The Battle of Fuentes de Onoro

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'OnoroThe Battle of Fuentes de Onoro took place on this day in 1811 in and around the small border village close to the fortress of Almeida which was the last French foothold in Portugal.

In honour of the day, I wanted to share an extract from An Uncommon Campaign, where Major Carl Swanson finds himself commanding five companies under Lt-Colonel Williams of the 5/60th, fighting a bloody battle in the narrow streets of the village.

The rifles and muskets crashed around him and Carl levelled his pistol and fired. The French voltigeurs came on, dodging behind walls and hedges, and after them came the sound of the drums as the French columns marched forward.  Carl had been through many battles and he knew the effect those drums could have on inexperienced troops especially when coupled with the sight of the solid columns of Frenchmen marching inexorably forward, shouting for their Emperor with the golden eagle standards blazing overhead. But the men of the 110th had been through too many battles to be easily intimidated. The guns up on the ridge began to fire into the columns, and there were cries of agony, spurting blood and smashing bone.  And then Carl heard the clear tones of Captain Manson through the smoke and noise and fear.

“All right lads, fall back when you need, don’t take a punishing.  Carter, Dawson, Cooper, Hammond – get rid of those bloody eagles, will you, they piss me off, they don’t even look like birds.”

Carl grinned, and fixed his eyes on the eagles. As the men began to fall back steadily before the approaching columns, there was a crack, and one of the eagles fell, its pole snapped.  There was a scrabble among the French to retrieve it, and then a scream of pain and the second eagle toppled forward as the man holding it died. Even through the chaos of battle Carl could hear men cheering as each one fell and he silently applauded Manson’s imaginative piece of morale-boosting.

There was no time for it now as the French crashed into the British lines and the fighting became close and personal and bloody. Each man fought for his life, with bayonet and sword, and seeing his men in danger of being overwhelmed, Carl yelled an order and turned to run back, finding new loopholes in three houses further up. His men recovered quickly, reloaded and turned to fire again.

They fought their way stubbornly up through the narrow streets of the village, in a welter of blood and death. In places, some of the light companies had built makeshift barricades from doors and bed frames, and their officers stood beside them, calling orders in measured tones. When the French overran them they abandoned firepower once more and through sheer determination forced the French back down the hill at the points of their bayonets, scrambling over dead and wounded of both sides.

It was impossible, in the tangled streets, to know what was happening elsewhere in the battle. On an open field it was easier to scan the lines and see how other battalions were doing, but Carl was only aware of his own five companies, now somewhat depleted. He found himself alone briefly in a winding lane, closely bordered by white cottages, one of them badly damaged by artillery fire, his men moving into the houses to check for enemy ambush. Carl wiped sweat from his face on his sleeve and it came away black. Keeping a wary eye up and down the lane he reached for his water bottle and gulped down a few swallows.

Ahead of him a smoke-blackened figure emerged from one of the doorways. “Clear in there, sir,” Private O’Hara said cheerfully. “Just got to..”

There was an explosion of sound and O’Hara’s body jerked violently. He made a strangled gurgling noise and then fell forward, blood spilling onto the baked earth of the street, his back a gaping hole. The Frenchman was only a few feet away and could not have missed, even with the dubious accuracy of a musket. Carl looked down at the dead Irishman and then up at the Frenchman and as he did so there was a babble of French voices and they poured out of the building opposite, a dozen of them, racing towards him with bayonets raised.

Carl dived into the nearest doorway. The house was empty, a bare room, cleared of valuables with only a few pieces of basic wooden furniture. The door was narrow and two of the French infantrymen tried to go through it at the same time and collided, temporarily stuck. Carl could have killed either of them without difficulty but their comrades were yelling behind them and he had no intention of running towards them. He spun around, looking for an exit, but the only window had wooden shutters firmly closed and he had no time to open them. 

There was a narrow wooden staircase and Carl sprinted towards it and scrambled to the upper floor. There were two doors and he dived through the first one, slammed it shut, making plaster fall from above with the force of it, and dragged the big wooden bed in front of it. It was not heavy enough to hold the Frenchmen but it would buy him some time.

The window here was also shuttered and Carl struggled furiously with the warped wood, showering himself with plaster and splinters as he fought to open it. It gave finally and he flung the shutter open and leaned over the sill, looking down into the lane below. It was a drop of more than ten feet, he guessed and if he jumped he risked a broken leg. They would bayonet him where he fell and looking along the street, he could see only Frenchmen; the British were further up, fighting their way through the houses at the top of the hill. His stupid pause had allowed him to become cut off from his men and hearing the bed shift behind him, he took a deep breath and swung his leg over the ledge, thinking how furious his commander would have been if he could see his predicament. 

Below, under the lower window, three bodies lay immobile, two British and one French. It was impossible to tell if they were alive or dead, but the Frenchman’s bayonet lay to one side and he was soaked in blood. Carl eased himself over, trying to lower himself to minimise the fall but a crash behind him told him he had run out of time and he went over in a scramble and dropped deliberately onto the body of the Frenchman.

It broke his fall as he had intended, the feeling of the corpse beneath him making him feel sick. There was no time to think about it; shouts from the window above told him that his pursuers were there and scrambling to load a musket. Carl got to his feet shakily and turned towards the far end of the hill where his companies had been fighting.

“Sir, get down!” a voice bellowed and Carl recognised it with overwhelming relief, as Private Dawson of the light company. He dropped like a stone, flat to the ground and there was a flurry of rifle shots and an order called in the London accent of Sergeant Hammond. Above him a man screamed and then a body crashed to the ground close to him. More shots were fired and then he heard running feet, hard on the packed earth, and he was suddenly surrounded by red coats.  A hand reached to pull him to his feet.

“Sir, are you hurt?” Manson’s voice said.

“No, but I’m bloody embarrassed, that was a mistake I’d expect from a sixteen year old ensign fresh off the boat. You tell the colonel and I’m coming after you, Leo. And thank you.”

He turned and watched as his men surged past him, driving the French back down the hill in a fierce charge. Above, the men at the windows had vanished, driven off by the fire of the rifles although one lay dead in the street beside him and another hung like a broken doll over the window ledge. Carl looked at Manson.

“You all right?”

Manson nodded.  His face was black with powder and there was blood on his coat .  “Think so, sir. Bastard of a place to defend, mind.  Cooper and Blake are hurt, I’ve told them to get themselves up to the church, it’s where we’re sending the wounded for now.”

Wellington at the Tower

Wellington at the Tower came about during a late-night online chat with two very dear historian friends, Jacqueline Reiter and Kristine Hughes Patrone. We had recently been to the Tower and had been reading about the changes the Duke of Wellington made when he became Constable of the Tower in 1826. The resulting sketches were put together for our own amusement, and I’ve slightly tidied them up for public consumption, to celebrate Wellington’s 250th birthday.

The sketches take the form of imaginary conversations between the Duke of Wellington, full of crusading zeal to improve conditions at the Tower, and General Sir Paul van Daan, the fictional hero of my Peninsular War Saga and long-time friend and sparring partner of the Duke. I sometimes look ahead and wonder how that friendship will continue into peacetime. I have a very strong feeling that it won’t change very much at all…

No actual History was involved in the creating of these sketches. Well, not much, anyhow. For the background to this, I suggest you read No 1 London’s excellent post on the subject here.

From the creators of Wellington on Twitter…

Wellington at the Tower Part I

“I am making a number of changes at the Tower, General.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Firstly, the post of Yeoman Warder. Are you aware that is possible to BUY these positions, or even hand them down from father to son?”

“No. No, sir, can’t say I knew that.”

“It is a disgrace. Such a position ought to be earned, as an honour, not bought and sold. Like…like…”

“Like a commission in the actual army, sir, where you get to lead men and send them into battle? No, I can see why that would worry you.”

“Don’t be impertinent, General. I have decided to end this practice. In future, Yeoman Warders will be appointed based on distinguished military service.”

“Excellent idea, sir. Only please don’t offer it to Sergeant-Major Carter, I do not want to look at his legs in that fancy dress costume.”

 

Wellington at the Tower Part II

“Ah, General van Daan. I have been speaking to the Surgeon-Major about the moat. It is completely revolting, full of rotting animals and God knows what else. He is of the opinion that it is affecting the health of the men, possibly polluting the water supply.”

“It sounds very likely, sir. Do your lot drink water at all? Things must have changed since the war, then. As I remember, grog and looted wine were more usual.”

“No, General. Only in the 110th.”

“Touche, sir. Can’t see the point of that moat anyway unless you’re expecting to be attacked. There’s not another Reform Bill in the offing, is there?”

“General, as always, you have me in paroxysms of laughter.”

“You’re hiding it well, sir.”

 

Wellington at the Tower, Part III

“Morning, sir. What in God’s name is that awful racket?”

“I have formally closed down the Tower menagerie, General. It is completely ridiculous to have beasts roaming around a military barracks. The animals are being transported to their new quarters in Regents Park. It will be a great improvement.”

“It’ll certainly be quieter. Is that by any chance an elephant I can hear? I feel as though I’m back in India.”

“It is. I have been listening to that noise every morning from my desk. It has driven me mad.”

“What about the visitors, sir? They loved coming in to see the animals, it’s what brings most people to the Tower.”

– Silence – –

“Ah. Yes, of course. You’ve got no objection to the animals, have you, sir, it’s just people you can’t stand.”

“Certainly I am selective, General. Why don’t you go down and watch them caging the lions? You might like to give them a hand. Although they sound fairly hungry…”

“Nice try, sir. By the way, what have you been doing at the front of the portcullis out there? Those black spikes are new.”

“Ah. I’m glad you noticed those. I have ordered them to be installed so that the guards will no longer be able to lounge against the wall and smoke whilst on duty. High time some military discipline was introduced in this place.”

“Really? Now that is an interesting idea. I am seeing a few of those decorating the guard posts around the barracks. Mind, we don’t have so much trouble with them smoking on duty these days, since Sergeant-Major Carter turned the room in the front tower into a latrine, and took to emptying the chamber pot out the window from time to time if he smelled smoke.”

