Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Good grief, did I last post on 16th November? Oh well. My excuse is that we've just exchanged contracts on our new house, which has been a bit of a distraction, and has rather put me off writing, blogging, responding to emails, and communicating with the rest of the human race generally.
In fact I thought it might be an opportune moment to say something about where I live, seeing that we won't be here much longer.
Unless you know London reasonably well you may not even have heard of Leytonstone. It's the kind of place people move away from. In fact no end of famous people seem to have been born here or passed through the place - King Harold II Godwinson and Alfred Hitchcock to name but two - but they didn't stay. (To the best of my knowledge the only celebrity we have now is Meera Syal, though I'm not absolutely sure she's still here). Still, I've been here 13 years, and all other things being equal would quite happily stay on. (Of course all other things aren't equal: we need a bigger house, better schools, and all the other things families apparently have to have to survive in the early 21st Century....) I'll be very sad to leave, and here are my 10 reasons why actually Leytonstone is a great place to live:
1. Fairly personal to me, I suppose, but if you write about an urban civilisation like Aztec Tenochtitlan, then you really have to live in a big city like London to get a feel for it.
2. We have better food. Indian, Bengali, Thai, Japanese, Nigerian, Caribbean, Chinese, you name it, it's all in walking distance, and most of them deliver... not to mention the Eel & Pie House!
3. You can get a bus, a tube or a train to anywhere, anytime. Where we're going they don't even run buses on a Sunday.
4. It's pretty safe. Of course there are gangs - they carve out territories according to postcodes, apparently, which is why you sometimes see "E11" or "E15" spray painted on walls. But they keep themselves to themselves and I don't know of anyone getting caught in the crossfire. I've been to small market towns in the shire counties and seen people openly dealing in drugs, but never run into it here.
5. It's a melting pot. Every wave of immigrants seems to hit Leyton and Leytonstone first, and they all seem to find a place easily enough. It can be unnerving, I suppose, but I find it exhilerating, not to mention enlightening. For instance I have talked to people who make their living dealing with "diversity" issues who have no idea that there is a significant number of South Africans working here now. Shows how much they know, when every shopkeeper in this part of London sells Boerwurst, Biltong and Bunny Chow!
We're going is pretty much stereotypical home counties suburbia. Boring. I'm already looking forward to the day when we can sell up and come back...

Friday, 16 November 2007

The Best Evidence

Research is a perennial topic whenever people talk about historical fiction (in fact it's easy to form the impression that it's the only topic, although it shouldn't be). I came across something today which prompted me to write this post, which is about the importance of thinking carefully about your sources.
Most of us take it for granted that primary source material is better than anything else and that secondary sources are unreliable. The way it was once put to me was: "Always go to your primary sources, because secondary sources are always wrong!"
Well, mostly...
I've been researching a new series to be set around the exploits of Robert Clive - "Clive of India". It's a fascinating but difficult business trying to switch from one period to another, but that's another story, or at least another post. Now, I knew there were slightly differing accounts of his escape from the French occupation of Madras (now named Chennai), but what I found today threw me completely.
I should explain that when the French seized the town in 1746 their commander, La Bourdonnais, negotiated very generous surrender terms with the settlement's Governor, in the course of which the British personnel gave their parole (ie, they promised not to escape or fight the French until they were exchanged for an equivalent number of French prisoners of war). La Bourdonnais however hadn't got the agreement of the French Governor-General in India, M. Dupleix, and the moment he took over the town he cancelled these terms and imposed much harsher ones of his own.
Now, all the accounts I've read so far agree that Clive, along with one or more of his colleagues, slipped out of Madras in November, after Dupleix's takeover, as they considered his actions made their paroles void. The main source for this seems to be a letter written many years later by Clive's widow (who of course wasn't in India and didn't even know Clive at the time). What I found today however was a letter by Clive himself, also written some years after the event, in which he says he made his escape at the beginning of October, when La Bouronnais was still in charge. A very small point but potentially important for my story.
Now, on the face of it, Clive's account ought to be pretty conclusive. After all, can you have better evidence for a person's movements than his own account of them? So once again the secondary sources must have got it wrong... Except for two things.
The first is that Clive is a notoriously unreliable witness. He wasn't given to telling outright lies, although he often exaggerated a bit, but there are instances where his memory for details simply let him down, and caused him to make mistakes even when the truth would have been more favourable to him (for example when giving evidence to Burgoyne's Select Committee in the 1770s).
The second is that it doesn't make sense. True, at least one officer, Ensign De Morgan, did escape from Madras before Dupleix took over - but that was in the chaos immediately following the French attack, and he had never surrendered in the first place. As Clive clearly didn't go then, he had no reason to do so later until the arrival of Dupleix's men at the very end of October, and every reason (under the laws of war as they were understood in those days) to stay put.
This is one case, therefore, where I think the primary source is actually wrong. It shows that all historical material has to be read very carefully, no matter where it comes from!

