Sunday, 8 June 2014

Juggling the genres

I'm back.

My excuse for the prolonged absence is that I've been struggling for a while with family and work commitments, but hopefully this is the start of regular contributions again. I plan to do a series on my favourite parts of my books, why and what I felt when I was writing the passages.

First though, a new departure. I've just self-published a book called War Games on Amazon Kindle. It's a crime novel and why, I hear you ask, would I be straying into another genre when I already write historical fiction as myself and thrillers as James Douglas? The simple reason is that the book existed, in fact there are two of them.

When I wrote The End of The Emperor's Elephant (which went on to become Caligula and Claudius), I had no idea if it would ever be published and I had no idea where to go next. The answer was to write another book. I knew I could write historical fiction, so why not try something else? That very night I came up with a character who created himself in my sleep and talked to me in a voice that I knew would be a great backdrop to a novel. His name was Glen Savage and he was a Falklands War veteran who'd repressed an intermittent psychic gift for thirty years. Now he uses the gift to help the police find the bodies of missing murder victims: the last resort after all the other last resorts have struck out. I wrote the book in the first person and the effect was like a Sam Spade voiceover for one of those Fifties noir movies.

I offered the book to my publisher, but I already had two parallel strands going with them and they declined. What's the point of writing a book if nobody can read it? Transworld said they were happy for me to self-publish it and Amazon provided the means. Obviously, there's also a financial incentive. Amazon offers royalties of between thirty and seventy percent, against the publisher's twenty five, that allows me to price the book low, but still make a reasonable return. Hopefully, the low price will attract more readers who'll be impressed enough to buy the second book when I publish it later in the year.

There are obvious drawbacks to self-publishing. You don't have the back-up of big publishing resources, editors, copy editors and proof-readers, and the only promotion the book will get is on blogs like this and through word of mouth, so it's basically flying solo. Fortunately, I've had help from my agent and I'd like to thank my friend, and veteran self-publisher, Simon Turney, (The brilliant Marius Mules series) for his patient advice as I struggled with formats and uploading.

The upside is that you have the flexibility to publish what you want, when you want and get an immediate return for your efforts. Hopefully, you'll like Glen Savage as much as I do. Give him a try for less than the price of a skinny latte for a limited period only!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

One for the writers: A synopsis masterclass

One skill many writers find difficult is turning their brilliant idea into a synopsis that will grab the attention of a publisher or an agent. So this is one for the authors among you who are interested in being published by the traditional route, although I think it also has resonance with self-publishers, because the same rules apply to the description you use to market your book on Kindle and the like.

The key is that a synopsis isn't a regurgitation of the plot, action and characters of your book - who did what, where and when - not even in a simplified cut-down version. It has to be a distillation of all those elements that visualises your story into a kind of literary film trailer, but more crucially provides whoever's reading it with the very essence of what you're trying to achieve.

So, for what it's worth here's a pitch I put together a few years ago for an English Civil War series. It didn't work out at the time not because it was a bad idea, or that the publisher didn't think I could write the books, but for the simple reason that they'd accepted a similar approach from the very talented Giles Kristian for his Bleeding Land series about a week before. I think they would have been very complex, multi-layered books, with lots of interesting secondary characters, because the civil war was hugely complicated by religious and social factors that went far beyond the political.

You have two options in portraying such a wide-ranging conflict, either telling the story through multiple points of view, or placing your main protagonist in such a position that he's privy to all the main elements and the action behind the scenes. That's what I chose to do with Nate Pride, who starts off defending the college silver and ends up being so close to his commander that he's branded 'Cromwell's conscience'. Like all books it would have developed, and, looking back, some of the scenarios are a little clichéd, but they, or something like them, happened, and sometimes life is just one big cliché.

So here it is: the ROUNDHEAD series © Doug Jackson (if anybody pinches the ideas herein, I'll be after them for twenty per cent). In the unlikely event I ever get one of these Writer in Residence gigs I apply for, this will be the subject of one of my Masterclass workshops.