“Really? What an ingenious idea, you must thank Sergeant-Major Carter for me. Where’s my secretary, I need to find out what the room in the Bloody Tower above those guard posts is currently being used for…”

“Glad I could help, sir. Sorry I can’t stay, but it sounds as though the baboons have escaped again, and I have enough trouble with that dog of my wife’s at home. Good luck, though. And I’d move those papers off your desk in case they make it in here…”

 

Wellington’s Birthday

Arthur Wesley, later Sir Arthur Wellesley and still later the first Duke of Wellington was born on this day in 1769 and to celebrate Wellington’s birthday there will be a lot of articles and blog posts out there which tell the story of his extraordinary life far better than I can.

As my readers know, Wellington is a significant character in the Peninsular War Saga. I’ve read several different biographies of him during my research along with a huge number of contemporary diaries and letters from men who served under him and each account puts a slightly different slant on Wellington’s character. Over six books, I’ve developed my own view of Wellington. I rather suspect I owe a good deal to Rory Muir’s historical view of him but as a novelist, I have the flexibility to add my own nuances, especially with regard to his relationship with my fictional characters.

Today, as my tribute to Wellington on his 250th birthday, I’ve put together a collection of some of my own favourite Wellington moments from my novels. I hope you enjoy them.

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyWe start in India, in an Unconventional Officer, when the young and newly promoted Paul van Daan fights under Wellesley at Assaye. At this stage, the two hardly know each other, but there is already a sense of some of the conversations to come…

“Captain van Daan.  They’re quieter over on the right than they were, it seems.  Would your ruffians have something to do with that?”

“Maybe, sir.  We came in to support the 74th but the dragoons were doing a good job so we went for the guns.”

“Lose many?”

“I don’t know yet.  One man down defending the first gun, but we took some heavy shooting to our right.  We’ll not get out of it unscathed.”

“None of us will, laddie.  They’re on the run now.  Their French officers took off, no discipline left.  Eyes right, the general is approaching.”

Wellesley reined in.  He looked exhausted and the horse he was riding was not the one he had set out on that morning.

“Major McTavish, Captain van Daan.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well done, sirs.  You’re hurt, Captain van Daan.”

“Not serious, sir.”

“Good, good.  I sent a man over to send you into battle, but he couldn’t find you.”

Paul glanced up at him warily.  “I was around, sir,” he said.

“Yes.”  Wellesley studied him with thoughtful blue grey eyes.  Finally, to Paul’s relief, his lips twitched slightly.  “You anticipated correctly, Captain.  You might not always be right, however.  I prefer my officers to await orders.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did Colonel Maxwell…”

“No, sir,” Paul said definitely.  “We went in ahead of him, he waited for your orders, sir.”

Wellesley shook his head.  “You’re a bloody liar, Captain, as you know very well.  I’ve sent Wallace to rally the remains of the 74th and get them out of the range of those guns.  Although they’re not doing much damage on this side, but they’ve started up again on the left, firing at our rear.  Harness is taking the 78th back to recapture them, Captain, are your men able to join them?”

“Yes, sir.”  Paul nodded to his sergeant who took off at a run to summon the rest of the light company.  

“Good, let’s get those guns back.  God knows what the cavalry are doing!”

Paul turned to follow his gaze and realised that having done their work, Maxwell’s troopers seemed to have gone out of control and crossed the Juah, with their colonel following them.  “They all right over there, sir?”

“I sincerely hope so, I could rather do with them over here.  What is wrong with officers of the cavalry, Captain?  Why can they never follow a simple order?”

Despite himself, Paul grinned at the general’s exasperated tone.  “I might not be the best person to ask that today, sir.”

An Unwilling Alliance is not part of the main sequence of books, taking place during the Copenhagen campaign of 1807, but it is one of my favourites in terms of the development of Wellesley and Paul’s relationship. In this scene, Paul is in trouble for upsetting the Royal Navy and Sir Arthur Wellesley is not amused…

Sir Arthur Wellesley was furious.

Paul finally managed to find him alone in his sitting room the following day, writing a letter to London. He had been pleasant on Paul’s arrival but his face had steadily darkened as Paul told his story. He said very little apart from to bark a question when a point was not clear. Paul told the story in full.  There was no point in holding back; at some point the entire tale would come out. Paul suspected that by now the bosun from the Flight would be telling it to Admiral Gambier and he was fairly sure that the man would be telling a version that made him appear less culpable.

Wellesley had not asked him to sit down and Paul stood to attention, fixing his eyes on a spot on the wall as Wellesley allowed the silence to lengthen when the story was told. Eventually his chief spoke, in tones of pure ice.

“Am I expected to get you out of this particular mess, Major van Daan?”

Paul shifted his gaze to Wellesley’s face. “No, sir,” he said. “I don’t expect you to do anything at all. You needed to know, because the bosun from the Flight is going to tell the Admiral what happened and it is going to come back to you. I am sorry.”

“Sorry? Do you think that is enough? You effected an armed boarding of a Royal Navy ship, locked up the crew, threatened the captain of the Iris when he very properly came to take over and asked you to leave and kidnapped a group of men who had been legally pressed into naval service without making any attempt to speak to a senior officer in either service about…”

“I did make an attempt to speak to the Admiral, sir. I spoke to Captain Sir Home Popham.”

“Don’t interrupt me!” Wellesley snapped, furiously. “You deserve to be court martialled and cashiered for this, you insubordinate young imbecile! The situation here is difficult enough; we’re invading and threatening a neutral country, nobody knows who is in command or whether the army or the navy should be taking the lead, orders from London are slower than usual and nobody is telling me anything at all or listening to anything I have to say! Admiral Gambier has every right to be furious about this and every right to demand your stupid young head on a plate and if he writes to Horse Guards to that effect or even complains to Lord Cathcart, there isn’t a damned thing I can do about it. I am not in command here and I don’t have that much influence.”

Paul met his gaze. “I know. And I know you don’t want to hear it, sir, but I am genuinely sorry. I lost my temper.”

“When you were a twenty-one year old junior officer, Major, your outbreaks were mildly amusing, mostly because they caused no real damage. At your age and with your rank they are no longer funny.”

Paul could think of nothing to say. He suspected that he had genuinely gone too far this time. His friends had told him often enough that he could not continue to rely on Wellesley’s indulgence indefinitely. On this occasion he knew that his chief’s fury was exacerbated by his own frustration at being sidelined from the centre of events. Wellesley was ambitious and had pushed for this appointment, wanting to get away from his administrative and political duties in Ireland and back into combat where he believed he was meant to be.

Paul agreed with him. He had served under a variety of officers in both his early navy career and since joining the army and he had never come across any man whom he respected as he did the austere Anglo-Irish general. He had caught Wellesley’s eye in India when he was a young lieutenant and they had remained in contact since then, corresponding regularly. He knew that despite the twelve year age gap, Wellesley liked him and he returned his chief’s regard. They were friends, as far as it was possible to be friends with the distant, unemotional Wellesley and Paul tried hard not to trade on the fact.  

He had not consciously assumed that Wellesley would extract him from his current situation, but he realised that it had not occurred to him that the general might not be able to. In India and in Ireland, Wellesley had been in command. He was subordinate here to Lord Cathcart and the political situation made it difficult for him to demand immunity for a young officer’s rash disregard for the dignity of the navy.

“Nothing to say, Major?” Wellesley said finally.

Paul shook his head. “Not really, sir. I could make a very impassioned speech about the state of those men aboard that ship. I could point out that I wouldn’t have needed to get involved at all if they’d listened to me when I went to the flagship to tell them what was going on. I could work myself into a temper all over again about a system that pays bonuses for legalised kidnapping, but we all know that I’ve a personal axe to grind on that particular subject; the navy stole two and a half years of my life when I was a boy and you don’t want me to go into detail about what some of that was like, trust me. But none of that matters, because you’re completely right. I’m old enough and intelligent enough to weigh up the consequences of my actions and I didn’t. I went blundering in and I didn’t give a thought or a single damn about how I was going to get out of it. And it isn’t fair to expect you to put your neck on the block because I need to learn self-control. I am sorry. Let it take its course.”

There was heavy silence in the room. Outside it had begun to rain and Paul could hear the raindrops against the shutters, the wind whistling through gaps in the wood. He thought inconsequentially that it was typical of Wellesley to find himself in a billet that would be freezing cold at night and not bother to change it.

An Irregular RegimentIn An Irregular Regiment, Paul has married his second wife, who is something of a favourite of Wellington’s, and is preparing to join the army in chasing Massena out of Portugal, when Paul learns that his chief has a particularly interesting job for him…

“I imagine so,” Wellington said. “Really, Colonel, you never fail to surprise me.  With the Duke gone, Dundas is making his own appointments to my army and he has sent me Major-General Sir William Erskine, whom you will meet tomorrow at my reception.  He is to take over the light division during General Craufurd’s absence.”

Paul sat very still, staring at his commander-in-chief. He felt suddenly very sick.  Wellington looked back at him steadily. There was a long silence. Eventually, Wellington said:

“I know you are about to start swearing, Colonel.”

“I actually don’t know any words rude enough to cover this,” Paul said, taking a deep breath.  “Was this your idea or Horse Guards?”

“What do you think, Colonel?”  Wellington sighed.  “I have no choice but to accept him.  He is politically very well connected, of the right rank and knows the right people.”

“And according to popular gossip he is arrogant, inexperienced, blind as a bat and mad as a Bedlamite.  Are you seriously proposing to allow him to command troops at all, let alone Robert Craufurd’s light division?”

“I don’t have a choice, Colonel.”

“Why don’t you send him out in command of my light company for a couple of days, sir?  I can pretty much guarantee they will solve your problem for you.”

“Colonel, murder is not a solution I can countenance I am afraid.”

“What a shame.”

Wellington shook his head.  “I should know better than to confide in a relatively junior officer…”

“You should know better than to confide in me and expect me not to tell you what I think, sir.”

