Tuesday 6 May 2014


Sandie Will
One of the pleasures of becoming an author is that one comes in contact with interesting people in different countries and continents whom one would never know in the normal course of events. For me, one such interesting person is Sandie Will, an geologist who is also an aspiring writer. She is also  responsible for two very interesting blogs, one about writing on www.sandiewill.com and one on scientific items on www.rockheadsciences.com. I particularly like the latter as she brings the excitement of the world of the geologist alive, something I can well appreciate given my own background.

As part of a blog-hop Sandie asked me to repeat on my blog an item which I filed previously about my writing process, which she thought could be of interest to other writers who had not seen it previously. If you have seen it before just skip but if not you may find the information of value.

Like other writers on this blog hop I’ve been asked to answer four questions about my writing process and at the end I’ll hand over the baton to another blogger who’ll be filing answers to the same questions on her own blog on Monday 12th May.

Question 1: What are you working on?

I’m currently on the home straight – the last 15% - of the first draft of the fifth Dawlish Chronicles novel. Volumes one and two – Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Reach – have already been published and the third will come out around the end of this year. I’ll say more about my writing process – and why my writing is ahead of my publishing – in response to Question 4 below. In my own mind have a clear overview of the whole life of the series’ protagonist, Nicholas Dawlish (1845-1918) and indeed a sketch of it is provided on my website 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 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. 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 – represents 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 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 a story in mind and I need to get it 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. Add to this 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 and 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 accommodation to 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 dominance, in independent nations, as in China and South America. Such investment provides the background to “Britannia’s Reach”.

I want to set stories in this era – believable stories anchored in real events and which are true to contemporary outlooks and values. Much historical fiction consists of “21st Century Characters in Period Costume”, and this I’ve tried to avoid. My protagonist, Nicholas Dawlish, views the world from a standpoint of Victorian values of duty, earnestness, patriotism, honour and class consciousness that borders on snobbery. He’s decent and conscientious, and he’s immensely proud to be an Englishman, but the values he espouses can cause him major personal anguish when he’s confronted with situations in which they may not comfortably support him. In Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Reach his values are tested to the limit when he finds himself allied to forces which have no regard for such ethical concerns. The extent to which he should – or must – compromise is a theme in both books and he will not find it easy in as-yet unpublished work either.

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 about twenty hours a week in total. In my parallel life I’m retired from fulltime employment but I’m 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
Once I have the first draft completed I do a quick revision and then set it aside while I start detailed revision of the next book to be published. (This is why I’m currently writing the fifth Dawlish novel while numbers three and four are ready at the first draft stage). Leaving the first draft for several months is essential. It stays on my subconscious “back burner” and when I return to it I will be more critical, better able to spot weaknesses and opportunities, and ready to revise more thoroughly.

“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!

So that’s it – I’ve shared my secrets and I hope you find them of interest, whether you’re a reader or a writer.

I’m now passing the baton to Jen Ponce, of Nebraska, who writes on wholly different themes to me, as you’ll see from her blog http://jenniferponce.com/skunkblog/. She has a very interesting background and, among much else, is an advocate for victims of domestic violence.

Jen is especially interesting on the mechanics of writing and of publication as an indie author. She’ll be posting in this blog-hop on Monday 12th May.

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