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!