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

Quill pen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do they look – the story of a book cover

An Unconventional Officer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Blogging with Labradors – And now for the Labradors…

Stars of Blogging with Labradors

The stars of Blogging with Labradors are Toby and Joey and I thought it was time to introduce them in case anybody was wondering how my website and blog ended up being connected to labradors.

Joey and Toby

As I write, sitting at my ancient and falling apart desk in front of a rather nice bay window, looking out onto a front garden which is a complete disgrace, the air is constantly filled with the gentle sounds of labradors snoring.  My dogs have always snored but as they’ve got older it’s become worse.  I actually enjoy the sound.  It is part of feeling at home.  I have one on each side of me, on cushions on the floor, and if I wheel my chair back from the desk to get up to find a book or get a drink, I have to be careful not to run either of them over.

Toby is thirteen now.  My old fella is a bit of a greybeard and his arthritis in his back legs is so bad that sometimes he sits down without really meaning to.  We don’t take him for proper walks now although he likes to potter about the garden and still forgets himself in order to chase birds.  In all these years it still surprises him that they can fly.  Toby’s dad was an Irish show dog and he clearly sacrificed brains in favour of good looks.  He’s very deaf, we think, although I’m a bit suspicious because he still seems able to hear a food packet opening from two rooms away.  He loves to be warm and to sleep and he loves to be as close to us as he can.

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Joey is eleven and seriously needs to lose weight.  Intermittently we put him on a diet and it gets better, but he’s such a talented food thief that it’s hard work.  He is the brains of the partnership and can open any door in the house if it’s not locked.  He’s slowing down a bit now, but although he can’t race around as much as he used to, he is still convinced that he is a puppy.

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Writing with labradors just about sums up what I do.  Dogs are the best company, and my two are never really happy unless they have a member of the family close by.  They have been with me through a variety of difficult times and they seem instinctively to understand when I need love or sympathy or a furry shoulder to cry on.

When I set up this website and was trying to learn how to use wordpress, I typed in ‘Writing with Labradors’ as a joke.  Somehow once it was there, it just felt right and blogging with labradors was the natural progression.  I’m not sure how my lads feel about my writing career, but as long as I stay at my desk and keep them company, they don’t care.  I would really recommend Labradors as a valuable asset to any aspiring writer.

Although that snoring really is extraordinarily loud…

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Historical Romance

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

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

But what happens after that?

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Marcher Lord – the story behind the book

Smailholm Tower, one of the settings for A Marcher Lord

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smailholm Tower

Smailholm Tower

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

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

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Coming Home

Bussaco Palace Hotel

It can be difficult sometimes, coming home at the end of a holiday, especially a holiday as great as the one we’ve just had.

An Irregular Regiment

When Anne was not busy at the hospital or working with Paul’s quartermaster she rode up to watch training. Her husband and his officers became accustomed to her presence, and took turns to spend time with her explaining what was being done and why, and she was fascinated to watch the process which had made a legend of the 110th. She suspected that very few of the other regiments were working quite so hard with no immediate prospect of a battle and she began to realise with some amusement where Paul’s reputation for perfectionism had come from.

In the relative comfort of their billet she had time to settle in to the life of the regiment and to get used to being married to Paul. Up and down the lines the officers hunted and gambled and attended parties, and she watched her husband rise each day to join his officers and men on the training field, observed his watchful eyes scanning the lines for mistakes and inefficiencies, and laughed at their grumbles as they left the field, knowing that what had already been good was expected to be perfect.
“Every other bloody officer in this army is applying for leave!” she heard Carter commenting, after a particularly gruelling afternoon of skirmish drill. “What the hell is wrong with him? Can’t he take furlough and give us a break? Or even a day off!” He caught sight of Anne’s laughing face and grinned. “Sorry, ma’am. Didn’t see you there. You sure you aren’t due a honeymoon?”
Anne laughed. “Not sure what my chances are, although I hear that even General Craufurd is going home to see his wife for a while. You’re just unlucky that I’m out here, Danny. But it’s looking good.”
“It is bloody good, ma’am. But according to him, it needs to be bloody perfect!”
“It does,” Paul’s voice said, coming up behind Carter. “Stop complaining to my wife, Carter, she doesn’t care.”
In the relative isolation of the convent, the 110th maintained it’s usual level of informality. The officers ate together in the main convent building, but during the evening most of them drifted down to the field behind one of the barns where the men tended to congregate on fine evenings. Two of the women had set up informal grog tents there, and Private Flanagan of the light company was often to be found playing his fiddle, sometimes accompanied by one or two of the drummer boys. Anne would perch on a hay bale at the edge of the barn sipping wine and laughing and talking with Paul and his officers and men. It was a very different experience to life in the army with her first husband. She was busy and challenged and realised, when she gave herself time to think about it, that she had never been so happy in her life.  (From An Irregular Regiment, book 2 in the Peninsular War Saga by Lynn Bryant)

It’s cold and wet and there is a mountain of laundry.  Welcome to the end of a holiday.

