How not to hold a book launch

Or in other words, how whatever can go wrong inevitably does go wrong.

My first two books in the Guinevere series, The Dragon Ring and The Bear’s Heart, came out in winter, so the weather was bad, and covid was still about and if I’d done an in-person book launch back then we couldn’t have had the doors and windows open. So, when I found out my third book, The Sword, was coming out on May 31st, I rashly decided I could do a proper launch. Haha – silly me.

Firstly, when I set the date for the 3rd of July, I completely forgot that would be in the middle of Wimbledon fortnight until someone mentioned it to me on July 1st. Mistake number one. Too late by then to change anything, this only added to my rising stress. The cause of all this stress was the non-appearance of the extra copies of books two and three, The Bear’s Heart and The Sword, my agent had ordered for the book launch. From being terrified no one would come and I’d be speaking to an empty room, my fears swung sharply in the other direction, and I decided I didn’t want everyone to come because there wouldn’t be enough books.

Panic stations. I ordered some full price ones from amazon using my son’s Prime account. Mistake number two. Firstly, they were more expensive than I was planning to sell them for, and secondly, we chose to have the order delivered to a shop with an amazon hub that was open (according to amazon) until 11pm at night. With a message on amazon saying they’d be delivered by 10pm on Saturday the 2nd, I spotted that the shop was going to close at 8pm. Luckily for my sanity, they turned up in the nick of time.

However, this wasn’t the only source of stress for the weekend. I’d invited a lot of people, and now they began crying off for various reasons. Seemed like a lot of them had developed covid, which filled me with trepidation that the ones who were coming would possibly have it but not know they did. As I’m writing this a full ten days after the launch and so far, I’m unscathed, I’m thinking they were all healthy.

However, once the initial socialising, and hugging, was over, and we got down to the actual book launch, everything slid into place. I thanked everyone for coming (speaking off the cuff is a thing I don’t like, so I probably missed out things I should have said and gabbled stuff I shouldn’t have) and read an excerpt from the start of Guinevere: The Sword. My friend Diane did a short interview which set me further at my ease. I think I enjoyed that bit the most.

Then, after book signings, it was all over, and we were packing up our things. Jake, my student son, aka The Wookie thanks to his hair and beard, managed to consume any food that was left once we were home. I’m not sure all the stress from beforehand inclines me to do one of these ever again, but you never know, I’ll probably forget that bit and remember the good bits. A bit like how we always remember childhood holidays as sunny.

But don’t forget the third book in the Guinevere series is now out – The Sword, with Gwen well on the road to becoming a warrior queen and journeying north to Hadrian’s Wall to help Arthur. Follow the links on my website for how to buy it.

Welcome to Gareth Williams, retired history teacher and author of Needing Napoleon and Serving Shaka, who dropped in to answer some questions about his books.

FR. What sparked your interest in Napoleon? Is it something you’ve had for a long time? And do you have a Napoleon costume?

GW. I think it started at school. The idea of a Corsican outsider rising through the ranks thanks to the French Revolution to become Emperor of the French captured my imagination. Faced by endless coalitions against him, usually funded by the British, he won battle after battle. I found that pretty impressive! But hubris got the better of him. Spain and then Russia saw him squander the troops that had made him the dominant military force on the continent. Defeat. Exile. It should have been all over, but no! He escapes Elba for France, gathers support and everything culminates in the epic battle of Waterloo – I guess the 1970 Dino de Laurentis film starring Rod Steiger deserves a mention here.    

I don’t have a Napoleon costume but I do have a bronze bust sitting on my desk!

FR. What made you decide to transport someone from the present back in time to witness Waterloo and its aftermath rather than choose as your MC one of the many officers around Napoleon, or even Napoleon himself?

GW. I was interested in the idea that Napoleon could have won the battle of Waterloo. His performance was lacklustre. What if he had better intelligence on the enemy? It was also a way of giving myself the opportunity to tread the battlefield and meet Bonaparte, in the guise of a history teacher, albeit a miserable one!

I didn’t want to write another fictional biography of Napoleon because Max Gallo’s Napoleon series has done that brilliantly. If I had used one of his officers, there wouldn’t be the tension between what they and Napoleon knew.  

FR. What advantages do you think viewing these historical events through the eyes of a modern observer gives the narrative?

GW. I hope it allowed me to explore Napoleon’s decisions on the day of the battle and its aftermath in a fresh way. My MC gives up everything to change the past, but at Waterloo, he finds himself unable to exert the necessary influence. That puts him in a pretty tough spot given there’s no way back to the 21st century.

