a novelist selling thousands of books which claim to be based on history but which to a serious historian could seem poorly researched, wildly inaccurate and full of mistakes.

I do have a history degree so I’ve a little understanding of both sides of this argument.  The truth is that some historical novelists are not trying to be accurate, they’re just trying to entertain, putting characters in old fashioned clothing but not caring about period detail or anachronisms or accurate timelines.  It doesn’t mean people don’t or shouldn’t enjoy their books.  It just means that they’re not intended to teach people anything about history.

I’ve read some of these and personally they drive me up the wall.  I can cope with honest mistakes but in some cases I think writers might do better to turn to fantasy where anything goes.  Still, I refuse to be a snob about it.  There are also some very well respected historical novelists whose work is clearly painstakingly researched but I just don’t enjoy their style.  Many people do, it’s a matter of personal taste.

I’ve recently come across an author called Jacqueline Reiter, who has written both a biography and a historical novel about the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, the elder brother of the Younger Pitt who spent much of his life in the shade of his more famous father and sibling.  I’ve now read both, and it’s confirmed what I’ve always suspected that it’s very possible to be both and excellent historian and an entertaining historical novelist.  I would defy anybody on either side of this debate to be snobbish about Earl of Shadows which is the novel or to complain that the biography the Late Lord is anything other than a well-written and very scholarly work.  Both historians and novelists could learn a lot from this writer and I hope she goes on to write a lot more.

The books I’ve written so far are period specific and most of them include some real historical characters alongside my fictional ones.  I try to research as well as I can.  For A Respectable Woman I used a lot of primary sources and for “An Unconventional Officer” I read endless accounts of the war written by the men who fought it.  The problem with these is that they are frequently contradictory in themselves; they were written years after the war and people forget.

Wellington’s letters and despatches are a goldmine of information for the Peninsular War books although they’ve obviously been edited for publication.  Even so, given the immense stress Wellington must have been under during those years, did even he remember everything?

In the end, it only matters if you want it to matter.  I love reading history, both novels and non-fiction, as long as it’s well written and enjoyable to read.  I can sift through either and find what I want and the very obvious disagreements between academics over the interpretation of events means that I don’t feel guilty about putting forward my own interpretation in a novel.  My characters might well have their own views about why something happened which contradict modern historians’ thinking, but then they’re not modern historians, sifting the evidence, they’re supposed to be ordinary people living their lives in a different time and like us they’re entitled to their opinions.

I think I’ve done enough musing about marketing and the meaning of life for a while.  Now it’s back to the writing, which in the end is what I love doing most and the reason that all this is happening.

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Love and Marriage – an anniversary

Lynn and Richard

Twenty three years ago today I got married and the anniversary has made me think about love and marriage, an important issue in all of my books.

Inevitably it was in a castle.  Dalhousie Castle on the Scottish Borders is a beautiful place, converted into a hotel with a small chapel which as far as I know still does weddings.  Ours was a small affair with only close family and two or three friends.  We went on honeymoon afterwards and then came back and had a huge party with all our friends to celebrate.

I write historical fiction with a strong element of romance so relationships and how they develop are of interest to me.  I also spent years working as a relationship counsellor which meant I saw the ups and downs of more couples than I can remember.  And I’ve been in a relationship now for around twenty seven years.  Believe me, I’ve thought about love and marriage during all this.

It’s the aim of a writer of romance, even if the romance is only part of the theme of the book, to try to make it realistic while still retaining the magical element of falling in love.  A lot of romantic novels end with wedding bells, or at least with the couple falling into each others arms and admitting that after all their trials and tribulations, they want to be together.  There’s something very satisfying about reading the last page, closing the book, and knowing that the couple that you have become attached to (hopefully) have worked it out.

Of course they haven’t.  They’ve just worked out the first bit.  There’s a whole lot of work still to come which a lot of the time we don’t see.  But because I do get attached to the characters I write about, I do wonder what happened to them next.

In historical fiction, the drama of divorce would have been less common.  Certainly before the Victorian era when divorce became slightly more realistic, although still very difficult, only the very wealthy could afford divorce which had to be confirmed by an act of Parliament.  And it was only available to men.