Usually I’m in a completely foul mood by now having left both the sunshine and the relaxed feeling of no responsibilities behind but this time I’m still surprisingly cheerful.  I have a feeling that is because I’ve come back with so many new ideas that I can’t wait to get started.

I need to rein in on diving straight in to the Peninsular Books as I still need to finish getting The Reluctant Debutante ready for publication.  I had visions of working on that while I was away but that went out of the window on the first day.  We managed to cram so much into nine days that I was falling asleep in the evenings almost before I’d finished dinner.

I want to go back to Portugal and Spain.  Perhaps next year I can come up with another list of battles and locations.  We missed Talavera and Porto, and I’d like to travel up to Vitoria and perhaps even on into the Pyrenees and into France.  Those books aren’t even started yet although I’ve a fairly good idea how some of them will go.

We have a huge collection of fantastic photographs, courtesy of Richard, and we need to go through them and make sure they’re properly labelled before we find ourselves struggling to work out where they were taken.

It was an amazing trip and I loved every minute of it.  In the chaos of trying to pick up the various threads of my life again, I’m aware that being busy suits me.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve passed that particular trait onto several of my favourite characters.

Just as well, when I look at my to do list…

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Badajoz – the last stop in our Peninsular War saga tour

Storming of Badajoz

The final day of our trip was spent in the fortress town of Badajoz, which finally fell to Wellington on 6th April 1812 after previous attempts had failed.

Walls of Badajoz

With the sounds of battle filling the air Paul looked over at Wheeler and nodded.  “All right, we’re going in.  Carter, pass the orders back quietly.  No sign of life over here, I’m hoping they’re looking the other way but they’re up there, trust me.  Let’s get those ladders to the front.”

Following their officers, the third brigade moved quickly and quietly over the ground.  At their head were the ladder parties.  Each group had been given very specific instructions about the placement of the ladders and Paul watched approvingly as they ran down towards the ditch.

He had given orders for them to pause at the edge and the men of the 110th and 112th light companies moved ahead throwing lighted bales of hay into the darkness.  The flames lit up the ditch garishly and Paul’s sharpshooters dropped into position, rifles pointed at the battlements.  There were shouts in French from the ramparts as the French realised that their section of the wall was under attack and Paul surveyed the ditches in the flare of the bales.

“Chevaux de frise,” he said in matter of fact tones.  “All right, Carl, keep up that fire.  Get the lads to take down as many as you can while we’re hanging around.  Skirmish formation – one fires and when the French fire back the other shoots at the flash.  Ten minutes of that should keep them busy.  Hammond, get me some volunteers to go down and haul those bloody things out of the way the minute the flares go out.  Preferably men who can see in the dark and have a brain.”

Above in the darkness the fire from the defenders was increasing and Paul kept a wary eye on the range as a dozen men scrambled quietly down into the blackness of the ditch armed with ropes to drag the chevaux de frise out of the way.  In the distance the noise of battle had grown louder and Paul wondered how the rest of the division was doing in the breaches.

There was a sudden explosion of light and sound and screams of pain from a section of his men and he swore softly.

“They’re onto us,” he said, and raised his voice.  “Hammond, how’s it going?”

“Nearly there, sir, three men down but they’re too late.”

“Good news!”  Paul turned to yell orders and his brigade, silent and still in the night, exploded into sudden action.  More hay bales were lit and in the flare of their light he looked down and saw the path through the ditch was clear.

“Advance!” he yelled, and the ladder parties scooped up their burdens again and continued their run under covering fire from the rifles of his sharpshooters.

He had known that the chances were high that the ladders would be too short to reach the top of the wall for most of it’s length but there was one stretch of the curtain wall which was much lower, having been previously damaged and not built up to it’s full height.  It was to the right of his position and the risk of mining was higher, but if he could get a small force up onto the ramparts there, they could hit the defenders in the flank and distract them for long enough to allow the ladder parties to scramble up.

