Writers Tom Williams (above right) and Paul Fraser Collard (above left) both write novels set in the nineteenth century, yet both came to the period in very different ways. Here they discuss what first fired their inspiration and what keeps them interested in the period.
TOM: I never set out to write historical novels. My first book was The White Rajah about James Brooke. I wrote it because I had come across him when I was visiting Borneo and I thought he seemed an amazing character. When I got back to England, I started researching him just out of interest and then I decided he would be a wonderful subject for a book. It was just happenstance that he lived in the mid-19th-century.
Having produced one historical novel, agents and publishers just seemed to assume that that was what I did, so I looked around for another historical figure who might be interesting. A friend who knew how much I loved Argentina suggested that I should look at Europeans who had been involved in the early history of that country, as she thought there were many great tales there. I started reading as much as I could find and stumbled across James Burke. That led to Burke in the Land of Silver, which is actually really closely based on his life. James Burke gave me an obvious hero in the Napoleonic War period, which just provides lots of interesting scenarios that you can base a story round. So now James Burke is fighting his way through the beginning of the 19th century, but again it was the historical person that first attracted me, rather than the period.
Paul, I assumed (probably because of the biography your publishers provide) that your interest was originally not the people but the military history. But why the mid-19th century? Most writers seem to go for either the Napoleonic Wars or World War I (particularly with this being the centenary). I’m seeing a lot of World War II stuff at the moment as well – but not much from your period. There was the wonderful Flashman, of course but, though I’ve seen James Burke compared to Flashman, I think Jack Lark is a very different kettle of fish.
PAUL: For me it was all about the period. After devouring books that featured such wonderful creations as Sharpe, Flashman, Ramage, Hornblower and Fonthill among others, I knew I had to write about this period.
The choice to base The Scarlet Thief in the Crimea was a pragmatic one. Quite simply, there had not been any other series that had been set there, at least at the time when I started to write. I was hopeful that choosing a less well-trodden path would help my debut novel stand out.
At the same time, I was also thinking about my lead character. I wanted a character with the freedom to travel, rather in the way that Flashman was able to go here, there and everywhere. I would never dare to imitate a writer as brilliant as George MacDonald Fraser, but I was utterly certain that success lay in creating a new character who could find himself caught up in a number of different campaigns rather than being bound to the history of a single regiment or war.
I think it something that you are successfully developing in your Burke series. As a spy, James Burke has a similar freedom to travel and you have certainly covered a lot of ground already in the first three books! It does give us both more work to do as we don’t have the luxury of staying in the same place for very long. I don’t know about you, but I actually prefer being able to almost start again with every novel. Creating the supporting cast of characters is always a lot of fun and I really do enjoy researching for the next book in the series, especially when it is something that I do not know a lot about.
TOM: The Burke books were always supposed to be fun, and each one should stand alone. Because he is a spy and not surrounded with other soldiers the only regularly recurring character (apart from walk on parts from some historical figures) is William Brown, who is supposed to assist him on his missions. I have enjoyed developing the relationship between him and William. William develops over time, becoming more confident. He has huge respect for Burke, who is an officer and a gentleman, whereas he is just a common soldier. He’s got a very strong idea of how the different classes should behave. Burke, though, relies on William to get him out of trouble and, sometimes, to stop him from making a fool of himself. Burke has some brilliant ideas, but William keeps him grounded.
There is an important character from the past who turns up in the one I’m writing now, but I don’t want to give away who it is.
I find I don’t have as free a hand moving Burke about us I would like. So far, all the books have tied in to a significant historical event at the time and, it being the Napoleonic Wars, this is usually a battle. The trouble is that Burke is an old school hero, so it’s important that he is on the winning side and during the wars with France there were not that many battles where the British were on the winning side. I’m rather scrabbling around to find them. How do you decide where Jack Lark is going to fight?
PAUL: Choosing where Jack will go next is one of the most fun parts of writing this series. So far he has been to the Crimea, pre-mutiny India, Persia, Delhi, Solferino and now I am taking him to America. What makes my task a little easier is that I can take him anywhere, and that opens up wars and campaigns where the British were not involved. I am also not so worried about Jack being on the winning side. The latest story, set against the First Battle of Bull Run, will see Jack on the losing side, and I think it is all the more interesting to see Jack fight his hardest, but still end up getting caught in the chaos of a retreat.
I have plans in place for books 7 and 8, and I have a few sketchy ideas for what to do after that (if I get to keep writing) I have no shortage of ideas!
As well as choosing Jack’s next destination, I am always thinking about what uniform he will get to wear, as that forms such a crucial part of the series feel to the cover designs. It is always a key part of my planning and I have discovered some wonderful units along the way from East India Company cavalry, to a militia regiment serving in the Union army. Of them all, I think the French Foreign Legion has to be my favourite and they will feature again later in the series.
