Sunday, 20 October 2013

One for the writers: A synopsis masterclass

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

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

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

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

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

By Douglas Jackson

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

Power of the Sword

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

Men of Iron

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

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

 Divine justice

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

Monday, 16 September 2013

A Bloody Good Weekend

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

A new addition to the family

And then there were six ...

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

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

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

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

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

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

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

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

My take on Little Boots?

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Eat your heart out McGonagall

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

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

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

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


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

Doug Jackson 2010

The Abbey at Jedburgh, with the river in the foreground

Monday, 3 June 2013

And the sun shone too!

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

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

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

A welcoming honour guard of giant redwoods

A view out over the gardens to the east

Exotic plants and deep colours at every turn

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

The gardens have a restored fernery

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

Monday, 20 May 2013

The corner of a Scottish field that will be forever Normandy

The 'Atlantic Wall' stands a few metres from the Sheriffmuir Road

Not so much a blog post as an article. I recently stumbled upon a largely forgotten part of Scotland's WWII history in the hills above Bridge of Allan and Dunblane. It became doubly poignant when I discovered that my maternal grandfather would have trained here almost a century ago with the 4th KOSB before they set off on their fateful mission to Gallipoli in 1915.

“Go, go, go!”
Screamed on by their officers and NCOs and covered by machine gun fire from amphibious tanks, assault engineers of the Third Division leapt from their landing craft into the shallows and sprinted up the beach. The three hundred metres that separated them from the objective was lashed by bullets and shrapnel as the German defenders raked the charging soldiers with fire from MG-42 machine guns and rifles and showered the assaulting troops with grenades. Mortar bombs and heavy shells from artillery batteries far inland crashed down among them.
By the time they reached the first obstacle their lungs were bursting with the effort of carrying their heavy packs of explosives across the deep sand. As bullets chipped the concrete around them, they desperately packed their pre-prepared charges into every recess and chink they could find, before squirming back to the minimum safe distance. A few hundred metres away a specially-modified Churchill tank lumbered up the beach and placed a massive metal frame against the obstacle before retiring, unreeling a command wire behind it.
Inside one of the five bunkers
Simultaneous flashes of white light and an enormous, ear-splitting crash. Huge jagged chunks of concrete spattered down among the attackers, but it was done. Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had been breached. The road to Berlin was open.
But this wasn’t the summer of 1944, it was the autumn of 1943, the landing craft were flimsy wooden replicas, the sand they’d crossed was foot-deep heather and the rugged landscape wasn’t the Normandy coast of France, but a windswept Perthshire hillside. Only the Atlantic Wall was real and so sturdily constructed that it remains to this day, a forgotten, battle-scarred monument to the men who trained here to blast their way through the real thing and were destined never to return from the war in Europe.
