A Moment of Calm: time management for authors

Quill pen

References to calm and time management for authors generally raise a snigger around here.  In case you hand’t guessed, the title of this post is ironic.  I thought I’d get that out of the way first because I don’t want anybody to read this and think it’s going to be at all zen.  I’d like it to be, trust me, but it’s not happening.  I keep looking at this photograph of me at Bussaco on our recent trip and wondering when I will feel this calm again.  It’s sort of soothing just looking at it, though…

View from the Bussaco Palace Hotel, site of the old convent

I’m sitting here, dodging the battle of Talavera because it’s the first day of the new term of my dance school, we have about a billion new starters and I am surrounded by reams of paper covered in fee notes, terms and conditions, welcome letters and codes of conduct.  I have literally no idea if anybody is actually going to read any of this, but it’s good that they’ll have it.  I’m wondering if I should also give out a free chapter of one of my books as well…

I’ve often wondered if other writers live in the sort of chaos I seem to be surrounded by.  There are days when I have so much stuff on my desk and on the floor surrounding it that I can’t move.  I can’t get to the stuff on the floor (an atlas of the peninsular war, by the way) because there’s a snoring labrador on top of it, neatly hiding a map of the Estremadura.  Yesterday evening I was rampaging about the house searching for a book about the battle of Talavera which I knew I’d had only hours earlier and accusing my family of having moved it.  The response was predictable.

Husband:  Not seen it.

Daughter:  Mum, if I’d found it I’d probably have set fire to it, you have way too many books about Wellington, it’s not healthy.

Son’s girlfriend:  Do you know, I don’t think I even own a book that I could lose.

Son: Try the bathroom

It was in the bathroom.  Don’t even begin to ask why, I can’t tell you.

Perhaps my life would feel less chaotic if I had a normal job where I went out of the house at eight thirty and came back at five thirty to do normal things.  I’ve read a lot about how important it is when working at home to separate out working time from family time, but my family are entirely used to me reading history books or making notes in front of the TV and holding long conversations with Irish dance teachers while trying to do the ironing.  It’s not easy.

Still, I think this suits me.  I did the traditional thing for years and then I was a stay at home Mum.  I’m not sure I was ever that well organised at home, although my desk at work was always a masterpiece of neatness.  Perhaps it’s just in my own environment that I create havoc.  Or perhaps it’s just the way my brain works.

I’m giving Talavera a break today to concentrate on Manx Trinity, but I’ll be back to it tomorrow.  If I can find the book again.

In the meantime, look out for some free promotions coming up over the next few weeks in the run up to the publication of ‘An Unconditional Officer’.  It’s not looking good for the ironing pile…

For regular updates on this site including history, travel, book reviews and plenty of labradors (and a few freebies thrown in) please join the e-mail list here.

The Battle of Talavera – the problem of a battle

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

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

Talavera, 1809

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lists

Cannon

Today I have written a list.  In fact several lists.

That in itself is not unusual.  I live by lists.  If it isn’t on one of my lists, it’s very unlikely to get done.  Sometimes, even if it is on my list the chances are not good, but there’s still a sliver of hope.

My current list is of the things I need to do before I go away for the Easter weekend.  Writing a blog post wasn’t on that list so naturally it’s the first thing I’m doing.  But I will go back to the list today.

My list is in a lovely notebook which is full of lists with a cartoon zebra on the front.  I feel very adult when I’m using it.  I’m not sure where I got it from, I probably stole it from my daughter along with the jumper I’m wearing and I think the socks.  My entire family has a weakness for stationery of all kinds, but whereas the men are fairly functional about it, my daughter and I require beauty or at least cuteness.  I used to have a charming notebook with the muppets on which for some reason I decided was the most appropriate tool to use at work when making notes.  My colleagues at the art gallery honestly barely turned a hair at it, but when I arrived with it for the first day of my next job the expression on the face of my new boss as I opened my notebook and took out my white fluffy flamingo pen gave me all the information I needed about my long term suitability for that particular post. Today’s list was on the kitchen table when my daughter joined me for breakfast and she casually reached for the notebook.

“Don’t touch my list!” I snarled.

Teenage eyes rolled.  “Jesus, Mum!”

