Sunday, 19 December 2010

Season's Greetings

First Christmas has passed successfully. Daughter Nikki made it home two hours late from Madrid, but 24 hours ahead of the snowstorm that closed Edinburgh airport to all but departures.

She's off to Canada with her boyfriend Greg (blizzards permitting) on Thursday so an early Christmas celebration was required. It wasn't the traditional Jackson Christmas - we usually have Beef Wellington a la Doug - for some reason she opted for turkey, but it was traditional in most other ways. We had eight people at the dinner table, but we catered for sixteen. The cooks almost came to blows over how to stuff a turkey (who can tell the difference between neck and backside when they're both missing?) and when to start the veg, but despite the surfeit of giant kitchen knives bloodshed was avoided. On the plus side my other daughter Kara's smoked salmon and mackerel pate concoction was undoubtedly dish of the day and will be repeated. Secret Santas were exchanged and Ruaridh's gift of nuclear grade tabasco proved capable of setting fire to the street. It's now en route to Porton Down for examination.

Nikki and Kara: dishes of the day
On a more literary note, mine (courtesy of Gregor) was a winner. I now have a brilliant history of 69AD The Year of the Four Emperors, which would have played a pivotal part in my Hero of Rome, Valerius Verren's life and was probably the most traumatic eighteen months in the Empire's history. Valerius has already become acquainted with two of the main protagonists and he definitely has a role to play. Who knows if it's a story I'll ever write, but it's great to have another story that you are desperate to tell.

The countdown now begins to Christmas proper and the spirit is willing, even though the flesh is a little underwhelmed.

We'll be thinking of absent friends and I hope you will too.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone.

Monday, 6 December 2010

You can't judge a book by its cover - or its reviews

I was going to have two weeks away from the computer, but I only lasted about ten days and to be honest my fingers were itching to be at the keyboard the moment I got back from my weekend in Madrid and from choice, not necessity. You just can't escape the next book.

But it gave me a chance to step back from things and take a slightly more detached view of books and book people. There were a couple of interesting stories in the papers about the Amazon review system, with suggestions that certain writers are planting poor reviews on their rivals' websites. It's not a new accusation; a friend of mine is certain that a much more successful author in the same genre has conducted a prolonged campaign against him under half a dozen different names. Only a couple of months ago the Russian scholar Orlando Figes was forced to apologise for savaging a fellow historian's books on Amazon under a false name.

Then there was the revelation that some publishing companies actually pay to plant glowing reviews of their authors' work on the site. A PR film has cheerfully admitted charging £5,000 for supplying the service, which probably makes it more lucrative to write reviews than most books. I suppose that helps explain why it's amazing how often when you look at a novel's Amazon page the first half a dozen or more five star reviews are followed by a one or two star as the actual paying customers get involved. Sometimes it's because it's the author has asked his mates to post a review if they've enjoyed his book, which I suppose is fair enough. But some writers seem to have a lot more mates than others.

Taken together it makes you wonder if the whole online review system isn't totally flawed.

Not that anything will change. No book publisher is going to take a single step back from the internet when the entire industry is in danger of being sucked into whirling vortex that is the world wide web. And, let's be perfectly honest, for a writer there's nothing better than someone giving their unbiased opinion that you've produced a masterpiece.

The only people who can improve the situation are the book buying public. If the first few pages of each and every book on Amazon were available in preview it would give readers the opportunity to try before they buy and there's no better, honest or more straightforward way of judging a product than that.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

What's in a name?

When I was at a writers' conference recently a top London agent told the assembled literary hopefuls that if they wanted to get a crime novel published the best thing they could do was to put a diagonal line through every O in their name. He was joking, of course, but you only have to look at the number of Scandinavian crime novelists on the shelves to take his point.

By spooky coincidence, I have a couple of crime books sitting about somewhere just waiting for their final polish, but if they're ever published I doubt it will be under my own name. I might go for my recently discovered Serbian nom de plume, Daglas Dzekson, but then again, it could be something completely different. Whether its his real name or not, I don't know, but Harlan Coben caught my eye, and I pondered whether I might call myself Howden Burn, after the cowpat filled, nettle infested valley from which I frequently returned cold, wet, filthy but invariably happy, when I was a kid.

I have a hunch that Howden Burn is the kind of name that would light a fire in the American market, and cracking the American market is every (commercial, and I'm nothing if not commercial) novelist's Holy Grail. The Hardback (yes, I did say Hardback) sales top 10 for 2009 tells you exactly why. Despite the publishing industry's wails, it is still a huge, vibrant and voracious readership with an eclectic appetite that isn't particularly made clear in the list below.

1. The Lost Symbol: A Novel. Dan Brown. Doubleday (5,543,643).
2. *The Associate: A Novel. John Grisham. Doubleday.
3. The Help. Kathryn Stockett. Putnam/Amy Einhorn (1,104,617).
4. I, Alex Cross. James Patterson. Little, Brown (1,040,976).
5. The Last Song. Nicholas Sparks. Grand Central (1,032,829).
6. *Ford County. John Grisham. Doubleday.
7. Finger Lickin' Fifteen. Janet Evanovich. St. Martin's (977,178).
8. The Host: A Novel. Stephenie Meyer. Little, Brown (912,165).
9. *Under the Dome. Stephen King. Scribner
10. Pirate Latitudes. Michael Crichton. Harper (855,638).

(Source: Publishers Weekly)

So how do you crack the US? If I knew that, I'd be writing this on a Caribbean beach and not looking out of my spare bedroom window at a dreich, grey monument to the Scottish Calvinist tradition. Clearly, it helps to be American, which, at first glance, you might think is a drawback. But if you're going to lie about your name why not lie about your background? Howden Burn could be a one-legged Californian Vietnam vet who gave up booze and found God before hearing voices in his head that told him to write about a cross-dressing serial killer. 

It also helps if you write like an American. I was surprised that Stieg Larsson's Girl series did so well in the US (actually I was surprised it did so well anywhere) because it's written in a very dry, dense style that doesn't appear to fit with the quickfire, snappy prose that Americans seem drawn to - I exempt Dan Brown from that, naturally - although the late lamented Stieg has become a worldwide phenomenon and also coincidentally fits neatly into the third criteria: his books start with The (five out of ten above is a pretty good strike rate).

If anyone has any more sage advice on how to crack America, please let me know. I'm just off to start a gentle rewrite of my next book, but one, The Doomsday Testament. And yes, it would fit very nicely about number 2 or 3.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

All the world's a stage

As a writer, you tend to spend a lot of time on your own. You develop an outer skin that encourages other people to flow off it like a drop of olive oil on a non-stick frying pan. You lose the power to communicate in words of more than one syllable. Yes. No. Tea. Out. You don't need a Do not Disturb sign, because it's written on the back of your head - the only bit of you anyone ever sees.

Then your book comes out and everybody wants to be your friend. The shy, reclusive creature who has just spent six months in solitary and has forgotten what the sun looks like is invited to sign books, speak at events and appear before vast (hopefully) audiences at book festivals.

Suddenly the hermit has to transmute into the performer.

Some take to it quite naturally, for others the process is terrifying and as much fun as a visit to the proctologist. But these days no writer can avoid it, any more than they can avoid writing blogs, keeping their Facebook page turning over or Twittering about things no-one is really interested in

But just how much does a writer have to be an entertainer?