“It is my aim to cause as much damage to Massena’s army as possible, Colonel. I…”

“And the light division would be perfect for that, sir, if you had the right commander.”

“You’re too young and you don’t have the right connections.”

“Christ, I’m not suggesting you give them to me. Either Beckwith or Drummond are more than capable!”

“Colonel, my hands are tied.  He is here and I need to use him, at least until I can come up with a very good reason not to. I have given him limited command and he has not done as badly as I feared.”

“He’s not had much chance so far but if you get Black Bob’s division slaughtered under this lunatic, sir, I suggest you take leave of absence before he gets back, because he’ll shoot you,” Paul said shortly.  “What do you want me to do?”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh come on, don’t tell me I’m here for a chat and a drink. I’ve spent four months working my arse off in Lisbon to get your army supplied, I’ve come back ready to fight and you are about to give me a job that you think I am going to yell about. How long have I known you, sir?  Cut line and tell me what it is.”

Lord Wellington was silent for some time and Paul studied him. He could almost see his chief considering the best way to phrase his orders, something he seldom did. Usually Wellington barked out instructions and expected them to be obeyed and the care he was taking over this made Paul’s heart sink.

“Very well. You’ll meet Erskine tomorrow. I want you and the 110th to operate under his personal command, in addition – but not as part of – the light division. You’ll provide him with ADCs, try to give him some guidance…”

“You have got to be fucking joking, sir!”

“Watch your language with me, Colonel.”

“My apologies, sir, it just slipped out. Is there something I’ve done recently to piss you off?  Because if there is, I wish you’d just tell me what it is and I’ll apologise. I have to be the worst person in the world for this job. Johnny Wheeler once told me I have the diplomatic skills of a five year old, and honestly, I think he was being generous.”

“Listen to me for a moment. You will be in the thick of the fighting. I want you to act as liaison between General Erskine and the light division but you’ll also be in a position to report back to me.  If things are going wrong, you are a man I trust to make difficult decisions without fear.  God knows you’ve made up your own orders often enough over the years.”

“Yes, in the heat of battle or when no other orders are available. I also fight very well under the command of a good general, by the way.”

“I know you do, Colonel, I commanded you at Assaye, Rolica, Vimeiro, Talavera and Bussaco. And you did exactly what you were asked to do on each occasion and you did it well. But at Assaye you went in to help the 74th before I could get to you to give the order.  And at the Coa you defied Robert Craufurd to double back and retake that knoll, saving the rest of his troops during the retreat. That is why I want you within reach of Major-General Erskine. Because you being there could save lives.”

Paul stared at his commander. “Tell me this is a joke,” he said, too angry to be polite.  “You are giving Robert Craufurd’s light division to a half blind lunatic with no experience of either war or command and you are expecting me to do what exactly?”

“Colonel, don’t lose your temper with me.”

“Sir, I have already lost my temper with you, telling me not to is only going to piss me off more.”

“The light division needs a commander. I have to do something with him, his family are too influential for me to ignore. At best he is inexperienced; at worst he might be dangerous.  So I’m putting him in charge of men who are going to be able to work round him.  Beckwith and Drummond are good men, used to Craufurd.  They’ll know what to do if he makes a mistake.  And if they don’t…”

“Sir?”

“If they don’t, you will,” Wellington said quietly.  “I’m putting the 110th under his direct command.  You’ll march with him, provide him with ADCs, make sure he’s where he should be when he should be.  And make sure that the light division knows what the hell is going on.”

Paul stood up and went over to the window.  “And what happens if that goes wrong?” he asked.

“It won’t.”

“It bloody well could and you know it. If I can’t manage him, my lads end up dead, possibly taking half the light division with them. And if I do manage to survive it, I’m neither senior enough nor well connected enough to survive what they’ll do to me at Horse Guards.   Either way you’re in the clear.  If I manage it, you’ll get a slap on the back and political points.  If I don’t, you stand back and point and I’m going down.”

“That is unfair, Colonel. I have always supported you, no matter how appalling your behaviour at times. Another commander would have left you to your fate after Copenhagen or sent you for court martial after the Coa.”

Paul was silent, aware of the truth of it. Wellington had always supported him when he had been in trouble, but he also understood that his chief would put the needs of his command ahead of any friendship. Paul had no problem with that; it was what he expected, but the idea of Erskine in charge of the light division appalled him and the idea that he was being expected to manage it, was worse.

“How long do you think it will be before General Erskine has me up before a court martial, sir?” he asked finally. “You know what I’m like.”

“I know you’re getting better at it. You can do this, Colonel van Daan,” Wellington said steadily. “You are probably the only man I would trust with it.”

“You’ve got a very funny definition of the word trust, sir.”

“I’ve never yet given you an order you’ve failed to obey,”

It nettled Paul as he knew it was meant to. “No. And you haven’t this time. I’ll do my duty, sir. It’s what I do. But you need to do something for me in return.”

“Which is?”

“Before we set off, I want to borrow your man of business. I need to get my affairs in order. And I need you to give me your word that if he gets me killed, you’ll make sure she’s all right.”

Paul had shaken his commander and he knew it. “Colonel…”

“Your word, sir.  I can get everything set up and ready for my lawyers at home.  But the only thing my family knows about her is that I married the widow of a thief and a deserter, practically over my wife’s grave. They’re not supportive of us and they don’t need to be.  Sooner or later they’ll meet her and get to know her and they’ll think it’s the best thing I ever did.  But at the moment she’s on shaky ground.  So if I die, I need you to use every piece of influence that you have to make sure she gets what she’s due.”

“I will.”

“You promise me.”

“Colonel you have my word on it.”

“And look after her.  Nobody else can do it. I don’t think any of them understands her yet the way you do, with the exception of Leo Manson and he’s too young.”

Wellington studied him for a long moment. Then he nodded.  “I will.  But it isn’t going to be necessary. You are better at this than you think you are, Colonel, I wouldn’t be doing this if I weren’t sure of that.”

“Well I appreciate your confidence, sir.”

“As to the rest, I give you my word that I will support you if you’re put in a difficult position over this. And I can, I’m not in command of the reserves any more. You take care of my light division until Craufurd gets back and if Erskine comes baying for your head, I will throw him out.”

Paul looked at his chief with troubled eyes. He wanted badly to believe him and he knew that Wellington was completely serious in his intention. He also knew that nothing meant as much to his chief as remaining in command and winning this war and he was under no illusions that he would put that aim ahead of anything else, probably including friendship.

“Thank you, sir,” he said finally, given that there was nothing more he could say. He saw Wellington visibly relax and wondered if the general had actually expected him to refuse.

“Excellent. I’ll expect you and your officers at the reception tomorrow evening, Colonel. Have you met General Erskine at all?”

“Not really, sir, I’ve seen him around.”

“Bring your wife.”

Paul eyed his commander in chief.  “Sir, when my wife hears about this one, you might be better off if I leave her at home,” he said shortly.  “But we’ll be there.  If you’ll excuse me, I’ll need to go and brief my officers about this.  They’ll need at least a day before they get over it enough to guarantee they’ll be civil.”

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'OnoroIn An Uncommon Campaign, Wellington is furious in the aftermath of the French garrison’s escape from Almeida while Paul is drawn into army politics in order to secure the promotion of a good officer…

“Don’t start asking difficult questions, Colonel.”

“I have to. Because if you don’t tell me the truth you know perfectly well that at some point something is going to happen that I don’t like and I’ll probably blow up about it when I ought to keep my mouth shut.”

Wellington sighed. “I would rather be dealing with your wife at this point,” he said.

“Well you can’t. I know she’s a better politician than I am, sir, but she’s not well.  What are you giving them that I’m not going to like?”

Wellington studied him for a long time. Then he rose and went to the decanter. He brought it to the table and poured two more drinks and sat down. “I am writing to London concerning this disgraceful affair of the Almeida garrison,” he said. “In it, I am listing the reasons I believe it to have gone wrong. What I will not be doing is hanging Sir William Erskine out to dry. Privately I intend to convey to Horse Guards that I could do so at any moment if I am asked to place yet another officer of dubious competence over a man of honour and ability. I am then going to tell them of my appointment of Lt-Colonel John Wheeler to full colonel of the 112th light infantry.”

“Light infantry?”

“May as well make it worth my while.”

“All right, sir.  And who, may I ask, is the chosen scapegoat?”

“Not a scapegoat, Paul.  Not in the sense you mean.  A lot of mistakes were made but the biggest was the bridge at Barba del Puerco. I sent out an order the previous day to General Erskine to send the 4th under Colonel Bevan out to the bridge. For reasons which nobody seems to be able to explain to me, Colonel Bevan did not go there. The result was that Brennier had free passage over the river.”

“I thought I’d heard that Bevan was there,” Paul said.

“He arrived in order to join in the attack on the retreating French troops. If his men had held the bridge as they should have…”

“Have you had this properly investigated?” Paul asked quietly.

“Is Colonel Bevan a friend of yours, Paul?” Wellington asked.

“Have you met Colonel Bevan, sir? He is a charmingly naïve gentleman with his head stuffed full of notions of honour and gallantry which make my hair stand on end and a tendency to sink into black despair on a regular basis. No, he’s not a friend. He disapproves of me. I frequently want to shake him. But he’s a good man and not a bad officer. And he has a reputation for being highly conscientious. If he’s actually being blamed here for something he didn’t do…”

“He isn’t. I’m not lying about anything, Paul. I’m just not stressing the obvious, which is that both Campbell and Erskine, who command divisions, ought to have been able to work out between them how to prevent the French from breaking out of Almeida and managing a night march on little known paths to cross into Spain. If you and Craufurd had been guarding Almeida for me he wouldn’t have got beyond the first line of your pickets.”

“No, he wouldn’t,” Paul admitted. “So you let the commanders off the hook and blame poor Bevan for getting lost in the dark and quietly point out to Horse Guards how embarrassing it would be for them if their appointment – namely Erskine – should later turn out to have been grossly negligent. And then you bring up Colonel Johnny Wheeler and the 112th. Got any other favours you’re asking of them at the same time?”

