NaNoWriMo with Labradors – the first week

NaNoWriMo with Labradors – the first week has gone better than I ever expected. There’s something very motivating about sitting down each day knowing that you’re not going to give up until you’ve at least come close to your word count.

As I’ve said before, I discovered when I came back to this book that I’d written more than I realised, although it was a bit all over the place, with a series of unconnected scenes. They weren’t all bad though. In fact I was really happy with some of them. Others were interesting but just not right for this book. I quickly realised that the first two chapters were probably the reason I found it so difficult to progress when I first started to work on this book last year. They slowed the book down unbearably from the beginning and kept impinging on the action later on as I had to justify their existence by keeping those narratives going. I’ve scrapped them completely and rewritten the following chapters to fit in and I’m now very happy with the start of this book.

Including the remaining excerpts which will either be scrapped or incorporated into the book when I get to them, I’ve now got seventy-nine thousand words, which is probably more than half the book. It’s going incredibly well. I’ve sent the first four chapters to my editor, just to read through, and she loves it, so I think I’m on the right track. To complete a first draft before the end of May I need to write an average of three to four thousand words a day, and I think I can probably manage that. After that will be a major edit, but I’m hopeful this book will be out before the end of the year, which makes me very happy after the disasters of the previous two years.

I love writing about Hugh Kelly and Alfred Durrell but in order to be able to tell the full story of the siege of Tarragona I needed men on the ground. As with the storming of Castro Urdiales in An Unmerciful Incursion, the British army wasn’t involved in this campaign. In that book, I solved the problem by giving some of my regular characters a reason to be in the town at the time of the siege. At Tarragona, I found that there were several published narratives written by men on the ground. Both General Suchet and General Contreras wrote their own accounts of what happened at Tarragona giving me some excellent source material to put alongside the account of Captain Codrington of the Royal Navy. 

Accordingly, this will be the first outing for the French Captain Gabriel Bonnet of the 30th légère who later makes an appearance in An Indomitable Brigade. From the Spanish side, I’ve introduced a brand new character who is presenting me with an interesting challenge. Captain Bruno Ángel Cortez, ADC to General Contreras who commanded the Spanish garrison in Tarragona is a complex individual who is not  always likeable and not easy to write. I’ll be interested to see how this one goes.

It’s the start of a new week. I’ll keep you updated on progress on my Facebook page, so keep an eye out for posts there. I’m very excited to see where this book takes me next.

Oscar and Alfie are excited as well, as you can see…

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from the early part of the voyage to Tarragona. Enjoy.

Hugh turned his attention to his sextant. It was a bright clear day, making the readings easy. Beside him Manby worked out his latitude in a small notebook and there was silence over the group of observers who were suddenly intent on their work. When the master had finished, he walked aft to where Lieutenant Pryce, the officer of the watch waited. Pryce accepted his report of noon along with the degrees and minutes of the latitude observed.

Hugh watched, hiding his smile, as Pryce approached him to make the same report. Manby had needed to walk past him to reach Pryce, but it would not have occurred to the master to report directly to Hugh and Hugh would not have asked him to do so. The daily rituals of shipboard life were important, not because of routine days such as this when Hugh was present and available, but for the one day when he would not be, and a crisis might occur.

Pryce saluted, announced that it was twelve o’clock and gave the latitude which Hugh already knew. Hugh nodded.

“Make it twelve, Mr Pryce.”

“Aye, sir.” Pryce raised his voice to the mate of the watch. “Make it twelve, Sanders.”

“Aye, sir.” Petty Officer Sanders turned to the waiting quarter-master. “Sound eight bells.”

The quarter-master stepped onto the ladder and called below. “Turn the glass and strike the bell.”

As the first stroke of the bell rang out, Pryce turned to where Geordie Armstrong waited, his whistle ready. “Pipe to dinner, Bosun.”

Hugh stood watching as officers and men dispersed. The officers dined in the wardroom at one o’clock and then Hugh dined an hour later, theoretically in solitary splendour. In practice, if he had no other guests, Hugh dined with his first lieutenant. He knew that one or two of his other officers during the past few years had looked askance at his close friendship with Durrell. There had been mutterings of favouritism, particularly after Walcheren when Hugh had stood by Durrell against all attempts to put him on half-pay.

Hugh could see Durrell now, his long form leaning against a grating. He was demonstrating something in a notebook to two of the midshipmen, waving his pencil in the air as he explained. Hugh had no idea what he was teaching them, but he knew it would be accurate, very well-explained and incredibly detailed. Hugh had received many such lectures from his junior and at times they had driven him mad, but he had also learned a great deal. He stood waiting for Durrell to finish, watching the midshipmen. Mr Clarke was staring into space, looking as though he would rather be somewhere else. His companion, one of the new boys by the name of Holland, was scribbling frantically in his own notebook, looking up every now and again with something like hero-worship at Durrell’s oblivious form. Hugh made a mental note to spend some time with Mr Holland and came forward.

“Mr Durrell. As it’s our first day at sea, I’ve invited the other officers to join us for dinner.”

Durrell smiled. “We’re very grateful, sir.”

“I’m sure you’ll be willing to act as my second host. And I’d be grateful if you’d do the same tomorrow when I’m hosting the midshipmen. I may need help with that.”

Durrell laughed aloud. “I’d be delighted, sir. I’m sure the young gentlemen will be on their best behaviour.”

“They’d better be.” Hugh surveyed Durrell’s two pupils. “Mr Clarke, I hope you’re studying hard. Mr Holland, you’re new to us. How are you enjoying your lessons?”

“Very much, Captain.”

“Excellent. You were taking notes there.”

“Yes, sir. Mr Durrell was explaining the difference between various instruments when making calculations and how they…” Holland stopped suddenly and blushed scarlet. “It was very interesting,” he said lamely.

“It’s fascinating,” Hugh said, amused. “I applaud your ability to rein in your enthusiasm but don’t do it with me, you’re exactly the kind of young officer I’m looking for. I’d like to get to know you better, you’ll sit beside me tomorrow at dinner. Now go and get your own dinner before your messmates eat it all.”

He watched as the younger men raced away to their meal then turned to Durrell. “Are you sure you’re ready to help me at this dinner tomorrow?”

“Of course I am, sir. There are one or two very promising men among the new midshipmen, but Mr Holland is my favourite so far.”

“I can see why. If he’s as good as he seems, why don’t you find him some extra duties that will give you a chance to work with him?”

Hugh saw his first lieutenant’s eyes light up. “Thank you, sir. I’d like that.”

“Excellent. I’ll see you at dinner. As my clerk is struck down with sea-sickness, I intend to spend the next hour setting out my accounts book.”

Hugh heard the gloom in his own voice. Durrell laughed. “Would you like me to do it, sir?”

“Yes, but you’re not going to, you take on far too many duties that are not yours, including schooling the midshipmen. I…”

Hugh broke off at the sound of raised voices from the gangway. Before he could move, Durrell was ahead of him. Hugh watched as his first lieutenant crossed the deck and barked an order. Three boys scrambled up onto the deck and lined up before him and Durrell looked them over unsmiling.

“Mr Oakley, Mr Bristow. Can you explain to me why you’re brawling with Lewis when you should be on your way to dinner?”

“Not a brawl, sir. Just joking around.”

Durrell said nothing. He let the silence lengthen until the boys were shuffling their feet. Hugh could feel their discomfort and he did not blame them. Durrell’s withering expression was enough to discompose even the liveliest midshipman.

Eventually, Durrell moved his gaze to the third boy. Teddy Lewis was a wiry ex-pickpocket from Southwark who had been pressed as a landsman and had chosen to remain as a volunteer, acting as Durrell’s servant. He was sixteen and smaller than most of the boys but made up for it with a belligerent willingness to fight even the biggest of them. Durrell glared at Lewis for a full minute then looked back at the other two boys.

“Aboard a Royal Navy vessel, a midshipman is considered a young gentleman. I happen to know that you both qualify by birth if not behaviour. Repeatedly picking on one who is both smaller and below you in rank because you think he cannot fight back is not the act of a gentleman or a future officer, it is the act of a snivelling coward. Please do not be under the misapprehension that because you joined this ship as midshipman, you will necessarily remain so. If you persist in bullying the other boys I will have you broken to common seaman, and you’ll find that below decks the men will be unimpressed with your status. Now get to your dinner. I will see you at four o’clock after the watch is called and we will spend some time improving your mathematics.”

“But sir, study time is over then,” Bristow said in appalled tones.

“Not for you, Mr Bristow, since it appears that you struggle to find constructive ways to spend your leisure. Dismissed. Not you, Lewis.”

When the other boys had gone, Durrell regarded his servant thoughtfully. “Are you hurt?”

“No, sir.”

“Did they take anything?”

Lewis hesitated and Hugh could see him considering whether he could get away with a lie.