I've come to enjoy talking about my books and the craft of writing, even to large audiences, because generally they're there because they're interested in what I have to say. But I know my limitations. I was at the Manchester Literary Society/Historical Novel Society weekend in Manchester. On the Saturday I appeared on a panel with four women novelists: talented, witty, feisty and clever ... and me. It was great fun, especially when they started to talk about sex and I began to slide down into my seat before the inevitable happened.

'So what was sex like in Roman times?'

Now an entertainer would immediately have recalled that the sex in Caligula was so erotic that his wife thought he must be having an affair. Doug Jackson, author, threw up his hands and said: 'I surrender!' Yes, it got the biggest laugh of the day, but that wasn't the point.

Day two I shared the platform with an Oxford professor who could have doubled as a stand-up comedian, a lovely young Irish fella with the gift of the gab, and a larger than life Viking re-enactor with a beard you could hide a badger in. What do you do? You try to compete in your enthusiastic, earnest, but slightly dull way and just hope you're adding to the mix. And you learn.

Not everyone can be an entertainer, but you have to remember that in all the best comedy partnerships one of them is the straight man.

That'll have to do for me.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

No rest for the wicked

I've been guilty of neglecting the blog for a couple of reasons. The first is that sometimes you have things to say but you're not sure how to say them, which may sound strange for a writer, but in my case is undoubtedly true. Better in this case to say nothing than the wrong thing.

The second is less complicated. I have been hellish busy.

The first draft of Defender of Rome went off to Simon at Transworld a couple of weeks ago, accompanied by the usual angst and soul-searching which is only made worse by the fact that Hero of Rome has been doing so well. You're always conscious that the next book has to be better than those that have gone before and Defender took me out of my comfort zone into murky, sometimes dangerous territory.

At the moment, I'm working on the final chapters of my new thriller The Doomsday Testament, which will also be out in the middle of next year. The plan is to finish Doomsday before the suggestions for the Defender rewrite come back.

In the meantime I was preparing for last night's Booker prize event at Stirling library, which was great fun, but meant reading six quite difficult books in about a fortnight. (Is it the Booker judges who are out of touch with real people or is it me?). I've also been trying to get ready for my big weekend in Manchester. Four events over two days. A debate on the place and popularity of historical fiction, at which I'm the only male in a scarily talented panel that includes Alison Weir, Maria McCann and Robyn Young, a readers' workshop on research techniques, chairing a debate on where historical fiction goes next (any ideas welcome) and another panel with Harry Sidebottom, Robert Low and Ben Kane on violence in books (hopefully it won't come to blows, Bob Low is a scary bloke, especially with a broadsword in his hands).

I'm out of puff just thinking about it.

Oh, and when I was at the library last night they asked me to chair the Stirling launch of Robyn's new book Insurrection (first in a trilogy about Robert the Bruce) on Tuesday at the Tollbooth Theatre.

Truly, there is no rest for the wicked.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Bill Jackson 1929-2010

My dad had a huge influence on my decision to make a career as a writer, even if I ignored the best bit of advice he gave me. His first contribution - and I can still remember the thrill of it after about half a century - was to introduce me to the library before I was even old enough to be a child member. He'd let me take out books from the children's section on his ticket and began a two or three book a week addiction that has lasted a lifetime.

His second was when I was sixteen, just out of school and had no sense of the direction my life should be going, when he pointed me towards the local newspaper, the Kelso Chronicle and Jedburgh Gazette, which had a vacancy for a junior reporter.

Bill Jackson
He was immensely proud the day I published my first book, Caligula, and probably surprised that he enjoyed it so much, but he recognised the perils that lay ahead when he advised me not to think about giving up the day job. It's to his eternal credit that when I did just that he supported me wholeheartedly in my new career and gave me every encouragement in my writing.

We buried Bill Jackson on Wednesday at a beautiful spot on the hillside overlooking Jedburgh, with views out to the south and east and the hills he loved where generations of my family worked as shepherds. He took ill on holiday and spent eleven weeks in hospital but for the first eight none of us had any idea just how sick he was. In the end he was told it was 'dialysis or die', but when it became clear the dialysis was only delaying the inevitable he took the decision to let nature take its course. The day after they unhooked him from the machine he almost looked his old self, and the family had a lovely day reminiscing about old holidays and memories; his mind was sharp and his sense of humour as keen as ever. He died the next day and the courage and serenity with which he approached the end humbled all of us who witnessed it. His last words were: I'm going home.'

With eery aforethought, a few months before his death he'd given me a 32-page history of his early years growing up on a farm near Jedburgh during the Second World War. It was only then that I learned he'd shipped out as a cabin boy on a merchant ship at the age of sixteen and had seen Canada, the United States and Brazil before he was eighteen. I'd known that he'd served in Malaya in the fifties, but he'd never told me about the jungle patrols he led with his bren gun, the ambushes in which his friends died, or the regret that he hadn't been able to save them.

I gave the eulogy in St. Mary's Church, Jedburgh, and all the time I was talking I could swear he was at my shoulder. I'll miss him.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The world's at your fingertips

One of my favourite bits about writing books is doing the research to build or rebuild the world the characters lived in. From reading the histories of Tacitus or Caesar to try to get a handle on the thought processes in ancient times or the rhythm of their speech patterns, to discovering how they baked bread, carried their swords or wore their clothes; every little item of information can add that little touch of authenticity that makes all the difference.

There are two different types of research: research on the ground and research of the historical sources. When I wrote my first book, Caligula, I did a huge amount of reading to immerse myself in the Roman world, but the physical Rome I built was constructed from a map I discovered on the internet. I only visited the forum properly for the first time when the book was complete and it was wonderful to find that the scale and the topography was just as I imagined it. Claudius was different, because it meant taking vague snippets of information about a battle and recreating something close to the reality using all the military sources I could lay my hands on. The Colchester of Hero of Rome was the first time I was able to actually visit somewhere before I wrote about it, and being able to see the topography and imagine it as it was two thousand years ago was invaluable for creating the big scenes like the arrival of Boudicca's army and the fighting that followed. That said, the Colonia of Valerius's time would not have been the place it is without the help of Philip Crummy's superb book City of Victory.

Research can take you to some of the world's wonderful places
I'd love to do more research on the ground, but for various reasons that's not possible. A friend of mine who's researching a new book is off on an exotic three week trip to one of the world's most fascinating places and I'm extremely jealous. Part of one of my forthcoming books takes place in Germany and it would have been great to have done something similar. Instead, I had to turn to my old friend the internet. One of my excuses for not writing books was that I would never have had the time or the money to discover the information I needed to make it work. That's all past now. Google satellite maps and Google earth allow you not just to have a bird's eye view, but to actually walk the streets. If you want to visit a forest or a valley, someone will have posted their holiday snaps on Flickr or Facebook and with luck written a blog to tell you about the biting insects and the smelly sewage plant next door. All you have to do is use your imagination to fill in the gaps.

Of course, there is no substitute for being there and experiencing it yourself, and I'd much prefer to be swanning around the Bavarian Alps for a couple of weeks than sitting in front of this computer. But there's no longer an excuse for saying 'I can't, because ...'