By Douglas Jackson

THE new four part series featuring 20-year-old Nathaniel ‘Nate’ Pride, a Cambridge student who in 1642 defies his family to join little known, but charismatic cavalry captain, Oliver Cromwell, as the schisms between Parliament and King, Puritanism and Popery drag the country relentlessly into civil war. 
Nate’s talent with sword and pistol and his ability as a leader quickly establish him among his commander’s favourites, but his lack of religious fervour makes him appear suspect to some of his comrades. As the conflict continues, his growing doubts over the bloody cost of dethroning the king earns him the sneering sobriquet ‘Cromwell’s conscience’ and only the Parliamentary leader’s tolerance protects him.
If the war must be fought, Nate will risk all to ensure it is won, but nothing prepares him for the terrible cost to his family. His brother Edward dies in his arms on the blood-slick slope of Edgehill, his manor house at Paxton Hall is burned, brother in law Thomas murdered and his sister Elizabeth raped by a Royalist raiding party led by landowner, Sir Henry Collingsby, who will be his nemesis until the final shots of the war.
From the first clash of blades, the ROUNDHEAD series is a gripping, epic tale of divided loyalties, human tragedy, and the merciless slaughter of a war that tore the nation apart, and in which no man, woman or child could afford to be neutral. 

Power of the Sword

TORN between loyalty to his family and the strength of his own convictions, Nate Pride attempts to concentrate on his studies in Cambridge as the world disintegrates around him. But everything changes after Royalists attempt to carry off the university treasure and he is persuaded by firebrand politician Oliver Cromwell to help stop them. When war breaks out it’s taken for granted that he’ll join Cromwell’s troop.
While the two sides manoeuvre for position and Cromwell’s reputation grows Nate is called home to bury his father and discovers that his brother Edward has decided to join the Royalists. As he’s leaving the house Nate has a fateful encounter with local landowner, Sir Henry Collingsby, and his son Ralph that will haunt him until the end of the war.
In the early skirmishes, Nate surrounds himself with men he can trust and proves himself a resourceful leader as he discovers the true merciless nature of a conflict that pitches father against son and brother against brother. In an act of compassion he may live to regret he saves the young servant Margaret, who appoints herself his personal camp follower, and whose presence tries Cromwell’s patience.
King Charles raises his standard in the North and Parliament sends the Earl of Essex with an army to persuade him away from the counsellors who have misguided him. Out of favour, Nate is attached to Essex’s force and while on a scouting mission is led into a blundering engagement with Prince Rupert’s cavalry at Powick Bridge that almost costs him his life. Nate’s dragoons cover the Roundhead retreat and he watches appalled as the Parliamentary cavalry are routed and realizes that Puritan farm boys and apprentices are no match for the gaudily uniformed professionals of the King’s army.
Yet the first true test of arms is yet to come, where two great armies will join battle for the soul of the nation and where Nate will come face to face with his brother Edward for the first time since their father died - on the field of Edgehill.

Men of Iron

THEY said Edgehill was a stalemate but to Nate Pride it felt very much like a defeat. As Nate recovers from his wounds, King Charles is thwarted in his attempt to take London, but the Royalists are winning in the West and the North and there is a rumour they’ll soon be joined by the Irish and the Scots. Yet Nate is strangely happy. He has been reconciled with Cromwell who, although he turned up too late for the fight, had been informed of the young scholar’s heroics. Cromwell is forming his own cavalry formation and when he is fit Nate will command a squadron.
In the meantime, he returns to Paxton Hall to visit Elizabeth and her husband, and is given the glad news that he’s about to become an uncle. While there Elizabeth encourages him to call upon Jane Faversham, his childhood friend, and he quickly realises that friendship has developed into something much greater. He has another reason to survive.
It can only be time before another major confrontation between the Parliamentary and Royalist forces and Nate works his men hard to prepare for the battle, fighting in the victories at Grantham and Gainsborough, but his efforts are interrupted by a frantic letter from Jane asking him to return to Paxton immediately. He goes back to find the house a blackened ruin and Edward dead, at the hands of cavalrymen wearing distinctive blue cockades. Elizabeth is utterly traumatised and being nursed by Jane. Cromwell’s intelligence chief confirms the raid was the work of Collingsby’s men.
Nate has seen many such tragedies and finds himself strangely detached from Edward’s death and the loss of his home. 
Cromwell and his Ironsides march North to confront Prince Rupert’s army as it attempts to relieve York. Before the two sides meet Nate receives word from Jane confessing that Elizabeth was raped by Collingsby. In a haze of righteous fury, he leads his men into the battle where he will cross swords with Rupert himself and discover the true depths of a vengeful man’s inhumanity when he finally catches up with Ralph Collingsby among the chaos and carnage of Marston Moor.
Turn of the tide

