Thursday, 24 December 2009

Merry Christmas

Wow, what a year! If you'd told me last Christmas that I'd be where I am now I probably wouldn't have believed you. Another book published, another deal signed and the first of a new trilogy delivered. 2009 opened the door to a whole new life as a full time writer.
When I left the Scotsman in July, I looked forward to the future with a mixture of excitement and something not far short of terror. I was walking out of a career comfort zone and into the unknown, away from a salary to a place where the cheques arrive every six months, if they arrive at all. A lot of people said they envied me and that I was being brave. What they actually meant was they thought I was off my head.
But I had a plan, and as 2009 closes that plan is still on track.
There's still another six months before my new book Hero of Rome comes out, but the thought of it being on the shelves already gives me a thrill. It tells the story of Gaius Valerius Verrens, tribune of the Twentieth legion and reluctant commander of the last stand of the defenders of the Temple of Claudius against Boudicca's avenging hordes. It's a tale of danger and sacrifice, courage and comradeship, love and betrayal on an epic scale and I loved writing it. My last book, Claudius, had loads of great reviews although it didn't quite make the impact I hoped it would, but the wonderful thing is that the sense of expectation is always there. Maybe this is the one!

2010 will undoubtedly be a year of challenges for everyone - I hope it brings you joy and success, health and happiness.

Have a Merry Christmas and a great New Year


Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Final chapter

I was in Glasgow the other day for lunch with a former workmate (Yes, you may well say the joys of self-almost-employment) when I had the misfortune to witness the death knell of the huge Border's Book Shop in Buchanan Street. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people scavenging for novels and non-fiction at knockdown prices and queues snaking from the tills back down into the basement. If you didn't know what was happening you'd have thought the book trade had never been in better shape.

To be honest the Glasgow shop has always been well-populated when I've been there in the past and I know the company's terminal problems stem from the problems in America, but seeing such a huge literary institution brought to its knees like that sent a shiver through me.

And the credit crunch strikes ever closer to home. The wine shop at the end of the road which has served me well for the past twenty years is closing on Wednesday. It's been Haddow's, Bottoms Up, Victoria Wine (twice) and Wine Rack but it's always been there. Now the shelves are empty. The reason they went bust is that the banks wouldn't extend their credit, still it's nice to know that bankers are putting the billions we gave them to proper use and awarding themselves enormous bonuses for surviving the financial meltdown they created in the first place.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Small world

The publication of Caligula now seems a long time ago but I had more evidence this week that the team at Transworld are still beavering away on my behalf. Foreign language publishing deals for the book hit double figures with the addition of Bulgaria to the list of Portugal, Turkey, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Russia, Serbia, Italy and Romania. None of them will make me rich, but there's a lovely feeling when you see how someone in another country has treated your stuff. I've got four so far and it's a toss up between Portugal (medieval-ish, arty, black and white) or Spain (almost sepia, wistful Rufus with lion on a chain) for my favourite. Looking forward to the Russian version. There's something about having your name in cyrillic ...

I did a piece about writing and how I got my break for a new online magazine WordsWithJam which is published for the first time this weekend. They gave me a great show, front page and all, and it's well worth taking a look at if you're into books and book people. Really professionally put together and lots of interesting writing. You can subscribe for free at

Monday, 23 November 2009

Write off

I can always write. Sometimes I write rubbish and sometimes I don't write a lot, but I always manage to make a bit of progress. Last week was one of the slow times. My excuse is the dreaded man-flu that glued up the brain and gave me a throat full of razor blades.

Still, I sat at the computer for a few hours every day and looked at the screen. If I'd been working on something fresh I'm sure I would have done more, but when you're trying to improve a story you've already written and have been wrestling with for a while its not quite so easy. Every time I looked at it I saw something different and every time my hand strayed towards the keyboard I felt like I was approaching an unexploded bomb. I changed bits, then changed them back again. Stared at the screen. Changed them back. Went for a cup of tea, pondered and then changed them back again. In the end I retreated into what I think of as an internet coma; wandering the world wide web in a haze of Google-induced self-hypnosis, teetering on the edge of the abyss that is Farmville or Mafia Wars.

Today, I'm back at work, full of enthusiasm, brain razor sharp, the words just fighting to trip off my fingers. So why am I sitting here writing my blog when I should be writing a book?

Answers on a postcard to ...

Sunday, 15 November 2009

A Flying Start

I'm just back from Scotland's newest book festival at Lennoxlove  House, the home of the Duke of Hamilton near Haddington in East Lothian. Lennoxlove is the brainchild of Alistair Moffat and the team behind the successful Borders Book Festival and it got off to a brilliant start with sell-out crowds in the main marquee for writers as diverse as Rory Bremner, Martine McCutcheon, naturalist Simon King, Michael Morpurgo, Alexander McCall Smith and Kate Adie.
The house dates back to the 14th century and provides a magnificent backdrop for the festival throughout the day and night. Every room is packed with beautiful artworks and artefacts from the family's long, colourful and sometimes bloody history.
I was fortunate enough to catch Simon King's event and the affable Autumnwatch presenter provided a fascinating hour of anecdotes about his travels as a wildlife cameraman across the globe and encounters with the animals he so clearly loves, from otters to orcas. The story about his most dangerous filming experience - in Bristol City Centre - was hilarious.
The festival was held over two days but I don't think there's any doubt it will be back bigger and even better next year and I predict it will become one of the must-attend events on Scotland's literary calendar.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Sold out

The hardback of Claudius has sold out on Amazon and on the Borders website and apparently the publishers have no more supplies. I had an inkling of this over the past couple of months when the Waterstone's shop in Stirling had been waiting for six weeks for their order, and there were none at Wigtown when I was there.

So, good news and bad news, and one of those things you don't consider before you've been published. The good news is that Transworld will be happy the print run has been sold. But it leaves them with a dilemma: whether to print another 1000 and risk being left with 500 unsold, or accept that you're on budget and on target and leave it at that. I suspect in these straitened financial times it'll be the second option. There is a third option which they're talking about, which is putting the trade paperback (airport edition) into mainstream shops. Which brings me to the bad news. If that doesn't happen it means Claudius won't be available in a lot of places for another eight months and I won't sell any books. The paperback doesn't come out until July, along with my next book Hero of Rome. It seems a big gap, but again I suppose it's all part of the learning process.

