Blog Writing Craft

Author in Search of a Character – Why James Burke?

I’m delighted to Welcome Tom Williams to my Blog today to tell us about how he came to write the Burke series, described succinctly by Paul Collard as ‘James Bond in Breeches.’ Over to Tom:

Why James Burke? Would it make any sense to say I did it for the money?

If I’m being honest, it can’t really have been for the money, because I know that writing fiction (and particularly historical fiction) is never going to make you rich. But I started writing about Burke as a (sort of) commercial exercise.

Let me explain.

My first novel was The White Rajah. It was based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak. Like most would-be novelists with my first book, I desperately wanted to write the Great British Novel. I was fascinated by Brooke’s character and the history of how he had come to rule his own kingdom in Borneo and I tied this in with ideas about colonialism and the morality of British rule around the world. Just in case I hadn’t weighted the book down with enough “significance”, Brooke was almost certainly gay and there’s a whole subplot about that. And, as the cherry on the cake, the whole thing is written in the first person and (given that this first person was writing in the mid-19th century) not in the most accessible language.

Despite this, I got an agent! And the agent got rejections from every major publisher he approached. It was, they all claimed, “too difficult” for a first novel. “Why don’t you,” he suggested, “write something more accessible? Still historical, but more the sort of thing people are going to want to read?”

I was stumped. I asked friends for ideas. I even asked Jocelyn, an Alaskan tango dancer I’d met in Buenos Aires (as you do).”Why don’t you,” she said “write about the early European settlers in South America? They have some brilliant tales to tell.”

Jocelyn does not like stories with a lot of violence. I think she was looking more at the explorers and the politicians, or even the ordinary people who left Europe in vast numbers to build a new world in the New World. But when I started randomly looking for European figures in the early colonial history of South America, the one who caught my eye was James Burke.

Burke was a soldier, but we have good reason to believe that he spent most of his time as a spy. The first book I wrote about him, Burke in the Land of Silver, is very close to his true story. Sent to Buenos Aires to scout out the possibility of a British invasion, he explored what is now Chile, Peru and Bolivia, returning to Buenos Aires to assist with the British invasion when it finally came.

I’ve obviously never met Burke, but the little we know about him still gives a strong idea of his character. He was an Irish Catholic who had joined the French army because the British Army did not offer an impecunious Irishman much possibility of advancement. We know he was something of a snob, at one stage changing his name to something that sounded more prestigious than Burke. He ingratiated himself with rich and powerful men, but he does seem to have been good at his job. In any case, there was a James Burke on the Army list long after the Napoleonic wars were over, so he did seem to be kept busy doing whatever it was that he was doing.

It’s this uncertainty about his career that makes him an ideal candidate for a series of books. (If you want to sell nowadays, it’s best to write a series – like Deborah’s excellent trilogy based around Pepys’ life.) He was a spy. He moved in the dark and nobody is quite sure what his missions were. So I can make them up. And what a brilliant period of history it is to make up spy stories about. I’m in a long tradition of sales of derring-do about spies during the wars with France, from the Scarlet Pimpernel to O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin and Iain Gale’s James Keane.

Each Burke story is set around a different Napoleonic campaign. After the British invasion of Buenos Aires (Burke in the Land of Silver) we see him in Egypt’s during Napoleon’s invasion that country (Burke and the Bedouin) and in Paris and Brussels during Napoleon’s textile and returned to power (Burke at Waterloo). The latest story (though not told in chronological order) finds him fighting in the Peninsular War, specifically around the battle of Talavera.

The Burke of Bedouin and Waterloo is entirely fictional, but his adventures in the peninsula are based on another real-life spy, Sir John Waters. In all the books, whether Burke’s adventures are entirely fictional or based on fact, the military and social background is as accurate as I can make it. In fairness I can’t make it all that accurate, but I have gradually found a network of people who really understand the Napoleonic Wars and who have been generous enough to share their understanding with me.

I like James Burke as a hero because he is often far from heroic. Cynical, snobbish, and an inveterate womaniser with an eye for the main chance, it’s easy to dismiss him as an arrogant officer who relies on the solid good sense of his servant, William Brown, to achieve anything. But Brown will be the first to disagree with you, pointing out that when the chips are down Burke will, often reluctantly, always do the right thing. The fact that the right thing isn’t always what his military masters would want him to do, just makes it more interesting. When push comes to shove, he is not only physically but morally brave.

I have come to be quite fond of James Burke. His next adventure will see him in Ireland in 1793 where he is charged with infiltrating the Irish nationalist movement. Perhaps this early mission explains much of his cynicism, for it is his darkest and most morally dubious adventure in the series. But that’s to come. For now, we can relax and enjoy the fun as his schemes, fights, and romances his way through the chaos that is the Peninsular War.

Burke in the Peninsula will be published on 25 September. It is available on Amazon at £3.99 on Kindle and £6.99 in paperback.