IS there to be no end to the killing? Nate is a changed man after the slaughterhouse of Marston Moor, but he consoles himself that surely the king must now sue for terms. Yet the glorious Parliamentary victory is followed by humiliating defeat. In September word comes of disaster in Scotland where a Royalist force led by Montrose has smashed the Covenanters and in the south where Charles himself has forced the surrender of the Earl of Essex’s army. Cromwell’s impatience with his fellow commanders is growing and he enlists Nate’s aid in finding a way to get rid of Essex and his other rivals at the head of the Parliamentary army.
Meanwhile, Cromwell persuades Parliament to reward Nate for his suicidal courage at Marston Moor and for the loss of Paxton Hall by granting him Collingsby’s estate. With his financial future secure, he asks Jane to marry him, but in an emotional confrontation as Lady Collingsby and her household are evicted, she turns him down. The Nate she sees now is not the man she thought she loved.
Nate’s spirits reach a new low and his faith in Cromwell is tested by the general’s failure at the battle of Newbury. When Cromwell asks him to undertake a secret mission which could bring the war to an early close, he accepts. Forced deep into enemy territory, Nate is recognised by one of Collingsby’s retainers and the hunt is up. He completes his task, but realises Cromwell’s hopes are in vain, and only just reaches Parliamentary lines ahead of his pursuers. But his ordeal is far from over. While he is being questioned about his sudden reappearance he is condemned as a deserter by a man he accused of cowardice at Newbury. Only a last-minute intervention saves his life as the muskets are cocked.
While he has been away, Parliament’s forces have undergone a revolution. Cromwell is now second in command of the New Model Army and Nate will lead one of the his Regiments of Horse. He is back with his old command, the Ironsides, and death or glory await in the battle which will break Royalist military power - at Naseby.

 Divine justice

MAJOR Nate Pride watches the Royalist garrison at Bristol march out with its colours flying and wonders at a war which so arbitrarily slaughters some of the defeated and honours others. Cromwell has tasked Nate with escorting the Royal commander, Prince Rupert to Oxford and he is surprised to find himself liking the German prince who almost killed him at Marston Moor. It seems only a matter of time before the war is won.
The following May, Charles surrenders to the Scots and Cromwell summons Nate to discuss the future of the New Model Army. He talks of taking his soldiers to the Continent to fight for the Palatine Emperor, but Nate says he would rather go home.
Awarded leave, Nate sets out for his estate and narrowly escapes an ambush by Royalist deserters led by his old enemy Lord Collingsby, now reduced to banditry and his loathing multiplied by the loss of everything in the king’s cause. Collingsby has Nate at his mercy and only a misfiring pistol saves him before his attacker flees.
But after five years of conflict Nate finds it difficult to settle down to the life of a country gentleman and he pesters Cromwell for a new appointment. Peace has brought its own problems Cromwell’s fears for his New Model Army are well founded. Nate finds himself caught between the men he served with and the Parliament he fought to defend. He reluctantly puts down a mutiny in support of the Levellers, a radical group intent on abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords. Without warning the war reignites with the escape of King Charles from Hampton Court and rebellion in Wales, Kent and Essex, but the greatest danger comes from a Scottish army which invades the North in support of the king. Cromwell and Nate force the Scots to battle and destroy them at Preston where Nate has his own personal demon to exorcise - Collingsby.
Preston is the final dying gasp of a dying cause, but Cromwell is determined that one more death is required before his task is complete. The king’s.