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Write what you (don't) know

Quite often when I'm chatting to people they'll turn round and tell me that they've always wanted to write a book, and the next question, naturally, is: What would you write about? Disappointingly, nine times out of ten the answer is: Me.

The most trumpeted advice on where to start writing a novel is WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. It's also the worst piece of advice I've ever heard.

How many of us 'know' things that other people would be willing to pay to read about? Unless you're very fortunate, your life will have been a mixture of work, eating, sleeping, looking after the kids, with just enough excitement (holidays) and melodrama (holidays/falling out with other family members) to keep it from being too boring. When I started to think about writing a book the first decision I made was not to write about what I knew. Fiction is about pure invention and using your imagination to write about what you don't know.

Of course, some people can get away with writing, or not writing, about what they know. Katie Price began her career as an author by not writing at least three of her four biographies, before turning to fiction and not writing a string of best-selling chick-lit novels that have added to her prodigious fortune. If you've lost an arm and a leg to frostbite on some Himalayan peak or to a crocodile in the farthest reaches of a  Bornean swamp there's a fair chance someone will be interested in your suffering and the scent of gas gangrene before breakfast. Leslie Thomas used the defining moment in his life to write a book called The Virgin Soldiers about conscription in Malaya and didn't do too badly. Ditto Andy McNab. But generally, for mere mortals who haven't risked their neck on the field of battle, writing what you know isn't a good idea

A lot of very good writers have fallen into the Write What You Know trap, usually in their first and worst book. The main character's life will miraculously mirror their own and the mundane minutiae of their lives will inevitably put the brakes on the pace until it resembles that of a geriatric three-legged tortoise. Many more will have a Write What You Know manuscript festering away in a drawer that requires a clothes-peg over the nose to extract.

Then again, maybe it's a stage you have to go through, like puberty or hankering to play golf? I've just remembered that the first piece of serious fiction I ever wrote was a story about the death of an old man who'd lost his nose at Gallipoli and a young boy brought up in the sixties pinching apples, aping his comic book heroes and guddling trout. It wasn't very good, but I enjoyed writing it and I suppose, in a way, it was a tribute to my grandad and the comrades who were less lucky than he was.

Maybe you just have to get it out of your system.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Lost Fort

Beneath the school playground are the remains of Agricola's Lost Fort

ONE of the questions I’m most frequently asked is: Why did you choose the Romans? The answer’s simple. Dip your toe in the Roman Empire at any point over a period of a thousand years and you will find some fascinating event or some personality with the potential to provide you with a book.

From the early Republic through Julius Caesar to Caligula and on to Tiberius Constantine in the sixth century every period has a tale to tell. And we’re still learning about them.

That was what took me to Doune on Saturday for the archaeological dig open day at Doune Primary School. We know of literally hundreds of Roman sites in Scotland from Pennymuir in the Cheviots  to Cawdor outside Inverness, but the fort at Doune wasn’t discovered until 1983 when cropmarks showed the outline of its defences.

It’s in a classic elevated position guarding an important river crossing of the Teith only a few hundred yards from Doune Castle and would have dominated the surrounding area. Plans for building work at the primary school mean part of the complex will be lost when the foundations are dug, so a team from Headland Archaeology have been carrying out intensive investigations in what was the playground. They’ve made some fantastic finds, the jewel in the crown of which is a wonderful enamel-inlayed bronze mount for a horse harness of a type that hasn’t previously been seen in Scotland.
Doune is a classic Roman fort in a
strategic position above a river crossing
Archaeologist Paul gave me a tour of the site, along with a dozen other interested locals, showing the defensive ditches, the interior roadway and the pits which provided most of the finds. Only a small section of the fort has been investigated, but the foundations of several wooden buildings have been uncovered and it was amazing to think that what we were seeing had lain forgotten for two thousand years.

Doune would have played a key role in governor Julius Agricola’s invasion of Scotland around 84AD. Agricola’s campaign was recorded by his son-in-law, the historian Tacitus, and we know he spent six years subduing first the druids on Mona (Anglesey), then the Brigantes in northern England, before finally turning his sights on the troublesome Caledonian tribes. The governor’ three legions pushed relentlessly northwards until they finally brought the Caledonian alliance to battle at Mons Graupius, in Aberdeenshire. The Romans were heavily outnumbered but, in a one-sided contest, Tacitus claims the northern tribes suffered 10,000 casualties and the Roman auxiliaries less than four hundred. Only a single Roman citizen died.

Agricola drove the survivors into the mountains, but didn’t follow them. Doune appears to be one of the so-called glen-blocking forts which were built in the years after Mons Graupius to ensure the Caledonians were kept bottled up in their Highland hideaways. It would have been garrisoned by auxiliary troops, possibly Tungrians or Batavians, but Agricola is also known to have been accompanied by British auxiliaries, and was only occupied for a decade at most.
When the Romans withdrew from Scotland (Tacitus accused the Emperor Domitian of throwing away everything Agricola had won) the palisades were removed, the buildings destroyed and the Roman fort at Doune was lost to memory.

Until now.

One of the finds: a piece of decorated horse harness

Sunday, 18 July 2010

The first year

A year ago I took the brave/mad/exciting decision to write full time and when I look back I wonder if I've done the blog and my readers justice. There's something about gambling everything on a dream that prompts a tendency to reticence, probably with good reason because your mood tends to fluctuate a lot more between wishful fantasy and confidence-shredding gloom. Now I feel I owe my fellow writers a little more insight into what it's been like to go it alone.

Hero of Rome was launched a year to the day after I left The Scotsman. It seems to be doing very well and Caligula and Claudius are both benefitting from its success, particularly Caligula. So how does it feel twelve months on?

In retrospect it was indeed a moment of madness when I left the paper, a heady brew of rash optimism and not quite reckless risk after nine years in an albeit high-stress comfort zone, driven by the new three book deal that begins with Hero of Rome. The economic climate couldn't have been worse, but the possibilities were limitless and it was a chance to walk through a door that might never be open again. I can honestly say I haven't experienced a single moment of regret.

I've been introduced to great people I would never have met, some of whom have become friends. I've appeared at the Borders, Stirling and Wigtown Book Festivals. I've been to jail twice and Saltcoats once. I've had time to write two books and come up with ideas for half a dozen more. I've seen more of my wonderfully supportive family in the past twelve months than I had in the previous five years and had the freedom to come and go as I choose after about twenty years of repetitive routine.

I've learned a few valuable lessons on the way that might be of interest if you're thinking of following the same path.

TAKE a deep breath before you jump. Looking back, I probably got carried away by the moment and the decision deserved a little more reasoned consideration.

BE prepared to lead the life of a Trappist monk, writing is an incredibly solitary profession. No little cosy chats with your colleagues to reassure you how well you're doing.

DO get yourself a proper writing space where you can be free from distractions.

REALISE that the two most important people in your working world will be your editor and your agent, in whom you must have absolute faith, because they are the foundations of your future and that of your family.

ACCEPT that your financial forecast will be wildly optimistic. A year down the line, that nest-egg looks very different in reality to what it did on paper. A little voice will whisper in your ear: Do you admit defeat with six months in the bank? Or three? Or do you go down to the wire?

