I’ve been invited to participate in this blog hop by Matt Willis, who produces the splendid http://navalairhistory.com/ website, which deals with all aspects of naval aviation. In the process Matt has developed what is close to an online encyclopedia on this subject. Even if you haven’t previously had any curiosity about this subject I urge you to take a look – you’ll find it fascinating and it has had a major bearing on the type of world we live in today. In addition Matt has an excellent blog entitled Air and Sea stories http://airandseastories.com
I’ve been asked to answer four questions about my writing process and at the end I’ll hand over the baton to two other bloggers who’ll be filing answers to the same questions on their own blogs on Monday 7th April.
Question 1: What are you working on?
www.dawlishchronicles.com. Each of the books I write is set in a specific period and they deal with Dawlish’s participation either in actual historic events or in situations closely based on them and consistent with contemporary circumstances.
In the first book in the series, Britannia’s Wolf, the reader meets Dawlish at the age of 32 and well established in his profession as a naval officer. This book, and its sequel, Britannia’s Reach, cover Dawlish’s life in the 1877 to 1880 period and involve service in the Ottoman Empire and in South America. By the fifth in the series, now being written, the calendar has advanced to 1882 and Dawlish has gained in experience and advanced in seniority – not that it makes life any easier for him, given the situations he must deal with! Though the main action in these yet-unpublished books is set in the period of Dawlish’s late 30’s, there are sections dealing with earlier events in his life, some hints of what might be involved having been given, but left opaque, in earlier books. I hope to be able in due course to cover the major incidents in Dawlish's life, regardless of age. A challenge for me as a writer – as it is for any creator of a series – is to ensure that the character matures with experience, personal as well as professional. This also applies to other characters carried across from one book into the next.
Question 2: How does your work differ from others of its genre?
The Dawlish Chronicles fall under the general heading of “naval fiction”. This is dominated by novels – usually in series – set in the Age of Fighting Sail, mainly in the Napoleonic Wars. The two acknowledged masters of the genre, C.S.Forester in the Hornblower novels, and Patrick O’Brian in the Aubrey-Maturin series, concentrate on this period. Though I have read widely about naval warfare in this era my major historical interest – political and cultural as well as naval – has been concentrated more on 1860-1945. Of particular interest was the half-century between the American Civil War and the run-up to World War 1 which is fascinating not only in power-politics terms but because of the rapid progress of technology which changed naval warfare as well as much else. Little naval fiction is however set in this period – “The Age of Steam” – despite the fact that complex and shifting great-power relationships provide a rich setting for it. In addition, the era’s cutting-edge technology was in itself a factor in upsetting established balances and relationships.
Bringing together these two elements – the political and the technological – represented the starting point for a series. I then needed a protagonist, ideally one who lived through the entire period, and who needed to cope with rapid change – and to master it – if he wanted to advance his career. Enter therefore Nicholas Dawlish, born in 1845 and in 1859 entering a Royal Navy which was still commanded by veterans of the Nelson era. Like real-life contemporaries such as Admiral Sir John Fisher, later Lord Fisher, who was to serve on into the early years of World War 1, Dawlish must be just as familiar with steam power, steel construction, torpedoes and ever-bigger guns as Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey were with sails, rigging, carronades and broadsides.
It’s notable that several agents warned me that “Age of Steam” novels would never sell – one indeed recommended rewriting my novels for a Napoleonic setting – but the response of readers to Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Reach has been uniformly enthusiastic. Perhaps I have indeed identified a gap in the market!
Question 3: Why do you write what you do?
The short answer is that “I have to” and I guess that this applies to most writers. I’ve got stories in mind and I need to get them out. I’m fascinated by the great-power rivalries and alignment shifts in the six decades up to World War 1 – France remained a major potential enemy to Britain for most of this period and relations with Russia were fraught since massive Russian expansion in Central Asia was seen as a threat to India. Maintenance of the crumbling Ottoman Empire was seen as essential for protecting British interests against Russian ambitions. The Austro-Hungarian Empire (which had an effective navy) was in decline, but that decline was in itself dangerous – as events in 1914 were to prove – and doubts existed whether the new and powerful German Empire should be regarded as a potential British ally or as a growing threat. The Chinese Empire was in the throes of decline and internal conflict while Japan – modernising with almost incredible speed – was positioning itself to establish dominance in the Far East. If we add to this mix the “Scramble for Africa”, in which European powers were competing to secure territory, massive British commercial investment in Latin America and the almost unnoticed advance of the United States to world-power status, then the global complexities can be seen as great as those of our own time.
