An Unconventional Officer – Revision Time…

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington
An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

The battle of Talavera is officially over and revision time on An Unconventional Officer is getting easier.

After weeks of agonising over rewriting this blasted battle, the thing just happened, falling seamlessly into place with the rest of the book. I finally did this with pneumonia, spiking a temperature and with a blinding headache. It’s probably the reason describing an unpleasant battle experience in the middle of a scorching Spanish summer came so easily in the end.

The word in this house is now officially revision. AS level revision, GCSE revision and revising the final draft of this book for mistakes and inconsistencies. It’s a long and tedious process but at least I know what I’m doing with it.

This is a long book in comparison with the other three I’ve published. I struggled with the length for a while and finally decided to stop trying to prune it any further. I can’t tell this particular story any other way because it needs to fit around actual historical events so I’m just going with the flow.

The first chapter of ‘An Unconventional Officer’ is available to read for free elsewhere on this website.

I’m looking forward to publication on May 30th.

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.

Officers and Gentlemen – Promotion and Rank in Wellington’s Army

Cannon

Lord WellingtonPromotion and rank in Wellington’s army was a daily preoccupation of the officers who served under him.  During the wars against Napoleon, an officer’s commission in the army was obtained by purchase, a crucial plot device in many a Regency novel. Young men wishing to enter the army were obliged to raise the money to buy their way in, and within the army promotion was, for the most part, by purchase as well.

There were several reasons for this. First and foremost, it preserved the social standing of the officer class, keeping out undesirable elements simply because they could not afford to join. It ensured that commissions were generally held by men with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, thereby reducing the possibility of Army units taking part in a revolution or coup. It ensured that officers had private means and were less likely to engage in theft or looting during wartime or to engage in profiteering. It served as a form of collateral against abuse of authority or gross negligence or incompetence, since a disgraced officer could be cashiered by the crown which meant they would be dismissed without recouping the cost of their commission. And finally the sale of the commission could provide for an officer’s retirement at the end of his service.

All of these reasons made perfect sense for the time. There was no equality for other social classes in any other area of life and nobody had any desire to see the common soldier raised from the ranks. It happened occasionally but very rarely and was seldom considered to be a success. Unfortunately, the system did not always ensure that the best men rose to positions of command ahead of those who simply had more money. Social exclusiveness was preserved not only by money but by sheer snobbery as regimental colonels were allowed to veto the purchase of a commission in their regiment if they did not think that the officer was of the right social background. This often happened in the Household and Guards regiments which were dominated by aristocrats.

During wartime, especially a war as bloody as the long Napoleonic wars, promotion on merit was more common. If an officer was killed in action his shoes could be filled by promoting a man who could not otherwise have afforded the purchase. It alleviated some of the worst effects of the system and ensured that at least some men of little means but considerable talent had the chance to rise to more senior ranks. But overall Wellington’s army was a hotbed of privilege and tradition with layers of social snobbery between officers, between the guards, the infantry and the cavalry and between old traditional regiments steeped in history and some of the new-fangled regiments recently raised.

This was the background against which the young Paul van Daan purchases his commission in the first book of the Peninsular War saga. The 110th light company was not the obvious choice for him. Paul comes from considerable wealth on his father’s side and very good birth on his mother’s side and a commission in a fashionable cavalry regiment is well within his means. He chooses instead to join with his boyhood friend, Carl Swanson, who as the son of a humble parson has not the means to buy into an expensive regiment. The light company of the relatively new 110th infantry is their choice, and after basic training down at Shorncliffe under the legendary Sir John Moore, one of the men who created the modern army with his light infantry tactics, they arrive at barracks in Melton ready to go to India.

Once in the field, a man’s progression through the ranks could vary widely. Some would be based on ability to pay and willingness to transfer between regiments. An ambitious officer might quickly go through a number of different regiments to achieve rank. By this time, rules had been introduced about the amount of time an officer needed to have served in order to purchase promotion, but in the field all bets were off and rules and regulations were set aside in the name of expediency. Commanding officers would bend and break rules to either promote or block promotion according to their preference for candidates and vacancies opened up all the time due to death or illness.