HAVE a plan, but be prepared to be flexible. If A doesn't work, B might, or C or ...

IDEAS are your currency. Never throw any away. Even if it isn't accepted this year or next it may come good somewhere down the line.

BEWARE Facebook and other such social networks because they can have a corrosive effect on your capacity to work, but also embrace them because they can give you a great marketing platform.

FEAR of failure will be your constant companion but you can't let it dominate you.

ACCEPT that you will suffer Writer's Block at some point. I thought I was immune, but I wasn't and it was the most frightening week I've had so far.

CELEBRATE every triumph, try to ignore every setback.

RELISH the chance to begin each new book and new chapter, because others don't get the opportunity.

REMEMBER that it's all been worthwhile.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

University challenged

It was my daughter Nikki's graduation from Stirling University on Wednesday and I sat in the cavernous tennis hall along with my wife and several hundred other proud parents to celebrate her achievement.
As the long ranks of students marched onto the stage to be capped by the Chancellor, James Naughtie, I found myself trying to compute the combined intellect and effort that had gone into the four hundred or so degrees being conferred. We all laugh at the stereotypical student lifestyle, but I've witnessed the amount of hours and work she put in, the tears and frustration when things weren't going well and the pure joy and relief of a high mark. Whatever benefits they get from their effort are thoroughly deserved.

I was hugely proud when Nikki received her degree, but the moment was also touched by a certain sadness because it means she'll soon be leaving home, and, if I'm  honest, guilt. Why hadn't I ever achieved what she just had?

I've never felt handicapped by the fact that I left school with six of what were then called 'O' levels. When you're in a working environment and there's a deadline to hit, nobody's bothered if you went to university as long as you put in the hours and you're good at your job. I could probably argue with some justification that, at the time, in the early 70s, people from where I came from, with my background, just didn't expect to go to university. Then again the sixteen year old me was hardly a paragon of work and ambition. As it is, I've been incredibly fortunate in my career and my life. But just lately I've been wondering: what if?

Would I be a better writer and storyteller if I'd been subjected to the intellectual rigours of university? Would I have written at all? I suppose the answer is that I'll never know and maybe that's for the best.

One thing I don't need a degree to work out: thunderstorm + Victorian house = leak in roof.

Where's that bucket?

Sunday, 13 June 2010

'My' hill fort

Took a walk today up to the little hill fort between Bridge of Allan and Dunblane. It had just stopped raining and the day was very fresh, with water dripping from the leaves and into the sun-dappled undergrowth. Trees have long since covered the fort and when you walk through them it's a bit like being in the cloisters of an ancient abbey; you feel immensely close to the people who once lived their in the huts that are now only  shallow overgrown pits in the earth. While I was there I went a little further, to what I think of as the King's Grave. It's not marked on any maps but if you look closely you can see a perfectly round, slightly raised mound encircled by large stones, some of which are now missing. I couldn't help thinking that two or three millenia ago people had gone to a huge amount of effort to ensure that the man or woman who was buried here would never be forgotten, yet their name hasn't been spoken for at least two thousand years. The life they lived and the landscape they lived in is gone forever, apart from a tree-covered hill that's now shared by rabbits and badgers, and an almost invisible shadow in the bracken that marks their final resting place. One day, maybe I'll try to tell the story of this haunting place.

On the way to the fort I watched three soaring buzzards being harassed by a single angry crow in a kind of aerial dogfight that felt like having a grandstand seat at the Battle of Britain. The crow would fight for altitude and then come bombing down its target, which would turn in mid-air to meet the attacker with its hooked claws. Time and time again the bird came back, but the buzzards went serenely about their business with just the occasional shriek of outrage.

A little later I spent fifteen minutes in a staring match with two roe deer, a buck and a doe, in the field next to me. I'd spotted the doe easily enough because of her red colour, which at first made me think she was a fox. The buck was perfectly camouflaged against the brown of the patch of bracken he was foraging in.  Eventually I moved and the buck gave three barks and the pair of them went racing across the field in elegant bounds and disappeared into the trees.

The gentlemen who own this land want to turn it into a golf course, with the obligatory hotel and the housing that means that when the golf course and hotel go bust in twenty five years they'll be able to have the whole hill zoned for residential use. They've allowed perfectly workable fields to run wild so they can claim that the land is no longer economic for farming. At the moment it's a paradise for  wildlife and walkers but in a few years you'll only be allowed on it after you've paid your green fees.

Isn't it a joy to watch market forces at work?

Friday, 11 June 2010

New look

Thought I'd try something a little more modern and fresher. I quite fancied using one of the books as the background pic but couldn't figure out how. Anyway, I like it.

Monday, 7 June 2010


Oh, dear Russell, what have you done?

A lot of people have described my first two books, Caligula and Claudius, as cinematic, which hopefully is a compliment, and I keep being asked, jokingly or otherwise, if I have a film deal yet. The answer, if you're interested, is no, although one film company did have a little nibble at Caligula right at the start.

So it was fascinating to read the other week about Victoria Hislop turning down £300,000 from a Hollywood studio for the film rights to her book The Island. Her decision to decline was a matter of principle. She believed that a big studio would take liberties with the book and turn it into something she never intended it to be, instead selling the rights, no doubt for considerably less money, to a Greek TV company who plan to turn it into a mini-series. A very laudable decision that says much about her principles, and just as much about her circumstances.

But back to Russell, fine actor that he is. I went along to see Robin Hood at our local cinema on Sunday, full of anticipation based on the reviews I'd read and the fact that no-one could go wrong with the Hood legend. What I found is that no matter how much money you pour into a film, how much star power you have or how good the director, in this case Ridley Scott who made the fabulous Gladiator along with Crowe, if you don't have a proper narrative your film is destined to be a turkey. Sure, make it gritty and hard and brutal (think the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan). Russell Crowe doesn't do men in tights. Fine. But why completely ignore a brilliant, iconic tale of good against evil and replace it with a story that says nothing except: We're planning a sequel to make use of all this armour and leather gear.

Russell's Robin Hood - and I have no objection to his accent if he'd only make up his mind which one of the four or five to use - isn't sure whether it is trying to be Maximus Hood or Kevin Costner without the coiffure. The problems start, as they do, at the beginning. He's an archer, among the lowest of the low of Richard the Lionheart's crusading (looting) army. Ten minutes later he's landed gentry and handing over dead King Richard's crown to the Queen like he's to the manor born; give him half an hour and he's leading a whole army. Full of action? Yes. Believable? No. Yes, you have to suspend your disbelief when you go to the pictures, but there were moments when I laughed out loud and I'm sure I wasn't supposed to. In Costner's Robin Hood, the supporting cast, Morgan Freeman, Alan Rickman et al, were interesting. In this film, they're cyphers. You know who Will Scarlet is because he's got red hair. Little John is Little John, because he's not er' little. Alan a'Dale plays a mean lute but he doesn't do anything else.

Ah, I hear you say, but surely the winsome Cate Blanchett must save the day? Well she does, in a manner of speaking, at the end  (that was the bit where I put my head in my hands) but the screen chemistry between the two leads is about as interesting as a Primary Two litmus test. Throw in an unlikely storyline about Rob's dad writing the original Magna Carta, a Prince John who's about as camp as a two-man tent and the longest 'Nnnnnnnnoooooooohhhhhhh!' in mainstream movie history and you have a film that's lost in the wilderness and not coming out for a long, long time.