“I will find out, Lewis, and you will regret it.”

“My lesson book, sir.”

“Did you get it back?”

“It’s spoiled, sir. In the animal pen, it’s covered in shit…I mean dung, sir.”

Durrell did not speak for a moment. When he did, his voice was pleasant and even. Hugh could tell that he was furious.

“Go to the purser after dinner and get another one, with my authorisation. When you’re not using it, you have my permission to keep it in my cabin. The money will be deducted from their pay. In the meantime, Lewis, in addition to practicing your reading and penmanship, I would like you to practice walking away. If you spend your time defending every inch of your dignity you’ll never rise above able seaman and that would be a shame, because you are more intelligent than either of them. Now go and get your dinner.”

NaNoWriMo with Labradors: Introduction

NaNoWriMo with Labradors: Introduction

NaNoWriMo with Labradors appeared in my brain when I was trying to get back to sleep at 3.45am. I often struggle with sleep due to back problems, but I do try not to actually think when I’m awake. Thinking is fatal as I have the kind of brain which, once it’s fired up, sets off a series of ideas like a row of fireworks going off. This is really useful when creating fictional plots but a complete pain in the early hours of the morning. Let’s just say I’m going to be tired today.

Those of you who have grown old waiting for the release of An Indomitable Brigade will know that I’ve been struggling to be productive since the beginning of the pandemic. I was absolutely delighted to finally publish book seven of the Peninsular War Saga and even more pleased at how well it’s been received so far. This has given me a really good push to get on with the next book.

 

This Bloody Shore is book three in the Manxman series and is centred around the Siege of Tarragona in 1811. I started to write this book immediately after the publication of An Unmerciful Incursion in July 2020 and made a good start, but after a while I stalled and simply couldn’t get moving with it. Eventually I decided to set it aside and move back to the 110th in Spain. Hugh and Durrell have waited ever since, fairly patiently for them, until last week when I hauled them off half-pay and back aboard the Iris, setting sail for the Mediterranean.

 

I realised I’d written a lot more of this book than I thought, which was excellent news. Even better, most of it is very good with the exception of the first two chapters which were utterly superfluous to requirements and probably explain why I struggled with this book first time around. I’ve come up with some new ideas, done some more research, invented a useful new character (with major links to the other series, incidentally) and am ready to go.

That’s when I came up with this mad idea. I’ve never seriously done NaNoWriMo. Partly it’s because I write all the time anyway and have never felt the need to do a particular push like that. Partly it’s because the allocated month is November and that’s not generally the best time for me to be going all out on a novel. I’ve always quite liked the idea of a determined push like that, though, and as I’d really like to get another book out this year, it occurred to me that I could do my very own NaNoWriMo to try to get at least the first draft of this book finished.

For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month which usually takes place every November. Writers can register on the website and log their daily word count, as well as receiving encouragement and finding writing buddies. It’s a great resource and I suspect an amazing way to get people started. I’ve made a couple of half-hearted attempts at it, but the timing has just never been right for me.

So, my plan is, starting tomorrow, to write between four and five thousand words a day between now and the end of May. That’s probably going to be quite variable, because life will get in the way, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ll post regularly giving my word count and to let you all know how I’m getting on.

My notebook is ready, my laptop is fired up and the desk army and navy are ready to offer support. This book is happening people…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oscar and Alfie are excited about this new initiative at Writing With Labradors, as long as it doesn’t interfere with walks, playtime and mealtimes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Bloody Shore: Book 3 of the Manxman series.

It is 1811.

A desperate struggle takes place on the Eastern coast of Spain. The French are threatening the coastal town of Tarragona and Bonaparte holds out the glittering prize of a Marshal’s baton if General Suchet can capture the town.

Far from Wellington’s theatre of war, the town is held by Spanish forces under the Marquis of Campoverde. Supporting them is a small Royal Navy squadron, including the 74-gun third rater, HMS Iris.

After the frustration and political wrangling of the Walcheren campaign, Captain Hugh Kelly is missing Roseen but is relieved to be back at sea under the command of a man he trusts even though the situation in Tarragona is more complicated than it appears. Lieutenant Alfred Durrell is keen to put his family troubles behind him, but an unexpected encounter in London has left him feeling unsettled.

On shore, two very different men face each other across the walls of Tarragona. Captain Gabriel Bonnet, a scarred cynical veteran  discovers a surprising sympathy for one particular victim of war. Captain Bruno Ángel Cortez is a former Spanish Bonapartist but the atrocities he has seen have turned him into an implacable enemy of the French.

Meanwhile in England, Faith Collingwood’s long months of banishment are ended by an event which will change her life forever.

As Suchet’s troops creep ever closer to the walls, the armies, the navy and the townspeople are swept up in a brutal conflict which ends on the bloody shores of Tarragona.

 

 

 

Here comes 2022

Here comes 2022 at Writing with Labradors, though it’s arriving a little late. Many apologies, and Happy New Year to you all. In many ways, though, the fact that I’m late with my usual New Year’s greeting is in keeping with the whole of the past year. I had such big plans for 2021 and very few of them came to fruition. Mired down in the misery of restrictions, and beset by family difficulties, it’s been a slow year here at Writing with Labradors and at times, I’ve felt like a complete disaster. Still, things are steadily improving and it’s good to look back because it reminds me there have been some highs as well as lows during this year.

#Low. Restrictions didn’t go away. Instead, we had more lockdowns and vaccine passports

#High. Vaccines mostly work.

#Low. My sister became very ill after her vaccine, and I couldn’t go to see her.

#High. She’s slowly improving, and I’ve seen her now.

#Low. Three of the five members of my family had covid at different times despite being vaccinated.

#High. None of them were really ill.

#Low. All my planned research trips were cancelled due to restrictions.

#High. Once I could travel to the UK, I organised my very own writer’s retreat which was absolutely brilliant and improved everything.

#Low. I didn’t manage to publish a book last year, for the first time since I began publishing.

 

#High. I finished book 7 of the Peninsular War Saga and it’s currently with my editor, so will be out very soon.

#Low. Writing this year has been difficult.

#High. I published my usual three free short stories this year, plus a bonus one in the spring. For Valentine’s Day, we had A Winter in Cadiz, a romance set during Lord Wellington’s brief trip to Cadiz in the winter of 1812-13. My spring story was The Pressed Man, a story of the fourteen-year-old Paul van Daan’s impressment into the Royal Navy. For Halloween, there was an Inescapable Justice, a ghostly tale of bloody mutiny set aboard a Royal Navy frigate. And for Christmas, a favourite Peninsular War Saga character discovers a new responsibility and the merest hint of a future romance, in The Gift.

#Low. I’ve been struggling with chronic pain due to arthritis, and in the current situation, there isn’t a chance of any treatment.

#High. For the first time I have published a short story in an anthology. Hauntings is a collection of ghost stories by writers from the Historical Writers Forum and came out for Halloween last year. (Yes, I did have to come up with two ghost stories in one year. Don’t judge me.) My offering, An Unquiet Dream, is a spooky tale set in an army hospital in Elvas in 1812 and features a regular minor character from the Peninsular War Saga.

 

 

 

#High. I was also asked to be part of an anthology of short stories edited by Tom Williams (author of the Burke novels and the Williamson books) which will be published this year. The story is called The Recruit and is set in Ireland during the 1798 rebellion. (I see my regulars with their ears pricking up there. “Really? Who could that be about?”)

#High. My immediate family are great and doing very well. My son and his girlfriend are settled in their jobs and looking to move out soon. My daughter is in her final year studying history at the University of York and is getting firsts so far.

#High. Alfie. After a long period of Oscar holding the fort alone at Writing with Labradors and doing a splendid job, we welcomed our new baby into the family in May, and despite his well-deserved nickname of the Chaos Demon, he has proved to be a valued and much adored member of staff.

#High. I had a great time with the Historical Writers Forum last year, including taking part in a panel to talk about writing battles in historical fiction.

 

#High. Oscar. Still my baby, and possibly the most well-behaved Labrador in the country.

#High. You see, this is why it’s really good to actually write out a list of highs and lows of the past year. Because I ran out of lows, which pretty much proved that despite everything, my life is good.

There’s one very big low that I’ve not included as part of the list because it would be crass to do so. In August, after several years of watching them struggle and a year of frantic anxiety during Covid restrictions, we finally managed to persuade my in-laws to move to the Isle of Man on a trial basis.

Sadly, it didn’t go as we’d hoped. They’d left it too late, and it was very quickly clear that my mother-in-law’s dementia had got significantly worse, while my father-in-law was very unwell. Malcolm died suddenly on 30th October, of a massive heart attack, and after a difficult period, Irene returned to London to go into a care home near her daughter. The funeral was held just two weeks before Christmas.