In this period the “British Empire” was seen as at its apogee. In effect however there were several empires, all different in the nature of their relationship to Britain itself, in the type of accommodation to and with local power groups and as regards presence – or not – of British settlers. In addition to this “Formal Empire” there was an equally important informal one, based on investment and commercial penetration, and in some cases economic dominance, in independent nations, as in China and South America. Such investment provides the background to “Britannia’s Reach”.
Question 4: How does your writing process work?
Each of my books is placed within an overall understanding of my protagonist’s life from birth to death. One plot flows from the other but each is firmly linked to actual events of the period e.g. the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. Extensive reading about the actual year or years raises possibilities for a plot. How would certain developments have been viewed by the British government? What larger strategic concerns were involved, and what more immediate ones? How did the situation – often a crisis – play out? How could Nicholas Dawlish play a role in the process?
Developing a plot from these elements is linked in a circular process to more detailed research. The plot demands supportive insights if it’s to work, and that demands research, and that in turn opens up further plotting possibilities. There will be several reiterations of this and the process can’t be hurried. I make extensive use of “mind mapping” techniques and I develop an overall contents plan – how many chapters, what happens in each etc. I do this in parallel with the actual writing of another book so that the plot is “simmering on the back burner” for considerable time. I might add that I’m lucky enough to be a member of the London Library – the largest private library in the world, founded in the 1840s by Thomas Carlyle and other luminaries. This gives me access to a vast range of contemporary material, including journals and newspapers.
Once the plot is finalised (and it never is, 100%, as during writing more opportunities for refinement present themselves) it’s necessary to get down to producing the first draft. I aim at writing every day and usually manage about 1000 new words as well as revising the previous day’s work. Trollope’s dictum of Nulla dies sine linea – Not a day without a line – is worth aiming at but not always possible when one has other obligations, as I do. I write in the morning – usually 1000 to 1300 hrs – but if I walk with the dog in the afternoon I tend to be working mentally on refinement of what I’ve written and on what’s coming in the next days. I may put in another hour or two several times a week and I estimate that I’m hitting the keys for sixteen to twenty hours per week in total. In my parallel life I’m retired from full-time employment but I do some academic work and am an elected representative in local government, as well as a school governor, so my days are very full.
|The London Library in the corner of St.James's Square|
“Writing is rewriting” and the first draft, when I return to it, is ruthlessly edited. Entire sections may be cut out and paragraphs or chapters added. Internal consistency and continuity is essential and in the case of a series, must be linked back to other books as well. I’m assisted by one of my daughters, a devotee of military and naval fiction, who reviews as regards such aspects, as well as being ruthless in relation to plotting weaknesses. I may go through three or four further revisions and the last concentrates on proofreading – a nightmare for the independent author.
So that’s it. The process is relatively straightforward but the critical success factor is perseverance. Hanging in there – even sitting in front of a blank screen for several hours when you’re despairing – will get you there in the end! I’ve shared my secrets and I hope you find them of interest, whether you’re a reader or a writer.
And I’m now passing the baton to two wonderful writers who’ll be posting next on this blog hop.
Patricia Bracewell will post in on Monday April 7th
Patricia Bracewell is the author of Shadow on the Crown, a historical novel about the 11th century queen, Emma of Normandy. Patricia lives in California. Her explanation about how she came to write about Emma is “I came across an English queen whose name was completely unfamiliar to me. Intrigued, I began to research – more journeys to England and to France — and then I began to write the novel that would become Shadow on the Crown. It is the first book in a trilogy, and currently I am hard at work on the next one. It seems I’ve come full circle – my mind in England somewhere, wandering an ancient, green, Anglo-Saxon landscape while I sit here in California with my nose planted firmly in a book.”
To read Patricia’s blog click on www.patriciabracewell.com/blog/
Madame Catherine Gilflurt will post on Monday April 7th
Madame shares her home with a rakish colonial, a hound, a feline and several rodents of exquisite character. When not setting quill to paper for the Guide Madame Gilflurt can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering Henrietta Street abode.