“A more regular pay chest might be nice, Colonel, but I’m not optimistic.”

Paul drank.  “You were right. I bloody hate it and I wish I didn’t know anything about it.  But I want Johnny Wheeler commanding my men because he’ll keep them alive. What will happen to Bevan?”

“Nothing. God in heaven, Colonel, I’m not going to court-martial the man, he won’t be the first to make a mistake in this war. I would hate to be hauled over the coals for some of my recent choices at Fuentes de Oñoro. I’m not even going to give him a dressing-down in person. There will be a report in the London Gazette which might be embarrassing for him, but he’ll survive it. At some point he will do something gallant with his regiment and I’ll issue a commendation which will also be mentioned in the London Gazette and it will all be forgotten.” Wellington studied Paul. “There is another name which is going to suffer the same fate by the way but I doubt this one will distress you as much. General Erskine is placing some of the blame for the delay in my orders being sent onto Captain Longford.”

“Is he?  What is Longford supposed to have done?”

“He was at a dinner in Villa Formoso with the general when my orders were delivered. According to Erskine he told Captain Longford to deliver them to Colonel Bevan and the captain failed to do so for several hours.”

“Bollocks,” Paul said shortly. “Longford’s not that stupid. He’s trying to build himself a career out of this posting, if he got handed your orders he’d have taken them on the spot. What happened, Erskine put them in his pocket and forget about them?”

“We will never truly know, Colonel.”

“I’ll know, sir. Well it might put a brake on Vincent’s ambitions, but he’s used to that. He’ll smile and say the right things and keep kissing arses until it’s all forgotten. Do him good after what he did at Sabugal. Although it is bloody unfair that Erskine gets off scot free.”

“Paul – you can’t tell anybody about any of this. Not even your wife.”

“If I told Nan about this she’d crucify me,” Paul said bluntly.  “We share a passion for justice which I’m setting aside for Johnny and the 112th. Do I need to do anything about Grey?”

“No. Try not to hit him again. But he insulted your wife, another officer would have called him out. What did he say, by the way?”

“It involved Captain Cartwright.”

“Ah. Yes, that has caused a bit of gossip, Colonel. People are saying you are about to become the father of two children.”

“Is that what you meant about my morals earlier? If I’d fathered a bastard on Arabella Cartwright last year, sir, we wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation because my bloody corpse would have been found castrated in a ditch outside the nearest military hospital. And if she finds out what you and I have just done to Charles Bevan you might be right there next to me so you’d better be able to carry this off.”

In A Redoubtable Citadel, Wellington faces two bloody sieges within a few months and is particularly grouchy about his officers taking leave…

It had been a frustrating few weeks for the commander of the third brigade of the light division.  Arriving back at Wellington’s lines, Paul found his general in a foul mood, furious about delays in reinforcements arriving, problems with his supply lines and the slow progress of his siege train.  Wellington was still in Freineda, leaving it to the last possible minute to move his headquarters towards Badajoz.  He had spent weeks feeding disinformation to the French about his intentions and had been rewarded by a significant lack of troop movements towards the city, but he knew that once it became clear that he intended to invest the fortress and take Badajoz, the French would move to try to relieve it.  It was a delicately balanced strategy and Wellington found himself, not for the first time, short of men, money and equipment.  He was also short of a commander for the light division, General Charles von Alten having been delayed, and it was quickly clear that he expected Paul to step in to the breach.

Wellington’s senior officers greeted Paul’s return with evident relief, which told him all he needed to know about his commander’s mood during the past weeks.  Since the quick series of promotions which had led him to command a brigade at thirty, Paul had faced a good deal of resentment and opposition from some of the other officers.  He had heard himself described as a wealthy, middle class upstart who had bought his way to success but he was cynically aware of how much they relied on him to manage the commander-in-chief when he reached the point of addressing his generals with the biting sarcasm of a disgruntled Latin master speaking to a particularly dense first year.  The tone of his note requesting Paul’s return had been abrupt to the point of rudeness.

Paul was greeted with pleasure by his own officers.  He bathed and changed and took himself up to Wellington’s headquarters where his chief regarded him with a frosty eye.

“So you’re back?” he said with heavy sarcasm.  “I hope you’re well rested, Colonel?  I wouldn’t want to think I’ve interrupted your holiday too soon.”

“Well you did, sir,” Paul said frankly.  “My family brought my children out to see me, I could have done with another month to tell you the truth.  But the tone of this charming missive informed me I’d done as well as I was going to.  What’s going on?”

He dropped Wellington’s letter onto the table and stood waiting.  His chief picked it up and looked at it for a moment.  “Don’t you want to hold onto this, Colonel?  All my other officers are saving my briefing notes for their memoirs,” he said.

“No thank you, sir, I’ve had enough rude letters from you over the years to be able to recreate a generic bollocking without an aide memoire.  The only letters I hold on to are those from my wife.  She’s a better correspondent than you are, to be honest.  What’s the matter, siege train not arrived?”

“Nothing has arrived!” Wellington said.  “Get yourself a drink, for God’s sake and pour me one as well.  I thought you’d be in a better mood.”

“I was until I walked in here and you started yelling at me.”  Paul went to pour brandy and Wellington’s orderly grinned and effaced himself.  “Want me to tell you about our lovely parties in Lisbon?”

“You don’t need to; your wife wrote to me.  Her description of the Regent’s attempts at flirtation are the only thing that has made me laugh this month, she has a gift.  I wonder if she would accept a post as my secretary?”

“She isn’t going to accept any of the posts you’re likely to offer her, sir, since they would all lead to the same thing and I do not trust you with her.”  Paul put the glass down on the table and sat down without being asked.  “Tell me what’s been going on.”

In the most recent book, An Untrustworthy Army, Paul is put in charge of clearing the last French garrison out of the Retiro in Madrid and finds that he is expected to do so in front of an audience of cheering locals…

Dawn, and then full daylight, brought a new problem. The early sun lit up the astonishing spectacle of an audience.  The citizens of Madrid, some of whom had probably not been to sleep from the previous night’s celebrations, began to throng the streets close to the Retiro, ready to watch the attack on the interior lines. Others appeared on the roofs and balconies of nearby houses. Paul, trying to call his men into order to storm the breach in the wall, surveyed the area in complete astonishment.

“Jesus bloody Christ, we need the light division amateur theatrical group over here, it’d be the biggest audience they ever got. And probably the most appreciative. Where’s Lord Wellington, has he seen this sideshow?  Can we get them cleared out?  If the French decide to make a fight of this, people are going to get hurt. Major Swanson, we need to send a message down.”

It took thirty minutes for the reply to come, a brief and clearly exasperated message from Wellington. Paul read it and looked up at Carl.

“Apparently he’s made representations to the town council, but people aren’t willing to leave,” he said. “I feel my patience diminishing, which is never good.”

An enormous cheer greeted the manoeuvring of three companies of the seventh division into position.  The British soldiers echoed the cheers with a response of their own, drowning Sergeant-Major Carter’s shouted orders to his men about their position.  Carter took a deep breath and looked over at Paul.

“This is bloody chaos,” he said.  “They’re dopey bastards in there, mind, I’d have opened fire by now.”

“If they’ve got any sense they’ll surrender and hope we can get them out of here alive,” Paul said grimly.  “They’re not getting past our lads, but even if they did, these people will tear them to pieces.  Why the hell did Joseph leave them here?”

“Making a point, sir,” Captain Manson said. “He might have left his capital but he didn’t leave it undefended.”

“Two thousand men against the entire army isn’t a defence, it’s a present.”

Another enormous cheer swelled the crowd and Paul swore fluently.  “Carter, get them moving over to the right. Use hand signals if you need to. Any trouble with them, I’ll kick their arses personally. I don’t…ah look, we’ve company.”

Lord Wellington was approaching, making his way with some difficulty through the crowded streets, two young ADCs trying hard to make a path for him with their horses. Paul waited several minutes to be very sure that Wellington had got the point about the difficulties of conducting operations with a crowd of civilian spectators. When he suspected that his chief was on the verge of laying about him with a riding whip, he called over to Sergeant Hammond.

“Sergeant, get over there and clear a path for his Lordship, will you?”

Hammond was wearing his most deadpan expression. He saluted. “Right away, sir.”

Paul dropped his voice. “Don’t make it look too easy, Sergeant.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”

Wellington’s horse emerged finally from the throng which were being neatly held back by the 110th and Paul saluted his chief with a pleasant smile.

“Morning, sir, come to see the show?  I think they can find you space over on that balcony, and I must say I like the look of the pretty dark haired lass on the end, see if you can squeeze in next to her.”

“I will remember to mention to your wife how observant you are when she’s not around,” Wellington said smoothly, reining in and dismounting.  “Do not think that I am unaware of how long it took you to intervene there. Have you had a good night?”

“No,” Paul said briefly. His attention had been caught by a movement up at the fort, and he shielded his eyes from the brilliant early sun. “Is that…?”

“A white flag. I think so,” Wellington said. “I wonder if we might be able to avoid bloodshed after all? Signal that we will meet with them, Colonel. Let’s see if we can put an end to this.”

Lord Wellington, as a fictional character, is an enduring delight to write. His somewhat acerbic personality jumps out of the pages of his letters and orders and his perfectionism and attention to detail make it possible to include him in a novel about his army in a way that is far more difficult when writing about other commanders. Biographers have differed about his style of leadership, his abilities as a general and his personal relationships, and I have probably taken a little from each of them.

My Lord Wellington is a highly complex man who is capable of great warmth and kindness as well as appalling tactlessness. He finds personal relationships difficult, but is very loyal to those he considers friends. His relationship with my fictional officer, Paul van Daan, is central to the books, but equally important is his relationship with Paul’s young wife, who gradually becomes his friend and confidante in a way that foreshadows his future relationship with Harriet Arbuthnot.