This didn’t mean that couples didn’t separate.  For many it was a quiet affair, simply drifting apart and living separate lives.  There was not always the same pressure for couples to spend all their time together as we have now.  These days, if one partner takes a job which keeps them away for weeks, months or even years at a time, there is often an expectation that the marriage is going to fail.  In the early nineteenth century, married officers and men in the British army might not see their wives or families for years.  Some marriages did end during that time but a surprising number succeeded, helped along by endless letter writing and a determination to keep the relationship alive.

There was probably a different attitude to adultery in some quarters, for men at least.  It was not considered so shocking for a man to have relations with a mistress as long as he was discreet.  In an age where many marriages, particularly among the middle and upper classes, were arranged for reasons other than love, one wonders how often both partners were unfaithful at times.  Some of these marriages worked very well.  Others did not.  There are examples of both of these in the books I’ve written.

I do wonder, though, if some couples pushed through their difficulties and came out stronger when divorce and separation were more difficult.  Some, we know, lived in misery, and I wouldn’t go back to the days when divorce was seen as shocking.  But relationships are tough at times and there’s a feeling of satisfaction in coming out the other side of a difficult patch and feeling close again.

A Marcher Lord - a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders
A Marcher Lord – a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders

I’ve been thinking about the couples in my books so far and wondering how they’d do.  Jenny and Will from A Marcher Lord will do well, I suspect.  Both had parents who made successes of their marriages; Will’s had an arranged marriage and Jenny’s was a runaway love match but both worked.  Jenny and Will would have led a busy and active life keeping castle and estates running successfully and they have already proved they make a good working team.  They’ll argue, but they have shared values and interests and I think they’ll be fine.  I’m planning a second book featuring this couple some time next year and I’m looking forward to catching up with them.

The Reluctant DebutanteCordelia and Giles from The Reluctant Debutante come from different social backgrounds, but she’s already proved that she can make the shift into the Ton very well.  I think both of them enjoy country life.  They might argue about social obligations; she’s probably always going to be more social than he is, have better manners and be nicer to people.  But they share a sense of humour and a love of the ridiculous and I think for Giles there will always be an enormous sense of gratitude to her.  He was in bits after Waterloo and she’s a big part of his rehabilitation. There is a planned series of books set around the lives and loves of some of the men and women of the third brigade of the Light Division after the war, of which this is the second, so I think we will meet Cordelia and Giles again.

A Respectable Woman Kit and Philippa from A Respectable Woman are the most interesting in some ways.  Somebody who has just finished the book and loved it asked about a sequel and it has made me think how this marriage is likely to work.  Of all of them the gap between these two is the widest.  Philippa has a lot to learn about how to be a Countess and for all his protestations that she can do as she likes, Kit is going to need to learn to let her be herself.  I think the key to this one is going to be for both of them to find something to do outside of the marriage so that neither of them feel smothered.  They’re both used to being busy and having a job to do.  The big advantage that they have is Kit’s mother, a very wise and understanding woman who is going to be a big help to Philippa.  I think they’ll be all right but I suspect there might be a few fireworks along the way.

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

Then we have Paul and Anne who began their journey in An Unconventional Officer.  There is a lot about relationships in this and the subsequent novels in the Peninsular War saga.  There’s no point in speculating about Paul and Anne because their story doesn’t end with the book, it continues through the series.  We’re going to see how Paul and Anne and the other characters cope with trying to be together in the middle of a war and it’s not always likely to be easy.

 

 

George and Iris BryantI’ve been lucky enough to see an example of a very happy marriage with my parents.  They’d been married for over fifty years when my Dad died and there were definitely ups and downs.  But they stayed devoted to one another.  Theirs is a story I’d like to write one day

 

In the meantime, Happy Anniversary to the man I married.  23 years and we’re still here.  It feels like something to celebrate…

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The Isle of Man TT 2018

The e vents of this week reminded me of this blog post I wrote about the TT this time last year. I wanted to share it, as it gives a bit of a flavour of what it’s like to be living in the middle of this madness.

