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:


Of Camels and Napoleon – Burke and The Bedouin

Burke BedouinMy guest today is Tom Williams

When Deborah suggested I write about an object associated with Burke and the Bedouin (published by Endeavour Press), I really struggled to think of one. The story does feature the odd camel (there’s a clue on the cover) but I felt that an olivewood carving dating from a trip to Israel in 1972 didn’t really count. What objects are there that have intimate associations with Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Egypt in 1798? It’s not as if I have any Middle-Eastern Napoleonic artefacts lying round the house.

I don’t, but the impressive Napoleon exhibition at Les Invalides in Paris has a few. When I visited, I think that one of the ones that impressed me most was Napoleon’s telescope.

Ironically, the telescope was made in Britain, but it is supposed to be the one that he used in the Battle of the Pyramids, which features prominently in my book. The Battle of the Pyramids did not actually take place at the pyramids, but they were visible from the site of the battle and “the Battle of the Pyramids” sounds a lot better than “the battle quite near the Nile where you could see the pyramids on the horizon”. There’s not that much interest in it in England, as no British forces were involved, but it was a conclusive affair, ending Mameluke rule in Egypt. When I visited the pyramids, I was able to look towards the Nile and imagine the vast Mameluke army riding across what is now a Cairo suburb, before being turned by the French and driven to their deaths in the river. In Paris I was amazed to look down on the telescope through which Napoleon would have surveyed the fighting. For good measure there is an Arab dagger in the same case, which was also owned by Napoleon. It’s obviously a presentation item, though, rather than a working item, so I feel the telescope brings you closer to the man. Napoleon (like most generals of the time) was a very ‘hands on’ leader and he would have watched the battle, staff officers riding to carry his orders to the units engaging the enemy. A good telescope was an essential tool of his trade.

Burke TelescopeAfter the Battle of the Pyramids, Napoleon was able to occupy Cairo, the remaining Mamelukes retreating south along the Nile. It’s quite possible that Napoleon plans to march his men overland into India. He even suggested that some sort of canal might be possible and engineers did some test diggings which were remarkably close to the modern site of the Suez Canal.

Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt could have been a strategic masterstroke for France, but the destruction of his fleet at the Battle of the Nile left the Army isolated. Nobody knows why the French left their Navy exposed and vulnerable against the Egyptian sure, but Burke and the Bedouin does suggest one possible solution. Although the book is fiction, the idea that Napoleon’s orders for his admiral may have been intercepted en route may well be true. Could it have been the work of a British spy? We will never know.

Burke and the Bedouin is a light-hearted (if occasionally violent) romp where Burke finds himself alone and pitted against the might of Napoleon’s invasion force. Not that he lets a little thing like saving Egypt’s from French domination get in the way of his attempts to free Spanish slave Bernadita from her cruel Turkish master. As in Burke in the Land of Silver, swashes are buckled and bodices ripped before Burke wins the day for Britain. While Burke’s adventures this time are entirely imaginary, the historical background is not. The details of Napoleon’s invasion, the Battle of the Pyramids and the destruction of the French fleet all draw heavily on contemporary accounts.

James Burke: making the history of the Napoleonic Wars painless (and even fun).

Read more about it from Tom in Historia

BUY the book