FR. Have you visited the places you write about, and which was your favourite? And of the ones you haven’t visited, which is top of your bucket list?

GW. I have a pretty good working knowledge of schools! And Paris. But I have never been to the site of Waterloo or Malmaison or St Helena. I lived in South Africa as a boy but Benoni was a modest mining town, a far cry from Shaka Zulu’s capital!

I do love Paris. I would love to visit St Helena.

In truth, I travel in my imagination with the help of books and the internet, which is all most of us have been able to do recently.

FR. What was the most difficult thing to write about, and why was it so? And what was the easiest thing?

GW. I think the hardest things to write about are the most familiar. Everyone has an opinion. There are many experts likely to pick up on the slightest error. So the battle of Waterloo is a good example. It is much easier to write about Shaka Zulu, because so much less is known, it gives room for imagination to fill the gaps, which is fun!

FR. Do you think living on a Scottish island enabled you to empathise with Napoleon’s incarcerations on Elba and St Helena? Do you ever feel incarcerated?

GW. There are two types of people in the world when it comes to islands. Those who see the coastline as a limitation, a barrier, a confinement and those who see endless horizons, security and a clearly defined home. I used to live on Guernsey and loved it. I also love Skye. During the pandemic, the island was quiet and felt reassuring.

I’m not saying I don’t empathise with Napoleon on Elba and St Helena. After all, I voluntarily lived on my islands whereas he was imprisoned on his. I expect we have all wished we were somewhere else at some time, and there is no doubt that is how Napoleon felt.

FR. How many novels are in this series and once Napoleon dies will you go on to further chart your hero’s adventures back in time or will he find a way back to the 21st century?

GW. It is funny you should ask how many novels in the series. My editor wants to know and so does my publisher! The third novel is due out in September. I have committed in my mind to a fourth, although the plot is not fully formed in my head. After that, I’m not sure.

The third and fourth books will be set in the years immediately after those featured in Needing Napoleon and Serving Shaka. According to the rules of my time travel device, a person can only travel back in time on a one-way ticket. So, there is no prospect of my MC returning to the 21st century. He has to figure out a way to live in the nineteenth century, which gives me plenty to write about!

FR. Which authors inspired you as a young man/boy and what are you reading right now?

GW. I loved Tolkien for the sweep and drama of his imagination. I loved adventure stories for boys, most of which probably fail the political correctness test, but I read them with innocent excitement. They were often the same books my father read. Captain W.E. John’s Biggles books, H Rider Haggard, John Buchan, that sort of thing. When I got a bit older, I marvelled at Shakespeare’s plays. They were part of our history and often about history at the same time. I have no pretensions but sometimes feel a kinship with the bard when I plunder works of history for plots and characters. He had Holinshed’s chronicles where I have had Gilbert Martineau, E.A Ritter and J. Leitch Wright Jr.

I am currently reading A Brief History of Roman Britain – Conquest and Civilization by Joan P. Alcock as research for a twin timeline murder mystery I am plotting. I am also reading your book, Guinevere: The Sword, the third instalment of your excellent Arthurian series.

FR. How long have you been writing? And what were your earlier efforts about?

GW. I started trying to write my first novel at primary school. It was an adventure in the future. I finished my first novel at twenty. It was a terrible romance! I kept trying but almost always ended up with convoluted plots and unconvincing characters because I was trying to squeeze writing into a busy life.

My first coherent novel was a product of the first lockdown and the fact that I had recently retired. That book spilled into a second instalment and a third. I then took a pause to write something unrelated. I have just handed that over to my editor. It is the fictionalized biography of a real but largely forgotten man, William Augustus Bowles.

FR.  What advice do you have for would-be writers?

GW. You have to find the time to do it properly. Don’t overreach yourself like I did. If you are busy, write short stories. They can often lead on to novellas and beyond. Plan things in advance. Have a strong outline so that your writing is really like colouring in. Pay attention to characters. Even my minor characters have their own ‘character card’ which I use to record everything I need to know about them. Oh, and one more thing – read!

Of paint pots, grouting pens, errant cats and Merlin

At the moment I’m up to my ears in redecorating our boat. The inside had become decidedly tired looking, and once we started, it didn’t feel as though we could stop. The problem with decorating on a boat though, even though ours is a widebeam, is all your stuff. To get at walls, furniture has to be moved, and with windows taken out we have had to make sure our cat couldn’t escape.