If you don't want to know what happens at the end, please stop reading here.

Poor Cate, you could almost feel her cringing when, at the start of the final climactic battle scene (see Saving Private Ryan above), some idiot decided it would be a good idea to have her ride into the battle line in full armour, leading the bunch of ten-year-olds who'd up until this point only ever haunted Sherwood Forest like little pointless ghosts. Now they slaughter fully kitted up French men-at-arms with the aid of their little, but lethal, pen knives. Please God, let it finish here. But I doubt it will. Robin will be back for Hood Two, hopefully with better scriptwriters.

So there's undoubtedly danger in selling your book to some mega-bucks, megalomaniac Hollywood producer (I know Robin Hood is a legend, not a book, but I'm trying to make a point) and they turn out Caligula: the Musical with Darius as the lead, or Claudius meets Godzilla. Does that mean I will follow Victoria Hislop's lead and put artistic integrity above profit? Well, I'll probably take about ten seconds to think about it, but I fear that when the phone call comes I will reluctantly park my principles in a safe place until such time as I can actually afford to have them.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Rewriting history

I read that historian of the moment Niall Ferguson has been pontificating about historical fiction to the literatti at the Hay on Wye festival. (see Charlotte Higgins Apparently he no longer reads the kind of books I write because they 'contaminate historical understanding'; the premise presumably being that when a historical novelist puts words into the mouth of one of his non-fictional characters he is somehow distorting the historical record. Likewise he warns against historians inferring beyond the written record 'or else this takes you into the realm of romantic fiction, a world I shall never enter.' What a dull life the man must lead.

I've always felt a bit sorry for 'proper' historians who believe they have to stay within the strict parameters of the evidence and aren't allowed to use their imagination. Some of the best and most readable works on the subject have been by people prepared to break free of that restriction. Professor Mary Beard's Pompeii: The life of a Roman Town is a great book because she's confident enough in her subject to look at the evidence and allow her imagination to take her back 2,000 years. That doesn't make her a bad historian, just a good writer. In Before Scotland, Alistair Moffat writes about a time for which we have no written record, but uses the landscape, etymology, and his imagination, to revisit and recreate a fascinating true Dark Age.

Historians like Mr Ferguson make a living out of re-evaluating history, which is fine if you have a large anthology of written work to start with. Quite often all they achieve is to see what others have seen before them, only to cry out that they've discovered something everyone else has missed, not because it is new, but because they're looking at it through the prism of their own, modern, age. The written record can also be dangerous ground, particularly when it is taken literally. Our knowledge of early Rome is based on only a handful of writers, each of whose work has been, to a greater or lesser extent, 'contaminated' by the times they lived in. Pragmatism meant they could only say so much, and in a certain way. Tacitus and Cassius Dio put words in the mouths of Rome's defeated enemies of a hundred years earlier that sent messages to the readers of their own time. Nobody in their right mind thinks those words were actually spoken.

People who read historical fiction are intelligent enough to understand that what they are reading is just that: fiction. Our knowledge of Boudicca, Calgacus and Caratacus, the three great British heroes of early history, exists only because of the way their defeats reflected on Rome. They play bit parts in large stories and we know little or nothing about the reality of their lives. Does that mean we have to ignore them? Of course not. When, in Claudius, I sat Caratacus down in a mud hut with the leaders of southern Britain, I was attempting to recreate the atmosphere of the times not write a history of them. Likewise, when Valerius looks across the river Colne at the seething horde of Boudicca's army in Hero of Rome, I used my imagination. Yet, in some form, if not in the way I actually portray them, both these events must have happened and I make no apologies for using them to inform, and to entertain. Because, unlike Niall Ferguson, we scribblers of historical fiction are in the entertainment business as much as the literary.
We know our place.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Of life and death

I've had three brushes with mortality over the past couple of weeks; three small tragedies which barely made a ripple on the world but which I think sum up three different attitudes, or perhaps that should be approaches, to life and to death.

The first was a relentlessly cheerful and old fashioned lady who lived quietly in the small Borders village where my wife grew up. She stayed in a council house and survived on very little but wanted nothing more, thriving on contact with her large, widespread family. At the age of eighty five she cleaned the local bowling club, attended the village church every Sunday and spent much of her time visiting and caring for neighbours and friends who were less sprightly than herself. A couple of weeks ago she went for her usual Friday game of bowls and into the club for a cup of tea and a chat before collapsing. The doctor said she had suffered a brain aneurism and after the family had the opportunity to say goodbye her life support was switched off.
The funeral took place on the first proper day of summer in the village churchyard just a few yards from where Beatrix Potter's brother is buried. Afterwards, when I spoke to her sons and daughters they insisted that she had always said the way she died, virtually gone in a few heartbeats, was the way she had wanted to go, and that, despite their grief, they were happy she had been given her wish.

The second came on Sunday, while we were in Edinburgh watching my daughter Nikki compete in the Edinburgh half-marathon. When we got back to the friends' where we were staying my eldest daughter Kara got a phone call informing her that a girl who grew up with her boyfriend had died suddenly. In the old cliche, she had everything to live for. At the age of 23, she was about to graduate with an arts degree and was intelligent, talented, beautiful and loved by everyone who came into contact with her. Unfortunately, all that means nothing when you suffer from depression. One morning she woke up and decided she could no longer live with the person she believed she was and took her own life.

The third was a man with a genuine lust for life. At his funeral on Monday more than 2,000 people turned out to say goodbye, far to many for the little church at Blairlogie in the shadow of the Ochil Hills, and we stood outside in the sunshine, with the birds singing in the trees and listened to a ceremony that was in turns poignant, comic and tragic. Again, he had everything to live for. A wonderful wife and a son who was his absolute pride. He ran his own welding business and bred and showed Highland cattle and was a stalwart of the local rugby club. Somehow he managed to find time to chair half a dozen different societies and every meeting must have been hilarious. In his time he'd been a hell-traiser, but in the nicest possible way. Two years ago, at the age of 49, he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. The doctors told his wife, a full time school teacher, that he had only a few weeks to live. From that moment onwards he fought for every moment to win another day with his family and never stopped fighting until the frailties of his body overcame the strength of his spirit.

I thought his wife's summing up of his approach to those final two years was worth sharing.

 Remember yesterday, dream about tomorrow, but live for today.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Never forget

One of the best things about my new existence is getting out to meet interesting people, whether it's in a prison or at a book festival. It happened last night when I had the pleasure and the privilege to meet an extraordinary character whose story of has captivated thousands of people.

Alistair on a visit to the US, where he met veterans of the USS Pampanito, which sank the hell ship he was trapped in 

As a journalist one of the first things you are told is not to use the word miracle, but I make no apologies for describing Alistair Urquhart as a walking miracle. Alistair, from Aberdeen, survived the fall of Singapore and was captured by the Japanese in February 1942. He was forced to build the Burma Railway on a handful of rice a day and with men dying like flies around him, survived cholera, dysentery and beriberi, was locked in the hold of a Death Ship with five hundred men, some of whom resorted to cannibalism to stay alive, torpedoed and finally held in Japan where on 9 August 1945 he felt the blast wave of the Nagasaki bomb.