I miss Malcolm. He was only here for a few months, but I got very used to him being around. From the earliest days of my relationship with Richard, almost thirty years ago now, Malcolm and I had a special bond. He shared my enthusiasm for history, and years ago, before I’d ever published, he bought me my first biography of Wellington, the Longford one, from a second-hand book shop. He got on well with my parents, although they didn’t meet that often, and he adored his grandchildren. He loved books and music and was interested in current affairs. He also loved technology, especially cars, and when he was younger, he could fix anything. Before I was even married, he took me for a day out to Silverstone, to watch a Formula One Grand Prix, and we had a fabulous time.

Malcolm was kind and funny and was unbelievably proud to have a daughter-in-law who was an author. One of his last acts was to blag a free copy of An Unconventional Officer for a doctor at Nobles Hospital who had been good to him during a recent stay. His favourite spot, when visiting, was my reading corner in my study. He loved the armchair and would sneak in when he got the chance and take an afternoon nap or browse through one of my books while I was working.

Richard and I went to London with a van to collect some of their possessions when we still thought they might make a go of living over here. I rather fell in love with a beautiful collection of wooden boats that Malcolm had in his study and mentioned how much I liked them as we were unpacking. To my surprise and delight, he insisted on giving them to me, to go with my wooden model of the Victory in my study. They look beautiful, and I feel as though there’s a little part of him sharing my workspace still. I’m working on a proper obituary for Malcolm. He had an interesting life, and I’d love to share it with people.

The end of the year was sad, and it wasn’t helped with two family members having covid over Christmas, though neither had anything more than cold symptoms. By New Year’s Eve, both were clear, which meant we could host what is rapidly becoming our traditional young people’s New Year Party. The kids all had a great time and we drank a toast to Malcolm at midnight.

And now it’s 2022 and we’re still struggling to sort out care homes and financial matters for Richard’s mum, which is even harder long distance. I’m trying to look ahead into 2022 and be hopeful, but I think I’m a lot more cautious than I was at the beginning of 2021. I think back then, with the vaccine in the offing, I was naively hopeful that the world would begin to calm down. This year, I’m less sanguine. The wounds left by the past few years are going to take a while to heal but heal they will. History suggests they always do eventually.

I’m hopeful for myself, though. I feel as though I’ve got my enthusiasm back for my writing, and my brain is teeming with ideas. I’m looking forward to Tom’s anthology coming out, and I’m excited for the publication of An Indomitable Brigade. Currently I’m finishing the edits for the rest of the paperbacks, and then I’m returning to This Bloody Shore, which is book three in the Manxman series.

At the beginning of last year, I had a long list of things I wanted to achieve during the year. This year, I’m reluctant to come up with a list, and yet looking at this blog post, although I didn’t manage to get the book out, I was very close, and I did manage quite a lot in very difficult circumstances.

So here goes. This year, I’d like to finish the paperback edits once and for all. I’ve got An Indomitable Brigade coming out very soon, and Tom’s anthology, and I’m determined to finish This Bloody Shore by the end of the year. I’ll be writing my usual three free short stories, and I’ve been asked to write another episode from Paul van Daan’s boyhood, which I’d love to do. I also have an invitation to write a story for another anthology which is completely out of my period and out of my comfort zone. It will be a challenge, but I’d quite like to give it a go, so we’ll see if it comes off.

I’d like to travel again. I dream of going to Castro Urdiales or Tarragona or Santander or Gibraltar, but I’m not prepared to book until I’m very confident I won’t be caught up in some last-minute lockdown. This year I suspect I’ll confine my travels to the UK, and possibly Ireland. After the restrictions of the last two years, even that will seem like a blessing.

In the meantime, Happy New Year from all of us at Writing with Labradors. I know all of you will have had your highs and lows this year, and many will be a lot worse than mine. Thank you all so much for your support and enthusiasm and your sheer love of the books, the characters and the history. Let’s hope things improve steadily through 2022.

A Writer’s Retreat

A Writer’s Retreat

Trying to write in the middle of a busy household with a couple of Labradors and an over-developed sense of responsibility, I’ve often dreamed of going on a Writer’s Retreat. I’m sure many of my fellow writers feel the same way. After yet another week where writing plans have sunk without trace in a round of supermarket shopping, dealing with elderly relatives, proofreading essays and cleaning the dogs’ ears, I love the idea of a few days of peace and quiet in lovely surroundings with nothing to do but write. I’ve never done it though.

I’ve come close a few times. I used to volunteer to cat-sit for my sister, who lives in a very beautiful place, and I certainly took the opportunity to catch up on work while I was there. Somehow though, it was still never the haven I dreamed about. I’ve taken off on research trips on my own many times, but those tend to be a frantic round of getting to the places I wanted, taking photographs and making notes. It would almost have felt too self-indulgent to spend the day sitting doing nothing but writing.

Organised writers’ retreats look very appealing, but many of them seem very expensive. Besides which, they generally include other writers. I know myself too well, and the opportunity to sit and talk writing, history and general nonsense with a group of like-minded people would be irresistible. They’d be a lot of fun, but I’d get nothing done.

The second half of 2021 was hard for me. It is well recorded elsewhere on this blog that I didn’t do well with lockdown and restrictions, and although I would have loved to book a research trip somewhere in Europe, I didn’t trust that these wouldn’t be reinstated at a moment’s notice. Richard managed a couple of cycling trips to the UK, and we had some friends to stay the moment restrictions lifted enough, but I was miserable. The only trips I made to the UK were necessary family visits and none of them were particularly restful. We had been having a lot of problems with my elderly in-laws who had recently moved to the island and I felt as though my life had become one long round of hospital visits and troubleshooting phone calls.

2021 was also the first year since I began publishing that I didn’t manage to get a book out. Back in October, it seemed as though I wasn’t even going to get close to it. I knew what I needed to do, and the book was going well, but I couldn’t get enough time to work on it. I was frazzled and seriously burned out and I needed a break, but I had no idea where I wanted to go or what was practical in the post-Covid world.

Burnout is one thing, but the annual Halloween short story was due, and I had an idea for a story set during Captain Hugh Kelly’s younger days, when he was newly promoted to captain of a frigate. My research so far has all been based around the 74-gun Iris, but I wanted information about one of the smaller, faster ships which made stars of the navy captains. A quick spell of internet research introduced me to HMS Trincomalee, the oldest warship still afloat in Europe.

The Trincomalee looked gorgeous and was located in the Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool, something I didn’t even know existed. I did a bit of research and decided that I absolutely wanted to go there, and sooner rather than later. I was actually very excited. It’s been two years since there was a very real prospect of me travelling anywhere to do something just for myself, and the sheer joy I felt, made me realise how badly I needed a break. I checked dates with Richard then went searching for accommodation.

I was determined not to stay with family or friends. This time I wanted to be completely on my own agenda. I didn’t want to stay in Hartlepool, but somewhere pretty, within easy driving distance. North Yorkshire looked good, and I love that area. No self-catering. I do enough cooking at home. I typed in my requirements, to be listed by cost for a week, lowest first.

The first thing that popped up was a room at the Duke of Wellington Inn, in Danby. I swear to God, people, I’d booked it within ten minutes. Sometimes it’s obviously a sign.

The Duke of Wellington Inn is an ivy-clad traditional eighteenth century inn located in the tiny village of Danby in the North York Moors, about fifteen miles inland from Whitby. Until I found the place, I hadn’t decided that my trip was going to be my very own personalised writer’s retreat, but a bit of research made me realise it was perfect. Danby really is small, although very pretty. The Moors National Park Centre is just at the edge of the village, and there’s a tiny bakery with a café just behind the Duke of Wellington. Other than that, there’s not even a shop in the village. For somebody wanting uninterrupted writing time, it couldn’t have been better.

I checked with the owner whether there was a suitable table in my room for working. The single rooms were fairly small, but he assured me there was a guests’ sitting room with a desk in it and I’d be very welcome to work there as it was seldom used. When I arrived and saw it, I couldn’t quite believe my luck. For a week, I effectively had my own personal study. It was completely lovely.

The Duke of Wellington Inn was built in 1732 and was originally known as the Red Briar. It was used as a recruiting post during the Napoleonic Wars and was apparently known as either the Wellington Arms or the Lord Wellington during this period. I haven’t yet been able to find out when the name was changed to the Duke of Wellington – my first thought was that it must have been after 1815 to commemorate the victory at Waterloo, but I discovered that when Canon Atkinson arrived in 1847 to take up his post as Vicar of Danby, the inn was still called the Wellington Arms so the transition must have come later. At that point, the inn was kept by two sisters known as Martha and Mary.

