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:


The String’s the Thing – Manet and fashion by Drema Drudge #art #historicalfiction

DremaI’m delighted to welcome Drema Drudge to my blog today to talk about Manet’s models and their clothing, which feature in her new novel ‘Victorine.’

The String’s the Thing

In Victorine, my historical novel coming out in the next few months, I write about the black choker Edouard Manet paints Victorine wearing. I imagine it as his bootlace, called into service on the spot, although some versions of the neckwear in his paintings of her appear to be thicker, perhaps the width of a velvet ribbon. A painter can easily widen a necklace with his brush, of course. If you notice the ten or so paintings he did of her, in nearly every one, whether the object is thick or thin, she’s wearing something black around her neck.

Victorine has mixed feelings about the string in my novel. On the one hand, she grows accustomed to it, and associates it with his paintings of her. But on the other, she despises being told what to wear. However, when the two come back together for a painting after a gap in time, as Manet puts the shoelace about her neck, she fills with emotion at the time they used to spend together, and how things are different now, even though he is painting her again.

“You need a necklace,” he says, and he motions for me to turn, ties something about my throat. When I put my hands up, I immediately recognize the shoelace I had thought lost. I cannot think how he got it. “This is yours,” he says. It’s the very same one. I confirm this by feeling the knots. I pat the string affectionately and my eyes fill. “Turn your head,” he requests. I pretend he is not using my tears to add a glaze to my painted eyes.

Victorine 61cBqCpuQVLLater in my novel, I give Victorine adoring fans who purchase and sport chokers with her as Olympia in lockets, based on what I discovered during my research – apparently these items did become all the rage after the controversial painting was displayed in the Paris Salon, the prestigious yearly art show. It hardly offsets the cruelty she experiences in the streets after the “scandalous” nude painting was exhibited. Though Manet was castigated for his painting, the woman presumed to actually be a prostitute (she was not) was doubtless treated much worse.

I walk briskly along the cobblestones, finally on my way to dine with Willie, stopping at an outdoor faucet to rinse my hands, raising my hem as if I were a lady, though it doesn’t need raising. I smirk and wave triumphantly at the young women who lift their black shoelace necklaces for me to examine. I stick out a foot and show off Manet’s boots laced with thick black laces. It’s too bad that fame (well, perhaps it’s more notoriety, in my case) does not necessarily bring money.

But Victorine is not the only one of Manet’s models to wear chokers. Berthe Morisot, the artist who eventually married Manet’s brother, is given a similar necklace in at least one of his paintings of her. (Morisot and the already married Edouard Manet are rumored to have been in love with one another, but somehow she ended marrying Manet’s brother, Eugène.) Other women in Manet’s paintings also received black bands of fabric about their necks.

portrait-of-victorine-meurend-edouard-manetThis paragraph shows how Victorine is viewed, as both heroine to some and something much worse to others:

A girl of about twelve stands before me and smiles, fingering her shoelace necklace from which dangles a heart-shaped charm. “You’re Olympia,” she says. “No, I’m not.” I smile back at her and I wonder who is making all of this marvelous profit from the shoelace necklaces that abound now. Her mother quickly attempts to rush her away. “But you are. I remember your hair color.” The girl rocks forward and backwards and holds her hands to her mouth. “I posed for Olympia, but I am not Olympia,” I say. “Please, we really must go,” the mother, whose expensive clothing and neat shoes declare her respectable, says. While it was quite all right for the girl to see the painting of me and to wear a necklace like I wear in the painting, to fraternize with me is obviously forbidden.

While I wouldn’t dismiss out of hand someone psychoanalyzing the painter and his predilection for encircling his model’s necks with black, making something almost sinister of it, I prefer to chalk it up to his considerable respect and regard for fashion. Few paint fabric and fashion of the day the way he did, so clearly he paid attention to what women wore. In some of his paintings he had his models wear out-of-date clothing, but it was, no doubt, to make a statement. Though it’s his last major work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Manet still has the bar keep wearing a ribbon with a charm dangling from it. One wonders if he thought of Victorine when he put it around the woman’s neck.

Near the end of the novel, Victorine is permitted to display her self-portrait at the Salon, a feat she has longed for. Now she gets to examine how she sees herself, rather than how other artists have painted her, and she certainly does not wear what has begun, it seems, to feel like a noose of sorts:

The lift of this maturing woman’s neck is proud, and she looks, as always, frankly at the viewer, a stance that is not so unusual now, but certainly echoes Manet’s painting. Lines of loss show in her face. Most decidedly she does not wear a black shoelace at her neck.

No shoelace, no noose now, but also no real relationship with Manet, whose health is failing. She is freed from the black ribbon, but she has also lost something in the bargain. It doesn’t, however, outweigh who she has gained: herself.