Yesterday, in practice, we lost Dan Kneen, a local rider from Onchan who looked very much on the verge of a breakthrough this year in terms of podium places. Steve Mercer, another favourite, has been taken to Liverpool in critical condition. I feel unbelievably sad about it, but it doesn’t stop me going out to watch the racing, which is difficult for many people to understand. I wondered about sharing this again, but I decided I would, because I still feel the same way about this event. It is part of the island, part of my home and over the past sixteen years has become part of who I am.

Dan Kneen’s father issued a statement after his son’s death, and this quote says it all for a lot of the riders and their families.

“Dan would want us to be strong and for the Tyco team to crack on, they have my full backing. Let’s think of the happy times with Dan and smile when you think of him. Thanks to the marshals and medics and everyone involved. Thinking of Steve Mercer as well. Best wishes for all the other TT competitors. The TT show will go on.”

I’m really hoping the rest of TT 2018 is a safe one. In the meantime, this is my post from last year.

With the excitement of launching my books onto an unsuspecting world, having pneumonia and surviving GCSEs and AS levels with two teenagers, the arrival of the Isle of Man TT 2017 has rather crept up on me this year.  It wasn’t until I spoke to somebody in a government office yesterday and heard the familiar cautious words “well it might be ready, but you know it’s TT” that I remembered that for the next two weeks normal life is going to stop.  Welcome to the Isle of Man TT 2017 – a spectacle like no other but a bit of a distraction when you’re trying to live a normal life.

Isle of Man TT
Isle of Man TT

The Isle of Man TT 2017 has nothing to do with writing historical novels but living where we do it will certainly impact on my ability to concentrate.  Sitting at my desk looking out of the window I can actually see the TT course through the trees and when practice and racing are on it gets noisy.  When we first moved into this house Toby the Labrador took exception to the bikes and kicked off every time they came past but fortunately he’s got very deaf now.  This is difficult when calling him for any reason, but it does make race days easier.

In addition to the actual racing, we’re very close to the historic grandstand which means that every single biker who comes over for TT will, at some point, be clogging up the traffic at the end of our road.  During road closures we can’t get out at all so we park one of the cars around a back road since there is a pathway which we can walk through.

Traffic during the TT festival is hideous, and gives us locals something new to moan about although to a woman who grew up in London, I was baffled when I first arrived here.  I’ve absorbed a bit of Manxness in the past fifteen years and now find the heavier traffic just as horrendous as everybody else since we’re not used to it.

Despite all this, I actually like the TT.  We used to entertain every year with a houseful of enthusiastic bike fans and every night was party night.  These days we’re very sedate.  House guests don’t work with two exam stressed teenagers, and because the exam timetable is set in the UK where this half term is different to ours, the kids are actually doing exams during TT week which would be tough with visitors.  It’s tough anyway, their school is on the course so they are sometimes sitting there trying to do simultaneous equations with the deafening sounds of bikes screaming past.

I still like to go out to watch the racing.  There’s a social feel to watching the TT.  Given that Richard is a brilliant photographer and particularly good at motor sport shots, we like to go to a variety of places, some easier to get to than others.  Personally I love the popular spots like Braddan Bridge and Union Mills church where you get get a cup of tea and there are proper toilets.  Must be a sign of age.  Richard is far more intrepid and I’ve climbed fences, scrambled up hills and sat on a mountain in freezing fog waiting for it to lift so that the racing can start.  Last year I ended up half crippled after pulling a muscle climbing over a fence, a reminder that I’m fifty four not twenty four and I really need to think about what I’m doing a bit more.

We’ve met some great people watching the racing, both local and from the rest of the world.  Everybody chats, everybody is friendly and it’s the best atmosphere ever.

And sometimes people die.

Every now and then, I come up against that fact and it shocks me.  It doesn’t shock me because it happens.  It shocks me that after fifteen years of doing this, I’m not shocked by it.  I’m saddened.  On one or two occasions it’s been someone I’ve met personally.  It’s often people I know a lot about.  People come to the TT year after year.  It’s like an addiction for the riders, passed down through the generations, and a death in the family doesn’t stop them.  The Dunlops have lost two family members to road racing, but Michael and William Dunlop will be out there again next week.  They risk their lives for a passion and we watch them do it.