On his orders, his men advanced in immaculate order.  The main ladders were swung up to the walls with men below steadying them to give maximum height and support, and his men swarmed up at speed.  Above him, Paul heard cries in both English and French as the first men reached the top and he realised with a spurt of triumph that the ladders had reached and that his men were fighting at the top.  Already bodies were falling and he knew some of them would be English.  With the defenders busy he turned and called out to Carl, who began his run towards the lowered section of the wall with his chosen companies.

It was going well.  Paul had the sense that his men were following orders and although many of them were coming down off the ladders, they were replaced immediately by more scrambling up.  The sounds from the breaches had faded from his consciousness now that his brigade were engaged and he waited for another ten minutes and then moved forward.

“All right lads, I’m going up.”

“Not yet, sir…”

“Out of the way, Mr Heron before I kick you.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to stand at the top waving a flag.”

There was laughter amidst the blood and fire and slaughter and he set his foot on the ladder and began to climb.  Shot rained around him but he kept his body close in and was making good progress when his foot encountered a rung which felt unexpectedly shaky and he heard, from above, a yell of warning and then cries of fear.

“It’s breaking up!”

Paul swore.  He could feel the wood giving way under the weight of men.  It often happened and he knew the danger of falling onto the bayonets of the men below him.  Pushing himself back he jumped into thin air and braced himself.  The leap took him over the heads of the men below him and back to the edge of the ditch.  He felt the impact jar through his body and he rolled over and slid back down into the ditch, feeling the bodies of injured and dead men crashing around him.  As he came to a halt something ripped into his hip and he dug his heels into the ground hard to stop his slide and found himself crushed by a press of fallen men into the edge of one of the chevaux de frise which had been dragged out of the way earlier. 

(From A Redoubtable Citadel by Lynn Bryant, Book 4 of the Peninsular War Saga)

At Badajoz, I finally felt it.  After over a week of travelling around Portugal and Spain visiting locations and potential locations for scenes in my books, I’ve seen some beautiful and amazing places and I’ve felt at times as though I could imagine my characters being there, living their lives in the shadow of death.

Badajoz is not beautiful.  It is certainly in a beautiful setting and there are quiet spots in the town where you can get the sense of the old walled fortress town which existed in 1812 when Wellington’s army, on it’s third attempt, managed to batter down the walls and fight their way in.  Badajoz is a modern town.  There isn’t the sense of history, the sense of the past preserved that you get in Ciudad Rodrigo or Elvas.  There is the sense of people going to work and having lunch and living their lives.  Badajoz is just an ordinary town in Spain with an interesting history.

Walls of Badajoz

Maybe that’s why it worked for me.  Standing beside the walls, reading the guide which explained in matter of fact words that the road I was looking at went through the breach and that during the storming it would have been piled high with rubble and with thousands of dead and wounded Allied soldiers, I felt a genuine sense of horror.  It doesn’t seem possible now that those men on both sides of the wall, fought and bled and died on ground which is now just a road going into town.

Badajoz

The horror didn’t end there.  When the Allies finally broke in leaving over a thousand dead and another three thousand wounded, heaped on top of each other in the breaches or below the walls, the English army went mad.  It was an accepted custom of war that if a citadel under siege fails to surrender and has to be taken by storming, the troops were allowed to sack the town.  This is horrific enough under any circumstances, but in 1812 the Spanish population of the town, although some were pro-French, were for the most part innocent civilians of a country allied to Britain in the fight against Napoleon.

It didn’t save them.  For almost three days the men of the British army ran riot in the town.  Murder, theft and rape were committed openly and anybody who stood in their way, including some of their own officers, was at risk of being shot down.  Eventually Wellington, appalled at the destruction and violence, set up a gallows in the square as a threat to the drunken men and the chaos died down.  But during those days it must have been hard for the Spanish to feel a sense of gratitude that their city had been liberated from the French.

I felt it more strongly in this noisy, modern town than anywhere else.  I felt sad for those men coming down off the formidable ramparts to add to the piles of dead below.  I felt a sense of the waste and the agony and the bloodshed.  Perhaps it’s because so little actually remains, it’s as if they’ve been forgotten.  Perhaps it’s because it was our last day and then I was going home and back to reality.