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Reviews and Reviewers

The first review of my fourth book, "Tribute of Death", has been posted on the Website Here is the link:
And it is a very good review!
Does it matter, though?
Most of my reviews have been good, and I usually cull them for quotes that I can put on my website - as much so that I can find them all in one place as because I think people will read them all and be inspired to rush straight to Amazon and order my books. Of course I have had the odd bad one - maybe two or three in the course of five years, out of (I'm guessing) 30 or so altogether. Curiously, I find that I don't usually mind the bad ones so much. No book is perfect, and while I'm sure I'm as prone to self-deception as anyone, I do try to learn from criticism. Where the reviewer has a point I'm usually happy to acknowledge it. Even where I simply don't agree with him or her I can accept that not everyone likes anything, if I think the reviewer has been honest.
On the other hand, what do you do with those rare reviewers who are not honest - who either plainly haven't read the book, or have willfully misunderstood it, perhaps because they're running some agenda of their own?
I've only ever had one review like that. I won't say which book it was about, who the reviewer was, what he or she said or where the review appeared - only that it seemed to me to be a clear case of someone who had a preconceived idea of what my book was supposed to be about and hadn't allowed what was actually between the covers to influence the review at all!
So to repeat the question - what do you do then?
Then - and this is the only circumstance when I'd do this - you go through the review very carefully until you find the one comment in it that looks complimentary (if you take it out of context!) and you copy it on your website. Ha! Revenge!
Now I invite you too look at the Reviews page on my website and see if you can guess which one it was...

Thursday, 1 November 2007

What I'm reading

A very short post today. A week or so ago Marshall Zeringue kindly asked me what I was reading for his blog "Writers Read", so based on what was on my desk and my bedside table (yes! I have bad readings habits!) at the time, this is what I came up with:
All part of the Campaign for the American Reader, which has to be a good cause!

Wednesday, 31 October 2007


First of all thank you for your patience - our technical difficulties now seem at last to have been resolved and my internet connection is once more fully functioning.
Some years ago now - round about the time I published my first book, in fact - I came across Mexicolore, a small teaching team dedicated to providing a range of educational resources on Mexico and the Aztecs in particular - including a remarkable and growing website and presentations to schools. Ian Mursll and Graciela Sánchez have been doing this work since 1980, and having exchanged emails over the years, I had the great pleasure of meeting them for the first time yesterday.
It's a rare thing to be able to spend an evening chatting with two extremely nice people whose sympathy for and understanding of the Aztecs is so apparent. My books are aimed at entertaining rather than educating, of course, and are pitched at a different audience, but in a sense we are in the same business - trying to set the record straight about an extraordinary people by dispelling some of the myths about them and persuading others to see them as they saw themselves, rather than according to modern prejudices. I think Ian and Graciela would agree that the important thing is to understand that the Aztecs, like all peoples, were first and foremost human beings, with the needs and instincts we all share. The cultural differences between us are fascinating, but shouldn't blind us to what we all have in common.
I can't recommend their Aztec website too highly - you'll find it at

Thursday, 25 October 2007


I nearly gave in to the temptation to post another rant today - this time about the news that Wiltshire County Council are ploughing their ex-library books into landfills rather than recycling them (ie giving them away to people who might actually want to read them). But I won't. Anyway everybody knows that libraries in Britain no longer have much to do with books, they just take up space that might be used for DVDs or Internet terminals.
What I really wanted to tell you about was the interview with me on another blog at Jeri has kindly given me the opportunity to answer a wide ranging and penetrating list of questions on topics ranging from what made me write about the Aztecs to what actor I'd get to play Yaotl (!) For the answers go straight to Jeri's site - and if this is egotistical of me, well, I figure if you're reading my site or my blog anyway, why not?