Every year, magazines and news articles talk about the death toll and speculate on whether something so dangerous should be allowed to continue. I can understand why they say it.  For people with no love of the sport, and there are many even on the island, it must seem completely incomprehensible, in these days of enforced safety in so many areas, that every year a group of people go out and race around country roads, within centimetres of stone walls and lamp posts at speeds well in excess of a hundred miles per hour.  Even being a spectator in these conditions is potentially dangerous.

For all that, I love the TT.  The men, and a few women, who come here to race aren’t usually the superstars of sport.  They’re ordinary people, mostly amateurs, who work all year for the chance to compete on these roads.  They know the risks and they know the possible consequences, but like a mountaineer always looking for a higher peak and a bigger challenge, they keep pushing themselves to ride faster, to break lap records and reach that next elusive goal.  It’s an amazing spectacle and I wouldn’t change it.

Despite exams and recovering from pneumonia, I’ll be out there watching again this year.  We’re missing John McGuinness who recently came off at the North-West 200 and is injured.  We should have Guy Martin back this year, definitely one of the characters of the sport.  And there will be the newcomers, learning the course with their eyes on future glory.

I hope it’s a good year, which means that the weather is good, the races on time and everybody stays safe.  There’s nothing like the TT and no place like the Isle of Man and for anybody who likes motorbikes you should come here and see it at least once.

Although it might slow my writing down for a week or two…

For those of you interested in TT photography, have a look at Richard’s flickr site, there are some amazing shots.

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Scrivener – the writing software that changed my life…

Quill pen

I thought I would surprise everybody with a review of scrivener for novel writing today.  I love Scrivener,  which I now use to write all my books.

I am a technology cave woman.

I was going to call myself a technology dinosaur.  For one thing, I really like dinosaurs and aspire to be one.  My occasional thermonuclear explosions at home when the mess in the house reaches a critical mass or I can’t get any peace and quiet to finish my chapter have led my family to compare me to a pterodactyl, a sub-species apparently known as the Mumadactyl.

But I’m not really a dinosaur with technology, because eventually, after a lot of swearing and moaning and kicking off, and after more tutorials, online instruction and lessons from the man I married who has the patience of a saint at times, I do get it and I can use it.  That’s why the dinosaurs became extinct and I probably won’t.

I don’t love technology.  I get no pleasure from a new gadget.  Every upgrade to whatever I’m using at the time is greeted not by excited cries as I go through to find out what new and useful features have been added, but by a muttered grumbling sound as I go through to painstakingly relearn a familiar task now that some complete and utter moron has changed the way it looks and works.  When my husband tells me that something is intuitive, I usually snarl at him.  Walking is intuitive.  Using any form of technology whatsoever, including a microwave, is not.  I have to learn it and if I don’t use it very regularly, I have to learn it all over again when I’ve forgotten it.

This shocks many people since I’m clearly bright.  “How can you not remember that?” they say.  “It’s like remembering a phone number.”  Well I don’t remember those either, although ask me to talk you through the causes of the Boer War which I last studied back in 1982 at University and I can do it in a heartbeat.

Just occasionally though I come across a piece of technology which looks as though it might be so useful that it inspires me to fight my way past my instinctive resistance to making my life more complicated.  I learned, eventually, how to use an iPhone, an induction hob and wordpress to design this website and all of those have been well worth while.  And finally, after about six months of cursing, I want to announce that I officially love using Scrivener.

Scrivener is an eBook creator.  With it I can write my novels, format them, muck about with them, easily move between various versions of them and once I’m ready to publish them I can compile and upload them with remarkable ease.  The interface is clear and once you’ve worked out what things actually mean, it’s well organised and makes a surprising amount of sense.

You can do an awful lot with Scrivener, not just novels but non-fiction books or even photo-albums.  I will freely admit I don’t use half of these various functions, but if I should ever need to in the future, they exist.

Scrivener supports almost all of the main files eBook writers use including HTML, MOBI and PDF.  You can upload sounds, graphics and videos onto your projects and it seems to be relatively easy.  But the thing I love about it is the file structure which enables you to put your book together but also to store research notes and other material in a way that is quick and easy to access.  I’ve really only just got to grips with this aspect of it, but as a writer of historical fiction it’s crucial to be able to keep good research notes and character lists and now I have everything I need to hand in each binder instead of searching through endless word or excel files for a list or a reference.