His book, The Forgotten Highlander, was published in October, shot to the No. 1 slot in the Sunday Times non-fiction list and is already in its fifth reprint. I'd been asked to chair an event he was doing at Stirling University's MacRobert Theatre. At 91, and still with the scars of the beatings he received, he's a ball of energy who kept an audience of three hundred spellbound for an hour and a half. His harrowing story, told with brutal honesty, had many in tears.

There are two shameful threads to The Forgotten Highlander. The first is his treatment at the hands of the Japanese who kept their prisoners in appalling conditions that killed many of his compatriots. The stories of casual beatings, horrific executions and systematic, agonising torture are a terrible indictment against a nation which has never truly acknowledged its guilt.

The second is his disgraceful treatment on his release by the British government which had sent him to war so inadequately prepared in the first place. Like thousands of others he was forced to sign a declaration swearing he would never talk about his ordeal. He was sent home by a circuitous route and arrived back in Britain to no formal welcome or acknowledgement of his suffering. Incredibly, when he received his back pay the authorities had deducted money for his keep. This from a man who had slept outdoors to avoid the bugs in the hut he had built himself and lived on grains of weevily rice for three years. And in a final insult he was refused a disability pension because he couldn't provide the records to prove he'd suffered from the diseases and beatings he claimed.

His disgust at the way he was treated by his government is still palpable after almost seventy years. Nor will he ever forgive or forget his treatment at the hands of the Japanese, who he still believes have never learned the lessons of World War Two.

Alistair only wrote his memoirs with reluctance, but when he recognised its astonishing success he saw the opportunity to launch a crusade to ensure that future generations would never forget those who suffered so much for their country and who received so little in return. In the most literal sense his book has given this amazing old gentleman a new lease of life.

If you haven't read The Forgotten Highlander, you should. Some things should never be forgotten.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Pirates off the starboard bow

At the end of last week I did a search for my books on Google, as you do, to see if any of them had been recently reviewed.

What I discovered came as a total shock. My first book, Caligula, appeared on dozens and dozens of new sites and every one of them was offering it as a free illegal download. How does this happen? I have no idea, but it came very soon after the book was released on Kindle in the US and most of the sites were US based.

According to the numbers on one site Caligula had been downloaded 30,000 times. Multiply that by ten or twenty and the figures are astonishing. Yet the author, who has invested a huge amount of time and effort and more importantly, the publisher, who has invested enormous amounts of money to turn a gem of an idea into reality, don't get a single penny.

I did a little research on the subject and discovered that a lot of people on the web think it's great fun and something to take advantage of. But the figures are astonishing. A study in the United States into a thousand published books in different genres found that over nine million pirated book copies have been downloaded. They estimate that this represents total losses to the already hard-pressed publishing industry of almost three billion dollars. Online piracy now adds up to around ten per cent of total US book sales.

A few years back I used to laugh at the big name stars who moaned about their music being downloaded illegally. Now I know how it feels. As if you've been mugged.

Sure, you can argue that Caligula has now been seen by several thousand people who probably wouldn't have paid to read it, and maybe I have a wider fan base than I had before, but that doesn't help the book's sales figures or my chances of getting the new book deals that are now my lifeblood. The internet is a huge part of all our lives, and its impact will undoubtedly become even more significant in the coming years. But it can break as well as make. As a journalist I'm not generally in favour of censorship, but surely its about time to introduce some form of international regulation to control what appears on the web and how its used.

The net is a wonderful phenomenon, we shouldn't allow it to continue to be a breeding ground for crooks, terrorists and perverts.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Hitting a century

I've just noticed that my last post was the hundredth blog I'd written, so it should probably have been about something a little more groundbreaking and important than my writing jumper. Last night I took the chance to have a look at the original postings way back in 2007 and in a lot of ways I achieved what I set out to do, although it didn't feel like it at the time when I was only painting a tiny corner of the picture with each post. I wanted to give people a chance to experience the run up to my first book and all the highs and lows that a first-time novelist goes through; the excitement and the hunger for the next bit of progress and the fear that it isn't going to happen. Hopefully I managed it.

I thought I'd be a little bit lazy and just post that first blog entry again, because the last sentence is a bit of gypsy prophecy that has certainly come true so far.

Sunday, 16 December 2007


Hi, my first book, Caligula, is being published in July and it occurred to me people might be interested in the highs and lows of a debut novelist.

I'm Doug Jackson, a writer and journalist from Scotland. I've been writing for three or four years now and been fortunate enough to land a two book deal with Transworld publishers. My first novel Caligula comes out on 14 July. I know there's a large community of people out there with the ambition to be novelists, and I thought my experiences might be interesting and hopefully helpful to them.


I was having lunch one day with a friend - Nicola Barry a newspaper columnist whose own book Mother's Ruin was published this year. She was doing the MLitt course at Glasgow University and while we were chatting she suddenly said: 'You should write a book. I bet it would be really gritty'. So I thought, OK I will.

I didn't start out to write a book about Caligula, I started writing a book about an Emperor's elephant - or at least the slave who brought it to Britain. I've always been interested in history. When I was listening to a documentary on the history of Britain in the car and someone told the story of how the Emperor Claudius rode in triumph at Colchester on an elephant it seemed like a worthwhile story to tell.

When I got home I sat in from of the computer and wrote 500 words in an hour. I've been writing or revising just about every day since.

I remember the first sentence I typed, because I was really proud of it. It said: 'My father was a great man. He tamed the wild beasts and made them do his bidding.' Six months later it took me a month to write my way out of the hole that sentence got me into.

You won't find it in Caligula - in fact you won't find any of the first 10,000 words I wrote. They weren't wasted though, every word and piece of research I did brought me closer to the subject; to the people, the sights, the sounds and the smells - the atmosphere - of Rome.

Writing at the end of a 10 to 12 hour day was tough, but I stuck to it until my son got old enough to want to use the computer too. That was when I abandoned the car started a one hour commute on the train to and from work. That allowed me to up my output to between 1200 and 1600 words a day, and suddenly the mathematics of writing seemed a lot friendlier. 1600 words a day x 5 is 8,000 words a week. A novel is around 90,000 words. Working on the train for even two hours a day I could write a first draft in about three months. I was on my way.

I'll end my first blog here. It's going to take longer than I thought to get up to date. Hope you'll stick with me. It's been a rollercoaster so far and I think the best is yet to come.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Suits you, sir!

Working from home is great, but it still has its pressures, not least the fact you no longer have a man with a whip standing over you shouting that it's time for ramming speed or possibly any speed at all.

 Such as: should I have another digestive biscuit with my tea or will it turn me into a fat(ter) b*****d?

Or: should I get up from my computer after less than an hour to take my nineteen-year-old son to work when it's not even raining and he could easily get there in twenty minutes without breaking sweat?

Problems, problems.

Today it's been my writing jumper.

I like my writing jumper. It's dark blue hundred per cent lambswool and I purchased it many years ago from David Thompson and sons of Jedburgh, my favourite shopping emporium. When I bought it, I thought it was just a single solid colour and it wasn't until I got it home that I saw it had 'Pringle' written across the side of it in letters twelve inches high. I still thought it was great until I wore it to a party at New Year and someone turned round, having noticed the letters Pri on the front, and asked me if it stood for Prick.