I've completed the second re-write - or is it the third - of Hero of Rome, really just a few very reasonable cuts, and a couple of minor tickles. I hate to tempt fate, but I think it's the best thing I've done yet. An epic of triumph and disaster, courage, love and betrayal set against the background of one of the bloodiest contests of the Boudicann rebellion.

Friday, 23 October 2009

A new chapter

You have been found guilty of neglecting your blog!

I can't believe I haven't written anything here for a month, it's ridiculous. Anyway here's an update of what's been happening in the life of Doug Jackson, writer.

On October 3 I appeared at the Wigtown book festival with the brilliant Allan Massie (who's also the author of a book called Caligula, as well as many others), Charlotte Higgins (It's all Greek to Me) and Philip Parker, who circumnavigated the borders of the Roman Empire for his epic The Empire Stops Here. We were to discuss Why the Classics still matter. We all met very fortuitously in the Writers' Retreat about an hour before we were due to go on and discovered we had no real idea what was about to happen, or what kind of audience we would attract - it could be five or fifty. It actually turned out to be upwards of a hundred and fifty and they were still bringing in more chairs up to the kick off! I'd probably been more worried about this appearance than anything I've done so far. I enjoy history in general and the Romans in particular, but I'm no classicist. I needn't have worried, we all had a more or less equal contribution to make and the audience thoroughly enjoyed themselves. One thing it brought home to me, though, is the difference between 'knowing' and 'understanding'. I know a lot about my area of expertise, but the depth of understanding of the impact of the Classics on history and the present day my co-panellists showed was phenomenal.

The following week, I headed off to Italy for a research trip. The town of Herculaneum will have a big role to play in a forthcoming book and I wanted to get an idea of the geography of the place as well as taking a wider look at the other historical sites around the Bay of Naples. I'd been to Pompeii and we visited it again, but I enjoyed Herculaneum, which is still 75 per cent buried under a rather grubby suburb of Naples, more. We hired our own guide, Carlo, who gave us more insight than any book could and had a wonderful time walking the ancient streets and marvelling at the incredible state of preservation. On the way back to our hotel in Sorrento (The Bristol, great place, great service and some of the best views in the world) we stopped off at Torre Anunziata (another grubby Naples suburb) and the wonderful Vill Oplontis, which, though on a much smaller scale, even outdid Herculaneum. The incredible frescoes, battered but still where they were two thousand years ago, are stunning and give a real insight into the lost grandeur of this wonderful place. We also stumbled, almost by mistake, on the Greek temples at Paestum, south of Salerno, which must be Europe's best kept historical hidden secret. The three enormous temples dominate a site that rivals Pompeii for scale, if nor preservation, and are quite astonishing.

This week I've been completing the rewrite of Hero of Rome. I'd been a little nervous about it, but Simon, my editor was very complimentary. When I sent it off this morning, I had that little tingle of excitement you always get at times like these. Could this be the one?

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Life in the slow lane

Ah, the trials of working from home. For the past week or so since I sent the first draft to Simon I've been doing bits and pieces, preparing for events looking at new ideas and that sort of thing - but I haven't been writing, not real hard-graft thousands of words a day writing. The problem is that if I'm not writing I don't feel as if I'm working, which I know is daft.

This week I'm preparing a plot line for the next book and doing some reading and I promise to try not to feel guilty about it.

I also have a great new 'aviator' chair, so hopefully no more sore backs!

But its not all highs: Amazon has come back to haunt me. A couple of weeks ago Claudius was up in the top two or three thousand books and in the top 100 historical novels, in the past few days it has fluctuated between 10,000th and 60,000th for no apparent reason. On the other hand Caligula is selling pretty well. Time to give up watching the numbers again.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


I've had a really good week. Last night I gave a talk on writing and books up at Dunblane Public Library, about four miles from here, for Off the Page, the Stirling Book Festival. I'd been mildly stressed out about it for a couple of days beforehand because I knew I couldn't read a script for an hour and a bit. You always know there's a possibility you might freeze, but I decided to go with a few prompts and just wing it and it worked really well.

We had an audience of about twenty five or thirty and I'm pleased to say they loved it. It seems most writers just plug their books and read from them and it was refreshing to hear someone talk about the nuts and bolts of writing and being published. It was also another indication that the books have a growing fan base because quite a few of the people there had read either of both and were very complimentary about them. Altogether a very successful evening.

A week ago I was in Milngavie talking to a group there and again I got a wonderful reception from people who were obviously interested in the subject and who asked some incredibly perceptive questions, which I love, even when they're challenging.

Hero of Rome went off to Simon on Monday and I'll hear quite soon what he thinks of it. I've a feeling it will need a fair bit of work this time, but I'm up for it. I have a growing sense of obligation to the people who read my books coupled with a real determination to improve as a writer. When you first start writing you more or less only have to please yourself but when people start paying for your work it raises the stakes, you have to be a real professional.

Speaking of which, life away from the hamster wheel of daily journalism is fantastic. I've been putting in the hours at the computer and preparing for my appearances, but today the sun shone lunchtime and I downed tools and set off for walk up to a loch in the Ochil Hills behind Bridge of Allan. It takes you up through some fantastic woods and the views when you reach there are glorious. Huge dragon flies in red, blue and black hovered over the water and the trout were feeding on them. A buzzard soared overhead and I spotted a large hawk that wasn't a kestrel. A few deer were feeding in a faraway field near the little Iron Age hillfort I've developed a fascination for. Sheer magic!

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Another first

Claudius has finally won its first foreign deal. Amber, the Warsaw publishing house which published Caligula before it was out in Britain has also brought Claudius, which presumably is a sign that Caligula has been a success in Poland. Let's hope its the first of many! I've also had word of another foreign deal for Caligula, from Hungary, which brings the number of languages to nine.

I had the chance to read Hero of Rome through from start to finish for the first time last week and I'll spend next week polishing it before I send it to Simon at Transworld. You're never certain when you're writing it, but I think the book has turned out really well. Strong characters, a beautiful love interest and a story worth telling. The central battle scene is on an epic scale, chock full of savagery, heroism and sacrifice and several thousand dead bodies, just the way I like them.