The wall stands three metres high, three wide and more than eighty long - a solid barrier of steel-reinforced concrete - but its massive bulk is almost lost in the bleak vastness of Sheriffmuir, near Stirling, two miles north of the battlefield where Jacobite and Hanoverian forces fought out a bloody score draw in November 1715. A formidable anti-tank ditch makes it difficult to approach even to this day and the moorland is cut with shallow gullies, the remains of trenches created to replicate the obstacles the attackers would face when they burst from their landing craft on to Sword beach between Ouistreham and Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer on the left flank of the Normandy invasion. The trench network is backed by five substantial concrete bunkers, one of them a mass of shattered concrete and twisted metal, and the wall itself is pockmarked by shell hits and cratered by explosive charges. At the western end a huge explosion has created a three metre breach and scattered jagged pieces of concrete across the heather.
A breach probably caused by one of Hobart's 'Funnies'
To its front is the rough ground the attackers would have had to cross, pockmarked by shell holes and scattered with trenches and fox holes and beyond the Sheriffmuir road shallow depressions in the heather reveal the positions of the ‘landing craft’. The five bunkers are strategically placed to create an interlocking field of fire that would have hammered at the men as they made their approach to the target.
Seventy years after the event, it is eery to walk over the Scottish hillside where men trained for the greatest amphibious operation the world had ever seen. The attackers would have been the soldiers of the Third Infantry Division, based in Scotland and training to assault Sword Beach. They included the veterans of famous Scottish regiments like the 1st Battalion Kings Own Scottish Borderers, men from Galashiels, Hawick, Melrose, Jedburgh, Kelso and Selkirk, who had been evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk four years earlier and were determined to avenge that slight. The division’s shock troops were the hard-fighting Commandos of First Special Service Brigade, led by the charismatic aristocrat Lord Lovat, whose primary task was to secure the Orne bridges. Lovat had already decided that his personal piper Bill Millin, who would pipe them ashore on D-Day.
Nothing was left to chance by the planners who worked on Operation Overlord, the invasion of German-occupied France, and this section of the Atlantic Wall replicated on bleak Scottish moorland would have been the culmination of a sophisticated intelligence operation carried out in conditions of the utmost secrecy.
Murray Cook, archaeologist for Stirling Council, explained: “You have to remember that everyone who would have worked on this, trained on it or even had knowledge of it would have had to sign the Official Secrets Act. It was a vital part of the intelligence war against the Nazis and could be crucial to the success of D-Day. In a way it was a bit like Bletchley Park, where they broke the German Enigma codes. If the Nazis had been aware of what was happening at Sheriffmuir it could have given them a hint about the location of the invasion.”
Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had its genesis in his decision in 1940 to abandon Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain, and turn his eyes east to Soviet Russia, but the scale and ambition of the defences multiplied after the entry into the war of the United States in December 1941. The work was carried out by the Todt Organisation and by the time of the invasion more than 17,000 bunkers and bombproof shelters had been constructed for the defenders using the latest ferro-concrete technology, plus hundreds of heavy artillery batteries. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was appointed to oversee the work in 1943 and Wehrmacht engineers laid millions of mines and sited what became known as Rommel’s Asparagus, steel obstacles tipped with explosives to destroy tanks and landing craft. Hundreds of thousands of slave labourers, prisoners of war and petty criminals from all over Europe laboured on the project, working under engineers from Germany and the Occupied territories, but the Nazis also used local contractors.
A Tobruk shelter machine gun post
Among them were members of the French Resistance. One, René Duchez, a painter and decorator from Caen, was a member of the Centurie network. He applied for a painting job at a German headquarters and managed to steal a plan of the Cotentin section of the Wall, which was then sent to London by fishing boat. Eventually more than 3,000 documents were sent to MI-6 in London who were able to create a master blueprint of the entire Normandy coastal defences.
Throughout 1942 and 1943 pressure grew from the Soviet Union for a landing in northern France. Once the decision was made that it should be in Normandy, detailed planning could begin to put 39 Allied divisions, more than one million men, on the beaches during the summer of 1944. Nothing could be left to chance and training began immediately on methods of breaching the Atlantic Wall. Just how effective would the Allied explosives be? How much would be needed? How could they be delivered?
The answer was to secretly replicate sections of the Wall and allow the assault battalions to attack them under realistic battle conditions.