Monday, 16 September 2013

A Bloody Good Weekend

Martha Lea, the unworthy me, Catriona McPherson and Nicola Upson
I've been neglecting my blog again. I try to post every couple of weeks, or at worst once a month, but sometimes things go so mad that it just gets forgotten.

In August, I finished the first draft of Enemy of Rome, started my next Jamie Saintclair book, had Sword of Rome and Excalibur of Rome published, and organised the launch party. I've also been preparing for Bloody Scotland, Scotland's crime writing festival, which took place at the weekend in Stirling. I'm not a crime writer (yet), though the Saintclair thrillers probably have a high enough body count to qualify, but I was actually talking about life and death in Ancient Rome, alongside the inimitable Manda Scott. To prepare for that event, I had to read her latest novel, the magnificent Rome: The Art of War, but I was also asked to chair a second event, a chat with three writers whose novels span the genres of historical fiction and crime. It meant reading another three books: The Specimen, a sexually charged and very dark Victorian murder mystery by Martha Lea; Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone, the eighth outing of Catriona McPherson's quirky Perthshire matron turned private detective; and The Death of Lucy Kyte, which features Nicola Upson's true life heroine, the writer Josephine Tey. All great books, and all very different in mood and approach. It was fascinating to hear about their different methods of preparing and writing, the way they developed their characters, and the passion they had for their craft. The audience loved it.

The first event I spoke at as an author, would be my first book launch, way back in July 2008, and I remember being terrified until I realised that everyone in an audience of about ninety wanted me to be good, and were prepared to cheer on even my most nervy babblings. Since then I've done two Historical Novels conferences (Manchester and London) where I've appeared beside people like Sarah Dunnant, CC Humphrey's, Alison Weir and the masterly Bernard Cornwell. I've done a solo event at the wonderful Borders Book Festival, spoken to an audience of three hundred as part of a panel at the Festival of History, and another as part of a panel at the amazing Wigtown Book Festival (as the one with six 'O'levels and an interest in Rome alongside three classical scholars, including the incredibly erudite Allan Massie), made serial appearances at Off the Page, the local book festival, and several dozen library and school gigs.

Bloody Scotland is right up there with the biggest and best, a wonderful celebration of crime writing and writers, which featured, among others Lee Childs, Jo Nesbo, William McIlvanney and Val McDermid. Ticket sales were up by 43 per cent since last year and I predict it will grow and grow. A huge thanks to Lin Anderson, Alex Gray and Jenny Brown, and a high five to Dom, who somehow held the whole thing together.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

A new addition to the family

And then there were six ...

First copies of my new Valerius adventure Sword of Rome arrived today and I think it looks fantastic.

'The story I now commence is rich in vicissitudes, grim with warfare, torn by civil strife, a tale of horror even during times of peace.' Tacitus, The Histories

The year is AD 68. Emperor Nero's erratic and bloody reign is in its death throes when Gaius Valerius Verrens is dispatched to Rome on a mission that will bring it to a close. With Nero dead, the city holds its breath and awaits the arrival his successor, Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of Hispania. The Empire prays for peace, but it prays in vain. Galba promises stability and prosperity, but his rule begins with a massacre and ends only months later in chaos and carnage. This will become known as the Year of the Four Emperors, a time of civil war which will tear Rome apart and test Valerius's skills and loyalties to their very limit. Fortunate to survive Galba's fall, Valerius is sent on a mission by Rome's new Emperor, Otho, to his old friend Vitellius, commander of the armies of the north. Vitellius's legions are on the march, and only Valerius can persuade him to halt them before the inevitable confrontation. In an epic adventure that will take him the length and breadth of a divided land, the one-armed Roman fights to stay alive and stave off a bloodbath as he is stalked by the most implacable enemy he has ever faced.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Was Caligula as mad and bad as he's portrayed? The jury's still out.