I should also take this chance to say thanks to Samantha, my publicist, who has done a fantastic job over the last year. She's off to work for another publisher and I wish her all the best for the future

Went for a run this afternoon in the rain, across the river and out onto the Carse of Lecropt. There's a mill lade on the way and I spotted a kingfisher flying along it. They really are the most beautiful birds and if I could find a way to properly describe that glorious flash of azure blue on its back I'd be a writer.

I'm off to Milngavie on Monday, the event starts at 2.30 if you can get along.

Sunday, 30 August 2009


Confession time - I've been back looking at the numbers on Amazon again. My excuse is that its the only way to find out how Claudius is doing and the good news is that it seems to be doing pretty well. It still has a fair way to go to catch up with the authors I think of as my 'rivals', people like Simon Scarrow, Conn Iggulden, Ben Kane and Harry Sidebottom, but Claudius is up there in the top 75 historical novels. The launch of Claudius has also given sales of the paperback of Caligula a boost, which is really encouraging.

I'm continuing to work on my next book, Hero of Rome, which will be out next July. The story's almost there but the writing needs a bit of polishing. You're always conscious that this book has to be better than the ones which have gone before, but I also now have a huge sense of responsibility to the people who've read Claudius and Caligula and enjoyed them. That and the fact that I'm now doing this for a living adds an extra bit of pressure.

This post is being written on the fancy new i-Mac which I bought on Friday and I'm sitting at a new desk, well not new, just better, and pinched from my daughter who's now living elsewhere. It's great because all my research books are stacked in shelves and within reach, instead of scattered around like confetti. As well as writing, I have to prepare for three public appearances over the next month. I'm at Milngavie Library a week tomorrow ((Sept 7) for a meet the author event, then on the 15th I'll be doing a talk and readings at Dunblane Library for the Stirling Book Festival, and finally on October 3, the Wigtown Book Festival, where I'll be appearing with Alan Massie, Philip Parker and Charlotte Higgins to talk about why the classics still matter. If you're in a position to make any of them please come along and introduce yourself, it would be great to see you.

Sunday, 16 August 2009


I went into Stirling yesterday and signed a couple of hardbacks of Claudius at our local Waterstone's. Only a couple because they were all that were left of the fifteen they'd ordered in. The manager said he was well pleased with the way they were selling and that Caligula had had a boost as well. I'm appearing at the Stirling Book Festival in about a month and Waterstone's will have a stall there, he promised to get a good supply in.

Overall, Claudius appears to be doing pretty well and I've been doing what I can to publicise it. There have been very positive reviews in the Scotsman and the Scottish Sunday Express and I'm doing an interview with our local paper, the Stirling Observer, at the end of next week.

I'm also charging on with the next book, but I took a day off on Friday to go salmon fishing on the River Tay with my friend, Robin, who's a lecturer at Stirling Uni. We fished all day in the pouring rain and didn't even get a bite between us. The only thing I hooked was me and a size 10 double-hooked salmon fly through your finger may be poetic justice, but it's no joke. So I spent an hour and a half in accident and emergency at Stirling Royal, where a very efficient nurse practitioner pushed the hook so that the barbed point came out through the skin and then snipped it off with a pair of pliers before pulling the rest back through the way it had gone in. Expert, painless and it's barely left a mark, who says there's anything wrong with the NHS?

Sunday, 2 August 2009


The first book of the new trilogy is on track for hitting the publishers' deadline. I'd been struggling a bit with it, but this week has seen a lot of progress and I'm on the brink of the big battle scene that will be the centrepiece: a doomed last stand that I think of as Rome's Alamo. Early Roman Britain is a fascinating place, with the retiring legionary veterans putting down roots in places like Colchester and lording it over the natives, and the conquered Britons still conscious of their defeat and either co-operating/collaborating with their conquerors or covertly keeping the fire of freedom burning with the help of the druids.

This second week has made me very aware that I should have done a lot more work to prepare for my new life. I'm sitting on a leather office chair that only has one arm (teenage party casualty) and typing on the same laptop I used on the train. It's not a great combination because I've started to have niggling back pains. I should have set up a proper office, with new equipment and decorated it so that I don't have to sit and look at pale blue wallpaper with white daisies on it all day. So sometime next week I will start with a new office chair and look at buying a new computer (I'm thinking iMac). The wallpaper will have to wait a while longer.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Taking the plunge

My first week and a bit as a full time author has been a real eye opener. I'm hitting my targets as writer but I seem to be working harder than ever. The age old problems of working at home are a definite factor. I start early but there always seems to be someone pushing for your time. I've had meetings with pension and insurance people, my accountant and my bank manager. The roof fell in last Thursday and I've had to see people about that. People need lifts and I'm too nice to refuse. Next Thursday I'm presenting a signed copy to an elephant (Blair Drummond Safari Park, actually).

I realise now I could never have hit my publisher's September deadline unless I gave up the Scotsman and maybe that was subconsciously part of the decision-making progress.

On the plus side, I'm free to do what I like when I like which is truly liberating, even if your work ethic won't let you take advantage.

(I wrote this a week ago but for some reason it didn't publish)

Friday, 17 July 2009


Books will have had posher send-offs, but few will have had warmer ones than my second novel, Claudius, was given last night at Blackwell’s bookshop in Edinburgh.
Around 120 people packed the upstairs venue on South Bridge to launch the epic tale of the Roman invasion of Britain on a tidal wave of good will that was followed by an evening of good company and even better conversation. It was a fantastic turnout and what made it even better was that ninety per cent of them were my friends.
My roots are in the Scottish Borders and we had a big contingent from Jedburgh and Ancrum, made up mainly of family and old school pals. My neighbours from Bridge of Allan filled a train carriage to make the hour-long trip. And my former workmates at the Scotsman turned out in large numbers. There were familiar, but unexpected faces from my past, and unfamiliar ones who had turned up purely out of interest in writing and writers.
I gave a speech and a couple of readings that got a great reception then I signed books until my wrist ached.

Thursday, 16 July 2009


Claudius is published today and I no longer work at the Scotsman.

There's a fair bit to catch up on, but I'll have to keep it short because I'm getting ready to go to Edinburgh for the launch.