A cast iron plaque of the Duke was unearthed during restoration work and can be seen on the wall as you go up the stairs. The inn is not large and is very obviously old – floors are uneven and the furniture is very traditional. Impressively, though, all the essential things for a comfortable stay work really well – the bed was comfortable, the bathroom modern and heating and hot water were spot on. I’d booked bed and breakfast, but after a look at the dinner menu, decided I’d eat there in the evening as well. It was standard pub food, but well-cooked and sensibly priced, and I never object to sitting by an open fire in a traditional country pub to eat. In addition, the staff were absolutely amazing. Nothing was too much trouble and they treated my invasion of the guest sitting room as though it was the most normal thing in the world. Thank you so much guys.

I’m pleased to say I stood by my resolution to treat this week as a writer’s retreat. Apart from my one excursion to Hartlepool, I remained in and around the village. The weather was beautiful, crisp and cold but with only one rainy day. I ordered breakfast early then went for a walk every morning before sitting down to work. Lunch was soup and sandwiches from the Stonehouse Bakery, with some excellent cake for afternoon tea, and then I’d go for another walk before dinner. It was often almost dark by the time I got back, and the sunsets were gorgeous.

During the day I took over the desk and worked solidly on book seven, An Indomitable Brigade. I found, to my joy, that I’d been right about the book. There was nothing wrong with either plotting or the research I’d done. I just needed time, and peace and quiet to get on with it. I kept in touch with my family during the evening, but firmly refused to take calls during the day. I was helped by the fact that the wi-fi was variable. It worked very well in my room, and down in the bar areas but in the study it was patchy, which removed the temptation to chat on Twitter or Facebook. After the first day, I was completely absorbed in the world of the 110th and the battle of Vitoria.

I enjoyed my day out at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Hartlepool, and the Trincomalee was everything I hoped for and more. The museum is set up around a historic quayside restored to look like an eighteenth century seaport and its beautiful waterside setting. The various buildings are set up to show tradesmen like tailors, printers and instrument makers with stories about the Royal Navy and the men and women associated with it. It’s a great place for kids, with an adventure play ship and loads of activities, and because I was there during half term, there were demonstrations of gunnery and swordsmanship and various talks scheduled through the day. I went to everything, even though most of this wasn’t new to me. It was a great atmosphere, and I thoroughly enjoyed the interactive Fighting Sail exhibition, though the kids commentary around me probably entertained me as much as the displays.

The Trincomalee was perfect, one of two surviving British frigates of her era. The other, HMS Unicorn is a museum ship in Dundee and I’m going to get there when I can. The Trincomalee was commissioned in 1812 to be built in India using teak, due to the shortage of oak in Britain after the intensive shipbuilding of the Napoleonic wars. Work did not begin until 1816 so by the time the ship was finished the following year, the wars were over and Trincomalee was put to other uses.

On the advice of one of the guides, I waited until the kids were completely absorbed in learning how to form a boarding party on the quayside using foam swords and cutlasses before boarding the ship. It was completely empty and I was able to take photographs, absorb the atmosphere and write stories in my head to my hearts content. The Trincomalee quickly morphed into the fictional Herne in my imagination, Hugh Kelly’s first post-command, and the story was finished. I’ll definitely come back to it though, I’d like to write a lot more of Hugh’s earlier adventures in the navy.

Rush hour in Danby

Back at my borrowed desk, I had a blissful few days of writing, walking on the moors and falling in love both with Yorkshire and with my fictional world all over again. By the time I set off for the ferry at the end of the week, the book was back on track, and I was fairly sure I’d have it written, even if not edited and published, before the end of the year. I had also forgiven myself for my inability to work as well as usual during the past two years. There are probably writers out there who made the most of the restrictions of lockdown and emerged ahead of the game. I suffered, and emotionally it was hard to put myself into the heads of my characters when my own head was so full of confusion. I think on those long, winter walks over the moors I’ve worked out how to be kinder to myself and how to keep a distance when the world feels an alien and unfamiliar place.

I’ve concluded that a writer’s retreat means different things to different people. For some, it’s about learning, and they’re looking for lectures and workshops and the ability to try something new. For others, it’s about connecting with other writers to share ideas and stories and to feel part of a community for a while, in this very solitary job that we do. For me, it’s definitely a retreat, a place of quiet and solitude and some beauty, where I can throw myself back into what I do best without any nagging sense of all the other things on my to do list.

Of course, it also helps to have an eighteenth century Napoleonic recruiting inn and an early nineteenth century frigate thrown in for good measure.

 

Hauntings: an interview with D Apple

Hauntings: an interview with D Apple

The run-up to Halloween 2021 marks a new venture here at Writing with Labradors as for the first time I have published a short story in an anthology. Hauntings is an anthology of ghost stories, with ten supernatural historical tales which range from Roman and Viking times all the way up to the 1960s. Which brings us to my guest today on Blogging with Labradors, the talented Danielle Apple who writes as D Apple.

Danielle’s contribution to Hauntings is a story called Hotel Vanity which brings a light-hearted tone to the collection. It is set in a decaying hotel, where the owner’s efforts to sell-out are hampered by some mischievous ghosts.

Danielle, welcome to Blogging with Labradors and thanks very much for joining me to tell us a bit more about Hotel Vanity and the story behind it.

To begin with, Hotel Vanity is an unusual ghost story. What was your inspiration for it?

 Well, I really wanted to write a gothic mystery, but every time I put pen to paper, some sassy ghost muse would whisper in my ear. Try as I might to shut her up, Nancy became my ghost, and Humphrey, the beleaguered hotel owner, became me. I thought…what if ghosts aren’t really how we typically think of them? What if the things that go bump in the night are really an old ghost dropping books on the floor as he falls asleep reading, or perhaps an ethereal being trying to taste whiskey again for the hundredth time?

I think that’s a fantastic idea and raises all sorts of interesting possibilities for future stories. There’s an interesting mix of humour and drama in your story and in the lives (and deaths) of the characters. Did you plan it that way or did that develop as you wrote?

I was supposed to be writing a story for a Valentine’s Day competition, and while the muse managed to steer me away from Gothic Mystery, I apparently don’t do romance without making it an annoying ghost mystery. This insertion of humor is a write-by-the-seat-of-my-pants experience that happens with nearly every short story, but I had to daydream about the drama for a while before it made sense.

I should think with a character like Nancy yammering in your ear it would be impossible NOT to include humour. I must say that for me, it wasn’t just the humans, alive or dead, who brought the story to life. You give a very good descriptive sense of this decaying old building – it’s almost like one of the characters. Can you tell us a bit more about that? Is there a real building somewhere that inspired it?

At the time I was going through some difficult personal changes, and the building became an embodiment of my comfort zone, limitations, and the things I still valued. The vines are beautiful and once served to avoid soil erosion, but they also choke the life out of a building. Humphrey tries to get a vine by the window to grow a different way by twisting it around itself, but the problem has gotten so massive that this simple act is futile.

Poor Humphrey. You can really sense his struggle. You’re not specific about dates in the story, either for the present day or for the flashbacks to Tom’s younger days. What period did you have in mind and what made you choose it?

While my primary work usually ends up in the early 1800s, for some reason these ghosts decided they were in the 1960s. Tom’s dated letters have seen a lot of wear and tear, and at the time of this story, the characters briefly discuss a United States presidential candidate. They are in their own bubble of sorts, stuck in the past away from the outside world but not totally unaware. It was easier for me to imagine ghosts from a couple of my favorite time periods and place them in a more familiar setting to me. Not to mention the buildings from my favorite times would have been slowly falling apart, but still viable. I think this is why the 1960s felt right.

Yes, that makes perfect sense, given how important the building is to your storyline. I think I can guess the answer to this one, but I have to ask. Who is your favourite character in the story and why?

 Gosh, I love all of them for different reasons, but Nancy was the most fun to write. There’s just something about the juxtaposition of her outrageous behavior with her wise advice. In fact, every beta reader who has encountered Nancy wants to know more about her. So…maybe she gets her own story next.

I genuinely hope so. I’d love to know who she was when she lived and how she died. But on to the storyline. The idea of a lost soul trapped in a mirror is very evocative. Can you tell us a bit more about how you came up with the idea and the meaning behind it?

I had a thought to examine the human experience in the realm of society’s expectations. I think there is a soul in many of us that we keep trapped. Do we shove it away, direct what it should do and where it should go, all the while giving us the illusion that it is free to move about? When we look in the mirror at our soul…what do we see exactly? Is it us, a totally different person, or is it a part of ourselves that we ignored for too long? Of course this soul in the mirror can be a representation of many scenarios in peoples’ lives, so it can easily slip into whatever form the reader needs.

It’s very effective in this story. I’m hoping that people are going to read this and want more of your work. What’s your current writing project and how is it going? Any publication dates in the pipeline?