I love writing Wellington and miss him in those books where he does not appear. As with all fictional accounts of real historical characters, I don’t claim to have ‘got him right’. None of us can really claim to know a man who was born 250 years ago, but as a novelist I have tried to create an interpretation of him that tallies with what we know of him from contemporary accounts.

Happy 250th Birthday Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington from one of your constant admirers.

Writing about Writing

Writing about writing is something I rarely do. Most of my blog posts are either historical or centre around life with Labradors on the Isle of Man. I’ve read some fantastic posts about the writing process from other authors, but I’d rather come to the conclusion that I’m not particularly introspective when it comes to my own work. I love what I do, but I don’t spend a lot of time analysing it and I dread the interview question “what made you become a writer?”. The best answer I could give to that is “I couldn’t help it.”

Recently, however, something has happened to change my outlook on this. I was asked to teach a creative writing course as an evening class at the University College Isle of Man. This was a new experience for me, although I’ve done training and work in schools, but the idea of designing a course was irresistible. It was a short course, really just to test the water, four weeks on writing fiction, but it has made me think about my writing in a way that I don’t think I have before.

The course ended this week and seems to have been a great success; I really enjoyed it and I think the participants did too. I’ve been astonished at how much I’ve learned from working with them and watching their process as they began their stories, met their characters and studied themes and plot and dialogue. But best of all, it has made me go back and revisit some of my books, thinking again about how and why I do what I do.

The Reluctant DebutanteIn order to teach something, you have to be able to break it down and I’ve found it easier to do this, as I’ve recently been working on revising one of my earliest books. The Reluctant Debutante was a Regency romance which I originally wrote when I was trying the traditional publishing route, and it was designed for the Mills and Boon historical market. I was unsuccessful with it, although it did get some very positive feedback.

When I decided to try self-publishing, I had no idea what I was doing, so I chose to publish my three standalone novels first, using them to test the waters before publishing the Peninsular War Saga. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of sales and did no real publicity. The first two books bombed as much as I had expected, but the third, my Regency romance, began to sell. I tried a free promotion and the uptake was huge. A few reviews trickled in and a few Goodreads ratings. Off the back of that, I began to get some sales of the other two books. Surprisingly, although never a bestseller, The Reluctant Debutante was my most popular book for a long time; a tribute to the enduring popularity of the Regency genre.

I’ve explained elsewhere why I was never really happy with that book. Occasionally I would get another review, many of them good and one or two absolutely terrible. Like all authors, I hate bad reviews, but I’ve learned to take them philosophically. My problem with this book, was that I kind of agreed with them.

After the publication of An Untrustworthy Army and before really getting stuck in to writing This Blighted Expedition I finally decided to do something about The Reluctant Debutante. I’d not read it through since I published it, and doing so was something of a shock to my system. It wasn’t that there was anything fundamentally wrong with the plot, it’s just that it really wasn’t very well written. The dialogue, always my strong point, was the best part although I don’t think it represented the characters as it should have. But the point of view was all over the place, the structure was messy and there was no clue as to the theme, even though I knew what it was in my head.

I’ve been revising this book along with teaching my course, and doing so has been incredibly useful, as it enabled me to break down the book and look at it in the way I was encouraging my students to do with their own writing. In the end, I didn’t need to change as much as I thought I would. I let the characters tell their story, but I was far clearer about the story they were telling. I gave them a voice, not just in the words they spoke but also in the thoughts they had, the internal dialogue which is so clear in some of my later books but which I seemed to have missed out entirely in this early effort.

I’m cautiously pleased with the result, and given that Giles is a minor character in the Peninsular War Saga and has a major role to play in my current book, I’m happy now, with the way he’s turned out. Part way through the first draft of This Blighted Expedition, I’m conscious of how much I’m applying some of the lessons I’ve learned to my new story.

You can write a very good book without reading a thing about crafting fiction. But personally, I think the work I’ve done in the classroom with my students, has made me a better writer. Certainly it has made me a more self-aware writer. I’m deeply grateful to them for their questions and contributions and endless curiosity about the writing process, both mine and theirs. I hope they all come back for another course and I really hope they all carry on writing. Every one of them has a different style and a different sphere of interest, but I think they have talent. I’m so grateful to University College Isle of Man for giving me the opportunity to teach this course and I hope to do more in the future.

“When one teaches, two learn.” (Robert Heinlein)

 

The Regency Romance: the story of the Light Division romances

A Regrettable Reputation (Book Two of the Light Division Romances)The Regency Romance; the story of the Light Division romances is my attempt to explain how I came to be writing in apparently very different genres, and even more unlikely, how I came to link the two. On the surface it seems that the military theme of the Peninsular War Saga is very different to the comedies of manners of the Regency novels. A closer look shows that there are very obvious links.

Of all historical novels, Regency romances seem to be one of the most distinctive genres, and although their popularity has waxed and waned they have never completely gone out of style.  Set approximately during the period of the British Regency (1811–1820) they have their own plot and stylistic conventions. Many people think of Jane Austen when Regencies are mentioned and certainly her novels are set in the right period, but of course she was writing as a contemporary not as a historian.

It has always seemed to me that Georgette Heyer was the mother of the current Regency genre.  She wrote more than twenty novels set during the Regency, between 1935 and her death in 1974 and her books were very much like a comedy of manners.  There was little discussion of sex, understandable given the different views of her generation, and a great emphasis on clever, quick witted dialogue between the characters.

These days, Regencies seem to be divided into two sub genres.  There are the traditional Regencies which are similar to Heyer’s originals, and a more modern Regency historical genre.  Many authors do not seem to confine themselves to one of these two types but may move between the two.  Both are currently popular.

Traditional Regencies emphasise the main romantic plot.  They play close attention to historical detail and take care to replicate the voice of the genre.  There is a good deal of research for writers of traditional Regencies.  Heroes and heroines generally remain within the accepted rules and conditions of the period and although their may be some sex it is very likely that the action stops at the bedroom door, probably at the proposal of marriage.

The more modern Regency historical novels break more rules.  They may be set during the time period but not necessarily in high society with an insight into life outside of the world of wealth and privilege inhabited by Georgette Heyer’s characters.  They may also include characters who behave in a more modern way, particularly when it comes to sexual behaviour and moral values.  The style can be very different to the more traditional works.  There is another sub genre, the sensual Regency which has become very popular in recent years.  These novels are far more explicit than the traditional Regency and the sexual relationship between the hero and heroine is key to the book.

There are some elements which are likely to crop up in all genres of Regency novels.  Many are set in, or will refer to the Ton, which means the top layer of English society.  They revolve around social activities such as balls, dinners, assemblies and other common pastimes.  Men are often involved in sporting activities.  There are detailed descriptions of fashion and a consciousness of social class and the rules of behaviour.  The difference between them is that in traditional Regencies the heroine is likely to stick to them; in the modern genre pretty much anything goes.

The shift in the genre seems to have come about because of a slump in the popularity of Regencies in the 1990s.  Some authors began incorporating more sex into their novels and while lovers of traditional Regencies disliked it, publishers and readers seemed to approve and the Regency novel got a new lease of life.

I grew up reading Georgette Heyer and owned every one of her books in paperback – I still have some of them and still read them from time to time.  They are, for me, the ultimate comfort book – the only other series which comes close are P G Wodehouse’s tales of Jeeves and Wooster.  These are the books I’ll turn to if I’m ill or miserable or sometimes just because my brain hurts and I can’t focus on anything else.  They are written to entertain and with their quick dialogue and comedic moments they never let me down.

I wrote my first Regency novel for the Mills and Boon market during the years I was trying to find a traditional publisher.  I’d tried several other novels, including at least two contemporary ones which are never going to see the light of day again, and had joined the Romantic Novelists Association new writers scheme.  After very positive feedback on both A Respectable Woman and A Marcher Lord it was suggested that I try to adapt these to Mills and Boon.  I did try, but it couldn’t be done.  It appeared that I simply could not have a heroine who defended herself very capably against attack; it was the job of the hero to rescue her and Jenny Marchant simply wouldn’t wait.  In fact she was more likely to do the rescuing.  Philippa Maclay was even worse, she didn’t make it through two chapters without doing something so appalling that it put her beyond hope of redemption.  If I rewrote these characters then I would be writing a different book.  I gave it up and decided to start from scratch.

Out of that decision came Cordelia Summers and Giles Fenwick of The Reluctant Debutante.  Once I got into the swing of it I really loved writing this book.  It’s fun and fairly light hearted.  I was already doing a lot of research into the period for my series set during the Peninsular war and that fitted very well with a Regency so it wasn’t that much extra work.  And the fast paced dialogue and witty characters of the Regency genre exist in all my books, no matter which period they’re set in.  I realise that those years of reading Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Dunnett have affected the way all my characters speak.  They may have different accents and different levels of education, but most of them are smart mouths.  

I had a lovely response from Mills and Boon on the Reluctant Debutante.  It was a no, but a very detailed no.  They liked the setting and the characters and even the plot, but once again my characters let me down.  There was not enough internal conflict between them, it seemed; most of their difficulties were external and their way of overcoming them was not dramatic enough.  Could I rewrite it to include more conflict between Cordelia and Giles?

I did try.  I wrote a selection of scenes for them.  The trouble was, trying to fit them into the book made no sense whatsoever.  I’d already created these people and their responses to events grew out of their essential character.  Cordelia might have flatly refused to see Giles after their quarrel and there could have been weeks of agonising and misunderstandings.  But there wasn’t.  Cordelia was as mad as a wet hen but once she saw him again, she didn’t have it in her not to listen to his explanation.  She’s a practical girl with a wealth of common sense.  She simply can’t behave like a drama queen.

So Giles and Cordelia remained as themselves and I published the book pretty much as I’d originally written it, with the removal of one or two completely gratuitous sex scenes which didn’t seem to add anything to the plot. For a while, it was my bestselling book, although the Peninsular War Saga has long overtaken it. This inspired me to write a second Regency, A Regrettable Reputation. It was only while writing this, that it occurred to me, that a link between my main series and my Regencies was not only possible, but made a good deal of sense. The two heroes of the Regencies both turn out to be former Light Division officers, and I have enjoyed incorporating references to their army days and characters from the other books. 