Last Friday Alison and I were guests at the 2009 Jethart Callants Festival, a celebration of my home town's history and its links with the Border reivers. It was a fantastic occasion, with 250 riders following the Callant (a young man of the town chosen to lead the festival) and hundreds more enjoying the spectacle. We were treated like royalty, wined and dined, and spent a great afternoon in the company of some great people I hadn't met for about twenty-odd years, followed by a great night which rather fades away.

On Tuesday I left the Scotsman after almost nine years and was given a wonderful send-off by my workmates. My boss had some incredibly nice things to say about me, which were repeated by the forty or so people who came to the pub across the road for a leaving drink. I've never felt more appreciated in my life. I won't miss the job (I calculated that I'd put out 2,000 newspapers, attended 4,000 conferences and probably designed and overseen at least 50,000 pages, enough is enough) but I will miss the people. Ofcourse I have concerns about where I'll be in a few years, there are no guarantees in life, but it was time to move on and the new book deal was too good an opportunity to miss.

The launch of Claudius takes place in Blackwell's bookshop in Edinburgh tonight. The family is staying at The Scotsman hotel, which was once the newspaper's old headquarters, it will be something of a last hurrah because there will have to be a bit of belt tightening from here on in. We've arranged to go for a drink at a bar caled Biblos afterwards. I told them to expect 40 people but Sam, my publicist tells me she has had 40 acceptances for the launch, plus the 40 from the bookshop. I know of at least twenty people who will just turn up, so it might be quite a party.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Countdown to Claudius

Apologies for the two week absence. I've never been busier in my life and I'm writing this when I should be getting ready for the train, so it will have to be quick.

Only ten days left in the Countdown to Claudius. Only seven days left until Doug Jackson's life changes entirely, completely and irreversibly. My leaving date is now July 14 because I'll be editing The Scotsman on the Sunday. Twenty-four copies of Claudius arrived in a large box on Friday and it looks fantastic, even better than Caligula. The three people who've read it so far have enjoyed it, but I'm married to one, the father of another and I work in the same office as David Robinson, but I'm in no way related to him.
But Caligula showed me how fickle the books business is. I got a lot of great reviews, but a couple of rotten ones. The hardback sold brilliantly, but the paperback has been a bit slow. Now that I'm committed to making a living out of this there's a huge amount riding on Claudius, so if you read it and like it, get on to one of those online review sites and tell the world!

Got to go, or I'll miss the train.


Monday, 22 June 2009

Countdown to Claudius

Had a great day out at the Borders Book Festival in Harmony Hall at Melrose. It's a wonderful setting and the organisation was superb. I had a question and answer session with about twenty people and an hour passed in no time at all. I only sold a couple of books but it was hopefully a good start to my book festival career.
Alistair Moffat, the organiser is a Kelso man, and I suspect was happy to help out his fellow Borderer. We had a great time at the party when the event was finished. Shetland fiddler Ally Bain entertained everybody in the drawing room at Harmony and the wine flowed. Actor Bill Patterson, a lovely bloke who I had a long blether with in the afternoon, and Jim Naughtie did a duet and very good they were too.
Got back to my friend Sheila's at Fauhope, another beautiful Border house and I'd recommend it to anyone who fancies visiting the area, at 4am!
Three weeks to go until Claudius comes out. Samantha says the book proofs are done and no doubt I'll get some before the end of the week.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Countdown to Claudius

Well, I've done it now. From July 15, I will be a full time writer. The new book deal I got from Transworld coincided with a voluntary redundancy offer to everybody at The Scotsman and I decided to go for it. It was a huge decision after 36 years in newspapers, but I felt a door had opened that I had to walk through. Not to take the chance would have been to spend the rest of my life asking myself 'What if?'

Do I have doubts? Of course I do. I know as well as anyone how difficult it is to make a living from being a writer. Caligula did well, but Claudius will have to do better, and the following books better still. I have about two and a half to three years to make an impact, to be a successful author. In that three years, I have three more books to write, and the fact that I have more time to spend on them will make them better books. It will also let me develop ideas for other books that have been bubbling under.

I couldn't have done this without the support of my family. Alison and my kids, Kara, Nikki and Gregor have backed me all the way. I owe it to them to make this work. Wish me luck!

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Countdown to Claudius

Well, it happened. I have a new book deal. Transworld have asked me to write three more historical novels.

It's fantastic that someone - a hard-nosed publishing company at that - has confidence in my ability to build on the success of Caligula and hopefully Claudius and carve out a writing career.
The books will follow a new hero through three successive periods of upheaval in Roman history and will take me to some of the wildest outposts of the Empire.

I'll be sorry to say goodbye to Rufus; I'd always intended that his story would be a trilogy but it became clear to me that what had worked as the last third of The Emperor's Elephant was stretching credibility as a standalone book. If there's an appetite for it, I may put the original version on my website so that people can read how his and Bersheba's story ended. That won't be for a while though. First I need to complete the opening draft of book 1 by September, which means four months of hard graft. Starting now ...

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Countdown to Claudius

It's been an interesting week for a lot of reasons. On Tuesday I was up at 4am and spent ten hours on trains to and from Yorkshire for work stuff. Getting up was a pain but I managed to make a lot of progress on my latest project because writing on the train is what I do best. Every cloud etc.
On Thursday I took part in an event in Glasgow at the Mitchell Library to promote greater links between libraries and publishers. All the big publishers were there and librarians from all over Scotland and there was much talk of book groups, readings and promotional events. I'm committed to doing something in Polmont prison which should be interesting, and Conton Vale (Scotland's women's prison) which will be more interesting still. Sam my publicist made a great presentation in which I was hailed as a brilliant new voice in British historical fiction. It was lovely but I'll believe it when I read my name in the Sunday Times bestseller list.
There were also quite a few fellow authors there. It was great to see my mate Bob Low of Oathsworn fame again. I had a good chat with Alan Clements, who somehow found time while helping to run STV to write a political thriller, Rogue Nation, which has really captured the imagination in Scotland. Carmen Reid, whose chick lit novels my girls adore, was also at the event and turned out, like most writers I've met, to be totally unassuming despite her success and had the library ladies eating out of her hand.
Stan was on the phone with some optimistic news about what happens after Claudius. I can't reveal anything at the moment, but things are definitely looking up!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Countdown to Claudius