The jumper spent many New Years after that in exile in a drawer in my wardrobe, but when I started working from home I heard it calling me. It's the perfect writing jumper, really. It fits, in a loose kind of way that doesn't interfere with my typing. It's extremely comfortable and not at all scratchy. And it only has two holes in it.

The problem is that while I like my writing jumper everybody else in the house doesn't. To be honest they think it makes me look a bit of a Pri.

So that's this weeks dilemma. Do I ditch the wondrously crafted piece of kit that's become a tool (if you'll pardon the expression) of my trade or do I continue to rebel against the wishes of my extended family and stick two fingers up to what now counts as the Establishment?

Letters on a postcard to ...

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Jail break2

I had another visit to prison this week, to talk to a group from A wing (security prisoners) at Perth. 

It was a real eye-opener and much more forbidding than last week when we met in a small classroom. The one thing I noticed more than anything else is how, on a certain level, the staff, civilian and warders, are as much prisoners as the men they're guarding. 'A' wing is all barred windows and doors, six locks to get you from one area to another and intimidating looking young men standing around in bored suspicious groups. There was also a sense of the prisoners being much more institutionalised.

It was a different kind of discussion from the previous week because literacy levels were probably lower and I kept it very informal, but again the most interesting questions and interventions came from the people you least expected them to. 

When we were going up to the little chapel where I was giving the talk, Marianne, the jail's reader in residence, who had invited me, asked a young guy who was cleaning the floor why he wasn't coming. 'Because I think it'll be pants,' he said. She persuaded him to come along and give it a try and at the end he asked me for my autograph and invited me back, which is probably the best validation I've had yet!

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Forgotten Highlander

I've just been doing some reading for a talk Waterstones have asked me to chair by Alistair Urquhart, whose book The Forgotten Highlander, about his terrible experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore, has been storming the non-fiction sales charts.

Alistair's story is an incredible tale of heroism, hardship and survival under terrible conditions and at the hands of captors whose mercilessness was only outdone by their brutality. Yet it's also the story of the enduring qualities of the human spirit and how man can survive even in the most appalling conditions. Until he wrote his book, Alistair didn't talk about his experiences for sixty years. As a prisoner of the Japanese, he worked on the Burma railway and the infamous bridge over the River Kwai, survived being torpedoed by an American submarine and was finally held at a camp just eleven miles from the Nagasaki nuclear blast. When he returned home his family barely recognised him.

His story reminded me of a couple of people I knew in the early 1970s in Jedburgh; men who were old before their time, had suffered crippling injuries and who seldom spoke to anyone outside their immediate family. It wasn't until years later that I realised that they too had been prisoners in the Far East and had never recovered from their time in captivity. Neither of them lived long enough to collect the £10,000 the British government was eventually shamed into handing over as compensation to the survivors in the year 2000.

The venue for the event has still to be sorted out but I'm really looking forward to meeting this remarkable ninety-year-old who somehow manages to find positives in what he went through, despite never having fully recovered from the events of more than half a century ago.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Jail break

I've just got back from Perth prison and an afternoon giving a talk to ten prisoners about writing and Romans. The guys were a great audience, asked some very perceptive questions and generally appreciated me being there.
I even got a laugh when I told them writing Caligula had been like digging an escape tunnel from The Scotsman.
It's a grim place though, based around a prison for French prisoners during the Napoleonic wars, and just walking through rabbit warrens of corridors bounded by twenty-foot high walls topped by razor wire gave a real sense of being in another world. I've heard all the arguments about prisons being cushy these days, but the loss of personal freedoms, like freedom of movement and freedom of choice, and deprivation of liberty, shouldn't be underestimated. If prison is supposed to be a deterrent it looked as if it was doing a good job.
The talk was part of a series I'm doing under the auspices of the Scottish Book Trust and I'll be doing another three across the country over the next month or so.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Guilty pleasures

When you give up what has been your life to become a writer you hope for the best and know you'll just have to deal with all the baggage that comes with your decision.

What you can't prepare for, because nobody's warned you about it or written about it, is the guilt.

Just after Christmas I had a couple of weeks off to concentrate on research and some new ideas I'd come up with. It was a perfectly professional thing to do and what I achieved in that couple of weeks will hopefully one day help to deal with the aforesaid baggage. So why did I wake up every morning feeling guilty that I wasn't working? All day long my fingers would be itching to get back to the keyboard and start pounding away. My brain would be telling itself it couldn't afford to be taking this holiday.

It might be a hangover from the days in a structured working environment when, to a certain extent, if you weren't working you weren't earning. But the real answer, I think, is something I suspect just about every writer, no matter how successful, faces: the fear that if you stay away from a book for too long you might lose whatever it is that made you a writer in the first place.

When I finally got down to the serious job of writing my next book I felt a huge sense of relief when, after the usual jumpy start, the paragraphs started flowing and the characters formed in my head and began talking to me the way they sometimes do. It doesn't matter that I'll be more or less chained to the keyboard for the next X months, or that when I finally get up off the writing chair at night after X hours and X thousand words I'll be completely knackered. Because at this moment I'm still a writer.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Argyll odyssey

I've just returned from a couple of invigorating days in Kidnapped country. The first time I read Robert Louis Stevenson's novel was forty-odd years ago, when I was about ten, but the last was less than a year ago, and the passage of time hadn't made any sort of dent in my enjoyment of the book. It's one of the ultimate adventure stories and about time someone made a decent film of it (with apologies to Michael Caine, the ultimate Cockney highlander). At its heart is the Appin murder, and it was to Port Appin in Argyll that we headed on Wednesday, undaunted by severe weather warnings and promises of blizzards.

Kidnapped is also a brilliant travelogue, cataloguing Scotland's wild places with vivid imagery as David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart make their way from Mull to Edinburgh through the Highlands and the Trossachs. I'd always been captivated by those descriptions and I recalled them as we travelled north and west, through Callander and Balquhidder, Lochearnhead and Crianlarich and on, by the pass of Brander, with every turn producing a view to take your breath away and fill your head with words like 'majestic' and 'grandeur' and snow covered peaks with unpronounceable names passing by like enormous milestones marking the way.

Port Appin started out as just a speck on a map, but I doubt I'll ever forget the 48 hours we spent there, much of it staring out over the Lynn of Lorn towards the golden Isle of Lismore and beyond to the sunlit, white-capped vastness of the Morvern and Ardnamurchan peninsulas. We had a room at the Pierhouse Hotel, built around the old ferrymaster's cottage; the kind of place where, if you're fortunate, you can look out of your window and watch a cormorant drying his wings on an old buoy or see a seal playing in the shallows. The oysters came daily from beds around the island fifteen minutes away over the sea, and if you fancied lobster you could choose it from the creel dangling off the end of the pier. Bridge of Allan, where I live, is hardly a bustling metropolis, but walk the Appin woods and you experience a silence that's almost spiritual; a stillness that has the potential to either drive you mad or seduce you into staying forever.