I won’t pretend it was all plain sailing learning a new tool.  I’ve been using Word for so many years that I was genuinely terrified that trying to adapt to something new would slow me down.  But now that I’m getting the hang of it I love how easy it is to organise things.

A cave woman, you see, not a dinosaur.  Eventually, after a lot of whinging, cavemen and women learned how to use tools.  I’m not convinced that the dinosaurs ever did…

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Writing Historical Fiction

Writing historical fiction is something that I’ve done ever since a teenager.  I write because I can’t stop.  Reading inspired me to start writing.  I can’t remember a time I wasn’t completely addicted to reading and when I ran out of books, I would make up stories in my head.  I wrote my first attempts in a series of exercise books while I was at secondary school and I hid them because I wasn’t convinced they were good enough for anybody to read.  But writing is an addiction and I have never been able to stop even when I thought there was no possibility of getting anything published.

I’m very lucky in being able to find the time to write and I have my husband to thank for that.  I run an Irish Dance school but that is very much part time.  I have a lot of other commitments with home and teenage children and two dogs.  I freely admit that at times, when I am very involved in a particular storyline, other things get neglected.  I’ve been working on book four of the Peninsular saga recently, and it’s been the most difficult book to write, given the events and how they affect the main characters.  I’ve got very emotionally involved with it and for whole periods of time I have been completely useless and my family has got very good at foraging for themselves.

What made me choose historical fiction?  That’s an interesting one.  Over the years I’ve tried to write all kinds of fiction.  I’ve also written a lot of other stuff, including endless reports, funding proposals, press releases and articles for work journals during my various different careers over the years and I will admit that writing comes very easily to me.

I do wonder about trying contemporary fiction one of these days, but historical fiction is what I love to read so I suppose it was the obvious choice when it came to writing.  I’m fascinated by the past, not just how people lived but how they thought, the differences and similarities to us.

I read a lot for research.  Usually I’ll start with a general history of the period I want to write about, then move on to more specific topics.  I do general research on the internet but I don’t take any one source as gospel without checking it as much as possible.  If I’m introducing actual historical characters into my story I’ll try to find a biography of them, and I also like to read accounts of them from other people who knew them personally.

I did a degree in history many years ago, so research is fun for me.  I love being able to use original sources where possible.  For example, for “A Respectable Woman” I spent some time in the local record office in East London going through the records for Raines Foundation School in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The Wentworth school in the book is based on Raines, which is the school I attended, and I was able to look at accounts books, punishment books, school rules and the minutes of the Board of Governors which was fascinating.

For the Peninsular War books, I’ve read a lot of accounts written by officers and men who fought in the wars.  Lord Wellington’s letters and despatches are an amazing source and also give a really good impression of what he was like.  I’d heard him described as sarcastic and critical towards some of his officers and having read his own words I can see why he might have upset some of the more sensitive souls although personally I think he’s hilarious.  Letters are often preserved and many of them have been published and they make a great source.

When I’m coming up with a plot, I look at when I want to set the story and then I try to work out what was going on historically and what impact it would have on my characters and their storyline.  I might make some adjustments depending on what I find out – I shifted the timeline of some of the Peninsular books because I realised that my romance wouldn’t work out if he was in the middle of a battle at that point, he’d have had other things to do.

One of the problems with research is what to include and what to leave out.  On the one hand I want the reader to get a real sense of period and what was happening.  On the other hand, I want it to be a story not a history book.  It’s a balancing act.  For every line I put in there are about three books worth that I leave out.  But the important thing is that I know it, because then I’m writing inside the period.

Perspective is different in historical novels, and I try to look at things from the point of view of a person of that era.  For example, in two of my books, “A Respectable Woman” and “The Reluctant Debutante” there is a potential issue between the hero and heroine because they are not of the same social standing which could make marriage an issue.  Personally, from a modern perspective, this is complete and utter rubbish.  But there is no point in pretending that it wasn’t a consideration for the people involved.  Such things could be – and were – overcome in nineteenth century society.  But they did matter.

