Today, please welcome another Accent Press author to my gaff. Tomorrow is the official launch of Back Home and I’ll be there in person to toast Tom’s latest offering. In the meantime, let’s raise a virtual glass here. Cheers, Tom. Over to you.
Back Home is the sixth historical novel that I’ve written but it differs from the other five in that it is not tied to a specific historical event. My son insists that I like writing historical novels because I lack imagination. It’s true that if somebody asks me where I get my ideas from, the answer is, “History books.” Indeed, part of the fun of plotting my previous novels has been making sure that my characters are in the right place, at the right time, to fit the historical record. My fictional creations meet and talk with real people, often using the words that those real people actually did use in their diaries and letters. It can be challenging, but it’s a lot of fun, and it does mean that I seldom have to ask myself, “What happens next?”
Back Home is different. My narrator, John Williamson, has returned to England after his adventures with the real James Brooke (The White Rajah) and having survived the all-too-real horrors of the Indian Mutiny (Cawnpore). Back in his native land, though, there are no great events for him to be caught up in, so I had a blank page on which to write whatever story I wanted.
In fact, I didn’t really have an entirely blank page. Cawnpore had ended with John Williamson landing in Devon and in The White Rajah I had suggested that he died in Devon, so the story has to begin and end there. But, reading history books in search of plot material, I had been caught up by tales of the Victorian underworld and these seemed to centre on London. Certainly London’s underworld is the best documented, largely because of Mayhew’s astonishing work on London Labour and the London Poor. John, I decided, would travel to London for one last adventure before retiring to live out his years peacefully in Devon. And that adventure would involve the criminal gangs of London and, in particular, Seven Dials, an area that had fascinated me for years. (I’ve written about Seven Dials and why I wanted to set the story there on Lynne Shelby’s blog)
Within that loose geographical outline, I could write whatever I wanted. I thought it was important, though, that the story reflected the tone of the previous John Williamson stories and was historically accurate. Although the events are completely fictional, the historical framework within which they take place is quite detailed – arguably more so than in the previous stories. The London that John explores is the London of Bradshaw’s 1862 Hand Book. The streets are the streets of the Post Office Directory map of London from 1857 and the people he encounters are Mayhew’s characters. The background of worries about possible invasion by the French and concern about communist revolutionaries is real. (Karl Marx features, and his character – and some of his words – are true to life.) I learned how to forge a sovereign (I really could, I think) and where to pick up a prostitute. I found the cost of a light lunch and what exhibits were popular in the British Museum. And, once I’d done all this, I let rip with a story about villains and secret policemen and government plots that is entirely fantasy.
In the end, the difference was less than I might have expected. History sets limits on what you can have your characters achieve, even when they are very much on the margins of great events. It turns out that Dr Who is right. History is governed by wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey rules. The attempted revolt of the people of Seven Dials is doomed: they will vanish from history. Enemies of the state will quietly die, possibly in not-quite-explained circumstances. Social misfits will conform or perish or, just possibly, escape back to Devon and a sort of peace. In art, as in life, history will move on remorselessly. We have less control of our characters, and our lives, than we like to think.
In 1859, John Williamson returns from India, broken by his experiences in the Mutiny. England has become a country he hardly recognises. Industrialisation at home and military expansion abroad have made Britain into a dynamic political and economic power that dominates the world. Yet, in London, he finds the same divide between the poor and the rich that he saw in the Far East. Once again, is caught between the machinations of the powerful and the resistance of the powerless. But now that he is back home, can he escape the cycle of violence that has dogged his life?
Tom Williams used to write about boring things for money. If you wanted an analysis of complaints volumes in legal services or attitudes to diversity at the BBC, then he was your man. Now he writes much more interesting books about historical characters and earns in a year about what he could make in a day back then. (This, unfortunately, is absolutely true.) He also writes a blog (http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.uk/) which is widely read all over the world and generates no income at all.
Besides making no money from writing, Tom makes no money out of occasionally teaching people to tango and then spends all the money he hasn’t made on going to dance in Argentina.
Tom has a wife who, fortunately, has a well-paid job, and a grown-up son who has resolved that he is never, ever, going to write anything.
Thanks for stopping by, Tom. Good luck with the rest of the tour and the book itself. May it fly off the virtual shelves.