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Celebrity authors

I'm still in technological limbo, alas, and so only intermittently in touch with the outside world. Hopefully this state of affairs will be put right soon. In the meantime, however, I couldn't restrain myself from this short rant. What's the point of having a blog if you can't rant occasionally?
The news item that caught my eye was the story about Wayne Rooney's fiancee being offered a five-book publishing deal. Which means she joins the ranks of such literary lion(esse)s as Jordan (or whatever her real name is) - those celebrities who don't even pretend to have written (or, I suspect, even read) the books that appear under their names.
Oh, you're just jealous, will be the response. Well, actually, no: after all, if someone offered me a contract to ghost-write a novel for a celebrity I don't suppose I'd turn it down - I bet it pays well enough. And footballers' WAGs seem to make money enough that the odd publishing deal is probably small beer to them anyway. No, that's not what I'm ranting about.
What gets me about this is that for years publishers have been trying to justify their existence by claiming that they in some way mediate between the writer and the reader: the reader expects that a commercially published book has been chosen and edited so that it is guaranteed to be of a certain quality. I have heard publishers say this, more than once. But what are we to make of this? Here are books, commecially published, that are offered to the public on the strength of nothing more than an endorsement by someone who - how can I put this politely - isn't exactly renowned for her taste in reading (apparently Rooney was once asked what his fiancee had on her bedside table, and his reply was "the radio"). Why should readers continue to trust publishers when they're prepared to stoop this low?
I'm beginning to wonder now whether self-publishing my fourth book was such a bad move after all. Either people will wake up to what publishers are trying to do them, and will start looking for other ways to select their reading, or else they have totally lost any vestige of judgement and don't care what they read. Either way conventional publishing is doomed and we might as well all start scouring the catalogues of print-on-demand publishers for real books by real writers...

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Technology - update - and the Competition

Well, I'm back online after a fashion - via a dial-up connection, of all things. What will they think of next - stone circles?
Now, if you're reading this the chances are you got to it through my website, That being so you may have noticed that I've been running a competition to win my latest book, "Tribute of Death". As my internet connection issue means I can't update the main site, and this is the only page I can update, this is where I announce that the competition has been won by a lady in Armenia, to whom I will post a copy of the book as soon as possible. Congratulations!
The competition is now closed, but there may be others in the near future.


No, I haven't gone away, or given up!
Unfortunately my internet connection is down and likely to remain so for a few days while my ISP and my 'phone company between them work out who is responsible for fixing it... So there won't be any posts for a little while but normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

Monday, 15 October 2007

I haven't posted for a couple of days because I assume you don't want to know what I did at the weekend. (If you do want to read about me cutting the grass or taking my son to his karate lesson, then please comment and let me know!)
Back to work today though. I've been toying for a while now with a couple of writing projects - one a straight adventure story about Robert Clive [of India], of which more anon I expect, and one a thriller set during the Winter of 1963, when Britain experimented with being Siberia for a while. (I like the idea of putting a bunch of ordinary characters in a drastically transformed landscape and then seeing how they cope when something really bad happens). I decided to have a go at writing some of the latter, and straightaway, I found I'd hit a snag.
My wife once said I couldn't write a book with a contemporary setting because I don't know anything about contemporary life. Well, there's an element of truth in that (comes of not having a television, I suppose) but I thought I could cope with the recent past easily enough. But it's damned complicated, I've found.
The Aztecs are easy. There isn't so much material available that you can't grasp most of it pretty confidently, at least for the purposes of writing fiction, and there are plenty of gaps that a novelist can fill in using his imagination (so long as you own up to it afterwards, as I did in "City of Spies"). And you can create the illusion of a detailed background with real depth just by dropping the few known facts in in their appropriate contexts. After all, you're not writing a textbook.
With the recent past, of course, the known facts are legion. There are whole websites devoted to telling you, day to day, what the weather was doing. There are all the details of daily life. Here's an example: one thing that will happen to my characters is that the power goes off, and stays off throughout the story. Some of the characters are children. OK, I can write about a power cut from my recollections of the miners' strikes and the three day week (British readers of a certain age will remember this!) It meant candles and no telly. I found myself looking for old TV schedules simply to find out what my younger characters would complain about having to miss, and then found myself wondering whether it matter so much to a child of 1963 as it did to us in 1973.... Knowing that I probably won't even use the information when I've found it!
Of course it's fun, but at this rate, it could take forever to write a chapter. Maybe I'll do India after all!