One or two issues are a genuine challenge.  The position of women in society has changed out of all recognition over the past two centuries.  I tend to write about very strong and often unconventional women who aren’t afraid to step outside the restrictions imposed upon them.  But I can’t pretend that was easy or normal and sometimes bad things happened to women who dared to be different.  They still do, but back then there was not the same protection under the law.  I don’t want to glorify the prejudice and sometimes the violence that women faced when they did not conform, but I’m not going to pretend they didn’t happen.

I’ve given the books to a few people to read and proof read and I’ve had some interesting comments on my characters attitudes and behaviour.  One of them – a male reader who would not normally have read a historical novel – took a definite dislike to one character because of his casual attitude towards sexual relations with a variety of women.  I can understand his point, but at the time I’m writing about, it would have been seen as fairly normal for a young man to be ‘sowing his wild oats’ and providing he had the social standing and the money to manage his mistakes, nobody would have thought badly of him.

For a woman it was very different.  Certainly in the three books set in the nineteenth century, all three of my lead characters need to be careful of their reputations.  For Cordelia, living the conventional life of a wealthy Regency woman, all she has to do is keep within the accepted rules.  For Philippa, left alone and penniless and obliged to earn her living, it is a much more difficult balancing act to maintain her respectability while supporting herself.

For Anne, it should have been easy and clearly wasn’t.  Anne’s parents are very keen to push her into marriage with a suitable suitor at seventeen in order to ‘settle her down’.  By the end of the first book it’s really clear why they might have thought that way, she’s a respectable parents’ nightmare, and when she finds herself obliged to marry to save her reputation it probably didn’t come as that much of a surprise to Sir Matthew and Lady Howard.

From a modern point of view, Anne hasn’t done anything that bad and there’s a sense of outrage that she finds herself having to marry a man she loathes.  There’s a sense of her being punished for her independence, and we feel angry  that a girl could be treated that way.  We’re right to be angry, but girls were treated that way, and very few people thought it was wrong.  Even Anne herself at this point doesn’t attempt to refuse the inevitable although she’s desperately unhappy about it.  She knows the rules and she knows she’s broken them.  Of course she’s very young at this point, I’m not sure she’d have made the same choices a couple of years down the line with a lot more experience and confidence behind her.

Of all my female leads, Anne is the one who breaks the mould most thoroughly.  She finds herself, quite by accident, living a very different life away from the secure, wealthy home in which she grew up and there are opportunities for her to take on roles which were simply not available to women under normal circumstances.  Anne doesn’t hesitate.  She jumps in with both feet, doesn’t look back and doesn’t compromise who she is for anybody.

Not all the women in my books are like Anne and they shouldn’t be, it would be completely unrealistic given the restricted world in which most girls were obliged to live their lives.  But some were, even back then.  Women travelled the world, wrote novels, pretended to be men in order to become doctors or soldiers, fought in wars and fought and died for their rights to be considered equal to men.  Most exceptional women were not written about, some have a footnote in history, a few have become well known.  There are elements of Anne’s story which have been taken from genuine historical events.

I struggled for a while with Anne’s appearance.  For a time I wanted to play down the way she looked, make her very ordinary to look at.  In the end I changed my mind about that because I liked the contrast in the way the world sees her and the way she sees herself.  At her first meeting with Paul when she is seventeen and has barely been further than Harrogate and York, she admits that it makes her furious that people only see her beauty.

“I get complimented a lot. Girls do, you know. Growing up, George and Arthur were told how clever they were. I could run rings around them in any lesson we shared. Didn’t even have to try. But all I ever got told was that I was beautiful. As though that was something I should be proud of.” Anne gave a little laugh. “I’m sorry, you got me on my hobby horse. Harriet tells me I’m ungracious. But I’m not sure half these men would even like me if they knew me. Doesn’t matter. They take one long hard look and all they think about is…” She broke off.
Paul laughed softly. “Darling girl, I can’t condemn any man for that. I thought about making love to you thirty seconds after I saw you.”
“I know. But then you had a conversation with me and you acted as though what I said mattered. And I won’t forget that, Paul.”