Had a wonderful night in Jedburgh on Friday with my daughter Kara when I made the Toast to the Jethart Callants Festival in front of 150 dignitaries from all over the Scottish Borders. We received a fantastic welcome and were treated like royalty all night. The speech went down really well and many people were very complimentary about Caligula, which has made me a bit of a celebrity in the town. Later, I took Kara around my old haunts and she was astonished that I knew somebody in every pub we went into. Jedburgh is like that: a close-knit, down to earth, hard working community that has a long, colourful and sometimes painful history in the front line of Scotland's four hundred year border wars with England. Today it suffers like all the Border towns from lack of investment and a diminishing industrial base. The mills have almost all gone, the electronics industry in decline. Jed is fortunate to have American-owned LS Starrett, lured to the town 50 years ago by visionary townsfolk who travelled to the States to convince the firm's bosses to put their faith in the Borders work ethic. The trust forged on those visits has been repaid a hundred times over on both sides.
I based my speech on the three words that for me sum up the festival. History, community and respect. Jethart's Here is a war cry that has rung down through the centuries on a score of battlefields, where men from the town rallied and kept the enemy at bay with their deadly Jethart axes. The festival is at the core of the community, woven through it from top to bottom, as evidenced by the hundreds who gathered in the Square to witness the appointment of this year's Callant, Murray Yourston. And it is he and his predecessors who have stepped forward when the town needed them since the first festival in 1947 and committed themselves to represent their community for three years who deserve our respect, along with all the other committee members and unseen helpers who turn out to make the festival such a huge success every year.

Wednesday will be a big day, one way or the other. That's when the decision will be made about my next three books. As Stan says: fingers and everything else crossed.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Countdown to Claudius

I may have taken a significant step closer to a new book deal this week. The three ideas I put forward to Stan (the agent) were forwarded to Simon (the editor) at Transworld and he liked two of them a lot. The only thing wrong with the third was that it was too close to something Manda Scott is working on. Simon asked me to put together a single page synopsis for each of them and (fingers crossed) he'll be presenting them as his next project.
Nothing's certain in this world, but it feels like progress.
Great news midweek from Samantha my publicist, who is doing a brilliant job. I'm invited to appear at Wigtown Book Festival in September. We went last year with our friends, Elaine and John, and stayed in Newton Stewart, and had a fantastic time. I can't wait!
The Borders Book Festival first, though, where I'll be chatting on stage to my friend David, the books editor at the Scotsman. Hopefully, I'll have the book proof of Claudius by then and I'll be able to promote it.
Also had a parcel from Transworld, the complete and unabridged audio book of Caligula, 10 CDs read by the actor Russel Boulter. I've only listened to the prologue so far, and very chilling it is too. You don't really have much of an idea of the impact your words will have on other people when you're writing them, but I now know what people mean when they say Caligula is 'visceral'. You try to impart realism, but when the scenes are as brutal as some of them in Caligula, if you recreate reality too well it can be pretty overwhelming.
I travelled down to Jedburgh at the weekend for the rugby sevens and had a great time catching up with friends. On Friday I'll be giving the toast to the Jethart Callants Festival in the town hall in front of 150 dignitaries: of all the spin-offs I've had from being a published author, this is the one I'm proudest of.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Countdown to Claudius

Not much to report on the book front. Haven't heard back from Stan since I sent him the second and third story arcs. But if things follow the same pattern as last year I should get either the book proof or the jacket of Claudius in the next couple of weeks.

We had an great day out in Glasgow on Saturday, at Kelvingrove Museum, where my former Daily Record colleague Bob Low and the Glasgow Vikings were putting on a historical re-enactment of warring Scotland through the ages. I wasn't sure what to expect, but it was highl;y professional, pure entertainment with lots of dangerous looking swords and axes and in authentic costume ... oh yes, with a sense of humour.

Picts, Vikings, knights and clansmen came together at various times and knocked lumps out of each other. The re-enactors are a hugely enthusiastic bunch and none more so than Einar the Black, who is the inspiration for one of the characters in Bob's Oathsworn books. The fighting was brutal: swords snapped, spears bent and shields splintered, the only thing missing was gore, but I gathered from Bran, a young Pictish gentleman who was just making his comeback after a spear had accidentally almost taken his eye out, that's not always the case.

Bob himself made an appearance as Robert the Bruce, clad in chain mail from head to toe. He'd had it on for eight hours, looked as if he was cooking, and it was beginning to chafe, but he still managed to give a good account of himself, albeit fighting at a sedate pace in keeping with a man who's carrying several hundredweight of metal about his person. The experience will stand him in good stead for his next project, the Kingdom series, a warts and all trilogy chronicling the lives of Scottish heroes Wallace and Bruce.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Countdown to Claudius

I've just finished listening to myself on Alex Dickson's Bookshelf on Smooth Radio. It's a strange experience when the voice coming out of the box is yours, but you barely recognise it. I got off to the usual slightly squeaky, nervous start but settled into it pretty well. I still hum and haw a bit too much and there were times when I was considering my next answer for so long I thought I'd gone off to the pub, but overall Alex teased a lot of interesting stuff out of me about Rome and the Romans and about writing. He has a chatty style and you can't help opening up to him which is the sign of a true professional.

Completed the story arc of Book 2 and sent it off to Stan on Friday. It's a more complex book than the first one and goes over some tricky ground, but it adds a new dimension to my character and has a truly epic ending. One slight problem is that it's made me think very seriously about where I go with Book 3. I've decided that my original idea - though it's geographically and culturally a thousand miles away - is probably a bit too close in subject. So I'll be doing a bit of heavy thinking this week.

I had a nice surprise the other day when I checked out the Jenny Brown website and discovered that Caligula is going to be published in Turkey, bringing the number of languages to eight, which is pretty good going I think. Claudius is out there somewhere being published as an uncorrected book proof and I can't wait to see it. Not sure if the jacket for the hardback arrived first the last time round, but it'll be great to see either of them.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Countdown to Claudius

This has been a very productive week in just about every way. I've been working on a mammoth project at my day job that involves endless meetings, changing working patterns for the whole place and trying to get people behind it even though there lives are being changed. Interesting doesn't really describe it. But it seems to be coming together now and nobody's ambushed me on the way to the train or tried to run me over in the car park, which is a big plus.