There are two reasons I don’t want her mucky hands on my list.  Firstly because she has inherited her father’s need to doodle and within seconds the list would have been rendered illegible by swirls, cartoons and helpful statements such as “moo cows fly in the night sky” written in bubble letters.

Secondly because she would laugh at the list.  The list is weird, I admit it.  It’s because there are so many bits to my life.  Some of them are really normal, like laundry and cleaning the living room.  Those look okay on the list.  A lot of people’s lists have things like that on.

Then there is the Irish dance school.  That’s a bit more eccentric.  I mean “book car hire for Killarney” isn’t too bad, but when it comes to items such as “order sock glue” and “buy 15000 hairpins and 2000 sodding blister plasters” people might start to look askance.  The hairpins are only a slight exaggeration, I honestly don’t know what the dancers do with them and I’m afraid to ask.  We’ve got a competition in Killarney in two weeks and sock glue really is important…

As for the writing section of the list, this is the bit I really don’t want my daughter involved with.  It includes such items as these:

  1. Change Anne’s dress
  2. Wellington at Talavera – what the hell was he doing in that tower and who was with him.  Do I need to know?
  3. Update character list NOW before you resurrect more dead people.
  4. Shoot Goodreads

There are others which I won’t bore you with.  The other thing about my list making, is it tends to run away with me.  When I was studying history at university, people would borrow my notes to catch up on missed lectures and then return them either laughing or looking puzzled depending on their level of resilience.  One poor lad handed them back with the remark that he’d read one section three times in case it was a handwriting problem.  He seemed doubtful that I could really have written “Cromwell still buggering about outside Pontefract” in my lecture notes.  He was lucky it wasn’t worse, is all I’m saying.

I wonder if other writers have the same problem of being able to keep things short and simple?  For example a phone call to the vet actually reads as “phone vet for mind altering drugs for Toby.”

The above items listed are mostly due to my work on “An Unconventional Officer”.  I’m rewriting the battle of Talavera since the man I married read the book and informed me that although he enjoyed most of it, he couldn’t work out what the hell was going on during that episode.  I really wanted to tell him to live with the pain; the men on the battlefield mostly hadn’t a clue either, but out of consideration for my readers I’m working on it.

Wellington is another matter, he was doing his usual trick of racing around all over the battlefield and losing half his staff on the way.  He did it so often I usually just leave him to it.  It’s convenient in a way because he can turn up at odd moments when his intervention helps my plot and nobody could possibly complain about historical inaccuracy since even his own staff couldn’t find him half the time.  I’m trying to work out in my rewrite if it actually matters where he was at this point of the battle.

Anne’s dress isn’t difficult, I’m changing a description to match my shiny new book cover.  She won’t mind, she hardly ever notices what she’s wearing anyway as long as it doesn’t show the blood.

As for the character list, I’m taking that with me to work on during the journey. It’s been ongoing for a while, but it’s reaching crisis point now that I am actually getting close to publication.  During the books, a large number of men are involved and I often give them names for convenience even if they’re not a big part of the story.  Some of them get ideas once they have a name and start developing a personality and attitude but those are easy to remember.  Others are better behaved and stay where they were put and those are more of a challenge.  Some of them sadly don’t make it through the battle and although they’re not well known and probably nobody has got that attached to them, it disturbs even me to realise that although they may have died at Talavera, they’re up and around and taking down the French skirmishers at Fuentes de Onoro two books down the line.  It’s like an episode of the Walking Dead and I’m not having it.  Hence I’m putting together a comprehensive list of characters to make sure resurrections are a thing of the past.

The bit about shooting Goodreads has already been dealt with by a charming man called Ben who has now attributed The Reluctant Debutante to the correct Lynn Bryant.  I’d spent two hours trying to work out how to do it and it took him all of three minutes, which is a lesson to me about when to give in and ask for help…

For all this I’m not changing my list making techniques any more than I changed the way I wrote my degree notes.  I did all right with it in the end and I never did forget where Cromwell was at a crucial moment.  And reading the endless tasks on my list is somehow less depressing if they make me laugh as I go along.

Right.  Where did I put that list?

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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.

DSC_5967.jpg

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.

DSC_0598.jpg

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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