In late 1943 or early 1944, work began at Sheriffmuir, probably by 294 Field Company of the Royal Engineers, who constructed a similar mock-up near Muthil, in Perthshire. The site at Sheriffmuir was ideal, part of the Whitestone Firing Range, remote and isolated, but at the centre of Third Division units billeted across Stirlingshire, Perthshire and Fife.
“Sheriffmuir has been a military zone since medieval times,” Mr Cook explained. “The clue is in the name, which identifies it as a place where the local Sheriff would have mustered his troops in the event of an emergency or for regular weapons training. There are trenches dating back to World War One, when the troops who went to Gallipoli in 1915 trained in the Stirling area.”
Now the training could begin in earnest.
Captain M. A. Philip, Brigade Signals Officer for 185 Brigade of the Third Division, remembered later: “We began some Combined Operations exercises, pretty primitive at first, known as ‘dryshod-exercises’. A road or some other suitable landmark represented the coastline, and if you were on one side of it you were technically afloat and on the other side on land again. Men and vehicles were fed across the ‘coastline’ at specified intervals to represent landing craft discharging their contents.”
Full battalions of soldiers would have trained to disembark from their landing craft and cover the three hundred metres of beach to their objective, clearing out trench lines and under live fire from the bunkers. But the key role would have been played by the assault engineers whose explosives would be used to blast a hole in the wall and allow the follow up troops to work their way inland, to take the city of Caen, Third Division’s ultimate objective. The marks of their attempts, many of them futile, are still obvious, but the training was hugely important.
The effects of high explosive on a concrete bunker
“The lessons learned here would undoubtedly have saved lives,’ Mr Cook said. “This is a fantastic monument and a reminder of an event of genuine world significance. D-day was the moment when the tide turned and it started at places like Sheriffmuir. The Sheriffmuir Atlantic Wall is a monument of national importance that contributed to this country’s finest hour when Britain stood against the Nazis.”
He revealed that the whole area is littered with the detritus of war; bullet casings, shell fragments and pieces of hand grenade. But he thinks that the most obvious damage to the wall was done by machine rather than man.
“We believe the large breach in the wall was probably created by one of what were called Hobart’s Funnies, special tanks designed for specific tasks.” Hobart’s Funnies was the nickname for tanks modified by Major General Percy Hobart, and included Scorpion flail tanks to clear mines, Crocodile flame-thrower tanks, tanks with bridges for crossing obstacles, and bulldozer tanks. The tank most likely to have been used against the Sheriffmuir Wall was the fantastically named Double Onion, a Churchill tank fitted with a metal frame that held two massive explosive charges designed to go off simultaneously. The tanks drove up to an obstacle, laid the frame against it, then withdrew to detonate the bombs at a safe distance.
After the “dryshod” exercises came “wetshod”, beginning in Galloway, where work was also going on to build the strategically vital Mulberry Harbours, then the Third Division Battle School at Moffat, and culminating in full scale landings from the sea. An entire section of coastline around Nairn and Forres on the Moray Firth was evacuated and the residents rehoused while the men who would assault Normandy took part in live firing exercises as close to the real thing as their commanders could devise. A similar operation by US forces destined for Utah Beach - Exercise Tiger - cost the lives of almost eight hundred men when the assault ships were attacked by E-boats off Slapton Sands. The Scottish exercise was less costly. Nine Duplex-Drive amphibious tanks - another of Hobart’s Funnies - sank in the heavy swell and one man was lost. The sunken tank is now a designated war grave in the waters off Burghead Bay at Findhorn.
When the “wetshod” exercises were complete, the men of the Third Infantry Division were as ready as they would ever be. In the months to come they would be transported down to their embarkation ports on the south coast and on the afternoon of 5th June they sailed for Normandy.
That evening, General Sir Alan Brooke, Churchill’s Chief of Staff, wrote: “I am very uneasy about the whole operation. At best it will fall so very, very far short of expectation … At the worst it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war. I wish to God it were safely over.”
By the afternoon of the following day - D-Day, 6th June - Hitler’s Atlantic Wall had been breached, at enormous human cost, and the road to Berlin truly was open.
“There’s no specific monument in Britain that celebrates Britain’s contribution to Operation Overlord,” Murray Cook said. “But the Sheriffmuir Atlantic Wall stands as a poignant and very evocative memorial to all the men who trained there and who took part in the D-Day landings and perhaps never returned.”