I sent the final changes for Claudius off last weekend, but it wasn't accompanied by that little panic attack of 'what if I've left something in that will make me look like an idiot', because I was straight on to the next project. Simon has asked me to put together detailed story arcs for three entirely new books featuring an entirely new character. In a way it was a mirror of the moment when Sarah O'Keefe suggested I take the first 40,000 words of The Emperor's Elephant and turn it into a different book. At moments like these you can either collapse in a panic attack or you think 'Wow what a fantastic opportunity'. Fortunately, mine was the second reaction. It opened up a whole new vista and my mind immediately started churning with possible characters and situations.

I got down to work on Monday and by Thursday I had book one complete. It flowed so naturally it was as if I'd had it in my head all the time. There was also one of those signpost moments. I was sitting in my office working on a month's worth of rotas for thirty people covering 18 hours a day over seven days (and trying to keep them all happy), when David Robinson walked in and handed me a book. The one thing that had become clear right away when I started working on the arc of book one was that I didn't know enough nitty gritty detail about the life of the people I was going to write about. The book I had in my hand was a manual that let me into the secret of what they had for breakfast and what it felt like to wear their clothes!

Started book 2 on Thursday on the train. Got detail of chapter 1 down and didn't know where to go next. It was based on a vague idea and I realised I hadn't even written a synopsis, which was asking a bit much. Started on the synopsis at Linlithgow and I knew I had the book in the bag by the time I got to Edinburgh Waverley. I've got the bones of five chapters down now and I can feel it growing in my head all the time.

At the moment, book 3 isn't even an idea, just a name, but I have a great character, an exotic world he will live in and an epic finale that will ring down through the centuries.

Am I getting ahead of myself? Er, just a bit. I've been down this way before and the brilliant ideas can slip through your fingers like smoke when you sit down and try to make them happen. But I have a good feeling about this. It feels like one of those moments when you come to a fork in the road and some inner voice tells you which is the right one.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Countdown to Claudius

It's funny the old book business; for weeks on end nothing happens and you wonder if it's all gone away and then suddenly things start getting exciting again. Today I'm ready to hit the button on Claudius for the last time. The typeset manuscript has been read and read again, corrected and then recorrected, but I know that when it goes I'm going to be hit by that feeling of regret and the knowledge that there are things I could/should have done better. The upside is I've read it four times in the last two weeks and I think it's great. A different type of book from Caligula, but with real heart and a blockbuster centrepiece.

I've just come back from Glasgow where I was doing an interview with Alex Dickson on Smooth Radio. I'm familiar with Alex's work, he did a similar half hour show on Radio Clyde that I was able to listen to occassionally and I was always struck by his easy manner with the writers he was talking to. Today he excelled himself. It was like meeting and old friend and having a blether about things that interested us both. I'm also learning all the time. When I did my first interview with BBC Scotland, I took along information written down to refer to, but I realise now that, having lived with Caligula for about four years in one form or another, the information's all in my head and it's just a question of letting it come out. The only strangeness might have been in talking about something that is, for me, a whole book ago, but I found that I still retained my old enthusiasm for the whole Caligula experience.

With Claudius gone, my thoughts naturally will turn to book 3, and that's where the real excitement comes in. Changes are afoot, which I'll keep to myself, but they are really positive changes and a whole new interesting challenge that I can't wait to get started on.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Countdown to claudius

I've just come back from a trip that allowed me to combine research into Roman goldmining techniques with a visit to my daughter, who's at university in northern Spain. Our base for the week was the lovely city of Leon about 250 miles north of Madrid. It was founded by the Seventh legion in the first century AD and you can still see the walls they built around their fortress and the original street pattern in the grid of alleys and streets near the wonderful cathedral, which is a stopping place on the Camino, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The Seventh, along with the Sixth legion, were only there because of the gold which was mined among the hills around nearby Astorga, which was the administrative capital for the area.
The weather was fantastic, sunshine and glorious blue skies, clean, clear air that allowed you to see the snow-capped mountains to the north.
We stayed in the Hotel Plaza Mayor and I'd recommend it to anyone. The rooms are individually designed and the one we had looked out onto the plaza, the staff were friendly and always willing to help. It was also just a few hundred yards from Nikki's flat and what a relief it was to have an interpreter on hand in a country where you don't speak a word of the language beyond 'dos vasos rioja, por favor'. Leon's a great place; the buzz from the tapas bars on a Saturday night would power the whole place for a week and we had a fantastic time before heading south again for a couple of nights in Madrid.
On the book front, I'm now working on the typeset book proof of Claudius, which is basically the last step before publication. So two or three more reads and then it's gone for good and fingers crossed again. I'm at page 102 and loving it, which must be a good sign!

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Countdown to Claudius

Looking back on my last blog I was overly excited about the new book cover (the number of superlatives is a bit embarrassing). But see for yourselves and let me know what you think. I still think it's great!
I don't think Simon will mind if I also give you a sneak preview of the jacket cover words.
The year is 43AD . . .

In Southern England, Caratacus, war chief of the Britons, watches from a hilltop as the scarlet cloaks of the Roman legions spread across his lands like blood.

In Rome, Emperor Claudius, newly risen to the imperial throne, dreams of taking his place in history alongside his illustrious forebears Caesar and Augustus.

Among the legions marches Rufus, keeper of the Emperor’s elephant. War is coming and the united tribes of Britain will make a desperate stand against the might of Rome. The emperor has a very special place for Rufus and his elephant in the midst of the battle – as a secret weapon to cow the Britons with the visible manifestation of Rome’s power.

