Tom Williams is a former business/technical writer. He is the author of a series of novels set during the Napoleonic era – His Majesty’s Confidential Agent – following the adventures of James Burke, a government… you guessed it… spy. Burke at Waterloo should be out by the end of May. His most recent release is Cawnpore, which picks up the story from Tom’s first novel, The White Rajah. It is set in India 40 years after the battle of Waterloo. Tom writes a regular blog at http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.uk/
What attracted you to historical fiction? And what relevance does it have for modern readers?
My first book was The White Rajah. It was based on the life of James Brooke. I was just fascinated by the character and had wanted to write about him for a long time. The first attempt I made at this (not at all like book that eventually saw publication) got some interest from an agent who advised me to stick to historical fiction, so I did.
History tells us an enormous amount about where we are today. People are always asking why decent human beings can do terrible, terrible things. If you discuss, say, the Iraq war, it’s difficult to look at the behaviour of anyone involved without being side-tracked by your opinion of the politics. With James Brooke I can present somebody who, in my view, set out with good intentions and yet ended up involved in a terrible massacre. Of course, because it’s fiction I don’t have to get too involved with revisionist historians who have a more negative view of what he was like to start off with. (He’ll always be a hero to me.)
I visited China many years ago and realised that if anybody wanted to attack a particular political view, they would find a historical parallel and attack characters in that. History there was all about the present, not the past. I’ve begun to realise it’s much the same in the UK
What should readers expect from your stories?
The two series of books are very different. The White Rajah and Cawnpore are both set in the mid-19th century and are quite serious books about colonialism. (There’s the odd war and some evil plots to keep it interesting.) Nowadays we generally see colonialism as a bad thing, but some of the people involved did have good motives. It did a lot of damage, though, both to the people being colonised and to those doing the colonising. The books try and look at that. The books about James Burke are much more traditional spy thrillers, but set 200 years ago. There are evil villains and beautiful women and duels and battles and lots of fun. I was surprised by how violent they ended up but they were violent times. I rather liked the review on Amazon that said, “In spite of the violence the book has a light air to it.”
Your Burke novels focus on a time frame that has recently come back into vogue, with the remake of the television series Poldark from Winston Graham’s classic sagas and Jimmy McGovern’s Banished. Burke in the Land of Silver follows the adventures of a real man, one I’d never heard of before. How did you happen upon his story?
The sad truth about trying to write seriously is that you can’t always wait for things to come to you – sometimes you have to go to them. A friend who knew I was looking for a subject for a historical novel suggested that I look for Europeans living in Argentina while the country was very young. I kept reading until I came across a reference to James Burke and I thought that a spy would fit what I needed. I had a lot of trouble finding out anything at all about him that wasn’t written in Spanish – and my Spanish certainly wasn’t up to reading that. Eventually the British Library found one paper about him in a rather obscure journal and I went from there.
What are your predictions, if any, for trends in historical fiction? The Tudors seem to have an enduring appeal (to a non-expert) and of course at present there are many novels set during and after the Great War.
I have no idea at all. A lot of this seems to be down to fashion and TV adaptations. With the 200th anniversary of Waterloo coming up in June, I’m hoping that there’ll be a surge of interest in the Napoleonic wars. Not entirely coincidentally, the next Burke book, Burke at Waterloo, will be coming out in a couple of months.
Writing about real characters presents specific challenges – I imagine, never having done so myself! Presumably you aim to remain true to the facts to a degree but fiction often requires a drama or tension that is lacking in real life. How much did you play with the facts when creating the character and story?
It depends. I may not always succeed, but I make a lot of effort to try to get the history correct. So the major events in all my stories really happened. I do compress things a bit – much as in TV dramas. So if there’s a trial, the results appear almost immediately, not ages later after the judge has written up his notes. In one case, I cut out a whole invasion, because one was fun but two were boring. But I do make stuff up: they’re novels, not biographies. With James Burke, his adventures in South America are close to the facts, but I have no evidence he was ever in Egypt or at Waterloo. But he might have been, and if he had been there, what he would have seen is what I describe.
As in many novels of war, you thread a love story throughout. As the lover of a rebel leader and a feisty woman (for the times) Ana O’Gorman is an interesting character, and like many others I tend to root for the underdog. Is Ana a genuine historical character too?