After the publication of A Regrettable Reputation, however, some of the dangers of this became clear. I realise that for readers who do move between the two series, I have introduced a number of spoilers about who survived the war. Thus far it hasn’t caused too many problems, but it is the reason why I’ve not carried on with the series yet. I’d like to do more, but I think I need to finish the Peninsular War Saga first. I’m already jumping backwards and forwards in time between the main series and the Manxman naval spin off. Any more time travel and my head will explode, I’ve no idea how Diana Gabaldon does it…

All the same, I enjoyed writing my Regencies. I’ve recently spent some time re-editing both of them and am working on new covers which should be out very soon. The new editions came about for different reasons. There are some changes to the end chapters of A Regrettable Reputation based on research I did for An Unwilling Alliance. I realised that what I had written as a military court martial should almost certainly have been a civilian criminal trial, and although none of my readers ever complained, once I knew I’d made a mistake, it bothered me. The changes do nothing to alter the plot, but the new version is more historically accurate.

The rewriting of The Reluctant Debutante was more of a difficult choice and I spent a long time thinking about it. When I first wrote this book, it was a standalone novel and it was only later on that I came up with the idea of incorporating it into a spin-off series to the Peninsular War Saga. Giles was written as a Waterloo veteran and a former exploring officer and it wasn’t that much of a stretch to imagine him coming through the 110th prior to that.

Once I had the idea, the temptation was irresistible. I wrote the prequel to this novel last year, A Regrettable Reputation, and the Light Division Romances were born. I made a few minor adjustments to The Reluctant Debutante and left it alone. For a long time, it was my most popular novel, a tribute to the enduring popularity of the Regency genre. But as an author, it was my least favourite book.

During a break between the publication of An Untrustworthy Army and the writing of the second book in the Manxman series, This Blighted Expedition, I decided to revisit my first Regency and try to work out what I disliked about the book. There were one or two obvious things. Having written the book as a completely separate entity to the series, there were some names which were far too similar to those in my other books and several readers had complained of confusion. Those were easy to change.

I also felt, with hindsight, that the end of the book was too rushed. It was as if the happy ending was in sight and I just wanted to get it over with. I’ve rewritten the last few chapters fairly extensively now, not changing anything about the plot, but giving both Giles and Cordelia space to enjoy their ending as well as giving a voice to one or two minor characters who deserved it. I’m much happier with it now.

The biggest change for me, however, is in the opening chapter, when Giles and Cordelia first meet in a wayside inn. At least two reviewers complained about this scene where Giles, appallingly drunk, grabs hold of Cordelia and kisses her against her will, complaining that it was a sexual assault and that it put them off the book entirely. I’ve had a few bad reviews for many of my books, but these two always bugged me. I was not willing to go away and rewrite the book as a knee-jerk reaction to the #MeToo movement, since I am very sure that what was considered sexual assault in 1818 was very different to now. That does not make it right. It does make it real.

At the same time, I knew that scene wasn’t right for me as a writer. The scene is hardly original; I can think, off the top of my head, of at least two occasions where Georgette Heyer used something similar, and it has been the starter for endless other historical romances. Thirty years ago, when Bodice Rippers were popular, it wasn’t unheard of for the ‘hero’ to go a lot further and still manage to hold the sympathy of the reader. But not this reader.

I was also aware that sexual assault of a far more serious nature has featured in several of my other books and nobody has ever complained about it. Reviewers and readers have talked about how distressing it was but have praised my treatment of the subject in fiction. Nobody has ever suggested I have taken the subject lightly and that is probably because I haven’t.

There is also an incident in An Unconventional Officer which could be compared to this one. Finding himself alone with a very pretty girl in a snowstorm, Major van Daan thanks her for tending to his injury and kisses her. It is completely inappropriate given that he is married, but the kiss is very gentle and very light-hearted and there is never a sense that he would have done anything more without a good deal of encouragement. Once again, nobody has ever complained about this scene; it’s actually a pivotal point in Paul’s life.
That, I realise, was the problem with Giles’ drunken assault on Cordelia. It could probably have happened in another book with another writer but it wasn’t right for me. And it definitely wasn’t right for Giles Fenwick, who could not have served under Colonel Paul van Daan and survived it, if he was in the habit of getting drunk and grabbing hold of passing females. The scene was a somewhat lazy plot device which was disrespectful to both my hero and my heroine.

It has taken me time to rewrite that scene, because I didn’t want to leave it out entirely. That first meeting was too important to the future relationship of the hero and heroine. I also wanted the book to be something of a journey of redemption for Giles. After Waterloo he was almost certainly suffering from what we would now call PTSD and meeting Cordelia is the beginning of his journey back into the world. I wanted him to make that journey, but I didn’t want him to behave so badly that his redemption became unbelievable.

I think I’m happy with the result now. The meeting in the inn, although initially somewhat alarming for Cordelia, has lost the sense of menace and fear and feels playful, more flirtatious. The moment Giles steps back and apologises, the reader has a sense of his charm as well as his essential good-nature. He is behaving very badly by the rules of 1818 society, but so is Cordelia, in choosing to take advantage of her moment of unexpected attraction to a stranger she never expects to see again.

When he is sober, Giles is embarrassed. He knows he has behaved badly and it has thrown into sharp focus, the effects of his heavy drinking. He is also uncomfortably conscious of how most of his army friends and his commanding officer from the 110th would view his conduct. Possibly for the first time, Giles realises that he needs to stop and to reassess his behaviour.

I hope new readers enjoy this revised edition of The Reluctant Debutante. The Light Division romances are in many ways, a different genre to the Peninsular War Saga, but they do share common characters and I think, a common theme. My hesitation in rewriting this book was due to my concern about attributing modern sensibilities and attitudes to early nineteenth century characters. Most historical novelists do this to some degree, often by simply leaving things out, but I hope that I have achieved enough of a balance to made Giles and Cordelia both believable and likeable. Certainly I like him a lot more now.

Both books of the Light Division Romances are currently available free on Amazon kindle here.

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors

 

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors and welcome to 2019.

It feels like more than a year since I wrote my first blog post of 2018. So much has happened during the year, both personally and professionally, that it’s hard to know where to start, but as always, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know more of my readers, both in person and online, and I love the fact that more and more people are beginning to contact me through the website and following me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

2018 saw the publication of two new books. The first of these, which came out in April, was An Unwilling Alliance. This book is the first of a new series, following the career of Captain Hugh Kelly RN, a fictional Manx Royal Navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars. It is also part of the Peninsular War Saga, slotting in approximately between books one and two, telling the story of Paul van Daan and the 110th during the Copenhagen campaign of 1807. I was able to set part of the book on the Isle of Man, where I live, and I loved being able to talk about the island to a wider audience.

The second book of 2018 was An Untrustworthy Army, book six of the Peninsular War Saga. It tells the story of Wellington’s Salamanca campaign and the miserable retreat from Burgos at the end of 1812. For some reason, I found this book very difficult. Partly, it was because my fictional brigade is part of the light division which was unusually not very active during much of this campaign. Partly, I think it was because the end of the campaign was genuinely so miserable, that it was hard to tell the story without sinking into unrelieved gloom. I think I managed it eventually, but it took a while. Fortunately, Craufurd the Dog stepped in with a bit of light relief. There were also goats.

The Bridge at OrthezRichard and I went on a tour of the Pyrenees in April, to research Vitoria and the Pyrenees campaigns. We had a great time and toured a few battlefields although I suspect we ate and drank rather better than Wellington’s army in 1813. I’m really looking forward to the next few books, as the Pyrenees give a lot of scope for the 110th to really get itself into trouble. We also spent a week in Northern Ireland in the summer, which was beautiful and set off a whole new sub-plot involving the United Irishmen and Michael O’Reilly in my over-active brain. Watch this space for that one, it’s happening sometime.

I wrote three new short stories this year. An Impossible Attachment was written for Valentine’s Day and tells the story of an unlikely romance between a French prisoner of war and the widow of an English officer in Portugal in 1812. The Quartermaster was a Halloween ghost story set in Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812 and The Christmas After tells the story of eight people thrown together on a winter’s journey by mail coach in 1815 who find common ground in their memories of the battle of Waterloo; it completes the story begun in An Impossible Attachment.

In October, I was invited to join a panel of historical novelists speaking at the Malvern Festival of Military History and it was a great experience to be up there alongside some of the best in the genre. The bonus was that I got to spend the weekend listening to a fantastic line up of historians, culminating with the wonderful Paddy Ashdown talking about his latest book.

On a personal level, it has been a mixed year at Writing with Labradors. Luka, our leopard gecko died early in the year at the age of twelve. She was my son’s eighth birthday present and for many years her tank lived in his room. Later she moved into my study and would sit watching me work for hours, during the evenings after her feed.

 

 

 

In May, our lives were lit up by the arrival of Oscar, our new baby black labrador. Oscar is completely gorgeous and has fitted into our family as if he’d always been there. He and Joey bonded immediately and are completely inseparable. Toby was a bit more aloof to start with, but quickly fell in love, and the three of them had the most marvellous time through the early summer months. The weather was hot and sunny and we practically lived outside, reading, writing and watching the three dogs playing.

 

Back on his feet…

We had a fright in June when Joey, our twelve year old yellow labrador’s back legs suddenly gave out, and we had a couple of days of sheer misery, wondering how serious the problem was, and if we were going to lose him. It turned out to be a false alarm, it was arthritis, and stronger pain relief and joint supplements very quickly got him back on his feet.

I’ll never forget that summer, because it turned out to be Toby’s last. The amazing weather continued, the kids’ exams were over, and we spent every minute we could outside in the sun. My daughter asked for a hammock for her birthday in July and it became Oscar’s new playground, leaping through the air to join her as she lay there reading, while the older dogs watched, looking as though they were laughing. I was working on the new book, enjoying all of us having time to be together, enjoying Oscar becoming an essential part of family life.