It took a while to pull myself out of nineteenth century Spain and Portugal on the journey home.  I couldn’t wait to get back to work and write the next book.  And of all the places I’ve visited I’m not sure I’d go back to Badajoz.  Not because it was a noisy modern town where history has vanished in places.  But because in the places where it remains, I felt indescribably sad.

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Elvas

Elvas is beautiful.

We arrived at lunchtime, staying at the stunning Quinta de Santa Antonio just outside the town. As we were having lunch sitting on a bench in the beautiful gardens, I will admit I was looking around me making notes in my head. This place would have been here when Wellington’s army was besieging Badajoz, and already I can see how it could be used as a setting.

Gardens of the Quinta de Santa Antonio, near Elvas

In the Peninsular War saga, Anne and Paul arrive for a brief stay in Elvas during the run up to the storming of Badajoz.  Anne has just been returned after a two week ordeal in French captivity and for once Wellington has granted Paul some leave (with the proviso that as it’s only 11 miles away he can get him back very quickly).  Inevitably the short holiday doesn’t go entirely to plan but even today, Elvas is a haven of peace in places.

The town of Elvas was at the top of a hill, five miles northwest of the Guadiana River, a fortress town surrounded by seven bastions and the two forts of Santa Luzia and Nossa Senhora da Graça. It was a town of winding streets and graceful buildings, many of them dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  Anne was particularly fascinated by the aqueduct, almost four miles long which had been built in the fifteenth century to supply the town with pure water.

Paul and Anne were given a room in a pretty inn, white painted and clean with high ceilings and long white draped windows.  For a town so close to the war zone which had been variously held by both the French and the English, it seemed remarkably untouched by war. For three days they wandered hand in hand through the narrow cobbled streets, and explored the local churches, forts and shops.  They ate in cosy taverns, surrounded by locals who welcomed them with smiles, and slept late, revelling in waking together with no need to rise for early drill.

(From ‘A Redoubtable Citadel’ by Lynn Bryant, Book 4 in the Peninsular War series)

Driving into Elvas after lunch I felt, almost more than anywhere else we have been, as though I had stepped back in time and was walking in the footsteps of Paul and Anne as they arrived in Elvas for their brief holiday before the horrors of the storming of Badajoz.  The aqueduct is the most amazing piece of architecture, ushering us into the town.

The aqueduct, Elvas

Elvas is a place of tiny cobbled streets and white and ochre painted houses with churches dotted about and a series of forts giving the impression of a formidable military presence.  During the war, Elvas escaped the destruction and havoc wreaked on the other three great border fortresses, and the preservation work done on the old town has protected it’s history.

The Cathedral in Elvas

There is so much to see here that I could turn into a guide book very easily.  The highlight for me was the old cathedral, with the square outside where Paul and Anne van Daan shared a brief spell of normality eating outside a tavern, listening to the locals around them talking about crops and the weather instead of war and bloodshed.  We had coffee outside a small cafe on the square, and looked around at the ancient buildings very much as they must have done.

The cathedral, Elvas

The other highlight of the town, especially on a glorious day like this one, are the stunning views from the various ramparts and high points around the town.  With the hills rising into the distance it is one of the loveliest places I’ve been to.

Countryside around Elvas, Portugal

Before leaving we visited the tiny English cemetery with it’s memorials to the dead of the Peninsular War, in particular the storming of Badajoz and the battle of Albuera, both of which had huge numbers of dead and injured from the Allied army.  

English Cemetary in Elvas

On one wall of the cemetery was a memorial stone to Lt Colonel Charles Bevan, who sadly shot himself after he felt he had been unfairly blamed for the escape of the French garrison from Almeira, an incident mentioned in the third book ‘An Uncommon Campaign’.

Memorial to Colonel Charles Bevan in the English Cemetary in Elvas

Our trip is almost over and I’ll be glad to get home to see my offspring and my dogs, although I’ve had the best time here.  I’ve been to Spain before but this is my first time in Portugal and I’ve rather fallen in love, with the country, the culture and the people.  I’ve learned so much this week, and have so much work to do to incorporate some of it into the books I’m writing.

Just at the moment I’m sitting in the hotel with the sound of birdsong and a fountain through the open window.  It’s still sunny although slightly cooler and  I can hear the cattle in the background.  It is so beautiful and so peaceful, it’s hard to imagine that only a few miles away in Badajoz the sound of gunfire and falling masonry would have been exploding into the silence as Wellington’s artillery tried to break down the formidable defences of the second great Spanish fortress.