I’m working on a historical mystery saga in Northern Alabama, spanning 1834-1850. The first book is about a boy and his new, standoffish friends who come of age during a decade-long blood feud that leaves him digging graves – perhaps even his own. This is the project I’ve been working on for ages, but each setback has taught me valuable lessons and brought new, amazing people into my life. I’m grateful for the experience! In the next few months it will be ready for final beta readers and cultural accuracy readers, then I revise and it’s off to copy edits. That will probably land the publication date in mid-2022. If anyone is interested in being a beta, accuracy, or arc reader, go ahead and contact me for a more detailed description.

That sounds like a fascinating project, and probably takes an enormous amount of research, but it looks as though the end is in sight.

 Danielle, it’s great that you’ve been able to take the time to contribute to Hauntings. I know that all the other authors have thoroughly enjoyed working with you and I personally enjoyed meeting Nancy, Humphrey, and the others. Thanks for joining me on Blogging with Labradors and good luck with your current project.

 If you’d like to find out more about Danielle and her work, you’ll find all her social media links and contact details here. Don’t forget that she’s looking for beta readers for her current project, so do make contact if you can help.

More about Danielle Apple…

When she’s not pursuing research bunny trails, Danielle is reading. Her happy place is cozying up on the couch with her dog and a 19th century gothic mystery novel, but you’ll also find her hiking and exploring ghost towns and forgotten graveyards. An avid photographer and language learner, Danielle finds it difficult not to see the story potential in every place or turn of phrase. Sometimes the muses are humorous, and sometimes they are dark, but they always come from an integral place. Her upcoming novel takes place in Northern Alabama, 1834. It’s about a boy and his new, standoffish friends who come of age during a decade long blood feud that leaves him digging graves – perhaps even his own. You can follow the progress here https://linktr.ee/Dapplewrites

Keep an eye out for more blog posts in the Historical Writers Forum Hauntings blog hop as more of our authors get the chance to talk about their ghost stories in the run-up to Halloween.

 

 THE HISTORICAL WRITERS FORUM: who we are

 The Historical Writers Forum (HWF), started out as a social media group where writers of historical non-fiction, historical fiction, and historical fantasy could come together to share their knowledge and skills to help improve standards amongst this genre of writers, whether they be new or well-practiced. The aim is to encourage peer support for authors in a field where sometimes writing can be a very lonely business. We currently number over 800 members and are growing. We have recently been busy organising online talks via Zoom and now have our own YouTube channel where you can find our discussions on a variety of topics. Our membership includes several well-known authors who regularly engage to share their experiences and strengths to help other members build their own skillset.

We can be found on:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/writersofhistoryforum/

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/HistWriters

YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSsS5dFPp4xz5zxJUsjytoQ

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Five

Lockdown with Oscar: Day Five

dav

After a very successful walk yesterday, it’s both raining and blowing a gale outside. Oscar has made a few forays into the garden to do the needful, and a quick trip up the road, but apart from that, he has decided against the outside world today.

When he doesn’t want to go for a walk, Oscar actually drags his paws. You wouldn’t think a Labrador could do that, but in fact this is the second one I’ve had. Joey, our old yella fella, would stride out in any weather regardless but Toby, our first black Labrador would get to the end of the driveway and freeze in position if he didn’t like the look of the weather. Nothing shifted him. I tried bribery, training, yelling and tugging on the lead. Toby would do his business against the gate post then turn back towards the house in a purposeful manner.

I don’t bother to argue with Oscar. He’s so active that the odd day without a long walk doesn’t hurt him. I’m not so keen myself today either. I had a poor night last night and after a reasonably productive day work wise I hit a serious afternoon slump at about ten to four. I’ve officially given up now and I’ve lit the fire and am dozing on the sofa with Oscar as I’m not cooking tonight.

One of the good points of my son working from home and being unable to go out with his friends is that he’s almost always willing to cook. He’s an excellent cook who can produce restaurant quality food and it’s quite a nice break for me. Steak is happening in the kitchen and it smells good.

I’ve almost finished chapter two today. I don’t yet have a sense of how long this book is likely to be. My last couple were fairly long, but the Tarragona campaign itself was very short. Still, there are several plotlines running through it. More to the point, I will actually get to spend a bit more time at sea during this book. Both my previous naval books have been joint campaigns featuring both the army and the navy, but this one is purely from the naval point of view, so I’m doing a lot of background reading. Oscar is doing less background reading and more snoring, but he seems happy.

“I’d be a lot happier if you’d move that laptop, Mum. That clicking is disturbing me.”

“You mean my typing?”

“Yes. So noisy.”

“I do apologise, your Lordship. I was trying to do some work.”

Lockdown is odd, because my own routine doesn’t really change that much, but because my family is all at home all the time, my schedule is very disrupted. I quite like them all being around though, it’s very social. Oscar adores it and spends the day going from one workplace to another so that none of us feels left out.

The Man I Married is a bit obsessed with the news at the moment. Mostly, I try to avoid it, but when we meet up for lunch, I get my daily rundown of the latest from the USA. It’s like watching a really weird version of the West Wing but without a lot of the witty remarks. Still, it does take your mind off the UK.

My daughter has finished her essay. The pain is over. The trauma is gone.

“Mum. I’m bored.”

“When does your new reading list come out?”

“This week, I think.”

“Why don’t you e-mail them?”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?”

“Not permanently, love. Just until you’ve got something else to do…”

In the middle of all this, I find myself thinking about people with kids who are both working and trying to home school during this chaos. I remember how I was when the kids were young, and I was utterly devoted to them both and couldn’t wait to get them out the door to school or nursery. They needed the stimulation of mixing with other kids and adults and I needed some time away from them. It’s much the same now.

“Mum. I’m so ready to go back to York.”

“I know, love.”

“Bet you’re ready for that too…”

“Mmmm.”

Evenings are nice, though. Generally, we have a tendency to drift off to do our own thing, but without the social aspect of work or seeing friends, our youngsters are more inclined to hang around the kitchen or living room watching TV, playing games or just listening to music. I’ve heard a few parents with teenage or adult kids saying the same. Ours are quite lovely generally, but very busy, so this is a bit of an oasis.

I’m also very happy that my son’s girlfriend has chosen to isolate with us again, and grateful that her poor mother doesn’t mind. She’s a joy to have and I don’t know how either of them would have coped apart. It does make me think about all the couples who weren’t at the point of living together who must have struggled with very tough choices through this.

We’re lucky. We’re lucky to be able to be together, even though we can’t all be where we really want to be. We’re lucky that so far we’ve had no job losses or financial disasters because of this mess. I’m so conscious of those who have, that I almost feel guilty. It’s a fragile security, but sometimes that has to be enough.

Lockdown minus point 6: When it’s raining there’s nowhere indoors to go.

Lockdown plus point 6: Apart from home, which is a pretty nice place to be.

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021

Castletown Fireworks from Energy FM site

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021

I generally do a short post at the beginning of each year, but for some reason this year I feel moved to do it at the end. This is probably to do with the extraordinary nature of 2020, where the world turned upside down for so many people. The internet is full of memes and jokes about how happy we’ll all be to see the end of 2020, and it’s certainly a year that very few of us will forget in a hurry.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter or read my blog posts, will know that with very few exceptions, I stay firmly out of contemporary politics. This doesn’t mean that I’m not aware of what is going on around me, it just means that I find the climate of political debate both toxic and pointless at times. There are people out there who can have a rational discussion on a public forum, but they’re few and far between. Overall, I prefer to keep conversations about the rights and wrongs of Brexit, Lockdown and the teaching of Black History in schools to my close family and friends.

This year it’s been harder than ever to do that, watching the flood of information and misinformation rushing through both traditional and social media. It has felt at times as though the whole world has gone mad, and the values of tolerance, acceptance and understanding that I was raised with have got lost in the compulsive collective need to prove a point, put down other people and above all, to be right. But it isn’t all doom and gloom.

What 2020 has confirmed for me is that there are people out there whom I’ve met both online and in person, who are simply great. They come together both online and in person, drawn by a love of reading, writing, history and good fun. They’re excited by new books, new ideas and photographs of cuddly Labradors. They speak to each other with respect and affection and acknowledge their differences with humour and tolerance. They are not all the same. Some are highly educated and well-respected in their field. Others are self-educated and come to the discussion full of questions, often bringing new ideas. The thing that they all have in common is an enthusiasm for learning about people both fictional and in real life. They are entertaining, they are generous with their time and knowledge and they are kind.

A lot of you will recognize yourselves in this, and you are all my people. While there are people like you in the world, the madness will never win. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart for everything you’ve done in 2020. Every review, every humorous comment, every mad exchange on Twitter and every time you’ve answered a call for information with more than I could ever have hoped for, you prove the pessimists and the doomsayers wrong. Let’s all keep doing it.