She existed. (Spoiler alert.) She was married to O’Gorman and she does seem to have become the viceroy’s mistress and she did have an affair with Burke. At the end of the book, they sail off into the sunset together, but, in fact, the relationship broke up soon afterwards. I have absolutely no idea if her character is as described, but it seems entirely credible.
The settings of Burke are exotic and well depicted – it’s a strength of the book. I know that you have visited and are fond of Argentina, but what of Brazil? Or India for The White Rajah and Cawnpore?
‘Fond of’ Argentina doesn’t quite cut it. I love the place and have visited far too often. I’ve never been to Brazil, though. The White Rajah is actually set in Borneo and, yes, I have been there. I’ve never been to India, which did worry me. In fairness, it’s probably changed a lot since 1857 and I spent a lot of time reading travel books written by visitors during that period.
I wanted to visit Egypt for Burke and the Bedouin, but it would only have made sense if I could have wandered round the back streets of Alexandria and Cairo and the political situation made that completely impossible. In the end, I paid a very brief touristy visit to Cairo after I’d written the book. I have spent time in the Middle East, though, and this did help me with a feel for the climate and some of the details of life there.
Burke at Waterloo is set partly in Paris, which has given me a keener appreciation of some aspects of the city, and partly in Belgium. My father-in-law used to live in Brussels, so it is a city I know quite well. I’m afraid some of the rude things that Burke says about it reflect rather too many visits over there. I’m sure if he’d have enjoyed the meals at my father-in-law’s, he would have forgiven the place a lot, though.
I’m aware that you are currently researching for another novel, this one is set in early Victorian Britain (a fascinating era, I find). How do you approach research? And how do you know when to stop? And do you read others’ novels set in the period, like Sarah Waters for Victorian England for example?
I was terribly flattered when somebody compared my writings to Sarah Waters, so she’s definitely on my reading list, although I haven’t got round to her yet. I will. I do enjoy reading other people writing about my periods, but in the case of the Victorians there are so many good books written by Victorians themselves. Whatever you think of Dickens, he does give some lovely descriptions of London at the time. I spend a lot of time reading books written in the 19th century, both fiction and non-fiction. It all helps get you into the period.
I usually start with an idea that comes from my general reading around the period and then get hold of one or two books that are specifically about whatever is the core of my story. I supplement this by reading as much as I can by people writing at the time. You never stop researching. As I said, I visited Egypt after Burke and the Bedouin came out and I am wondering about going over to Waterloo for the anniversary celebrations, although Burke at Waterloo will have been published by then.
Let’s get personal …
Describe yourself in seven words.
I try to write about complex and conflicted characters (yes, even the fun ones) and I couldn’t describe them in seven words. I hope I’m deeper than my characters. (Oooh, that is seven words.)
What inspires you?
Your favourite authors?
I read anything and anyone. Someone accused Burke of being “a pale imitation of the wonderful Flashman books”. That’s not entirely fair, because the Burke books aren’t intended as comic, but I could never aspire to MacDonald Fraser’s brilliance. Just being mentioned in the same sentence as him makes me feel good.
Your favourite place to hang out online?
Like, I’m guessing, most authors, I hate Facebook, but I spend far, far too long on it.
There’s a writing site called ‘Absolute Write’ that was hugely helpful to me. People would mercilessly shred anything you wrote which was harsh, but you don’t half get better. They’re still amazingly helpful if you ask for weird information, like what colour you dressed little girls in in 1807. And, yes, if you post an excerpt from your Napoleonic/mid-19th century historical there, I’ll be happy to shred you in your turn.
Top Tip for aspiring writers of historical fiction?
Research; write; re-write; edit; check. Rinse and repeat until you lose the will to live.
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Tom and best of luck with the new book. Readers, do take a look at Tom’s pages and buy a copy, or two, of his books.
There are four book sites, which is probably overkill. My Amazon author page is at http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B001KDZDOY. My Facebook author page is https://www.facebook.com/AuthorTomWilliams. My blog (give it a go, it’s got interesting stuff in) is http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.uk/
If you’d like to read my short review of Tom’s book, Burke in the Land of Silver, click here.