The various rules and changes going on in the army can be an advantage to a writer needing to promote a character up the ranks in a particular way, since there were so many ways this could happen with local ranks, official ranks, field ranks and temporary ranks, that it is almost always possible to assert honestly that this could have happened in Wellington’s army even if it was not the usual route to success. But despite this flexibility, all of Paul’s fellow officers would have been gentlemen and would have expected their fellow officers to share a set of unquestioned values and beliefs with which they all felt safe.

So what happened when one of them didn’t?

What happened when an officer broke all the rules of his class and his rank and cared more about his enlisted men than the comfort of his officers? What happened when an officer decided to pick and choose which regulations mattered and which didn’t? What happened to a young lieutenant who often preferred the company of his Irish sergeant and his cockney Corporal; who would rather eat by the campfire than dine in the mess; whose friends included thieves and pickpockets and ex poachers? How could any officer who flatly refused to use flogging to discipline his men expect to get on in the snobbish, hierarchical army of the early nineteenth century?

Welcome to the 110th infantry, where officers and men are about to get the biggest shock of their lives.

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

Welcome to An Unconventional Officer

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Lord Wellington

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

Lord Wellington is one of the most important supporting characters in the Peninsular War Saga.  He first met Paul van Daan on a hillside in India when Paul was an arrogant young lieutenant and it was the beginning of a friendship and working relationship which lasted the rest of Wellington’s life.

As Richard Graham emerged from his billet to find his horses ready, with one loaded with his small amount of baggage, he saw Captain Sean Devlin approaching him. “They’ve gone ahead to get the German lad settled,” he said. “I waited to show you the way. You ready?”

Graham nodded. “Yes. I’m hoping we get fed. I’ve been dreaming of a drink and a meal and trying to forget about today. What a bloody introduction to Portugal!”

Devlin laughed. “You were unlucky, laddie. Normally these affairs aren’t so exciting. Come and be properly introduced.

“I’m not sure I want to be,” Graham said.

“Admit, you’re curious. And you’ll want to find out how the lassie is.”

After a moment Graham nodded. “Should I change?”

“Don’t bother, they won’t expect it.”

“No dinner in the mess?”

Devlin laughed. “Just come as you are.”

Graham complied, admitting to himself that he was curious. His impression of the colonel had been of a towering personality with a temper but he had nothing other than that to go on. On the ride across to the abandoned convent where the 110th regiment had apparently been billeted until they had marched north to fight at Sabugal, Graham glanced at Devlin.

“So what’s the story, Captain?” he asked quietly.

“Don’t know yet, laddie. That’s why I’m here. Hoping to find out. It’s just up here. Best billet on the lines, the 110th always end up somewhere good.”

“I’m not surprised if he’s in charge,” Graham said drily. “Who is he and why the big fuss?”

Devlin grinned. “As the girl said, he commands the 110th. You heard of them?”

“No. Don’t forget I’ve just spent three years in the Indies, which is the arsehole of the world, I’ve not heard of anybody. Don’t think they’ve ever been posted out there. Infantry?”

“Yes. The first battalion is out here and the second in barracks and Paul van Daan commands the regiment along with a Portuguese brigade and the first battalion of the 112th. At the moment. Given how he’s just distinguished himself in this campaign, look for further promotions, I’d say. He’s on his way up, laddie, and fast. They often fight as part of the light division, he’s got a mania for training – a perfectionist – and he’s trained all his men to fight as light infantry although they’re not officially designated as such. I imagine they soon will be. He started out in India under Wellington in the light company. They’re as thick as thieves, he’s one of the few men Wellington will tolerate arguing with him and he has a reputation as something of an individualist. He is known in some quarters as Wellington’s Mastiff. Hookey likes to keep him close at hand and often gives him the jobs nobody else wants. Which is not a reputation I’d want, but it’s certainly a quick route to promotion if you can stay alive.”   (From: “An Uncommon Campaign” Book Three of the Peninsular War series by Lynn Bryant.)