Groudle Beach

For me, 2020 has been a very mixed year. The pandemic has closed down the world and left me marooned on this little island in the middle of the Irish Sea, with none of the freedom to travel that I used to enjoy. At the same time, it’s made me appreciate where I live more than ever before. Watching how the people of the Isle of Man have dealt with this chaos makes me proud of my adopted homeland.

In family matters, it’s been a happy year. My son is very settled with his lovely girlfriend, who has become a member of our family. If all goes well, I doubt he’ll still be living here this time next year, a thought which makes me happy and a little sad. My daughter has embarked on her second year in York with great panache, coming out with firsts so far and treating quarantine and lockdowns as a minor inconvenience. The man I married has utterly failed to miss travelling to London for work and is becoming more Manx by the day.

“You’re going all the way to Peel for the evening? Are you staying over, then?”

It’s seven miles.

It took a long time to adjust to the loss of Joey, and it still catches me every now and again. Oscar has proved a worthy successor to my two old fellas, and when we can find a suitable puppy, we’ll be bringing in reinforcements for him on the staff of Writing with Labradors. I can’t wait.

Professionally, it’s been my most successful year to date, although the stress of the first lockdown and the pandemic generally definitely slowed my writing down a lot. Sales have been good, and reviews have been excellent. For the second year in a row, I had a book shortlisted for the Society for Army Historical Research fiction prize, this year with This Blighted Expedition. I was invited to take part in the amazing Waterloo Remembered online celebrations earlier this year, and I’ve been interviewed on various podcasts and blogs through the year.

 

 

I completed and published book six of the Peninsular War Saga, An Unmerciful Incursion. I’ve begun research and planning for two new books. I also found a new editor, who is oddly enough an old friend of mine, and who is working out brilliantly so far.

Things I didn’t manage to achieve. Well obviously, my annual research trip was cancelled this year, as were all the conferences and historical events I hoped to attend. I didn’t manage to finish getting the books out in paperback, for which I apologise. The work is still ongoing, and it will happen, I promise you.

I have big plans for 2021. Next year I aim to publish two books at least. One will be This Bloody Shore which is book three in the Manxman series, and the other is An Indomitable Brigade, which is book seven of the Peninsular War Saga. I’m currently working on both and still haven’t completely decided which is going to come out first. I’ll let you know when I’m certain.

I also aim to get all the books edited and available in paperback, and I’ll be writing my usual three free short stories for Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas, with a possible extra one in the summer. And if the current two books go well, I would love to get off book three of the Manxman as well, although that might be asking a bit too much. We’ll see.

When I’ve finished this, I am off to organise the house for the New Year’s Party we’re hosting this evening for our young people. I’m so conscious of how privileged I am to be doing this, at this moment in time, when other people are buckling down for another lockdown and more restrictions. Even tomorrow’s clear up won’t seem so bad this year, as I’ll feel lucky to be doing it.

Well, maybe not that lucky.

Happy New Year from Writing with Labradors for 2021. I hope you’ll all manage to celebrate in whatever way you can, and I look forward to hearing a lot more from you all in the coming year.

With love from the Isle of Man.

Lynn and Oscar

An Unmerciful Incursion….an early snippet

An Unmerciful Incursion….an early snippet

This is the opening scene of the new book, an Unmerciful Incursion, book 6 of the Peninsular War Saga. It’s due out on 31 July 2020 and I can’t wait.

We’re in winter quarters in 1812-13 and the Royal Scots Guards are having an unusually bad day…

Captain Leo Manson was hungry. He had been aware for some time of his stomach growling, but the sound was becoming audible now, or it would have been, if there had not been so much noise on the parade ground. The noise was rising steadily, a combination of marching feet, shouted orders and the quiet grumbling of officers and NCOs who were aware that it was past the dinner hour. The bugle had called some time ago, and the major who was theoretically supervising the drill had hesitated and shot an uncertain glance towards Manson and his companion, who had shaken his head without speaking. Major Beaumont signalled for the drill to continue, but the interruption seemed to have affected the troops, and the manoeuvres, which had been looking considerably better, were deteriorating again.

“To the right, wheel! March!”

The men on the right of the rank stepped off, turning their eyes to the left. Manson watched, hopefully. For the first few steps, things seemed to be going well, but as the movement continued, he realised that some of the troops had forgotten to lengthen their steps. To maintain the wheel in perfect order, each man needed to pay attention to the exact length of his stride or the wheel would fall apart very quickly. It did so, before Manson’s gloomy gaze, with several men treading on those in front of them, and others scrambling in a series of quick, untidy steps to catch up. The celebrated first battalion of the Scots Guards looked like a draught of militia recruits during their first drill session and Manson gritted his teeth to stop himself intervening, silently pleading with the officers to stop the manoeuvre before it got any worse.

“Halt!”

The bellow was so loud that Manson physically jumped, even though he knew it was coming. The battalion stopped in its tracks, apart from several men caught in mid-step who cannoned into their comrades, causing a series of collisions which shoved one man out of the front rank on his own. The private froze, recognising his isolation, and looked desperately at his sergeant, who glanced at the nearest officer before jerking his head to indicate that the private retreat. The man made his way back into the line in a sideways shuffle which made Manson want to laugh aloud. Manson’s companion said a word under his breath which was inappropriate for a senior officer on the parade ground and strode to the front of the battalion with the air of a man driven beyond his endurance. Manson, who had served under Colonel Paul van Daan of the 110th light infantry for more than two years, forgot about his rumbling stomach and just prayed that his commanding officer did not hit anybody.

“You, what’s your name?”

The hapless soldier who had just made it back into the line, stared at the colonel, his mouth open, but no sound came out.

“Step forward.”

The man did so. Paul van Daan moved closer and inspected him from head to toe with ruthless thoroughness, then held out his hand.

“Musket.”

The man hesitated, and his sergeant, who seemed to have regained his wits, stepped forward. “Andrews, the officer of the 110th wishes…”

“Enough!” Paul roared, and the sergeant jumped to attention. “Andrews, give me the bloody musket before I take it from you and shove it where it will never see the sun. Sergeant Bolton, step back, I’ve not given you an order.”

Andrews handed over the musket. He was sweating in fear, and Manson felt a twinge of sympathy for the man. Paul turned the weapon over in his hands, inspecting the touch hole, the lock and then the entire weapon very thoroughly. When he had done, he handed the musket back to Andrews who took it and returned to attention, staring woodenly ahead.

“Well, Private Andrews, it’s clear you were paying attention when they taught you how to keep your musket in good order, even if you missed basic drill training. When did you join?”

“August, sir.”

“When did you arrive in Portugal?”

“October, sir.”

“Well you were bloody lucky you didn’t arrive earlier, you missed the worst retreat since Corunna. How much drill training have you had, so far?”

“Sir.” Andrews shot an agonised look towards his captain, who was watching the little drama with a thunderous expression. Paul followed his gaze and Manson saw a faint smile.

“Never mind, you can’t really tell me you’ve had virtually none, can you?”

Paul turned away and walked to the front, surveying the battalion. His voice had a carrying power which any drill sergeant would have envied.

“Major Beaumont. Your officers will be missing their dinner. Why don’t you go on ahead, I want a word with the battalion and then I’ll join you.”

There was a rustle of disquiet among the men as the officers left. Colonel van Daan waited until they had gone, then turned back to the men.

“Sergeant-Major Clegg. Separate out the new recruits, get them lined up over there. And get a move on, I’m so hungry my belly is sticking to my spine. Private Andrews, lead them out.”

Manson watched their faces as Paul began to shout out orders, and he wanted to smile. He had seen it happen many times before. Within minutes, the drill was running, and with only experienced troops, it ran very well. The NCOs, visibly relieved at being able to demonstrate how well their men could perform, kept the movements tight, and the companies worked well together. Paul watched, calling out an occasional order, but mostly left the NCOs to their work. Once it was evident that the Royal Scots Guards were moving smoothly, Paul crossed to where the new troops stood watching in miserable silence, and Manson saw Paul put his hand on Andrews’ shoulder. He was speaking to him, pointing out what was happening in the manoeuvre, and Manson could see the man relaxing. Paul said something and several of the men around him laughed.

When the drill was done, Paul called the new recruits back into line. “Well done,” he said. “I’d a feeling you were better than that. Don’t get arsey with the new lads, we were all there once and they’ll learn quicker if you work together. I’m pleased that I’ll be able to report back to Lord Wellington that the Scots Guards are still the men who proved their worth at Salamanca. Is anybody hungry?”

There was a murmur of laughter and then somebody cheered. Paul grinned, and taking it as permission, the battalion yelled to a man, driven, Manson thought, not only by the thought of dinner but by an unexpected sense of camaraderie. Paul gave the order to stand the men down and walked over to Manson.

“Do you think we’re going to get any dinner?” he asked.

“I’m not sure, sir. That went very well, though.”

“Yes, they’re good lads.”