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

That, in the end, is the key to Paul and Anne’s love affair, which endures through hardship, tragedy and scandal.  Right from the start, although acknowledging and being attracted to Anne’s beauty, Paul van Daan falls in love with her wildly eccentric personality which somehow seems to connect with his own.  He realises that life with a girl who accepts none of the limitations of her sex is likely to be challenging, but he doesn’t care.  She changes his perception of women forever and he gives her the opportunity to be herself in a way that nobody else ever had.

Writing historical fiction is a lot of fun but depending on how you treat it, it’s a lot of work.  It can take weeks or even months of reading and research and planning before a single word is written.  Having said that, I find it immensely satisfying, like stepping into another world where everything is different apart from the people.

An Unconventional Officer is published on Amazon kindle on 30th May.

 

 

 

 

Photographs of our Peninsular War Saga Tour, April 2017

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro

I wanted to share some of the photographs of Spain and Portugal which were taken when we visited some of the settings for An Unconventional Officer and the rest of the Peninsular War Saga.

Many thanks to Richard for the brilliant photographs.  It was the most amazing feeling to stand looking at some of the buildings and places associated with my story – I’d read endless descriptions and battlefield guides but actually going there gave the whole thing a completely different feeling.

They also gave me some fantastic new book covers.  I’ve been unsure about the original covers for these books from the start.  Partly this was because despite all Sheri’s amazing efforts, I just couldn’t find the right couple to portray Paul and Anne as I saw them.  I don’t have the money to pay a commercial artist to draw them and the couple on the book just don’t work for me.  They were a brilliant compromise to get me started and I love all Sheri’s other covers for me, but I was unsettled about these.

Secondly, I am aware that the covers gave a very strong impression of a romantic novel, with the couple being the main feature.  I’m all in favour of romantic novels, but these books are something more and I wanted to convey that.  Richard, who is as good with technology as he is with photography, offered to try to create something different, and the results are actually rather stunning, with a scene from each book layered with an old map of the Peninsula.  I love them to bits and I genuinely think they’re helping to sell the books to people who would probably not have thought to try them before.  They’re only available on the kindle version at present, but we are working on the paperback covers.  None of this detracts from the great work done by Sheri McGathy on all my covers and I will continue to use her and heartily recommend her, especially for romance and fantasy novels.  Her prices are reasonable, she’s quick and reliable and very patient with fiddling around to get the result you want.

An Irregular Regiment
Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga

Working on the new covers with the man I married was definitely a challenge at times.  I can’t speak highly enough of his patience and tolerance of my uncertainty about “home made covers”.  In the end he came up with something which I think is better than some commercially produced covers that I’ve seen.  There is a theme, and I’m looking forward to going back to the Peninsula next year, and possibly to Waterloo as well to take more photographs for future covers.  I’m also going to get him to design one for my Manx themed novel since we’d be spoiled for choice for beautiful photographs here.

The areas of Spain and Portugal we visited were not major tourist areas, and having a car is essential, although there are a number of very good tour companies which do Peninsular War trips for those who don’t want to drive.  I loved both countries, but on this trip I think Portugal won for me.  In A Redoubtable Citadel,  Paul is described as having fallen in love with Portugal: the language, the culture and the people.  I think the same thing happened to me.

There are several blog posts from the trip but I’m currently putting together a section of the website specifically for travel and reviews of historic sites which I’ll share when it’s complete.

In the meantime, enjoy the photos and if you want to see more, there are galleries associated with all my books here

This is the link to Richard’s flickr page which has a variety of photographs on it and is well worth a visit.

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Not Just the Army…Marines and the Navy in the Peninsular War under Wellington – and a possible Manx connection?

I had one of those very odd little coincidences today which caused me to look at the role of not just the army but also the Marines and the Navy in the Peninsular War under Wellington.