Nancy’s already had one ‘Big Adventure’ this year, although from the way she’s still trying to get out of the boat, she appears to have forgotten how much she didn’t enjoy being a wild and free cat. She escaped one night when Bella (our dog) went out for her last thing at night pee with my husband, and we didn’t find her again for ten long days. Ten days in which we had high winds and storms – this was back in February. She was a very relieved cat indeed when we finally found her hiding in a bush not far from our boat. But now her adventure has faded in her memory, and she thinks a sortie outside is just what she needs. We’re being vigilant, as she’s fifteen and already a bit wobbly on her pins at times. Not a good thing near water.

In between painting various exposed sections of wall in turn and wielding the grouting pen in the bathroom, where I have come to curse the person who put two-inch tiles over ALL the walls, I’ve also been polishing book six of my Guinevere series, The Road to Avalon. I finished writing it a while back and have been slowly giving it a final polish. Slowly because I don’t want to leave it. I’ve been living with the characters of Gwen and Arthur so long now, I don’t want to have to put them away. I was keen to get book six written as I’d been looking forward to it for such a long time, and yet as I drew nearer the end, I knew I was going to be heartbroken to end it all.

I knew from the moment I started writing book one exactly where, and how, book six was going to end, but what I didn’t know was how my characters were going to get there. Banging about inside my head I had all the different legends I knew about the various characters, not all of which I used. It was such fun picking my way around their storylines and in particular popping in various twists and turns to surprise my readers. And killing off a few of my darlings. You’ll have to wait to find out which ones don’t make it to the final curtain call.

I love all the different legends and the endless possibilities they provide for the storyteller. However, if you’ve read my first three books you’ll know by now that there’s one character who will never darken the pages of my books – Lancelot, that French interloper. And nor is there going to be. It does seem, however, that the one story most people know happens to be the one about Lancelot! Ugh! I can’t get the vision of Richard Gere in plate armour out of my head – a total anachronism. Not that I’ve ever seen more than the cover of the video. Not a film I’d want to watch!

In my books, I’ve tried to stick with the characters who have been associated with Arthur from the furthest back in history – such as Cei, Melwas, Medraut, Gwalchmei and Bedwyr. Apart from Merlin, that is. I do know (sadly) that in all likelihood he’s not contemporary with Arthur and was only associated with him at a later date. But kings had advisers, so why not have one called Merlin? This is a work of fiction, after all, and if I want Merlin in it, I can have him. Plus I’ve had a very big soft spot for him since I read Mary Stewart’s Merlin books as a teenager.

Anyway, I thought I’d write a little bit about my Merlin. There have been many renditions of him portraying him as anything from a white-bearded old man (Disney’s The Sword in the Stone etc) to a youth (The Boy who would be King and BBC’s Merlin series). He’s been associated with Arthurian legend for so long, readers/viewers expect to find him in a tale about King Arthur, so who was I to deprive them?

My Merlin is slightly different. He’s young, like Arthur and his warriors at the start of the series, or at least he looks as if he’s young. However, he may well not be. As Gwen remarks to herself – if you had magic why wouldn’t you use it to keep yourself looking young? He’s a warrior in Arthur’s warband, and as far as Gwen knows (at first) his magic consists of him being psychic and able to sometimes see the future, although very annoyingly, not all of the time and especially not when it would be of most use to Arthur and Gwen.

As the books progress, you’ll get to find out more and more about Merlin’s background and he’ll reveal more of the power he possesses. He’s a major character almost on a level with Arthur throughout all six books, and at first, he’s the only one who knows where Gwen has come from. He’s her friend, but in a way he’s also her gaoler, because it was he who kidnapped her back in time for Arthur. Ever wondered what he would have done had Gwen not fallen in love with Arthur? Think he’d have let her go back to her old world? Probably not. He’s an arch manipulator.

If you’re interested to find out more about Merlin’s rather shady involvement in Arthur’s life, and in particular how Arthur came to be born, then go to amazon and order the anthology book ‘Tales of Timeless Romance’. It’s only 99 cents on kindle. The other five stories are by the runners up in the contest I won back in 2021, and I know that at least one of them is about Robin Hood – a story I’m dying to read as it’s by one of my Facebook Friends, Cara Hogarth/Carol Hoggart.

Sunday, 22nd August 2021

South Cadbury Castle – was that Camelot?