Friday, 3 May 2013

The real Iron Men

Russ, Ben and Tony at Housesteads Fort

At some point this afternoon four intrepid authors will reach the end of a six-day, 83 mile march along Hadrian's Wall, a massive achievement in its own right, but add in the fact that three of them did it wearing authentic Roman uniforms and carrying swords, shields and spears, braved blisters, back ache and helmet head, and it is truly monumental. Oh yes, and they've raised over £12,000 for charity.

I was fortunate to be able to join Ben Kane (Spartacus and Hannibal), Russ Whitfield (Gladiatrix), Tony Riches (the Empire series) and the incredibly informative Mike Bishop, author, publisher, archaeologist and font of all knowledge on the Wall, for the fourth day of their trek and it left me in awe of their stamina, courage and comradeship. By day four, they were collectively in pain from head to foot, but in true legionary style just got the head down and put one foot in front of the other.

They'd learned a few things along the way: that an eight pound helmet will rattle your brains if it's not properly padded: that hob-nailed sandals are like ice skates on rock: that a shield has a hundred ways of hurting you on the march: and if a 'friend' offers you the use of his fifteen pound chain mail armour you should tell him to stick it where the sun don't shine.

Mike Bishop leads the way over one of the many ups and downs
Day Four took in the thirteen mile plus stretch from Once Brewed to Chollerton, and begins with a hundred foot vertical climb up a rock stairway (see hobnails above, and think about the effect of a huge shield on a windy day). But it is also the finest, and most scenic stretch of the Wall, with the monument snaking its way over hill and valley and clinging to the very edge of breathtaking crags. I even had a deja vu moment at Sycamore Gap, when I realised I'd seen the tree a dozen times in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves! I wasn't the only guest, Colin and Lynette, from Cardiff, were with us for the whole stretch, and we were joined by William and his mates from Australia for part of it. Along the way we met a host of characters, including a platoon of Gurkha soldiers, who were astonished to meet three men with large spears, and generous beyond compare when they discovered that they were walking for Combat Stress and Medecin Sans Frontier

It's hard going, though, with some tough climbs. By the time we stopped for lunch in a sheep pen (to get out of the biting wind) decorated with the remains of one of the previous owners, I would have sworn Russ was going to finish the day requiring the services of one of the two charities, perhaps even an ambulance. Yet by mid-afternoon his brightly coloured shield had disappeared into the distance and I have an enduring image of the Duracell Bunny. The next time I saw him was when he stopped to rest at Chesters fort, half a mile from the finishing point at Chollerton.

We'd based ourselves at Corbridge (I can highly recommend 2 The Crofts B&B for a warm welcome, comfortable rooms and a hearty breakfast) and the town's excellent Forum Books, run by the innovative Helen Stanton, had organised a talk and signing for the evening. Over forty people gathered above the local Italian restaurant to listen to us (yes, I did feel a bit of a fraud) talk about books, writing and the challenge of walking the wall. Highlights were the spontaneous (probably) 'I am Spartacus' moment (for Spartacus, substitute Ben Kane), Mike's revelation that the nails on Roman sandals were ergonomically placed (a la Nike) to make the most comfortable walking, and Tony's announcement that it's not a good idea to rub (non-standard) vaseline on your nether parts on a tourist bus route.

It was a great night and a big success. A privilege to be there and meet so many generous people and a greater one to be allowed to take part in a small way in the adventure that was the Romani Walk.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

A very British hero

I took a walk from Bridge of Allan up to the Stirling monument, which looks out towards the Highlands from a ridge on the Doune Road and commemorates Sir David Stirling, founder of the SAS and a very British hero. The land it stands on is part of the Keir estate his family once owned, but later sold to a Saudi Arabian sheikh.

The walk wasn't a familiar route, but took me round the estate walls on the Carse of Lecropt and then up through broken farm and woodland to the Doune-Bridge of Allan road. I saw a couple of healthy looking deer, a few buzzards and a beautiful red kite. There were also, despite the freezing weather and intermittent snow flocks of Yellowhammers and Chaffinches in the hedgerows.

The monument is an impressive bronze that stands nine foot tall on top of a stone plinth and the subject wears an army duffel coat and has binoculars hanging on his chest, but Stirling's true memorial is the unit he founded in 1941. L Detachment Special Air Service bore little resemblance to the elite SAS squadrons we know today. Stirling was the kind of Walter Raleigh swashbuckler who was probably born a hundred years after his time. He'd been commissioned into the Scots Guards, but wangled himself a transfer to 8 Commando because he wanted to see some action. Operations in North Africa convinced him that the Commandos were too large and cumbersome for the kind of raiding that was required. He managed to convince General Claude Auchinleck that a 'special force' could do the job better and was given permission to recruit six officers and sixty men.