“They’re good officers as well, sir.”

“They might be, Captain, but if they’ve done more than a couple of hours worth of work with their new recruits this winter, I’ll be very surprised. Don’t look at me like that. I’m going to go in there, explain his Lordship’s instructions and be really, really tactful. I give you my word.”

Manson watched as the tall, fair figure walked towards the solid farm building which currently housed the battalion officers’ mess and felt his heart sink. Colonel Paul Van Daan could manage the enlisted men and NCOs better than any officer Manson had ever seen, but his attitude towards a commissioned officer whom he suspected of shirking his duty frequently left chaos in his wake.

“Captain Manson, where the devil are you? Get in here, I’m hungry.”

Manson sighed and followed, reflecting that whatever the atmosphere in the mess, there would at least be dinner.

The atmosphere was uncomfortable enough for Manson to be happy to miss breakfast the following morning. It was approximately thirty miles from Guarda, where the first division was in cantonments, to Freineda where Wellington had his headquarters. Paul, Manson and Sergeant Jenson, Paul’s orderly, were travelling light and made good time. They stopped in the little village of Braga where a farmer made up for the lack of an early meal with excellent fare and a wealth of local gossip. He and Paul were clearly old acquaintances and Manson ate in silence, trying to follow the conversation which was in rapid Portuguese and seemed to consist of a series of enquiries about members of the farmer’s extended family. Back on the road, Paul was considerably more cheerful.

“I’ve known old Barboza since I was out here under Craufurd a few years ago, he was always good to us. Much better manners than the officers of the Royal Scots Guards, I must say.”

“Sir, you threatened to punch one of the officers of the Royal Scots Guards.”

“Only after he challenged me to a duel,” Paul said composedly. “A challenge which I nobly resisted. I wonder if he’ll complain to Lord Wellington?”

“I expect he’s already written the letter, sir.”

“Perhaps Wellington will be so furious that he’ll remove me from this assignment,” Paul said hopefully. “I’m not at all suited to the job.”

Manson could not help smiling. “You are suited to the job, sir, you just hate doing it.”

“I hate being away from my wife,” Paul said. “She’s barely out of her bed after giving birth, and given what a horrendous ordeal that proved to be, she shouldn’t be out of her bed at all. But we all know that she won’t give a button for the list of instructions that I left for her and is probably doing something highly unsuitable without me there to keep an eye on her.”

“Sir, she’d be doing that even if you were there.”

“You know her very well, Captain.” Paul shot him a smile. “I’m glad I asked you to come with me, Leo, it’s been good to get some time with you.”

“Me too, sir. It’s been a mad few months.”

“It’s been a mad few years.”

Manson could not disagree. He had arrived in Portugal with the 112th infantry, and his early introduction to army life and in particular to Colonel Paul van Daan had not been easy, but both Manson and Paul had persevered. Two and a half years later, Manson was captain of the 110th light company and enjoyed a close friendship with both Paul and his young wife, who travelled with the battalion.

Paul was currently in command of the third brigade of the light division, under its Hanoverian commander, General Charles Alten, but during winter quarters, had been given an unwelcome secondment by Lord Wellington to tour the various divisions of the army, inspecting training and combat readiness. Manson was not entirely clear about Paul’s remit and he did not think that Paul was either, but after only a few weeks it was obvious that some of the officers of Lord Wellington’s army were furiously resentful about his interference in the running of their battalions. Paul’s friendship with Wellington, and his past record of taking on jobs that no other officer in the army wanted to do, had led to him being nicknamed Wellington’s Mastiff several years ago. Manson had heard the sobriquet again recently, and not in an affectionate way.

If Paul cared, he gave no sign of it. Manson thought that his commanding officer was more concerned with the problems he was finding with training and discipline in some of the divisions, than with his own unpopularity. Another officer might have treated this job as a sinecure, sending glowing reports back to Wellington on every occasion and making friends throughout the army but Manson knew that Paul would do no such thing. He treated each inspection as a personal quest to improve things and Manson was exasperated both with his over-conscientious colonel and with Lord Wellington who had set him an impossible task. To make it worse, many of the officers he was dealing with, were of higher rank than he, and resented advice and recommendations from a mere colonel.

An Unmerciful Incursion is available to pre-order on Amazon here.

 

Organised Chaos

The idea for a post entitled Organised Chaos arose when somebody asked me a  question a few days ago about how I organise my research when I’m writing a new book. I gave, what was for me, quite a sensible answer. Thinking about it afterwards, I realised that I actually do have a system for this. Many other areas in my life bumble along without much of a plan, but when it comes to writing, I’ve learned what works and I stick to it.

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

I’m not sure if my system would work for anybody else, but I know that I quite like reading other people’s ideas about organisation, so I thought I’d share the tools I use, in case any of them come in handy for other people. At the very least, you can all have a good laugh at them.

My writing life is very complicated, and every time it threatens to get easier, I find new ways to complicate it further. I’ve published eleven historical novels so far. The earliest two were standalone books but all of the others are linked in some way, although I’ve written them at different times and they are all set at different points of my timeline. So, the Peninsular War Saga begins in 1802 and I’ve published five books, taking me to the end of 1812 and I’m now working on book six. The Manxman series has two books so far and begins in 1806 with the second one taking us into 1810. The two Regency romances are set in 1816 and 1818. In addition, I’ve written eight short stories, all of which are linked to the main books and run from around 1809 through to Waterloo in 1815.

Characters move regularly between the different series. Because I had already published the first four Peninsular books and the two Regencies before I started the Manxman series, I’m not writing the books consecutively. This means that I need to constantly be aware of what my characters do or don’t already know and whom they might have met at a different part of the timeline. I’m time hopping every time I start a new book, which means I need to keep very good records of my characters, even the minor ones. Before I had set up a good system, I discovered during editing that several soldiers who died at Assaye or Talavera were up and fighting again at Bussaco, it was like an episode of the Walking Dead.

A good example of the challenge of this is Giles Fenwick. I first wrote about Giles in one of the Regency romances, where in true romantic hero style, he is a cynical war veteran, emotionally shut down and struggling with what we would call PTSD today. He’s also an Earl. There is a brief mention of his wartime service, where he spent part of his time as an exploring officer.

I then decided to use him in a short story set during the war, and also to introduce him as a minor character into the Peninsular War Saga. From there, I was writing about Walcheren in the second Manxman book and realised that I’d mentioned somewhere that Giles had been there, so introduced him as one of my main characters. Now I’ve moved back to the Peninsula, I’ve given him a bigger role there, but need to remember that Walcheren, although it was the last book I wrote, was four years ago for Giles. Is anybody else confused yet?

I use several tools to keep on top of my characters and my research.

Character List Spreadsheet

This one speaks for itself, really. I use Excel and when I’m editing, I check every single character against this list and add any new information. It has columns for all the basic information such as name, age, physical appearance if I’ve mentioned it, family relationships etc. Then there is a notes column where I can not any significant role the character has played in the book. I don’t use this much for the main characters, since I know what they’ve been up to, but it’s useful to remember, for example, that Private Thompson sometimes acted as orderly and valet to Colonel Wheeler, because it means I’ll be consistent about that. A very important column is headed ‘Death’ and I record the date and how they died. This avoids any zombie resurrections, which is always what we want. I keep a single list for all the books, since the characters move between them.

Book Folder

For each book I’ve written or am about to write, I create a book folder. Everything associated with this book, is stored in the one place, including the book itself, the blurb,  the online source folder, book covers, pictures I might like to use on the web page for the book and an ideas folder.

Online Source Folder

In the early days, I used to bookmark really useful sources which are available online, but I found that I was losing track of what I’d found. I might remember reading something about promotion without purchase, but couldn’t remember where. These days, I create a new research folder every time I start a new book and keep it in the same place as my Scrivener files, and I’ll store links to good online resources relevant to this book all in the same place, under headings that make sense to me. It saves a lot of time searching online for something I’ve already found.

Ideas Folder

Every book in the series has a provisional title, even those I’ve not yet written. I might change that when I come to write it, in fact my current work in progress has just been changed from an Unrelenting Enmity to An Unmerciful Incursion to reflect the change in emphasis of the storyline. This means that if I have a sudden idea while writing one book, that I might like to use in a future book, I can make some notes and store them in the folder.

Notebook

When it comes to the day to day planning for a book, I have to use an old fashioned notebook. Scrivener, which I write with, has the facility to store research and planning notes, and I tried it. I’ve also tried other software such as Aeon, for doing timelines. None of these worked for me. While I’m typing, I much prefer to reach for a book than have endless tabs open on a screen, it just works better. 

It’s also an excuse to use a selection of lovely notebooks. A plain A4 pad would work perfectly well, but of course I don’t use that. As you’ll see from my current notebook, I work best with cute animals, but I’m flexible.