What part in the planning process do you enjoy the most?
TOM: Once I have a vague idea of where we’ll be, I enjoy researching the background. I usually start with a modern history to get some kind of general feel and then I like to read contemporary accounts. Fortunately there are plenty of these and, thanks to the Internet, getting hold of the original works is now really easy. I have a British Library reader’s card but I haven’t needed to use it for years.
Absolutely the most fun was researching the very first James Burke adventure, Burke in the Land of Silver. I found hardly any material on Burke himself, but I had been to Argentina and had some sort of feel for Buenos Aires. I used the book as an excuse to go back there and prowl round the oldest parts of the city which haven’t changed that much in two hundred years. I also visited a lot of museums, but the highlights were a trip to an estancia where I went out riding with the gauchos and a separate trip to the Andes. In my story, Burke starts off to cross the Andes rather too late in the year, and only just makes it across before the snow seals the passes. When I came to write it, I realised I had absolutely no idea what this would be like. So I set off on a horse to find out. For practical reasons I had to go early in Spring, but while there was still a lot of snow on the ground. We got surprisingly close to the pass before we were driven back. We slept at 3000 meters in a stone hut with just one tiny wood fire that kept going out. The stream outside the door froze at night. I have never been so cold. But seeing the Andes like that was a literally awesome experience and I am so happy that I did it. In the end, it’s only a few paragraphs in the book, but as far as I’m concerned, definitely worth it.
Have you been able to visit the scenes of your books?
PAUL: I wish! I did manage a little research for book 6 when we recently visited Boston, but otherwise I rely on the power of the internet. I am envious of your trip to Argentina!
I have been able to see and feel some of Jack’s weapons. There is something very visceral about holding a 1853 pattern Enfield rife musket, especially when you have some idea of how destructive and important a weapon it was.
One of the interesting things I have discovered from writing the books is how changes in weapon manufacturing, and the resulting increase in power, did not lead to a more immediate change in tactics. Even at the start of the American Civil War, the generals on both sides relied on tactics that harked back to the days of Napoleon. The cumbersome formations they used meant that weapons like the American-made Springfield, made to a similar design to the British Enfield, worked a dreadful destruction. There are some appalling images on the internet that show the damage inflicted on the men on the wrong end of these weapon’s fearsome power.
I have enjoyed your recent blogs on the weapons that feature in your books and it’s been fascinating to learn about the kris. Can we expect Burke to wield something as interesting in his next adventure?
TOM: Besides the books about James Burke, I have written a trilogy set in the mid-19th century. The first of these books, The White Rajah, is set in Borneo and kris feature a lot. It’s supposed to be a serious story about power and colonialism and its corrupting effect, but it does seem to have quite a lot of battles and pirates: hence the kris.
We’ve talked about weapons before. How much are you into the hardware of war? Somebody has just suggested I should go and watch some re-enactors having a battle and I am tempted. I nearly went to Brussels for Waterloo last year, but the idea of spending a fortune and then standing about in a field in the rain (because it may well have rained – it did just before the real thing) rather put me off. Have you ever done that?
PAUL: I think that’s a terrific idea. I’ve often fancied getting involved in re-enacting. How cool would it be to learn to be a rifleman like one of Sharpe’s chosen men? I am sure it would give a great insight into what it was really like to be a soldier on the ground, and I know it’s something other authors have done. Food for thought there.
So with two series on the go already, have you got plans for even more books in the future?
TOM: I’m just finishing Burke in the Peninsula, set in Spain and featuring guerrilla warfare and the Battle of Talavera. After that I might try something different. What about you? You’ve said you have plans already for more Jack Lark. Do you have ideas for anything else or are you sticking with him?
PAUL: I have three more Jack Lark stories to finish which will take the series up to 8 novels. Then there is the little matter of a WW2 spy novel that I have written, but which needs work. So much to do and so little time!
TOM: Always so little time. That’s probably a clue that we need to stop. It’s been fun. Thanks.
Tom Williams used to write books for business. Now he writes about love and adventure in the 19th century, which is much more fun. It also allows him to pretend that travelling in the Far East and South America is research. Tom’s main interest is avoiding doing any honest work and this leaves him with time to ski, skate and dance tango, all of which he does quite well. Tom blogs at http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.uk.
Paul Fraser Collard’s love of military history started at an early age. A childhood spent watching films like Waterloo and Zulu whilst reading Sharpe, Flashman and the occasional Commando comic, gave him a desire to know more of the men who fought in the great wars of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. This fascination led to a desire to write and his series of novels featuring the brutally courageous Victorian rogue and imposter Jack Lark burst into life in 2013. The latest, The Last Legionnaire, is out in paperback now.