On July 23rd I worked in my study in the morning, but all three dogs wanted to play, so we moved outside and I sat working on the porch while they ran around chasing each other. They collapsed finally for a long nap, woke for dinner and then sat with us on the porch again until after dark. We said goodnight and went to bed. The following morning Toby was lying peacefully in his usual spot and I didn’t even realise he was dead until I touched him. It was a horrible shock; he was fourteen but other than his arthritis, seemed really well and there was no warning.

Despite the shock, it was a very peaceful end and although we miss him desperately, I’m so grateful for that. I was worried about Joey but although he missed Toby, I’m thankful that we had already got a new puppy, as it made the transition much easier for him. Once again, Writing with Labradors is down to two dogs, although Toby is close by and will always hold a very special place in my heart.

So what’s next? I’m planning a busy year in 2019, with the following projects on the go:

  • My next book is the second about Hugh Kelly and tells the story of the disastrous Walcheren campaign of 1809. As with Copenhagen, this was a joint operation with the army and navy. Paul van Daan is busy in the Peninsula with Wellesley, but the 110th has a second battalion and I’m looking forward to getting on with the research and meeting my new characters. I don’t have a publication date for this one yet, as the subject is completely new and I can’t yet tell how long the research will take. I intend to go to Walcheren for a research trip and I’m very much hoping to be there in August for the 210th anniversary re-enactment.
  • I’m attending the Wellington Congress in Southampton in April to indulge myself in learning more about my favourite general and to meet up with some good friends.
  • I’m hoping to attend the Malvern festival again.
  • I’m starting a new venture this year, teaching some adult education classes in history and creative writing at the Isle of Man College.
  • I’m aiming for four free short stories this year, to celebrate Valentine’s Day, Summer, Halloween and Christmas.
  • I’m hoping to make a good start on (possibly even to finish) Book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga, which is set during winter quarters of 1812-13.
  • The Peninsular War Saga will be available in paperback, initially from Amazon, but later in the year from some local bookshops and to purchase through my website.
  • A complete revamp of my website.
  • New editions of the two books of the Light Division romances series, to connect them more closely to the Peninsular War Saga.

With all this to look forward to, 2019 is going to be a busy year here at Writing with Labradors. Thanks so much to all of you who have read and enjoyed the books, and a special thanks to those who have left reviews. I really value them.

Have a happy and healthy new year and I look forward to hearing from many of you in 2019.

With much love

Lynn, Joey and Oscar

 

The Peninsular War Saga

General Robert Craufurd fought the battle of the Coa on this bridge

I began writing the Peninsular War Saga some years ago. At the time, I was attempting to find an agent or a publisher for one of my standalone historical romances, without much success. I had a lot of very positive feedback about my writing, my plots and my characterisation but everybody was saying the same thing; we’re sorry, but there is no market for traditional historical romance any more.

More than one agent urged me to try to write a contemporary romance. I made several attempts and hated all of them. Many people told me that with just a little adjustment, I could write for Mills and Boon historical. Once again, I made the attempt, and the people at Mills and Boon were lovely, gave great feedback, but were just not sure that my characterisation was quite right for them. I was getting nowhere.

To cheer myself up, I decided to scrap all my dreams of writing a marketable historical romance and just write something that I really wanted to do. There was definitely no market for a new series about the Peninsular War, since it had been done to death in the years following the runaway success of the Sharpe books and TV series. Still, it’s what I wanted to write, and since it was clear that nobody was going to read it anyway, I felt very liberated. I decided I could write it just for me, about a collection of people who didn’t always feel heroic or brave or even that patriotic. A lot of them joined because they had no option, or because they needed a job. They fought and they died and a lot of them became heroes. They also got wet, got grumpy when they were hungry, got sore feet and developed a bad head cold from time to time.

I wanted to explore areas of the war that I’d not really seen a lot about. What about the medical services? How did the commissariat work and who was responsible for ordnance and transport and prisoners of war? And what about the women and children who followed the army? What was it like in camp and on the long marches and all the boring hours between battles and skirmishes? What were relationships like between officers and men, away from the parade ground and the tidy regulations which governed army life?

Out of all these questions was born the Peninsular War Saga. Finally tired of trying to persuade an agent or a publisher to read one of the books, I decided to publish independently, without really thinking I’d sell more than a dozen copies, let alone develop an enthusiastic following. With book five doing well and book six in the early planning stages, I consider I’ve been incredibly lucky.

The Peninsular War Saga tells the story of the men and women of the fictional 110th Infantry during the wars against Napoleon; in particular, a young officer called  Paul van Daan who joins the regiment in 1802 as it is about to go to India to fight under General Arthur Wellesley.

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

An Unconventional Officer: the Peninsular War Saga Book 1 (1802 – 1810) 

From the battle of Assaye, through Italy, Copenhagen and Portugal, we follow the early career of Lieutenant Paul van Daan, the most unusual officer ever to join the 110th as he attempts to find his place in the regiment.  Along the way he makes both friends and enemies, discovers a talent for leadership and shares his life with two very different women.

An Unconventional Officer is slightly different to the other books, as it covers a longer time period, almost eight years. I wanted it to be a full introduction to Paul’s story and to get him to the point where he was well-established in Wellington’s army. While it introduces many of the main characters, the heart of this novel is the love story between Paul and Anne and its theme is Paul’s gradual development from a young officer willing to break all the rules, to a slightly more mature officer who is beginning to learn to fit in a little better.

An Unwilling Alliance: The Manxman, Book 1 and the Peninsular War Saga Book 1.5 (1806-07)

This book is really a spin-off from the Peninsular War Saga, but it fits very securely within the series as well. It takes place halfway through the action of An Unconventional Officer, during the Copenhagen campaign, which is mentioned, but not explored in book one. I adore this book, partly because the navy theme enabled me to set part of it on the island which is my home and which I love, and partly because it is a real coming-of-age book for Major van Daan as well as a key point in his developing friendship with Sir Arthur Wellesley.

It is 1806 and Captain Hugh Kelly RN returns to the Isle of Mann after fifteen years with a few months leave and a small fortune in prize money to find himself a sensible Manx wife. He pays court to Roseen Crellin, who is determined to resist her father’s efforts to find her a husband. Still dreaming of the young English soldier who sailed away and broke her heart, she has no intention of encouraging Captain Kelly’s courtship and certainly no intention of developing feelings for the man.

Major Paul van Daan is newly promoted and just back from Ireland, sailing with his battalion to Copenhagen under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley.  Paul’s courage and talent are unquestioned but his diplomatic skills need some work and in a joint operation with the navy there are many ways for a man of Paul’s temperament to get things wrong.

As Britain hovers on the brink of war with neutral Denmark and the diplomats and politicians negotiate to keep the Danish fleet out of Bonaparte’s hands, a more personal drama plays out on the decks of the Royal Navy and in the lines of Lord Cathcart’s army which could change the lives of Hugh, Roseen and Paul forever.

An Irregular Regiment

An Irregular Regiment: the Peninsular War Saga Book 2 (September 1810 – April 1811 )

This book covers an area of the war that I knew very little about. The building and manning of the lines of Torres Vedras are absolutely fascinating and worth a lot more time than I was able to give them. It is also the story of a young couple learning to be married, and sets the tone for Paul and Anne’s relationship throughout the series. If you don’t leave your hero and heroine at the church door, you have to work out what their marriage is going to be like, and I loved the challenge of that.

On the heights of Bussaco Ridge, Paul van Daan leads his battalion into action under Lord Wellington in his defeat of the French under Marshal Massena.  The book explores Paul’s developing career, and the happiness of his marriage to the lovely young widow of a fellow officer.  As Wellington prepares to chase Massena out of Portugal, Paul is serving under the worst general in the army and must find a way to keep his regiment safe and protect his reputation.

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'OnoroAn Uncommon Campaign: the Peninsular War Saga Book 3 (April – June 1811)  

In addition to the battles and the personal stories of my characters, I wanted to introduce something about army politics during this book. I particularly love finding an interesting, funny or even a very sad story from history and trying to work it into the lives of my characters.

Lord Wellington has led his army to the Spanish border where the French occupy their last stronghold in Portugal at Almeida.  As the two armies face each other in the village of Fuentes de Onoro, Colonel Paul van Daan is becoming accustomed to his new responsibilities in command of a brigade and managing the resentment of other officers at his promotion over older and longer serving men.  His young wife is carrying their first child and showing no signs of allowing her delicate situation to get in the way of her normal activities.  And if that was not enough, Paul encounters a French colonel during the days of the battle who seems to have taken their rivalry personally, with potentially lethal consequences for the 110th and the rest of the third brigade of the light division.

A Redoubtable Citadel: the Peninsular War Saga Book 4 (January – June 1812) 

This was definitely the most emotional book for me to write. I wanted to highlight the plight of women in wartime, and I’m proud of this book, but it was extremely painful for me.

In the freezing January of 1812, Lord Wellington pushes his army on to the fortress town of Ciudad Rodrigo and a bloody siege with tragic consequences.  Colonel Paul van Daan and his wife Anne have a baby son and in the aftermath of the storming, take a brief trip to Lisbon to allow Paul’s family to take little William back to England.  With his career flourishing and his marriage happy, Paul has never felt so secure.  But his world is shattered when his young wife is taken prisoner by a French colonel with a personal grudge against Paul.  As Wellington’s army begins the siege of Badajoz, the other great Spanish border fortress, his scouts and agents conduct a frantic search for the colonel’s wife.  Meanwhile Anne van Daan is in the worst danger of her life and needs to call on all her considerable resources to survive, with no idea if help is on the way. 

An Untrustworthy Army: the Peninsular War Saga book 5 (June – December 1812)

This book covers both triumph and miserable retreat and was a wonderful opportunity both to introduce some new characters and to revisit one of the major storylines from the first book. It turned out to be more emotional than I expected and I loved being able to highlight one of my favourite characters whom I felt I’d neglected a little. The story of the retreat from Burgos was impossible to glamorise and highlighted both the best and the worst of Wellington’s army.