The excellent and entertaining historian Mary Beard's BBC 2 documentary on the bad (possibly), but not necessarily mad Roman Emperor Caligula was great TV, despite the paucity of evidence available to her (or anyone else). Ms Beard brought all her academic learning, mild eccentricity and jaunty presenting skills to bear as she sought to rehabilitate the Emperor with the worst reputation of any of the Julio-Claudians, and in a list that includes Nero that's not bad going.

But did she bring us anything new? Unfortunately, I think not. Basically all that impressive insight and interpretation is speculative theory and almost all of it has been said before.

Of course Caligula's reputation suffered at the hands of the ancient historians, and the modern entertainment industry has capitalised on it. Any contemporary sources have been lost and the histories were written by men with their own political axes to grind sixty, eighty and a hundred and fifty years after the event. Tacitus is the Daily Mail of Roman historians, always interesting, but the hidden, and often not quite so hidden agenda, is always there. Suetonius obviously has his own sources, but he also picks and chooses from Tacitus, sometimes adds in an extra detail, a claim or an allegation, and lays it out like an old-fashioned Times, the newspaper of record, though the record is infuriatingly devoid of a timeline. Dio Cassius (think the late News of the World), cherrypicks from both, embellishes with a twist of spice (A squadron of war elephants invading Britain with Claudius? Please!) and a little outrageous, usually unattributed, speculation. It's only by reading between the lines and comparing them that you have a chance of getting anything like a balanced portrait, and even that's skewed by other factors.

My take on Little Boots?

Did Caligula make his horse Incitatus a consul? Of course not. He's not on the list for a start, but equally, Caligula as Emperor had an enormous respect for the institutions of Rome. He may have said it as a joke or a threat, but I'm certain it didn't happen. Mad or not, he may have had a sense of humour.

Did he spend countless millions to build a bridge of boats from Baiae to Puetoli in the Bay of Naples to outdo Poseidon? Probably. Who could make up something as daft as that and there's enough detail about the ships and the scale of the event to believe it's true.

Did he sleep with his sister? I think the jury's out. They lived in a different sexual world and Caligula had been brought up on Capri in the court of Tiberius where the Emperor seems to have gone to any lengths in an attempt to rekindle his waning sexual prowess. His social norms are unlikely to have been the same as ours.

Did he have thousands of people, mostly innocent, killed in horrible ways? The numbers are up for debate, but there's plenty of individual detail in all the histories that has the ring of truth. Why would Suetonius devote so many lines to the horrific, but undoubtedly fascinating death of a lowly animal dealer with his hand in the till (it's all in my scintillating debut novel) unless it happened? The other side of the coin is that Suetonius tells us that Caligula's kindly uncle Claudius had just as many executed or assassinated, at the instigation of his greedy and manipulative band of freedmen.

It's an undoubted cliche that history is written by the victors, but after researching six Emperors for seven Roman novels I find the view difficult to argue with. Historians can only take the evidence, both physical and written, and use a mixture of learning, common sense and, ideally, a healthy dose of scepticism, to interpret them. Anything else is dangerously close to rewriting history. Fortunately, Mary Beard managed to stay on the right side of the line.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Eat your heart out McGonagall

I was down in Jedburgh a couple of days ago for the sad, but rather uplifting occasion of my much loved Aunt Ina's funeral. She was laid to rest at the town cemetery, a beautiful spot, just behind the castle and overlooking the River Jed. She lies within a few feet of my dad and about half a dozen relatives and close to many of her friends.

When I visited my dad's grave I was reminded yet again how much he loved this Border countryside and particularly the beautiful Jed valley, where he liked to walk and where he taught me how to cast a fly and helped me catch my first trout.

Just before he was taken ill I was overtaken by a sudden and totally illogical urge to record the land around the town in verse. Illogical because I'd never written poetry before and had no idea whether I could. By the time I finished the first, he'd already passed away and I've always regretted not having the  opportunity to read it to him. I think he would have liked it, because every name would have held memories for him, but he'd probably have laughed and said it was rubbish.

Much of it is in local Borders dialect you may find indecipherable, and some of it doesn't rhyme, but I think it captures the essence of the place and it's probably the only poem I'll ever write; so here it is.