Since I decided to write a series of books set in the Peninsular War, I have spent an inordinate amount of my time reading about Sir Arthur Wellesley, later Lord Wellington, who led the Anglo-Portuguese army during it’s five year struggle against Napoleon’s forces in Portugal and Spain. I started knowing very little about Wellington and I have ended up by feeling surprisingly attached to him.

My knowledge of Wellington, to be honest, came from my schooldays when I studied nineteenth century politics in history. He was Prime Minister twice, not very successfully, pushed through Catholic emancipation and fought strenuously and unsuccessfully against the Reform Bill, and in my mind he was always a slightly grumpy and very superior elder statesman who looked down his nose at the young Queen Victoria and disliked change and modernisation.

For my Napoleonic fiction books set during the Peninsular War I have had to go right back to the early days of Wellesley’s career. When he is introduced to the young Lieutenant Paul van Daan in 1802 he is a relatively young and inexperienced general with his greatest victories in the future. He had not yet made his disastrous marriage to Kitty Pakenham and the battle of Assaye, which brought him his knighthood and some public attention, was a year away. He was ambitious, single minded and determined, a moderate drinker for the time, a serious student of military affairs and a man who enjoyed the company of women. Even then, he struggled to delegate, and preferred his officers not to show any initiative or to take matters into their own hands.

As I began to read more about Wellington’s character it became obvious that I had accidentally stumbled on the perfect foil for the flamboyant, unpredictable bad boy of the 110th infantry, Lieutenant Paul van Daan, a character I’ve had in my head for a while. On paper, Paul is everything Wellington likes to see in a young officer; he’s dedicated, intelligent and courageous. In reality, Wellington the control-freak is about to come up against a force of nature and their disagreements are frequent and explosive.

While Paul’s love story is at the heart of the novels, his relationship with his commander-in-chief is almost as important. Increasingly through the years of war, Lord Wellington felt isolated and under siege from political influences in London and worn down by lack of money, men and resources and the limited pool of talented officers available to him on the ground. It increased his tendency to control every aspect of his campaign and the running of the army himself and anybody who reads the volumes of his letters and despatches will quickly begin to realise how involved he was in the detail of administration.

There were few men in his army that Wellington felt comfortable with, but his friendship with the young officer he had first singled out on a hillside in India endures the storms of war and politics. It was a source of envy and resentment among some of the other officers but it was very much understood by Anne, who has her own surprisingly close relationship with the commander in chief.

When I set out to write these novels, Lord Wellington was supposed to be a subsidiary character with little to do apart from to issue orders. As so often happens with subsidiary characters, he developed a mind of his own and began to intrude into the action in the most unsuitable manner. As he is a general, I thought it best to let him have his way.

 

 

A Collection of Freebies

Only a brief and somewhat informational post today to remind everybody of the free promotions coming up over the next few weeks.

The Reluctant Debutante on 30th April and 1st May.

A Marcher Lord on 6th-7th May

A Respectable Woman on 13th-14th May

May 30th will see the publication of the first book in the Peninsular War series. “An Unconventional Officer” tells the story of Paul van Daan, a young officer who joins the 110th infantry in their light company in 1802 and travels through India, Italy, Ireland, Denmark and then into Portugal. His fortunes are linked to those of the young and ambitious General Arthur Wellesley whom he meets in India, and his personal life is dominated by two very different women.

Rowena Summers, the shy young governess who becomes his wife and his steady companion.

Anne Howard who marries one of his officers and changes his view of women forever.

Against the backdrop of Wellington’s war in Portugal and Spain,the Peninsular War Saga will follow the fortunes of the officers, men and women of the 110th infantry, a regiment unlike any other in the British army.

An Irregular Regiment
Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga

The first four books have now been published on both Kindle and in paperback on Amazon and the Kindle versions now have new covers.

The Battle of Talavera – the problem of a battle

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

The battle of Talavera has been causing me a good deal of trouble while revising An Unconventional Officer.