Claudius is a masterful telling of one of the greatest stories from Roman history, the conquest of Britain. It is an epic story of ambition, courage, conspiracy, battle and bloodshed, and confirms Douglas Jackson as one of the best historical novelists writing today.
So there you are. I'm not sure I recognise the writer, but it can't be bad. can it?
Spring is definitely here. I've just been out for a run in the sunshine and it was great. There's an area outside Bridge of Allan called the Carse of Lecropt, which is basically the flood plain of the Forth and the Teith. It's dead flat and about five miles of lovely countryside surrounded by hills and Stirling Castle and the Wallace Monument.
I've been beavering away at book 3, but still no word yet of a new deal. In the odd spare moment I've also been reading another Roman novel, Ship of Rome. It's very educational, both in a historical sense and as a writer. The author has gone into huge detail about Roman ships, armour and units and for someone who's interested in that sort of thing it's a good read. When I was writing Caligula and Claudius I took a decision not to go into the kind of detail too often where you give the Latin name of say a piece of weaponry and then describe it, it's use and its manufacture, because I thought it slowed the book down. Reading this book has made me wonder whether maybe I was wrong and there's a judicious case for a bit more. Something to think about.
I'm still wondering how the paperback of Caligula is doing, but I refuse to be drawn back into the Amazon game. There seems to be a steady turnover in the WH Smiths at Waverley Station and Waterstone's in Stirling were sold out the last time my wife Alison was there, but we'll just have to wait and see.
Thanks again for your kind words, Lexi, Andrea and Shirley ... and Shirley, you'll have the first copy I can lay my hands on.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Countdown to Claudius

This was going to be one of those snatched blogs just to keep things going i.e. not much happening, still waiting for this that and the other. Instead, it's a snatched blog (I'm late for the train) about another momentous step forward.
I've literally just received the front cover design for Claudius and it looks fantastic. It's even more powerful than Caligula. The theme is similar, but the dominant colour this time is red and the main figure is an incredible image of a Roman legionary.
Simon sent me the words for the back cover a few days ago and along with the artwork they make a superbly strong package that just might move things to a new level.
Still working away on book three of the Rufus series. Early days, but the elements are beginning to come together.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Countdown to Claudius

Just a quick update on my 'gig' at Waterstones in Stirling.
It went really well. There were only about ten people there, plus the staff, but everyone seemed to enjoy my talk and we had a good question and answer session afterwards that was great fun. Lots of good stuff about history and the Romans and about writing. I generally stuck to the script, but found that because I was quite relaxed I was able to divert from it at times and go into a bit more depth about the points I was making. That made it a lot more spontaneous than it had been when I was doing it in the house in front of my long-suffering son Gregor and his pals.

Although it wasn't a huge audience, the way it went was a big boost for my confidence and I'm looking forward to the next few months and my various public appearances.

One last comment about the review I highlighted in my last entry. The thing that saddened me most was that when I looked on the website to see what reaction there'd been to it, about three people said they thought it might be as bad as she said because of the cover. They also said they wouldn't read it because of her review. It concerns me that people are prepared to write off a book - any book - because of someone else's views, which might be biased for any amount of reasons. By all means be critical, but please make up your own mind. If you don't want to buy it, get it out of the library, but read it yourself before you condemn it.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Countdown to Claudius

First of all thanks to William and Elizabeth for their comments. It's always great to have confirmation that someone's reading your ramblings.

At last something to get my teeth into after a very quiet time. Tonight I'm appearing at my local Waterstone's in Stirling to give a talk and sign paperbacks. Some friends have said they're coming, so at least I know I won't be alone, and the staff have done a fantastic job promoting the night and the book. I've been practising my talk, but until today it felt a bit wooden and I'd seriously considered chucking away the script and flying solo. But I think the thought of standing there wordless has won the battle of the terrors and I'll stick with it. I'll let you know in the next couple of days.

The teeth thing is actually about a review I've just had from a lady who styles herself Trinuviel, from Copenhagen. I suppose there's an argument that you shouldn't advertise these things but this is a blog about the downs as well as ups of being a fledgling novelist and in amongst the excoriation she makes a couple of interesting points.

You can check it out here

Setting aside the mental health issues which she probably knows much more about than me (I mean I think she could be a nurse), the one I think she's fully entitled to highlight is about Caligula's assassination. Yes, various historical sources say the Praetorian commander Cassius Chaerea was responsible for his death, but I think I'm right in saying that none of those sources is contemporary and that there are varying theories about the detail of the event. Who's to say what happened in the underground passage to the theatre (if that's where it happened). The point I'm making is that nobody really knows; there is no was and wasn't, and I didn't 'ignore historical regard', I took the recorded 'facts' and turned them into a work of fiction. I think Trinuviel is making the mistake of mixing up history and fiction. I write historical novels, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion of whether they're good or bad. But I'd argue that a novelist with a slightly bewildered hero and a lethal swordsman on his hands has a perfect right to place them where they can do the most damage in the name of fiction, and that no-one can say with any certainty what truly happened.

The other point I'd like to take up is the one about the dagger. It was quite a small dagger, but not withstanding, I don't think that matters. As a journalist I've seen dozens, possibly hundreds of pictures of young men and women who've walked into hospitals on their own with knives of frightening proportions sticking out of various parts of their anatomy. One guy had a seven inch blade through his head and lived to tell the tale. One thing I've learned from all my readings of military fact is that people in extremity are capable of extraordinary things, things that go beyond the norms of human endurance. So to have Caligula carry on fight for his life is, I think, perfectly acceptable.

That apart, I acknowledge that Claudius speaking to the elephant is a bit strange, but I had a feeling the man would be more comfortable with animals than human beings. And I may have made Rufus a little cleverer than he ought to have been as a Roman slave, but I think that's a small price to pay if it helps you tell a story.

Anyway I'd be interested in your thoughts, either on the critique or the points I've raised. Got to go, I have a public waiting!

Monday, 16 February 2009

Countdown to Claudius

With Claudius almost at the proofreading stage my thoughts are fixed firmly on the next book, or more correctly on the fact that I should be half way through it by now. We're in that limbo period where nothing is guaranteed and where a lot depends on the early sales of the paperback.

I know what the next book is - the final chapter of the Rufus story - and I know exactly how it ends (famous last words), but, like Claudius, I also know I need to take it on to the next level. This is the one where the strength of Rufus as a character had to really kick in. He has to carry the book right to the last page. I've got lots of good set pieces and the historical context is very strong, but I still have to do some in depth research on a couple of interesting characters in Rome.

I also have lots of ideas for the future, but it's a fair old way from idea to book, so we'll see.