About the Book:

In 1863 Civil War is raging in the United States Victorine Meurent is posing nude, in Paris, for paintings that will be heralded as the beginning of modern art: Manet’s Olympia and Picnic on the Grass. However, Victorine’s persistent desire is not to be a model but to be a painter herself. In order to live authentically, she finds the strength to flout the expectations of her parents, bourgeois society, and the dominant male artists (whom she knows personally) while never losing her capacity for affection, kindness, and loyalty. Possessing both the incisive mind of a critic and the intuitive and unconventional impulses of an artist, Victorine and her survival instincts are tested in 1870, when the Prussian army lays siege to Paris and rat becomes a culinary delicacy. Drema Drudge’s powerful first novel Victorine not only gives this determined and gifted artist back to us but also recreates an era of important transition into the modern world.


Drema 2

Find Drema online:





Huge thanks to Drema for this fascinating post. I remember chokers being fashionable when I was a teenager, and found Victorine’s ambivalent attitude towards being made to wear them very interesting.


Lies Told in Silence by MK Tod – Historical Highlight



Just occasionally, I’ll highlight a new release that deserves wider attention. This week it is Lies Told in Silence by M K  Tod.

About the Book

In 1914 Paris half the city expects war while the other half scoffs at the possibility. With knowledge gained from his role at the War Department, Henri Noisette fears that Germany may soon attack Paris. He therefore sends his wife, mother and two younger children to Beaufort, a small village in northern France. By late 1914, instead of a safe haven, Beaufort is less than twenty miles from the front. As war unfolds, Henri’s daughter, Helene, grows up quickly and in 1917 falls in love with Edward Jamieson, a young Canadian soldier. The novel examines love and loss, duty and sacrifice and the unexpected consequence of lies.

About the Author

M.K. Tod has enjoyed a passion for historical novels that began in her early teenage years immersed in the stories of Rosemary Sutcliff, Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer. During her twenties, armed with Mathematics and Computer Science degrees, she embarked on a career in technology and consulting continuing to read historical fiction in the tiny snippets of time available to working women with children to raise.

In 2004, she moved to Hong Kong with her husband and no job. To keep busy Mary decided to research her grandfather’s part in the Great War. What began as an effort to understand her grandparents’ lives blossomed into a full time occupation as a writer. Her debut novel is UNRAVELLED: Two wars, Two affairs. One Marriage. LIES TOLD IN SILENCE, her second novel, is set in WWI France and tells the story of Helene Noisette who featured in Unravelled. Mary has an active blog – – which discusses all aspects of historical fiction and includes author and reader interviews. Additionally, she is a book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society. Mary lives in Toronto where she is happily married with two adult children.

Connect with M.K. Tod on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.


‘Dramatically depicts the horror and heartbreak of war, while also celebrating the resilience of the human spirit.’ – SHARON KAY PENMAN author of A King’s Ransom

‘An intricate, well-researched novel of life forever changed by WWI yet still sweet with the tender innocence of the age.’ – DONNA RUSSO MORIN author of The King’s Agent

‘M.K. Tod is a powerful new voice in the historical fiction genre.’ – AMY BRUNO Historical fiction blogger at Passages to the Past

‘An absorbing and rewarding historical read .. depicting the ruinous impact of war on human lives across the generations.’ – MARGARET EVANS PORTER author of The Proposal

‘A compelling read right up to its taut page-turning ending.’ – RICHARD LEE founder of the Historical Novel Society

Amazon US
Amazon UK

In the Blogosphere:

Monday, July 28

Review at Unshelfish
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Book Blast at Our Wolves Den

Tuesday, July 29
Review at Just One More Chapter
Book Blast at Book Babe
Book Blast at A Book Geek
Book Blast at Mel’s Shelves

Wednesday, July 30
Review at Bookish
Guest Post at Just One More Chapter
Book Blast at Passages to the Past

Thursday, July 31
Book Blast at Royalty Free Fiction

Friday, August 1
Book Blast at Back Porchervations
Book Blast at So Many Books, So Little Time

Saturday, August 2
Book Blast at Mythical Books

Monday, August 4
Review & Guest Post at A Bookish Affair
Book Blast at Historical Tapestry

Tuesday, August 5
Book Blast at Layered Pages
Book Blast at Princess of Eboli
Book Blast at What Is That Book About

Wednesday, August 6
Book Blast at Literary Chanteuse
Book Blast at Caroline Wilson Writes

Thursday, August 7
Review at The Book Binder’s Daughter
Book Blast at Kinx’s Book Nook

Friday, August 8
Book Blast at The Maiden’s Court

Monday, August 11
Review at Dianne Ascroft Blog
Book Blast at Svetlana’s Reads and Views

Tuesday, August 12
Book Blast at Book Nerd
Book Blast at The Bookworm

Wednesday, August 13
Review at The Writing Desk

Thursday, August 14
Book Blast at Words and Peace
Book Blast at CelticLady’s Reviews

Friday, August 15
Review at Lost in Books
Book Blast at The Mad Reviewer

Sunday, August 17
Book Blast at Brooke Blogs

Monday, August 18
Review at The Librarian Fatale
Review at Historical Fiction Notebook


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