I first visited South Cadbury Castle as a child. I must have only been ten or eleven years old, with a head full of images of Camelot as seen in The Sword in the Stone and the musical Camelot, not to mention old Hollywood films, so I expected to see more than just an old earthwork and some muddy trenches. But I didn’t let that put me off. I adapted my view of all things Arthurian and began to realise that it wasn’t about stone built castles and knights in shining armour and page boys pulling swords out of an anvil – yes, an anvil. Why anyone would choose to make the stone the sword was stuck in look like an anvil, which is made of iron, I have no idea.

Since then I’ve been back there many times. You drive into South Cadbury village, past a farm on your left, until you come to a small carpark beside the road. It’s very peaceful. A short walk back in the direction of the village brings you to the lane on the left that will lead you up the hill and in through the lesser northern entrance to the hillfort. Easy to drive past and miss it completely.

The track is stony and uneven, and can also be very muddy. Cows clearly pass along the lane which serves the fields of the local farm. Wellies are a good idea, or at the least, good walking boots. After a bit, you come to a five bar gate with one of those kissing gates beside it – very difficult to get through. It actually can be lifted off its hinges to allow passage, and then popped back onto them afterwards. Far easier than squeezing through the very narrow gap, especially if like me you’re not so slender as you once were.

Nowadays the hillside and the four rows of banks and ditches are shrouded in mature trees. You’d expect to hear birds calling, but it’s very quiet – almost too quiet. The climb up the hill is steep and straight, with high banks to left and right. You can almost feel yourself walking back in time as you climb.

On one particular visit I only got as far as the gate. I was by myself and it was evening, and the trees were even quieter than normal. The atmosphere pressed in on me, and with my hand on the gate I made the decision to turn for home. The restless ghosts of the hillfort didn’t want me there that night.

There’s hardly ever anyone up there. I’ve been many times with my husband, and we’ve often been the only ones on the hilltop. Eighteen acres of grassland rising gently away from the topmost bank, where once a revetted palisade wall stood, with stone foundations and a solid wall-walk around the inside. If you look carefully bits of that stone wall still remain, half-hidden under the turf. Small hawthorn trees dot the perimeter, sculpted by the wind.

The view is magnificent. To the south more hills rise, but it’s the view to the north that fascinates me. The flat plain of the Somerset levels, where once marshland and open stretches of water lay – proven by the fact that it still floods in times of heavy winter rain. And in the far distance, ten miles or so away, the hump of Glastonbury Tor itself, the ruined tower on the summit just visible.

Since I was a child I’ve been convinced this was the orginal of Camelot. Of course, the name’s all wrong. That’s most likely taken from Camulodunum (Colchester on the East Coast) which would have been far too far to the east to have been the centre of any Romano-British warlord’s territory. Most likely it would have been in Saxon hands. Here at Cadbury we’re in the lands of the Dumnonians, a pre-Roman tribe that still existed after the departure of the legions.

Amongst their number was a king named Cadwy, or it might have been Cador, sometimes described as ‘of Cornwall’. Three closely situated hillforts seem to bear his name – this one, Cadbury-Congresbury, and Cadbury Camp near Tickenham. And there’s yet another Cadbury Castle in Devon. Whoever Cadwy/Cador was, he got about a bit.

The magic of this place lends credence to that theory of a sleeping king. When you stand up there, alone, with a wind soughing in the branches of the trees that crowd the slopes, and close your eyes, you could be forgiven for imagining a thriving fortress all around you. Warriors manning the walls, the great hall rising behind you on the summit, a blacksmith working in his forge, smoke rising from thatched roofs, and middens quietly steaming. The ghosts crowd in on you as the wind ruffles your hair and ripples the long grass.

No wonder John Leland, visiting here in 1542, decided the locals were right when they told him it was ‘Camalatte’ and King Arthur had resided there. A myriad of legends are associated with the hill, including one that says Arthur still lies sleeping beneath the surface in a hidden cave. Reminiscent of the Alderley Edge legends. Another says that between Cadbury and Glastonbury Tor runs an old road, the Hunters’ Causeway, and on every Christmas Eve Arthur and his warriors ride the old road. I couldn’t resist using that in my YA stories.

But the story that I like the best is not a legend, but rather a theory. The story behind it goes that after being mortally wounded in his final battle at Camlann, against his upstart nephew, Mordred, Arthur was borne away by three queens to Avalon, where he lies sleeping still, only to return in Britain’s hour of need. Other heroes have similar legends, but what’s most fascinating is the fact that nearly all of them are about real people. Ridiculous as the legends are, those concerned really existed. So, perhaps because Arthur, too, has such a legend, then he, too, was real. And South Cadbury Castle was indeed his ‘Camalatte’.