Friday, 12 October 2007

Bits and pieces today. Actually I spent the morning on displacement activities, which is a posh term for mucking about when I should have been getting on with some real work. As a change from staring out of the window I went to IKEA to buy my wife a stuffed elephant because, well, we're that kind of people.
Did a bit more marketing and a little work on the plot of an adventure story I've been mulling over for a while.
In response to a self-deprecating message I sent out about my fourth book yesterday somebody was kind enough to remind me of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." Very appropriate! The first three lines of this long poem read:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself
And whatever I assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you

So there!

Thursday, 11 October 2007

A difficult day. I've devoted most of it to a job I've been putting off, namely sending off emails to (almost) everyone I can think of in an effort to interest them in my new book. If you haven't received one don't breathe a sigh of relief - I haven't done them all yet!
Self-publishing unfortunately means self-promotion; nobody else is going to help publicise my book (not that my publishers were especially active over publicising its three predecessors, either). I say "unfortunately" not because I'm averse to blowing my own trumpet - I'm quite egotistical enough to bask in the limelight as long I can! - but because I've learned over the years that I'm just not very good at it. I'm too self-conscious: the secret to not boring people is to project total confidence in yourself and what you're doing, and I've never been able to do that. It's a very common failing among writers, of course - it's one of the reasons we become writers in the first place, because in many cases we're not so good at talking to people. So I probably won't be trying to give any talks or readings or sit on any panels, but I shall go on sending out emails until my fingers fall off.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Short stories

Spent today rewriting a short story. Like the others, it has an Aztec theme - one that's almost topical, as it's about the ritual that I suspect may have evolved (very much changed) into the modern custom of Trick or Treat. But more of that later, maybe in a couple of weeks when it is topical.
Short stories are funny things. At one time writers could, allegedly, make quite a comfortable living out of them, but those days are long past. Now the market is so small - a few highly specialised genre magazines and literary competitions and that's about it, really - that everybody concentrates on novels. In my case I tried writing short stories long ago, but gave up when I sold my first book, and had pretty much come to the conclusion that I was strictly a long-distance runner. But I was asked for something for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine a few years ago and, rather to my surprise, found that I could do it. I've now sold four of them, and had one picked for an anthology. Hopefully this one will appear in print somewhere too.
The real surprise, though, is how much I enjoy writing them. Short stories are hard work. You can cock up a page or two of a novel, or a chapter even, and as long as it's not right at the beginning, nobody really notices if the rest's good enough. A single bad sentence in a 5000 word story is fatal. And of course you have to do all the work of plotting and character creation and everything else every 5000 words and not every 100 000 or so. More to the point, readers have to make more effort, and pay closer attention, for the same reasons.
But, as with anything else that involves a lot of effort, when it works, it's enormously rewarding.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Reluctant blogger

Well, I'm a reluctant blogger.... but here I am. "More people write 'em than read 'em", has always been my mantra. On the other hand people keep telling me a blog is a good thing for a writer to have. So for what it's worth, here are my vacuous ramblings for the day.
I feel I ought to start with something about the life of an intermittently successful novelist, or some learned stuff about mesoamerica (where my novels and stories have been set, so far) but I'm afraid I've been spending most of today fighting with computers, or things that plug into them. Not much I could say about that except that after I had spend hours tweaking software settings and waiting for someone in our ISP's call centre to come to the 'phone, my wife appeared and suggested we pull the router's power lead out of the wall and put it back in again, which needless to say worked instantly.
I did do some updating on my website, though - so you can now go straight there (if you aren't there already) and find the sample chapters and other goodies - and if that is blatant self-promotion, well, what other kind is there?
I shall do some real work tomorrow and rewrite my short story.