Talavera, 1809

 Paul had just rallied his men after their encounter with the left column, keeping a wary eye on the French and trying to assess the extent of the damage. The first company had taken the worst punishing. He had no way of knowing how many were dead and how many lay wounded on the field, but more than half of them were missing including all of the officers. His own light company was battered and bloody and there were faces he searched for and could not find.
     “Sergeant, where’s Grogan?”
     O’Reilly shook his head exhaustedly. He was sporting a bloody arm where it had been grazed by a musket ball. “Down, sir,” he said quietly.
     “Wounded?”
     “Dead. No doubt.”
      Paul nodded. The green-jacketed rifleman was one of the oldest in his company and had been with him since India. “Poor bastard. Isn’t his wife expecting again?”

I mentioned a few days ago that I am already tired of the battle of Talavera.  Home again after spending the Easter weekend with friends I am contemplating another go at it.  I’ve been whinging about Talavera but in some ways it illustrates the general problems of writing about battles.

In writing a series of books about the Peninsular War, it’s hard to avoid the odd battle.  They occur with increasing regularity, interrupting the daily life of my characters and causing death and mayhem all over the place and they are impossible to ignore.

Researching battles is actually quite fun.  There are a lot of first hand published accounts of this war as well as a fair few histories stuffed with maps and diagrams and other useful tools.  In addition, some people have written modern guides to the battlefields for people wanting to tour them.

We weren’t able to get to Talavera during our recent trip around battle sites.  It was too far off our route and I had read that a motorway recently built makes it difficult to get much sense of how the country would have looked.  I found it incredibly helpful to visit the sites of some of the other battles I’m writing about.  My fictional regiment, the 110th took part in Talavera, Sobral, Massena’s retreat and Sabugal, and then the fighting along the border the following year leading up to Salamanca and I made it to most of these places, but the two major battles in the first book were left out so I’m doing Talavera from books and maps and photos.

The problem of battles is how to write them.  Battles weren’t particularly neat and tidy, they weren’t always well organised and they often took place over ground covering several miles.  Things didn’t happen in neat chronological order, so the battle could be going well in one part of the field while disaster struck on the other.  And the most crucial problem from an author’s point of view is that for whole sections of the time the men involved had no idea what was going on.

That leaves the choice of whether to write from the point of view of the individuals involved or whether to take a more general view so as to tell the reader what is happening all over the field.  There is also, in my case, the action off the field since what is happening in the surgeons tents is of some importance to the plot.  With so much going on there is a danger of flitting from one place to another leaving the reader completely bewildered.  I suspect my first draft of Talavera was guilty of this since the man I married informed me he had no idea what was going on when he read it.

The other problem is how long to spend describing battles.  Book one of the series begins with Paul joining the 110th and describes his early days with the regiment including the battle of Assaye.  At this stage he has not met either of the two women in his life and the focus is very much on the action on the field and it’s aftermath.

By the time we reach Talavera there is some conflict.  Not only do I have to work out where the 110th is fighting and what happens to the main characters in the regiment as the day unfolds, but I need to keep an eye on my female character who has her own role to play for the first time.  It’s a delicate balance between turning the thing into a military history rather than a novel or giving the impression that the battle is a mere backdrop to the personal lives of the characters.  I’m working on how to get that right.  Time will tell.

Having said all of that, I like a good battle.  It enables me to to bring out the best in some of my characters – and on occasion, the worst.  It highlights personality traits and gives opportunities to move the plot along very quickly.  There are opportunities for some light-hearted moments but far more opportunities for tragedy.  At the end of a battle nothing is ever quite the same.

I’m rather looking forward to getting on with Talavera and I’m hoping it will be the last big section of rewriting I need to do on the first book before it’s ready to publish.  I wonder if I’ll still be as cheerful about it by the end of next week…..

 

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

Quill pen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do they look – the story of a book cover

An Unconventional Officer

For an independent author, finding the right book cover can be a challenge, and when I first started out I had literally no idea how to go about it.