He succeeded but the cost was horrendous.  Tomorrow, our last full day, we are going to the bustling modern town of Badajoz to look for the remains of the town where the British soldiers ran wild in an orgy of destruction and violence when the citadel fell.

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The Battle of Salamanca – a tour

Greater Arapile, Battle of Salamanca

The battle of Salamanca was fought on 22 July 1812 and the battlefield was our next destination.  It was definitely one of the best days of our holiday.

The battlefield of Salamanca, looking out towards the Greater and Lesser Arapiles

It had been hot for two weeks, a blistering heat which battered down on the Anglo-Portuguese army as they sat on the edge of the city of Salamanca, setting up a ferocious artillery fire which was designed to pound the city, a major French supply depot, into submission. The French had converted four convents into temporary fortresses and had settled initially to wait for reinforcements. Wellington’s guns were neither numerous enough or powerful enough to subdue the fortifications. But he had more than enough men to blockade the city and with no reinforcements forthcoming, the French surrendered.

“Thank God for that – we do not need another Badajoz!” Colonel Johnny Wheeler commented to his second in command as they took their places in the triumphal procession into the city. “Pretty place, this, and at least they’ve the sense to appear welcoming, whatever they might actually think.”

Major Gervase Clevedon glanced at him with a grin. “Won’t stop a few wine shops losing half their stock tonight,” he said. “But if they’ve any sense at all the taverns will do a good trade. The brothels certainly will, not expecting many of my lads to be around camp tonight unless they’re on sentry duty. I’ve told them I want half in and half out, they’ve drawn lots as to who goes first. If the first lot don’t come back in the morning, I think I can rely on the second lot to go and get them back.”

Wheeler was laughing. “Gervase, what happened to us? We used to be such correct young officers, I swear to God I once had a man flogged for drinking on duty.”

“They still don’t drink on duty, sir, he’d kick them into the river. And I for one wouldn’t go back. We were a regiment of outsiders, the 110th, new-fangled and pretty much laughed at by half the army back in India. Some good lads, mind, but no identity to speak of. As for the 112th it was in so much disgrace when it came back from the Indies most people thought it was going to be disbanded.”

Wheeler ran his eyes over the neat ranks of the 112th. “I know. Look at them now, up here with the light division’s finest. Jesus, it’s hot. I wish they’d get going.”

Clevedon was beginning to laugh. “I think you might find,” he said cautiously, “that the victory parade is being held up while Colonel van Daan’s wife’s maid locates her missing hat.”

Wheeler broke into laughter as a pretty brown haired woman in a sprigged muslin gown sped past them carrying a fetching straw hat trimmed with silk flowers. “Get a move on, Teresa, we’re dying of heat stroke out here!” he called.

Teresa Carter looked back over her shoulder, laughing. “I do not know why he bothers, she will have lost it before they get into the Cathedral,” she said.

At the head of the 110th, Colonel Paul van Daan took the hat from Teresa with a smile of thanks and turned to his wife.

“Put it on,” he said in tones of considerable patience. “Keep it on, I am not having you with sunstroke. Or I will spoil Lord Wellington’s lovely parade by tipping you off that horse into the river.”

“I’m not sure I’d mind that just at the moment, it might be cooler,” his wife said, tying on the hat at a particularly fetching angle. “Jenson, would you ride up and tell Lord Wellington thank you for waiting? The Colonel has a mania about my hats, I cannot tell you what a bore it is.”

Paul’s orderly grinned and spurred his horse forward. Much of the army was settled in sprawling cantonments on the edge of Salamanca, but several regiments had been selected to form part of the parade into the city. This would lead to a Te Deum in the Cathedral and the Plaza Mayor would be illuminated during the evening while Wellington and his officers were entertained by the Spanish grandees of the city to a civic banquet and fireworks.

“You would think,” Paul’s wife commented, drawing up beside him, “that the Spanish would have had enough of fireworks given that the French seem to have blown up entire sections of their city to build fortifications. Since being with the army I have found that things exploding in the sky have taken on a whole new meaning for me.”

(From ‘An Untrustworthy Army’ by Lynn Bryant, book 5 of the Peninsular Series)

The Salamanca battlefield site is immense.  Not just in actual size since it probably isn’t the widest battlefield Wellington fought over, but in the amount of information available.