Last year I wondered why I wasn't being invited to book festivals. This year I'm wondering how I'll fit everything in. I have a reading and signing next week at Waterstones in Stirling, I'm making a guest appearance at an event in Jedburgh in May, taking part in the Borders Book Festival in June, have two events for the launch of Claudius in July, then festivals in Stirling and Inverness later in the year. There's also been interest from Wigtown, the festival I visited last October. Suddenly I have to get my act together, except I haven't got one yet!

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Countdown to Claudius

Have come down with the annual post-New Year dose of the flu but decided to fight my way to the keyboard. What is it about this time of the year that brings these things on? Too much booze? Shoorly not - these days New Year is just another weekend. A cloud of Michael Crichton-type microbes that circles the earth waiting to strike just when you're supposed to be enjoying yourself? Or just the opposite, you're miserable in January anyway, so why not get it out of the way all at once?Answers on a postcard to ...

Today I completed the copy-edited manuscript of Claudius, which means that particular writing journey is coming to an end. The copy-editor was actually very gentle with me, but I've been fairly savage on myself, or at least on some of the writing. I think there's two reasons for that. The first is that, for me, the second novel is even more important than the first, or at least it's a more serious endeavour because there's none of the novelty of a debut. This is the one that has to build on whatever success the first has achieved, and the one that, hopefully leads to a third and possibly a fourth. The second is that Caligula went through about four times as many stages of development, and was gone over and over again until it was really tight. I wrote Claudius basically from scratch in about four months, and probably made the mistake of stepping back to see what other people thought, when I should have kept working on it. I think it was an understandable mistake to make, as a writer you have to have feedback, but not one I'll make again.

February 12 is D-day for the paperback of Caligula and a huge amount is riding on it. The strange thing is that, even 18 months into this, I still have doubts about my ability as a writer. You can tell yourself as often as you like that the only thing to do is get your head down and write the next book, but the fact is that you're always vulnerable to any sort of criticism, like the bloke who said 'I Claudius, it ain't ...' The other side of the coin is the boost you get from a review that says you could be the next David Gemmell and that is quickly followed by another one that tells you you're 'better than Iggulden'. They cheered me up no end, but I've lost that naivety that made me believe in my own publicity.

I'm doing a talk and probably a Q&A or a reading at Waterstones in Stirling on February 26. If you fancy coming along, just introduce yourself and I'll be pleased to meet you.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Countdown to Claudius

Just a quick note to let you know that my publishers have set up a website for their authors, where I rub shoulders in cyberspace with Sebastian Faulks and Richard Branson. Check out my bit on

The copy-edit of Claudius should be with me tomorrow. It turned out the delay was nothing to do with the book, but I'm still nervous about the scale of the changes that will be wanted. In fact, I've just realised that I'm a lot more nervous this time round than I was with Caligula. The first time round there was nothing to lose, but now I'm very conscious of how important it is to build on that first book and keep the momentum going.

I need to get the copy-edited manuscript back to Simon at Transworld by February 9, which concentrates the mind.

I've just noticed that this is my 50th blog. A whole half century of ups and downs and I'm still just as confused about where all this is going as when I started! Thanks for sticking with me.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Countdown to Claudius

Apologies, I've had a few technical problems over the last week or so and I haven't been able to update the blog until now. But there have been a couple of other firsts in the past couple of days which have helped offset a lot of heavy credit crunch-related stuff at work.

On Wednesday I received a parcel from Transworld which I thought would be the copy edit manuscript of Claudius (more of that later), but it turned out to be half a dozen copies of the Italian edition of Caligula. It looks great: the same brooding picture of the gladiator, but with an understated, upmarket feel. As I've said before, I really like the title Morte Allimperatore! (Death to the Emperor).

Then on Saturday another parcel arrived. This time it was the paperback version of Caligula. A neat little package in which much of my future may be invested. The mass market paperback of a first novel acts as a springboard for the second book and it's also the version that generates the most royalties. Samantha, my new publicist, has set me up a talk and a book signing in Waterstones in Stirling on February 26 to help push the paperback, and Borders bookshop in Glasgow wants me to do a talk and signing in July after the launch of Claudius.

I have to admit that I'm getting a little bit nervous about the Claudius copy-edit. It was supposed to be completed by January 5th and here we are two weeks later and it still hasn't arrived. There are still seven months to publication on July 16, but my experience with Caligula tells me that in reality the book has to be completed by March, including proofreading. If a big rewrite is needed that's a pretty tight deadline for a guy who can only work two hours a day. The whole process of writing and being involved in the publication of books has felt so natural up to this point that it's a bit strange to suddenly feel under pressure.

Away from the book, I saw my daughter Nikki off to do six months at Leon University in Spain on an Erasmus language scholarship. She's an incredibly capable young lady and really looking forward to it, but for a parent it's always a pretty deep moment when you send your kid off into the unknown. It was nice this morning to get an e-mail from her saying she'd just bought a saucepan and had been able to make a cup of tea and had used her language skills to choose her first pik'n'mix.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Countdown to Claudius

A Happy New Year to everyone.

It's been pretty quiet on the book front over the past couple of weeks and I've been heavily involved in a project at The Scotsman so I haven't been able to give the blog my usual attention. I'm still waiting for the return of the copy-edited manuscript of book two in the Rufus series, Claudius, which should arrive some time next week. It's been with the copy editor for slightly longer than Caligula was, which I suspect means there'll be more work to do on this one, but we'll see.

The next thing to look forward to is the publication of Caligula in the US on January 27, which will be quickly followed by the paperback launch in the UK on February 12. I should also, over the next month or so, get the first official count of how many books have been sold so far, which is interesting and scary in equal measure. I've always known that the big challenge is to build on what's been achieved so far and the mass market paperback is a key factor in that.

2008 was a year of contrasts, with the excitement of having my first book published offset by my son's battle with the auto-immune disease ITP (immune thrombocytopenic purpura). At one point he faced the possibility of a splenectomy and we went through a lot of soul-searching and sought a second opinion from experts at the Royal London Hospital before deciding against it. At the time, he was on steroid treatment, with all the horrible side-effects that accompany it. When we came back from London he came off the steroids, kept his spleen, and apart from one pretty frightening incident has resumed a more or less normal life. Seeing the way he faced that challenge and dealt with it were undoubtedly my proudest moments of the year!

2009 will undoubtedly be a year of new challenges for everybody. I wish you all the best in the months ahead.