The sound of a musical laugh made him turn and he surveyed his new wife from a distance.  She had just emerged from their tent and was regarding Sergeant O’Reilly with an expression which told him that she was about to utter a crushing remark and was just deciding on the exact wording.  She was dressed in her working clothes of a plain dark gown, and she wore no embellishments other than the long glory of her black hair, which fell loose to her waist.  He felt the accustomed wave of sheer happiness at the sight of her, followed by a stab of desire, which he ought not, after the previous night and morning, have been capable of feeling at all.

From ‘An Irregular Regiment’ by Lynn Bryant (Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga)

I am ridiculously excited today.  I have finally agreed on the cover design for the first book in the peninsular war series, ‘An Unconventional Officer’.

I rather imagine that book covers are an issue for all authors whether independent publishers or traditionally published.  Expense is obviously a consideration.  Those of us just starting out don’t have the money to spend a fortune on an individually designed piece of artwork.  On the other hand, we do have a good deal of freedom to chose what goes on our cover without having to come to an agreement with a publishing house.

The lady who does my covers is called Sheri McGathy and I’ve never met her as the whole design process takes place on line.  I discovered her while reading another book and seeing her name and since I liked the cover I asked about prices and the process and remarkably quickly I had my first cover.

Since I am not paying for a portrait artist or professional models who look exactly like my hero and heroine, it is Sheri’s job to find a suitable couple and adapt them to match what I’m looking for as closely as possible.  I’ve been fascinated by the process.  There are websites out there of models posing in a variety of historic costumes – and often with a lot less on – specifically designed for this purpose.  Who knew?

The first three books were surprisingly simple.  Sheri came up with some ideas, changed hairstyle and colour and sometimes costumes and suddenly I was looking at a couple who worked well enough to convey the two people I have written about.  My favourite of the three is ‘A Marcher Lord’.  The couple were perfect from the start, we didn’t even have to fiddle with the dress and the background was changed easily.

Going through this process three times I was painfully aware that Paul and Anne were going to be trouble.  They always are.  I think Sheri realised it too since she asked a lot more questions about these two.  Of course given that it’s a series, I had to decide if I wanted the same couple with a different background on each book, or if I wanted different poses.

Then there is an issue of costume.  A nineteenth century army uniform turns out to be relatively easy to do, it worked with ‘A Respectable Woman’ and it works very well on this cover.  Anne’s hair wasn’t too complex although straight hair is less popular than curly it seems.  Paul was more of a challenge, being blond.  Most models on these sites seem to be tall dark and handsome, some changes were needed.

After hours looking through online photos I finally came up with a couple that worked.  They’re not exactly the two people I had in my head.  It would help if they smiled, my two like a good laugh and although they live through some tragic experiences, I see them as smiling people.  But with Sheri’s hard work, I suddenly looked at them and I could see what I wanted.

Anne’s dress proved, surprisingly, the hardest thing of all.  Regency style models wear floaty ballgowns.  They’re pretty and light and they give a very good impression of the fashions of the day.  But they’re not all that practical riding on rutted, muddy roads through Portugal or dealing with the wounded in some makeshift field hospital in Spain.  My girl would have rolled her eyes in her practical little head at some of these designs.  But with much patience we’ve found something that works.

I like their costumes and I like the faces.  He looks serious but she looks as though she is possibly about to laugh or possibly about to issue a mouthful as described in the quote above.  She certainly doesn’t look like a girl who is about to sit back and behave herself…

It will be a month or two before this book is published.  I’ve some rewriting to do.  But I’ve talked about it and somehow this cover has made it real for me.  I’d like to officially thank Sheri for helping to give Paul and Anne a face and a presence.  She does an amazing job.

 

How do they look?  That’s a tough one for most authors.  But for me, this is very close….

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Historical Romance

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

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

But what happens after that?

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Marcher Lord – the story behind the book

Smailholm Tower, one of the settings for A Marcher Lord

 

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

I started to write  A Marcher Lord sitting at a very rickety wooden desk in a rather nice little hotel in the border town of Jedburgh.  I’m not sure if the ‘Spread Eagle Hotel’ is still open, I have a vague memory on a more recent visit that it seemed to be closed but that might have just been temporary.  It was an old place right in the centre and the floor in my room sloped so badly that it made me feel slightly off-kilter but the bed was comfortable and the food was amazing.