It is June 1812 and back with her husband and his brigade, Anne van Daan is beginning to recover from her ordeal at the hands of Colonel Dupres as Lord Wellington marches his army into Spain and up to Salamanca. In a spectacularly successful action, Wellington drives the French back although not without some damage to the Third Brigade of the Light Division.

Still recovering from their losses at Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz earlier in the year, the Light Division remains in Madrid while Wellington lays siege to Burgos but some of Paul’s brigade have troubles of their own.

Lieutenant Simon Carlyon is determined not to allow his dead brother’s shameful reputation to blight his career in the army but finds it harder than expected to serve under the man who killed him. Colonel Johnny Wheeler is finding the lie he told to protect others difficult to live with, faced with the unrelenting hostility of a young officer. And Captain Michael O’Reilly’s life becomes complicated through a casual act of kindness.

The end of the campaigning season is not going as well for the Allied army and triumph turns to an undignified and dangerous retreat.  At a time when the discipline of Wellington’s army seems to have broken down, Van Daan’s brigade need to set personal matters aside and concentrate on staying alive long enough to reach safety.

Future Books

That’s as far as I’ve got with the novels. My next book is intended to be the sequel to An Unwilling Alliance, covering the disastrous Walcheren campaign of 1809. I’ve not been able to find a novel covering this campaign before so it feels like uncharted territory. I intend to pick up Hugh Kelly’s story, but as the campaign once again involved both army and navy, I will be joining the men of the 110th second battalion, who, while Major van Daan was leading the first battalion to glory in the Peninsula, were unlucky enough to be sent to Walcheren. The working title is An Inauspicious Expedition.

The other books in the Peninsular War Saga, as planned so far are as follows:

An Unrelenting Enmity: set during winter quarters from December 1812 to April 1813

An Auspicious Action: the story of the battle of Vitoria

An Uncivilised Storming: the Pyrenees and San Sebastian

An Inexorable Invasion: the invasion of France

An Improbable Abdication: Toulouse and the return to England

An Unmerciful Engagement: Waterloo

An Amicable Occupation: the Army of Occupation

Looking at that list, I feel a combination of excitement and sheer terror. At present I seem to be able to manage two books a year, but some of these will take more research than others, so I don’t promise that. There will also be more in the Manxman series, since I hope at some point to be able to reunite Hugh Kelly and Paul van Daan.

Currently, I’m beginning the research for the book about Walcheren, which will be published some time next year; I can’t give a date yet until I have a better idea of how long the research will take. I’m also making notes about book 6 in the main saga, which may be quicker to write, given that it is set outside of the main battles and campaigns, although obviously, given that this is the 110th, there will be some action.

So far, most of the books have been published only as e-books, but I am working at changing that. Early next year I am hoping to have all the books in paperback on Amazon, and then to get them into some bookshops or for sale on my website later in the year.

I’ve come a very long way from believing that nobody wants to read another series about the Peninsular War, and I’m so grateful to all my readers, especially those who follow me on facebook and twitter and visit my website regularly. Some of you have left fabulous reviews as well, and every good review is like a gift, even if it’s only a couple of lines.

It has been a good year in many ways at Writing with Labradors, despite losing our beloved Toby. We’re so grateful we have Oscar to step into his paw prints, and we’re looking forward to an even better 2019. In the meantime, remember to look out for book giveaways on Amazon on Christmas Eve, in honour of the Jolabokaflod or Christmas Book Flood. And for future giveaways and updates, please click on the link to subscribe to the newsletter.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from all of us at Writing with Labradors.

 

Sir Robert Carey novels by PF Chisholm

The Sir Robert Carey novels by PF Chisholm came into my life many years ago, before I ever published a book. Without a doubt, they are among the books I’ve read that I genuinely wish I had written myself. They are a witty, intelligent, historically accurate and superbly crafted series of historical detective stories based around Sir Robert Carey, cousin to Queen Elizabeth, who was a real person and who wrote a charming autobiography, which brings his character to life extraordinarily well.

PF Chisholm has taken the real Carey and enlarged on what we know of him, creating a dashing and entertaining hero. Carey is courageous, witty and shrewd; a courtier who is very at home on the wilds of the Anglo-Scottish borders. He is also vain, hopeless with money and often self-centred, faults which do not detract one whit from his charm.

The novels enact a series of historical crimes in need of solving, while taking the reader step by step through the genuine events of the time. Chisholm weaves fact and fiction together seamlessly so that when I go away to check what is real and what is fiction, I am often surprised.

Carey’s exuberant personality is set against a marvellous collection of secondary characters. Foremost among these is Henry Dodd, his dour sergeant, who after a few books has moved into the limelight as a central character himself. We follow Carey’s agonising love affair with Elizabeth Widdrington, who is married to a brutal husband and trying hard to remain faithful as well as his affectionate relationship with his sister and the ups and downs of his friendship with Dodd.

PF Chisholm is the pen name of Patricia Finney who has written a number of other books, all of them excellent. But the Carey books remain my favourites. The latest one, A Suspicion of Silver, is out this month, but for those who need to catch up, the earlier books have now been issued in several omnibus editions, Guns in the North, Knives in the South and Swords in the East. For anyone looking for a Christmas gift for a book lover, these are a real treat.

I recently re-read the early books in this series, and I feel bound to confess that without intending it, there is something of Sir Robert Carey in the hero of the Peninsular War Saga, Paul van Daan. There is something about Carey’s flamboyant personality which appealed to me, and although the characters are also very different, I suspect there are places where I am channelling Carey when I write, which is probably a tribute to Chisholm’s brilliant characterisation.

The Carey mysteries are one of the few series of which I have never grown tired. I love the characters, but it’s more than that; each novel is a genuine story in its own right, intricately plotted and well written. All lovers of historical fiction, detective stories or just a very good read, should give them a try.

M J Logue: The Uncivil Wars and the Major Russell Books

With M J Logue, you get two series for the price of one. The author, who writes historical novels set in the English Civil Wars and the Restoration, has created a family of characters who move from one series to the other, with a collection of excellent short stories and novellas popping up in between.

I first discovered the Uncivil Wars series just over a year ago, when I was in hospital and then convalescing after a foot operation. It should have been a fairly miserable time, but it passed in a bit of a blur for me, as I read my way through the series. Part way through, I contacted the author for some clarification about the best order to read them in. That conversation has been going on pretty much ever since, discussing everything from writing to cats and a few other topics to odd to describe.

The hero of the Uncivil War books is a Parliamentary cavalry officer by the name of Hollie Babbitt. Hollie isn’t your typical dashing officer type, to be honest. A former mercenary with an attitude problem, I imagine most of his senior officers must have spent a fair bit of their time with their head in their hands. Hollie, to tell you the truth, is a bit unpredictable at times, and it’s that which makes him such a fabulous character to follow through the bloody chaos of the Civil Wars.

Battles, hardship, history, romance – these books have everything. They just don’t have them in quite the same way that a lot of other books do. Hollie’s love story with his unglamorous Essex housewife is down-to-earth, unromantic and extraordinarily touching. Equally well drawn are his relationships with the scruffy collection of reprobates he commands, particularly his two junior officers, Luce Pettit and Thankful Russell. These three characters form the backbone of the series, with Luce’s wide-eyed idealism and Russell’s scarred, drunken disillusionment making them part of a perfect triple act with their irascible commander.

There are no heroes in these books, and yet every character is a hero in his or her own, undistinguished way. Be warned, once you start reading them, it’s very difficult to stop.

The same can be said of the author’s Restoration novels. Major Thankful Russell is back, serving the restored monarchy, a soldier reaching middle age, and finding himself in trouble and in love, with his former commander’s straight-talking daughter. Thomazine is twenty years his junior with a mind of her own and is determined to join her husband in every mad-brained scheme that  his work as a government intelligencer gets him involved with. These books are currently being reissued, with the first book, An Abiding Fire, due out in January.

The Russell series can be read on its own as an excellent historical mystery and adventure series, although I think reading the Uncivil War books first, brings an extra dimension to understanding the characters. Both series are funny, emotional and exciting, bound together by an extraordinary knowledge of the period and an exhaustive amount of research. They are among my favourite historical novels.

M J Logue’s books are currently available on Amazon kindle. If you’ve not tried them yet, I really suggest you do, but be warned, you may find you get very little else done for a while.

The Jolabokaflod or Christmas Book Flood

In the run up to Christmas, and with the latest book up and running, I’ve decided to devote this blog to sharing some of my favourite books with you. Last year, on Christmas Eve, I did a post about the Christmas Book Flood, or Jolabokaflod. The concept was new to me, but I loved it.

In Iceland there is a tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading which is known as  the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” as the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving.At this time of year, most households in Iceland receive an annual free book catalog of new publications called the Bokatidindi.  Icelanders pore over the new releases and choose which ones they want to buy.

The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary and people love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world.  One in ten Icelanders will publish a book.”

There is more value placed on hardback and paperback books than in other parts of the world where e-books have grown in popularity.  In Iceland most people read, and the book industry is based on many people buying several books each year rather than a few people buying a lot of books.  The vast majority of books are bought at Christmas time, and that is when most books are published.

The idea of families and friends gathering together to read before the fire on Christmas Eve is a winter tradition which appeals to me.  Like the Icelanders, I love physical books although I both read and publish e-books – sometimes they are just more convenient.  Still, the Jolabokaflod would work with any kind of book.

Last year, to celebrate this fabulous tradition, I offered some of my e-books free on Christmas Eve, and the take-up was phenomenal. I like to think I found a lot of new readers on that day and I intend to do the same thing again this year. But I also wanted to do a Christmas countdown of books that I’ve read and loved; a sort of literary advent calendar which has started late. Some of them are fiction, some are non-fiction, but all of them have a particular place on my shelves, both actual and electronic. I hope that reading about some of them will cause some of you to buy them, either for yourselves or for family and friends, as part of our own Christmas Book Flood.

Merry Christmas from all of us at Blogging with Labradors.