I’ve been thinking about a story, either a short story or a novella, associated with the Peninsular War books but possibly with a Manx connection. I already have a Manxman ready to pop up into the action when the time is right. It was always likely to happen. I don’t know much about Manxmen in the Napoleonic armies, but I do know the navy just loved them. It’s hard not to be good at the sea when you live on an island this small. The most famous of them, a certain Captain John Quilliam RN was a Royal Navy officer and the First Lieutenant on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

When I was researching the young Paul van Daan’s early career in the Royal Navy, I was not sure of my ground. I knew a fair bit about Wellington’s army but the navy was a bit of a mystery. I knew that at fourteen Paul was far too young to be pressed, but I also knew that it happened all the time especially with well grown lads who clearly had seafaring experience. But I wanted Paul’s time in the navy to have some purpose. Those early years are vital, because in the hell below decks in Nelson’s navy fighting skirmishes and then at the battle of the Nile, Paul van Daan grew up. He arrives in the army at 21 not a naive young officer with no experience but as a tough, battle seasoned commander, a petty officer who rose from being a pressed man. He’s been through hell and back, not in the company of officers and gentlemen but alongside the lowest of the low in Nelson’s navy. No wonder he’s often happier down with the men than up in the mess…

But was it possible? Google came to my rescue, and with regard to naval promotion from being a pressed man, the first significant name to pop up was none other than my neighbour from up the road in Marown who was the son of a farmer, an apprentice stonemason until he was picked up by a press gang. From those humble beginnings he rose to be first lieutenant on HMS Victory with a place in history. I could have hugged him. Suddenly, Petty Officer Paul van Daan was not only possible but highly likely.

So when I came to thinking about a Manx connected story I naturally went back to Paul’s navy days. There were a lot of Manxmen in Nelson’s navy and it’s entirely likely that when Wellington asked for the navy and the marines to help with the defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras, one or two of them came along. I’d got my connection, and I’ve already come up with a name. Some research about their role comes next, and as I was working on that from my sickbed, I came across the following story, linked to a JustGiving page for a Royal Marines charity.

The Royal Marines 1664 Global Challenge 2017 – linked to Royal Marine history in Portugal

During the Peninsular War (1810-1812) the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Marine Artillery were deployed in support of Wellington’s defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras.

At Wellington’s request Vice Admiral Berkeley deployed ashore a naval brigade consisting of 500 seamen and 500 marines to guard the left bank of the Tagus, to provide the signalmen along the Lines of Torres Vedras and to provide Marine artillery. The main force worked in co-operation with the flotilla of naval ships in the North part of the River Tagus to ensure that the French troops could not out-flank the British lines and move on Lisbon, while Naval signalmen ensured that messages could pass along the 29 miles of the Lines in 7 minutes.

Marines along with Artillery were landed on the 3 islands to the North in the Tagus where they worked with the British Army on the left bank and the Naval ships to stop French attempts to use the islands to cross. Later a large number of Marines were moved to Fort San Julien to provide protection for the deployment of maritime logistics to Wellington’s force ashore. This area was also the 3rd Line of Torres Vedras and is close to the current site of HQ Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, STRIKFORNATO.

When the Marines were finally returned to the UK in February 1812 the British General in charge of the Army in Lisbon wrote that he “cannot part with the Royal Marine Battalion without expressing the lively concern he feels in being deprived of their service, and requesting their acceptance of his best thanks for their uniform good conduct whilst in his garrison”.

In recognition of this part of Naval and Royal Marine history, the four Royal Marines based in Portugal are aiming to complete a physical challenge that will start with a canoe to the Islands in the Tagus, to run around the Islands before returning to the left bank. They will then cycle along the first line of defence taking in the signal tower overlooking Wellington’s HQ where Naval signalmen worked before turning south and arriving at St Julian Fort a distance of 64 miles.

This is part of the Royal Marines 1664 Global Challenge that will see Royal Marines around the world complete 100 challenges in 100 days, raising funds for wounded and injured Naval Service Marines and Sailors.

It made me smile. The lines of Torres Vedras are unheard of to most people in the UK, even if they know a bit about the Peninsular Wars, although having visited them very recently in Portugal I’m aware of how crucial a part of modern Portuguese history they are. Somehow I love the idea that these guys are raising money for charity in the name of that little piece of obscure history. They aren’t going to get the recognition of the lads running around the UK and it doesn’t really matter since it all goes to the same cause, but I still somehow felt a connection. I made a donation because I wanted my name on that page. It has meaning for me.

I’m going to start the story tomorrow, even though I ought to be working on my final revision of ‘An Unconventional Officer’. I love these little obscure bits of history which turn up in the oddest places. I hope you’re as interested as I am. And if you feel like making a donation, this is the link.