I was on one of my periodic trips to escape from my family.  Having been brave enough to have two children in my late thirties, I found as they grew up that a few days away from them all once a year stopped me turning into Mummy from the hilarious Peter and Jane Facebook posts.  Normal women wanting to escape from family life, talk their partner into agreeing to a cheap break to Tenerife with the girls.  Never having been even faintly normal, my idea of joy was to go to the Scottish borders on my own and tramp through mud and cowpats to explore reiver country which I had recently been reading about both in P F Chisholm’s totally brilliant Sir Robert Carey books and in the non-fiction account ‘The Steel Bonnets’ by the wonderful George Macdonald Fraser.  P. F. Chisholm, for anybody who doesn’t know is one of the pen names of Patricia Finney, and these books are still popping out every now and then although not nearly often enough for me.

I’d been writing on and off since I was very young and my laptop was cluttered with half finished novels.  I’d finished several and made attempts to find publishers or agents and I’d had a couple of very positive responses from the Romantic Novelist Association’s New Writers Scheme.  But my problem was that I absolutely adored researching and writing historical romances but the effort of trying to get one actually published was completely beyond me.

I would like to tell tales of how heartbroken I was at endless rejections, but I honestly wasn’t, I’ve always been able to shrug stuff like that off very easily.  I write what I write.  I know it’s fairly well written, you can’t come out of an old style grammar school without being able to put together a piece of writing that’s easy to read with correct spelling and grammar, but not everybody likes history or romance and if your favourite kind of book is a gruesome psychological thriller with a hero with darkness in his soul you’re probably not going to jump up and down at the publication of a Regency romance.  Although having said that,  I am the woman who reads both Georgette Heyer and Val McDermid.  But as I said, I’m not normal.

There weren’t actually endless rejections, because I didn’t make as much effort as I could have done.  I found that I got very impatient with the whole process and when finally, after months of hearing nothing, I would send a polite chasing e-mail asking if they’d read the damned thing, I invariably got a very fast ‘not our sort of thing’ response which I rather suspected meant either ‘lost it and can’t be bothered to look for it’ or ‘oops, didn’t see this one, haven’t read it but it doesn’t matter because we’re never going to take a chance on a new author writing straightforward historical romance.’

Self-publishing used to be very expensive and I never considered it until the advent of kindle.  Even then I resisted the idea for a long time.  It used to be called vanity publishing, and there was definitely a stigma about it.  I’m not sure if there still is, but I finally realised that since I love to write and put a lot of time and energy into making the books I write as good as I can, I’d rather like people to read them and enjoy them and come back for more.  Perhaps if I’d persisted, I would have found a publisher.  As it is, I now have eight books out there and people are reading them and seem to be enjoying them.

I began A Marcher Lord after my first visit to Smailholm Tower which is somewhere between Kelso and Melrose.  I arrived there, driving my poor car through a farmyard, very late in an autumn afternoon and the tower itself was closed.  I climbed up to the base of the tower to take some photographs and the atmosphere of the place just drew me in.  Standing there looking out over the hills, with the trees the most glorious shades of autumn colours, I felt as though I could have drifted back in time.  There was no sign of the twenty first century.  In my mind I was already populating the land around me with smallholdings and cattle and sheep and a tough border lord who is wrapped up in the complicated politics of the Scottish court as well as trying to keep his lands and his people safe from the English invaders and marauding reivers.  Not much time for romance there, I’d have thought…

Smailholm Tower

Smailholm Tower

Out of that lovely afternoon was born Will Scott, Lord Crawleigh, a man of honour in a time when honour was often for sale;  Jane Marchant with her courage and free spirit, and A Marcher Lord, a love story set against the backdrop of a brutal war.  

I love this book, I loved researching and writing it and I’m planning on writing a sequel next year.  Despite their very complicated circumstances, Will and Jenny are possibly my most straightforward hero and heroine and I like that about them.  A Marcher Lord is now available in paperback as well as on Kindle.

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