This year was always going to be a holiday at home kind of year, but I now realise it won't be a hardship, just the opposite.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

One step at a time

Jeff, who e-mails me occasionally about writing and books, asked me last week which has been the most difficult book to write and said he suspected it was probably the first one, where you put in the hard slog of turning out upwards of a hundred thousand words without any real hope of it ever getting into print.

His question made me look back at the motivation for writing what started off as The Emperor's Elephant and how things have changed since Caligula was published and again since I decided to try to make a living by writing full time. Each book actually creates a different mental and psychological challenge as opposed to the endeavour, time and imagination you put into it.

Firstly, I think Jeff's wrong. The first book is the easiest to write, because when you're writing it you're totally free from expectation: deep down you know the chances of anyone else ever reading it are as likely as winning the lottery. You can dream, but you don't have to prove anything to anyone except yourself. I wrote The Emperor's Elephant because I enjoyed writing, because I liked the subject, because I was pretty certain I could write a book of some kind and because I found that writing it provided me with the kind of escape that reading books has given me over the years.

When a publisher asked me to turn the first part of The Emperor's Elephant into what became Caligula, I had the motivation of proving to myself I wasn't just a writer; if I could pull this off I was actually on the way to being a novelist. Again, when the book was accepted there was the excitement of being part of a team and the pure adrenalin of knowing you were going to have a first book published.

Claudius, the second book was different, because now there was a weight of expectation which hadn't existed before. Claudius didn't just have to be as good as Caligula, it had to be better. I'd clawed my way through the glass ceiling and now I had to prove I was worthy of staying there.

A few months later came the pure exhilaration of a second deal to write three more books, followed immediately by the horrible knowledge that I was already behind schedule on the first one. I wrote the first forty thousand words of Hero of Rome on the train, knowing that I'd never finish it on deadline unless I went full time, and the next seventy thousand at home knowing that it had to be the best yet, because the rest of my life depended on it.

Now I'm sitting here with a new title on my screen - Defender of Rome - and a new set of problems.

Actually, Jeff, the answer to your question is much simpler ...

The most difficult book will always be the next one.

Monday, 1 February 2010

And the winner is ...

I've had the opportunity to do a bit of reading for pleasure over the last couple of weeks, as opposed to reading for research, and I managed to get through quite a few books, including Hilary Mantel's Booker prize winner Wolf Hall. Once I got used to the slightly idiosyncratic use of the personal pronoun I really enjoyed her tale of Thomas Cromwell's life at the heart of Henry VIII's court and its portrayal of sixteenth century London. It did, though, leave me puzzling over where an enjoyable, well-written historical novel ends and an award-winning work of literature begins. What makes, for instance, Wolf Hall, a better literary novel than Robert Harris's Lustrum or Tracey Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures? For me, they're both the Booker winner's equal in creating a fascinating picture of remarkable people living in remarkable times.

Anyway, no-one was more pleased than I was to see a top book prize being awarded to a popular work of historical fiction, because, by and large, authors of historical fiction haven't had many prizes to aim at. So I was delighted to read this weekend about a major new prize being launched - and in God's own country too. The £25,000 Sir Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction will be awarded at the Borders Book Festival in June, from a shortlist of UK authors that will be revealed in March.

The Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, whose family has a long association with Scott, are behind the award and are keen that the great author's name should be linked with such a prestigious prize. It's also a huge coup for the festival's livewire organiser Alistair Moffat and his team and another step towards ensuring that the Melrose-based event is one that nobody who is interested in books can afford to miss.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Farewell to the Voice

 I first met Bill McLaren when I was about ten years old and he was refereeing a fiercely contested rugby match between Hawick Trinity and Parkside Primary School. I have a vague memory of being penalised for foul play in the first minute but he didn't hold it against me.

Bill was already a household name for his unique, couthy commentaries of international rugby matches on the BBC, but it was typical of the man that he was happy to give up his Saturday morning to encourage not just the grass roots of the game, but the tiniest seedlings. As a referee, his fairness was legendary and he carried it over into his commentating and his newspaper reporting. He loved Hawick and Scotland with a passion but he never once allowed it to show.

He always reckoned that a day out of Hawick was a day wasted. In the years before his death this morning he didn't waste many days. He was never happier than sitting in the conservatory of the lovely house he owned overlooking the Teviot valley or on the touchline at one of the town's rugby grounds where you were as likely to find him watching Hawick Wanderers as Hawick RFC.

When I started working for my local newspaper in Jedburgh we'd often share a freezing cramped press box at Poynder Park, Riverside or Mansfield, and he was unfailingly kind, offering advice, sharing insight and information and handing out Hawick Balls, the minty sweets from his home town which he was never without. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone and he could charm a quote from the most abrasive prop forward or the shyest scrum half.

He's probably unique in that he became a Scottish rugby icon without actually playing for his country and it was a lifelong regret that his opportunity to wear the dark blue of Scotland was curtailed by the bout of tuberculosis that nearly killed him in 1947.

But Scottish rugby's loss was the rugby world's game because he took the same enthusiasm and knowledge of the game he showed as a player to become the best known voice on television for something like four decades, the true Voice of Rugby. His style was unique, the sonorous tones of his Borders roots allied to a talent for vivid, dramatic description and a turn of phrase that made him a legend.

Scrum halves were one of his favourite targets. Roy Laidlaw was forever lamenting the fact that while his half back partner John Rutherford was hailed as a gazelle he was always a Border terrier or a Jack Russell.

Who can ever forget descriptions such as:

He's like a demented ferret up a wee drainpipe

He kicked that ball like three pounds of haggis

They'll be dancing in the streets of (Merthyr/Kelso/Harrogate) tonight

He plays like a raging bull with a bad head

And of course, the one that became his catchphrase:

It's high enough, it's straight enough and it's long enough!

When he retired from the BBC in 2002 it was the end of an era. Many have tried but nobody has ever quite managed to fill his place at the microphone, how could they?

Bill the commentator was never less than brilliant, and his contribution has been recognised by the award of the MBE, CBE and OBE, but it is Bill McLaren, the true gentleman who never failed to share his sweeties, that I'll always remember.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

My Hero is back

A large parcel arrived through the door yesterday from Transworld. It's the copy edit manuscript or Hero of Rome, my next novel, and is the first opportunity you get to see the book as it will more or less be in its published form.

This part of the process is always exciting, and a little bit daunting, because it's probably the most important stage after the editor casts his verdict on your first draft and it's the bit where someone clever points out all the embarrassing mistakes that would have made you look like an idiot if they'd made it into print. I've never met my copy editor, but from the moment I saw what she'd spotted in my first book, Caligula, I knew I was lucky to be working with her. She types out her comments on an old fashioned typewriter, acid little asides that make you feel as if you're back in Primary 1, but which hit the mark every time.

With Hero of Rome most of the 23 notes are about my cavalier use of Latin plurals and the difference between a ballista and an onager, two types of Roman catapult artillery the legions use to batter the Brits into submission. I've been very fortunate that none of the three books has needed really major work at this stage, just a few minor tickles and a bit of polishing. What makes it fun is the attention to detail. Last time round with Claudius, I had a passage comparing a Roman legion to the constituent parts of an insect: a big orange centipede. I thought it was quite clever until the copy editor pointed out that a centipede isn't an insect at all, but a member of the genus arth.

A case of me not knowing my arth from my elbow...