The Greater Arapile

We had planned to visit the battlefield since we first planned this trip.  I am halfway through writing book five which is based around the battle of Salamanca and the Burgos campaign, so this visit is particularly useful as it was made ahead of the writing.  I had read about the small interpretation centre in the village of Los Arapiles to the south of the city of Salamanca, but had not really looked it up until we were about to go there.  I was hugely impressed to find that it was open two days a week, Thursday and Saturday, and we had set aside a Thursday for this trip.

Interpretation Centre for the Battle of Salamanca

I was so glad we did.  This is definitely the best small museum we have visited.  For one thing, everything is in both Spanish and English which is much more useful than our desperate attempts to translate interpretation boards in other places.  For another, it is amazingly detailed and accurate.  From the advantages and disadvantages of the different infantry formations of line, square and column, to the best way to load a musket, somebody here had done their research and very well.  If I had a prize for museum of this trip, although it was tiny, this is it.

Interpretation Centre, Arapiles

The other joy was the map we were given of a series of interpretation boards around the battlefield site.  There are ten in all, each with information about the battle as it unfolded, and each board has a QR code which can be scanned by a smart phone.  A short dramatised account of that section of the battle, in English, can be listened to at each point.

The routes on the map are marked for walking or cycling.  The good news is that in good weather all tracks are passable in a car.  A 4 x 4 would be best, some of them are very rough, but we managed it on dry roads without.  It took about three hours to do the whole thing.  Honestly it would have been less if it were not for my pedantic insistence that we do the boards in number order so that we got the chronology right for the battle as opposed to working out the shortest circular route which might have taken half the time.  This week the man I married has given the word patience a whole new definition….

The Battlefield of Salamanca

With the help of the museum, the interpretation boards, which are excellent, my trusty battlefield guide and a map, the Battle of Salamanca became suddenly very clear to me.  Driving from board to board and then climbing hills and rocky outcrops to view the various vantage points of the battle it was very easy to visualise how Wellington was able to split the French line and send their army fleeing within a few hours.

Monument at the top of the Greater Arapile

After exhausting ourselves scrambling over battlefield sites, we drove to Alba de Tormes, across the river.  This is the route that a lot of the fleeing French army took and no action took place there in real life.  In my book a significant skirmish takes place there so I wanted to check if my story worked with the location.  I was delighted to realise that with a small adjustment it will work very well.

Alba de Tormes

The bridge at Alba de Tormes

We came back into Salamanca for dinner.  As we are English this involved almost two hours of wandering around this beautiful university city, musing about how it is possible to be in a major city at 7pm and find nobody open for dinner.  We still need some adjustment to Spanish dining hours.  But time wandering in Salamanca is never wasted, its so lovely, especially the university  buildings, which will feature in book 5 since both French and then English used them as barracks and storage buildings.

Salamanca

A great day, and tomorrow we would move on to spend our last two nights in Elvas, close to Badajoz, the next of Wellington’s great sieges, where the British army thoroughly disgraced itself.

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the Peninsular War Saga Tour: From Sabugal to Fuentes de Onoro – Battles Galore…

Goats in Belmonte

Our Peninsular War Saga tour took us off the beaten track in places, especially when we were trying to find the site of the battle of Sabugal.

Sabugal, 1811….

They moved away at a run and Manson went forward to join Michael O’Reilly.  The Irishman grinned at him.  “Welcome to the light company, laddie.  You all right to fight, you’re as white as a sheet?”

“I’m fine, sir.”  Manson gave a brief smile.  “Why is he so insistent on us obeying orders?” he asked.  “He doesn’t normally say that.”

Michael glanced across at him with a quick smile.  “Clever lad,” he said.  “No he doesn’t.  He wants it to be very clear that we all have absolutely no say in this.  No democracy here.  He didn’t ask for Johnny or Carl’s opinion back there although he normally does before he makes a decision.”

Manson studied him through the mist.  “Because if it goes wrong it’s his responsibility.  Nobody else can be scapegoated.”

“That’s right.”

“Wellington’s a bastard,” Sergeant Carter said beside him.  “He lets them go yapping at the Colonel’s heels he’s going to get more than he bargained for.”

“You threatening the General, Sergeant?” O’Reilly said, lifting his arm to call his men forward.

“I wasn’t talking about me, sir.  It’ll be the end of kissing her hand and whispering sweet nothings at the headquarters ball.  I don’t know if he realises it, but she’ll carve his liver out and send it to Horse Guards in a box if he does anything that hurts her man.”