Fair Jed your sylvan water flows,
o’er peat and stone
from whence you rose.
Neath Millmoor Rig and Weasel Hill,
 where roe deer stoop
 to drink their fill,
past Soothdean’s fort 
and Soothdean’s mill,
a bubbling, tumbling Border rill.
A flash of blue,
nae, turquoise, bright,
shy kingfisher is caught in flight;
in shallow pools,
the salmon writhe,
a frantic prelude
to new life.
Through forest glades,
past peel and tower,
in valley broad you
feel your power,
storm fed by every
spring and burn, 
men fear the day
your mood will turn.
By sheep filled pastures
lords hold dear
 that once played host
 to sword and spear,
where reivers camped
and warden trod,
 fore bluid was shed 
on Redeswire’s sod.
Camptoon awaits,
and Mossburnford, 
close by once rode
that fatal lord
o’ Linthaughlee
whae, faithful to 
his king’s last plea, 
took heart and soul
and set baith free.
Grey Ferniehurst
hame o’ the Kerrs,
the crumbling rocks 
of mighty scaurs
Tree shrouded pools
where otters play, 
and fairy bowers
where lovers lay;
 you hae them a’.
At Tammy White’s,
 the bairns still swim
and leap frae Fourth Brig at a whim.
Then on to Jethart’s
noble lie, 
whence oft was cast an errant fly. 
Three caulds you’ll cross,
when you reach there - 
Allars, Glebe and 
Anna fair.
And David’s Abbey’s
muckle wa’s,
where black clad monks
once walked the ha’s, 
til Henry’s knights in a’
their splendour left 
their mark in flame and horror.
Past Mary’s Hoose 
and mills now lost
to Riverside
and Jammie Scott’s.
Neath Shoogly Brig
your waters flow,
through gentle glides
they now will go 
until they reach that sacred spot, 
where fair Jed ends,
two rivers marry
and on its way
the Teviot carries
your essence to the sea.

Doug Jackson 2010

The Abbey at Jedburgh, with the river in the foreground

Monday, 3 June 2013

And the sun shone too!

We celebrated our 34th wedding anniversary with a weekend on the shores of Loch Fyne. It was a last minute booking and the destination was a surprise for my fellow celebratee, who showed her appreciation by christening our room the Ann Frank suite because it was in the attic and rather sparsely furnished. Fortunately the superb food, magnificent views and cheerful and attentive staff at The Creggans Inn made up for any shortcomings in the accommodation, my bacon was saved and we had a wonderful time.

Creggans is just north of Strachur on the Cowal peninsula, which is one of Scotland's hidden gems, with a scenic grandeur that can hold its own in any company. On the Sunday we took a drive down towards Dunoon, with a vague notion of visiting a botanical garden on the way. It turned out to be a great decision because the road was full of awe-inspiring vistas and we ended up spending hours at Benmore, which is linked with the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh and is less garden than 120 acres of exotic flower and wildlife filled forest full of exotic trees and plants scattered across an Argyll mountainside. I'll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

The inn was once run by another enigmatic British hero of the Second World War. Scottish aristocrat Sir Fitzroy MacLean served as a diplomat in the 1930s and witnessed Stalin's purges during his time at the embassy in Moscow. When war broke out he resigned his position and joined the Cameron Highlanders as a private. By 1941, he'd been commissioned and a year later he was dashing about Libya with the desert pirates of the SAS with a direct line to Winston Churchill. In 1943 Churchill sent Maclean to Yugoslavia to liaise with partisan forces there. His instructions 'were to find out who was killing the most Germans and suggest means by which they could kill even more'. Controversially, he decided that Communist forces led by the then little known Tito were a more effective fighting unit than the Royalists, and against great opposition he persuaded Churchill to arm them.

A welcoming honour guard of giant redwoods

A view out over the gardens to the east

Exotic plants and deep colours at every turn

Alison enjoys the view from the Benmore lookout point towards Holy Loch

The gardens have a restored fernery

Oh and the sun shone. There's a novelty to be savoured in a Scottish June!