In my notebook, I keep a detailed timeline, almost a diary, of what happened during the period I’m writing about, with quick references to books if I found something particularly useful. I leave a lot of space between dates.  Once I’ve got the historical timeline worked out, I’ll go back as I’m writing, and slot in my fictional characters, so that I can weave my own story into the fabric of the historical events. It’s a bit like a diary, and it can change the direction of the book if I find out something interesting while I’m putting this together.

A good example of this is the shipwreck of the Venerable in 1809 off the coast of Walcheren. I first learned about this from the autobiography of Dr McGrigor, who was on the ship, and I slotted it into the timeline, and read about it. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to mention this in the novel, but I wanted to know a bit more about it. McGrigor mentioned two ladies aboard as well as some soldiers wives below decks, and I went through the sources I was using to try to find out more. In the bibliography of a thesis I’d been using, I came across a reference to the diaries and letters of Captain Codrington, whose wife was one of the ladies on the ship. These were available online and were pure gold. I also realised, to my surprise, that it gave me the opportunity to give a much bigger role to the heroine of my previous book as it was a way of bringing her out to join her husband along with Jane Codrington.

In addition, reading the Codrington letters, which were fairly addictive, gave me an idea for a future book in the Manxman series, which immediately went into the ideas folder. The Venerable shipwreck was added into my timeline along with a lot of useful information gleaned from a friend who was doing research on Sir Home Popham and was able to send me photos of the original logs of the ship during this period along with a huge amount of other useful information.

Along with the timeline, I also write a plan in my notebook. Initially this is just an outline, but once I’ve got the storyline clear in my head, I do a detailed chapter by chapter plan. This will probably change a few times, so by the time I’ve finished, I’ll have several of these in the book. I also have a page for each character who has a point of view in the book, so that I can scribble notes about their development, motivation and role in the story.

I find maps useful. I own a fabulous Peninsular War Atlas, which is marvellous for all the major battles but I also need to be able to trace the routes my characters take when marching. A lot of the diaries and letters published are great for this, particularly Wellington’s correspondence, since you can see where headquarters was situated on the march by the headings of his letters. I have a beautiful set of his correspondence which my husband bought me for our 25th wedding anniversary and I use them all the time, they’re the joy of my life.

To keep track of where we are, I use Google maps to trace what I know of the routes taken. Most of this is done online as I go along, but occasionally it’s useful to have hard copy to keep referring back to. For example, I’ve printed out a couple of maps and put them in my notebook for book six, showing the location of Wellington’s various divisions through winter quarters. It’s a quick and easy reference tool and stops me making stupid mistakes, such as sending Colonel van Daan to visit the fifth division for a couple of hours when it would actually have taken him a couple of days to get there.

I also keep handy lists in the notebook. At the beginning of each book, I make a new list of my fictional brigade, by battalion and company, and include most of the officers and any significant NCOs and privates. This is a simple word document, which I update when I start a new book, removing anybody who has died, noting promotions and transfers. I then print it out and stick it in the notebook for easy reference. Other lists are specific to each book; I’ve compiled one of Wellington’s staff at HQ since that’s important for this book.

 

My notebook probably looks chaotic to anybody else, but it’s the basic tool that I work with every day. I started using this method for book four and I love it. I don’t throw the notebooks away when the book is finished, so I have a collection of them now, and they’re quite fun to look through to see how the book developed as I was writing it. More importantly, it stops me writing quick notes on scraps of paper which I then lose. Anything that I need to write down while writing this book goes in that notebook.

Sticky Notes and tags

When I’m first reading up about a campaign, I use a lot of sticky notes and tags to mark pages or sections that are particularly useful. As with notebooks, I much prefer cute tags to plain yellow post it notes, and Sir Charles Oman is currently sporting a fine collection of sea bird tags and Me to You bear post it notes. I’ve got some llama ones that I really like as well. It’s best to be an adult about these things. I don’t make a lot of notes from books, I simply keep the books to hand and refer to them directly as I’m writing.

The End

There’s a magical feeling when the last word is typed, the last edit is done, and the book is finally out there for people to read. One of the great things about writing a series, or even two, is that people are waiting for the books, particularly the Peninsula ones. It can also feel a bit sad. For months, occasionally as long as a year, I’ve lived with these people in my heads every day and now they belong to somebody else. I’ve no control over what people will think of them. Some people will love them, a few won’t, and will say so very vocally in reviews. 

There’s a little ritual that I go through once the book is published, clearing my desk. I remove all the tags from the books and put them back on the shelves, I do a final backup of my computer files to make sure and I close my notebook and put it on the shelf with the previous ones. The desk looks empty and very tidy, usually for about twenty-four hours.

Then I get a new notebook out. I always have a stash, I can’t stop buying pretty notebooks. I write the title of the next book on the cover and I put it on my desk. I sit down at my computer and open a new Scrivener file.

And it all begins again.

I hope that “Organised Chaos” gives a little insight into how I work, and answers my reader’s question. I’d be interested to hear how other writers go about organising their work.

 

 

Social Distancing With Labradors

Generally speaking, my posts tend to be related to history, historical novels or dogs, but given that the world around us has changed so much, so quickly over the past weeks, I thought I’d welcome you all to Social Distancing with Labradors, as Oscar has very definite views on what is going on around here.

To bring you all up to date, the Isle of Man now has twenty cases of Covid-19 on the island, and at least one of them appears to have been passed from person to person on the island. We are not yet in total lockdown, as the UK is, but schools, pubs, restaurants and all public places are closed, all events have been cancelled and supermarket shelves are often bare. 

In the house, we have five adults working at home. Two of us are used to it. It’s a new experience for my 21 year old son, who is able to work remotely, while his girlfriend and my daughter are both home from university, struggling to finish work without the use of libraries or looking forward to online teaching. Nothing like this has ever happened to any of us before, and it’s weird.

It has also taken over our lives far too much every slight cough is a cause for temporary alarm. Three of us were in the UK fairly recently which makes us worry more. Most conversations centre around the crisis and we follow news updates with unhealthy enthusiasm. I’ve got a feeling that it’s time to put a stop to that. There’s not much we can do now, and although I know we need to pay attention to any changes in the new laws, it’s not useful to read the opinions of 85,000 armchair experts and then rehash them around the dinner table. Today, at dinner, we’re going to talk about something else.

And then there is Oscar. Walks are still happening, but we’re staying local and well away from other dog walkers and their pooches. We’re lucky enough to have very large gardens at front and back, so we can play fetch and chasing games. More importantly, there are five people here all the time, to play with him and sit with him and cuddle him. Oscar is doing all right.

“So what is going on, Mum?”

“It’s called a virus, Oscar. It can make people very ill, so we’re all staying at home for a while to avoid catching it.”

“Can dogs get it?”

“No.”

“Can you get it?”

“I could.”

“Don’t.”

“I’ll do my best, Oscar.”

“You know what, Mum? It’s not all bad.”

“You think?”

“For me, I mean. I know you all like to go out or go away. But I like it best when you’re all here, with me. The girls haven’t got to go back to that University place for ages, and I get to sit outside with Anya every morning and curl up on the sofa next to Rachael every afternoon. I’m helping her with her work.”

“I bet you are.”

“She says I am. How long will it be like this, Mum?”

“I don’t know, Oscar. We’ll have to wait and see. But you’re right. As a family, so far, we’re doing okay.”

“I love my family, Mum.

“We love you back, Oscar.”

“Even when I’m naughty?”

“Even then.”

“Even when I steal food?”

“Yep.”

“Even when I dig up the lawn?”

“Yep.”

“Even when I sit on your head?”

“Even then.”

“What about when I eat your books?”

“Just about. Don’t do it though.”

Oscar is right, though. There have been positive things about this crisis. My three young people are doing so well, without moaning or complaining. They’re cooking a lot, vying with each other to make great meals and yummy desserts #dietinglater. And we’re all finding that being thrown together for a long time without being able to go out with friends is a lot better than we thought it would be. It turns out that we all get on quite well.

We’re worried of course, not just about our own health, but about friends and family all over the world, and we’re looking forward to better times. In the meantime, I’ve a book and a short story to write, and another project that I’m considering, and Oscar is looking at me with those big “take me for a walk” eyes. so there’s no time to be bored or miserable here at Writing with Labradors.

I can’t help thinking of all the people who read my books and stories and follow the adventures of Oscar online. I really hope you’re all safe and keeping well out there, and like me, looking forward to a return to at least partial normality. I’m working on the new book as fast as I can, and I also have a couple of freebies in the pipeline to keep you entertained. And I’ll keep you up to date on Oscar, who literally just managed to get himself stuck down the side of the garden shed for no logical reason whatsoever.

Keep safe and keep well, everybody. Oscar sends virtual hugs from all of us here at Social Distancing with Labradors.