You can read more by Tom Williams on his blog, His Facebook page is at and he tweets as @TomCW99.

And The White Rajah did eventually see publication and is worth your time. Here’s the link:


Tom Williams – ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’ #spies #Argentina

Tom Williams is the author of several historical novels, including The White Rajah’ which I really enjoyed. ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’ is a tale of spies and skulduggery in the Napoleonic Wars as Britain invades Argentina. You can read about Tom’s research for this novel on his blog.

HiResBurke&TheLandOfSilverJames Burke never set out to be a spy.

But with Napoleon rampaging through Europe, the War Office needs agents and Burke isn’t given a choice. It’s no business for a gentleman, and disguising himself as a Buenos Aires leather merchant is a new low.

His mission, though, means fighting alongside men who see the collapse of the old order giving them a chance to break free of Spanish colonial rule. He falls in love with the country – and with the beautiful Ana.

Burke wants both to forward British interests and to free Argentina from Spain. But his new found selflessness comes up against the realities of international politics. When the British invade, his attempts to parley between the rebels and their new rulers leave everybody suspicious of him. Despised by the British, imprisoned by the Spanish and with Ana leaving him for the rebel leader, it takes all Burke’s resolve and cunning to escape. Only after adventuring through the throne rooms and bedrooms of the Spanish court will he finally come back to Buenos Aires, to see Ana again and avenge himself on the man who betrayed him.

Tom lives in London and when not writing, enjoys skiing, skating, and dancing tango, preferably in Buenos Aires.

Read reviews on Goodreads

Tom’s Website and Blog



Riding with the gauchos – Burke in the Land of Silver

Gaucho 6

I’m delighted to welcome Tom Williams to my blog today, to tell us all about riding with the gauchos, and his new book.

Burke in the Land of Silver tells the story of the doomed British invasion of Argentina in 1806 and the role that may well have been played by real-life spy James Burke. There are beautiful women, evil villains, daring deeds and dastardly plots, but the whole thing is based around real events. Burke’s adventures on the pampa and in the Andes drew a lot on my own experience, as well as fascinating descriptions of life on a cattle ranch at the time by, of all people, Charles Darwin. His journey round the world wasn’t all giant tortoises and Galapagos finches!

Most of the action in Burke in the Land of Silver takes place in what is now Argentina. Our hero is spying for the British who are planning to drive the Spanish out of Buenos Aires. Burke discovers that the cattlemen out in the country (the pampa) have no love for their Spanish rulers and he tries to win them over to the British side. In the story, Burke spends some time with the gauchos, as the cattlemen are called. I particularly enjoyed writing this part as I have spent a short time riding with the gauchos of today, whose lives are, in many ways, remarkably unchanged. They are still magnificent horseman, often wearing their traditional dress as workaday garments.

Gaucho 2 Gaucho 3 Gaucho 5






The object above is something that shows the enormous skill of the gaucho on horseback.

The ring is supposed by some people to represent a wedding ring and it is said that Gaucho 4 gauchos used to play this game to win the hands of their sweethearts.

The clip fastens the ring to a rope stretched above the head of a man on horseback. The gaucho rides at the rope holding a cone shaped metal object in his hand which he has to pass through the ring whilst maintaining at least a fast trot. To win the game, you must carry away the ring without dropping it. What is amazing is how often the gauchos are successful. The photographs show how it is done.

The riders stand in the stirrups, well clear of the saddle, his horse moving so smoothly that the rider can catch up the ring as he passes beneath it.

In the third picture above, the young man has passed the ring without catching it. No congratulations from a beautiful Señora for him.

Riding these Argentinian horses was a strange experience for me. I’m not a particularly good horseman and I have only ridden on a European saddle, so first I had to get used to the Western saddle and the different way of using the reins on an Argentine horse. The biggest difference, though, came when I pushed with my heels. The horses at the ranch where I was riding are “cutting out horses” used for moving into a herd of cattle and cutting out the ones that are to be lassoed for whatever reason. The slightest pressure of the heel moves them into a full gallop immediately. When the gauchos aren’t playing the game with the ring, they enjoy racing each other over very short distances, where victory or defeat depends on just how quickly the horse can start its gallop. I’ve seen horses start by jumping into the air and landing immediately into a gallop with no walk or trot or canter.

You’d think that riding horses like this would be a terrifying experience, but I have never felt so safe on a horse of my life. Riding a full gallop across the pampa when some cattle crossed my path and my horse swerved to avoid them should have had me clinging on in terror, but instead I was able to stay comfortably in my seat, absolutely convinced that my mount would do nothing that might throw me off.

My time spent riding on this dude ranch and, later, in the rather more challenging conditions of the Andes above the snow line, was some of the best days of my life. Strangely, I have hardly been in the saddle since I got back to England: it just doesn’t feel the same.

Burke in the Land of Silver has just been republished by Endeavour Press, and is available from Amazon.

Catch Tom on his Blog