Initial operations were unsuccessful, even disastrous. On the first raid, Operation Crusader, he lost 42 of his 61 men after the air drop went wrong scattering men all over the desert. Only the strength of will of its charismatic commander saved the SAS. From now on they would go in by land. Stirling often led the hit and run operations personally, planting bombs on enemy warplanes and raiding supply convoys. His luck ran out in January 1943 when he was captured by the Germans and eventually ended up in Colditz Castle. In the 15 months since he had founded the SAS his men had destroyed two hundred and fifty enemy aircraft, blown up dozens of supply dumps and wrecked railways. Field Marshal Montgomery described him as 'mad, quite mad' but acknowledged his worth as a soldier.

After the war, Stirling's reputation was undermined by becoming involved in mercenary groups and shadowy organisations aimed at undermining the trade union movement. An inveterate gambler who once lost £150,000 in one night, his biggest gamble was probably his plan to stage a coup as Britain drifted what he believed was too far to the left in 1975. Fortunately for his country and his memory he was less successful as a coup leader than he was at organising raids against the Nazi supply lines and the attempt fizzled out.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Coping with (an author's) split personality

One of the most frequent questions I'm asked is how I manage to jump about between being Douglas Jackson and James Douglas, my alter ego who writes mystery thrillers like The Doomsday Testament, The Isis Covenant, and now, The Excalibur Codex.

The answer is that I don't - at least not normally - I take three or four months to write a historical novel at the start of the year, take a rest, then morph into a thriller writer for the next four. Ah, I hear you ask, so what do you do in the other four months, you lazy/lucky so and so? Well, I do what I'm doing at the moment, which is juggling between not two books, but five.

Out August 15
Out August 29
I've just started writing Enemy of Rome, the fifth in the Valerius Verrens series, which takes place in the second part of the Year of the Four Emperors. The fourth in that series, Sword of Rome, ending with the First Battle of Bedriacum, is now at the copy-edit fact-checking stage (at least I haven't heard if there's a problem with the editor's main rewrite).  The Excalibur Codex is with Simon, my editor, and he'll be getting back to me in the next couple of weeks with suggestions on how to improve it. In all, the edit, copy-edit and proofreading of each book probably takes at least another month each, and means jumping in and out of the work in progress like a Jack-in-the-Box.

The long-running saga of my crime books continues. Stan, the agent, has the latest version of War Games, which is now the opener, and I was hoping it would be out there by now, but that appears to have been wishful thinking.

And I'm still dipping into The Emperor's Elephant of an evening, which I hope to persuade my publishers to put out as an e-book, but I now realise isn't quite up to the standard of my current work. I don't have time to do a full rewrite so am I justified in publishing the book to finish off the Rufus story, even though it might look like a step backwards? Answers on a postcard ...

Oh, I've put together the synopses for a new series of four books by James Douglas, for when the possibly too likeable, but very capable, Jamie Saintclair has run his course (which may be some time yet).

In the meantime here's a precis and a sneak preview of the cover of The Excalibur Codex. The copy-line/subtitle will change, and there might be a tweak in the design to put it at the bottom of the cover, but you get the picture. 


For countless generations the sword had been kept hidden away ready for a time of need, but not hidden well enough because on a warm July night in 1937 it vanished to be swallowed up in the storm clouds of war that would soon engulf the world.

In the spring of 1941 twelve SS generals gather in an East Prussian castle to re-enact an ancient rite and call on the spirits of Europe’s mightiest warriors to aid them in the coming battle in the East. At the heart of the ritual is a pentagram formed by five swords. One of them is Excalibur, the mythical weapon pulled from a stone by King Arthur.

2010 - ‘My time is close, but I cannot pass without revealing what I saw and, perhaps, making amends for what I have done …’  Art recovery expert Jamie Saintclair laughs when he reads the codex to a German war veteran’s will and the strange ritual it describes. But arms collector Adam Steele, is convinced enough to enter into a binding agreement that if Jamie can find the sword, Steele will pay a small fortune for it.

The hunt for Excalibur takes Jamie from Germany to eastern Poland, a deadly encounter in Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair and the discovery that the castle has been destroyed down to the last stone. The only clue to the sword’s fate is the strange tale of a partisan unit murdered by its own commander. 

With a team of international assassins on his trail and the distinction between friend and enemy a blur, Jamie finally makes it back to a Britain under siege, where the last piece of the puzzle falls into place and he discovers that the line between obsession and madness is gossamer thin.