“Christ, yes,” Michael said, looking amused.  “Hope this goes well for his sake.”

They marched into eerie silence.  Paul had drawn his sword.  Across the lines his drummers beat a steady marching rhythm, which made it easier for his men to keep in touch.  They made their way steadily up the hill.  He watched his light company moving ahead.  Their line was uneven, each pair of men covering each other, running up and past each other then dropping into firing position.  He had watched them so many times on the training field, had run with them and yelled at them and called them names, and he felt his stomach clench knowing that the decision he had just taken might get many of them killed.

(From ‘An Irregular Regiment’ by Lynn Bryant, book two of the Peninsular War Saga)

We started this day driving out to the little town of Sabugal.  It isn’t one of the better known battles of the Peninsular War and many people have never heard of it.  Sadly it wasn’t included in my battlefield guide, but I found a brief description online of how to get to the site here.  It was surprisingly easy to follow and we drove down to the simple plaque which commemorates the battle and then on down to the edge of the Coa to look across at where the light division advanced from.

Sabugal Battlefield

The river here has been dammed into a lake, but even so it is very easy to look up the hill and imagine how it must have felt marching up into the fog without being able to see the enemy.  It was one of General Erskine’s worst blunders during his time with Wellington’s army.  General Craufurd was on leave in England and the half blind and very mad Erskine is in temporary charge of the light division.   In my novel, Lord Wellington has given the job of babysitting Erskine and keeping him from making any disastrous mistakes to the recently promoted Colonel Paul van Daan at the head of the 110th and 112th infantry along with a battalion of Portuguese cacadores.  Paul is faced with the decision to follow the first brigade of the light division into the fog against orders or letting them get slaughtered.

Memorial to the Battle of Sabugal, 1811.

Sabugal itself has a pretty castle and a tiny interpretation centre dedicated to the Sephardic Jews of Portugal who either fled or went into hiding under the inquisition.  This part of our trip was nothing to do with my writing, but was something of a journey into family history for Richard, whose family on his mother’s side were called Nunes da Costa, and were from this part of the world originally.  From Sabugal we drove to the little town of Belmonte, with which I fell in love.  It helped that the sun shone but we were entranced by the lovely little houses, with flowers everywhere and delighted by the castle, the various churches and the pretty synagogue along with the fact that boards outside cafes and restaurants advertised kosher food.  There wasn’t enough time to do Belmonte justice although we did enjoy a picnic in the central square next to the fountain, but it is on my list of places to come back to.

Synagogue in Belmonte, Portugal

Back to Wellington’s army, we drove on to the ruins of the immense fortress at Almeida and retraced the steps of General Robert Craufurd’s near disaster at the bridge over the Coa.  This was one of those battles I had found hard to understand and standing on that bridge it all fell into place.  In An Unconventional Officer the action at the Coa takes place off stage although it was important and is often referred back to.  I have a feeling it would make a good short story later on.

Memorial to the Battle of the Coa, overlooking the bridge

After the Coa we drove up for a brief photography stop in Freineda, Wellington’s winter headquarters for two seasons, both 1811-12 and 1812-13.  I had seen so many photographs of the house it was odd to see it in real life. Sadly it wasn’t open and our tour is too rushed to work out how to get the key so we’ll have to wait for another trip for that.

Wellington's Headquarters in Freineda

We drove back through Vilar Formoso, although there is little sign of the pretty village which housed one of the hospitals where wounded were taken from the battle of Fuentes dOnoro.  Many of Wellington’s staff and officers were billeted there and after the battle, grave pits were dug behind the large house where the hospital was located.  In the book, Anne van Daan is initially billeted there but moves on fairly quickly to avoid the smells of the hospital and the graves.

Our final stop of the day was Fuentes d’Onoro.  Thanks to our brilliant battlefield guide, we were able to stand by the Dos Casa stream where the English and French exchanged cigarillos and food during a brief break in the fighting and look up at the ridge where Wellington temporarily overextended his line and was saved by the brilliance of General Craufurd and the light division, which by then, in my saga, included the men of Colonel Paul van Daan’s third brigade.

Fuentes d’Onoro looking up from the French position.

An amazing day.  By the end of the day I felt as though I’d been walking in the footsteps of Wellington’s army and I loved every minute of it. I’m so grateful to the man I married for acting as driver and photographer and for letting me bore on about history for the whole week and I think the books will be the better because of it.

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