19th August, 2021

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They say you should never give up, and it’s so true. I’m living proof of that.

I’ve been writing since I was five years old, and have always cherished the dream that one day I’d be properly published. As a child I read and wrote endless pony stories – handwritten and self-illustrated on stapled together sheets of paper that I still have stored in boxes. Horses were my first love, and as a ponymad but ponyless child, I fulfilled my dreams in a world of my own creating.

Alongside the horses, King Arthur has been a lifelong obsession for me. It probably began when my parents took me to see Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. I loved Wart and all his adventures. They took me, their eldest child, to see all sorts of films in the cinema. This was the days before video or dvd. I remember vividly seeing Dr Zhivago, The Taming of the Shrew and Henry V as quite a small child, but the one that also served to fire my imagination was Camelot.

Aged about twenty, I penned a massive tome on the life of King Arthur from birth to death, but it was naïve and full of embarrassingly bad writing. I shelved it when I married a farmer and we started a family, while I fulfilled my other dream of running my own riding school. However, my interest in Arthur and all things pertaining to the Dark Ages continued unabated. And horses, of course. I found time to write a short story which I sent off to PONY magazine and was overjoyed to have published in their summer special. My story was sandwiched between those by the famous authors I’d read as a child.

I returned to writing when we moved to France, and it was hard to find English books for my youngest son to read, especially ones that would hold his attention. I decided to write one for him. I like thrillers that have good hook endings to their chapters, so this was what I set out to write for him. I wrote a couple of chapters and read him one. He wanted the second one. Then he wanted the third. I had to write this book at top speed for a chapter a night as his bedtime story, so at 17 chapters and 65,000 words, it took just over two weeks to write. He then wanted book two. Books three and four followed much more slowly.

Back living in the UK on our canal boat, I no longer had the distraction of my horses. I missed them at first, but if I still had them, I wouldn’t have found the time to do anywhere near as much writing as I have. I’m also somewhat hampered by having an inner ear problem called Menière’s Disease which has left me nearly deaf in my left ear. It gives me sudden, random attacks of vertigo, and sometimes I can’t use the computer at all as it can make me worse. I’ve grown to know the signs of an oncoming attack and when to quit using the computer. Annoying, but essential.

I returned to historical fiction and Guinevere because I wasn’t getting anywhere with my children’s books. I’d wanted to write a historical novel about the women in Arthur’s life for a long time, and a visit to Glastonbury Tor finally triggered me to put thought into deed.

On a grey, wintry day, my husband and I parked our Land Rover round the back (where Gwen’s parents park in the book) and walked across the field towards the Tor. My husband set up his tripod and camera, loaded with infrared film. He took four very rapid photos. When he developed the film that evening he was shocked. Photo 1 – you can see the tower on top of the Tor clearly. Photo 2 – the tower is fading. Photo 3 – the tower has completely vanished. Photo 4 – the tower is back. Although the day was grey, visibility was fine. Infrared film is super sensitive and he had NOT messed with it. This set me wondering if we’d had a glimpse back in time to when the tower wasn’t on the hilltop, and what would have happened if we’d been up there, in it, when it vanished. I mulled it around for a long while in my head, combined it with the story I’d always wanted to write about Arthur from Guinevere’s POV, and then one day just sat down and wrote it. Guinevere was born.

Having left it with a rather up in the air ending, I had to write book two, The Bear Cub, which was just as much fun, and took about a month to write. Then I set about editing it, and sending the first book off to mostly agents and the few publishers who allow you to query without an agent. But I got nowhere. I persevered, and still got nowhere. I bet I’ve queried a lot more agents and publishers than JK Rowling ever did.

I entered countless competitions, with Guinevere as well as with the books I’d written for Jake. I had some ‘highly commended’ and even got to be in the top six with the Sharpe Books/Historical Writers’ Association First Novel, equal 4th, so I knew my writing wasn’t the problem.

Then in September 2020 I spotted the Dragonblade Publishing competition.

It was free, so I thought, why not? I sent off the first 50 pages, then competely forgot about it. In April no one could have been more surprised than me when I received an email saying I’d made it to the semi-finals. I thought I’d better have a look at their website. Just historical romance, but predominantly Regency and Georgian – so I thought my chances with an Arthurian Dark Age novel were pretty slim.

However, the nearer we got to July 1st and results day, the more I dared to hope. All day long I kept checking my emails, but nothing. Of course, being 6 hours behind the UK, their 9am was our 3pm. By just before 10 in the evening I was at the point where I needed to ask them if the results really were coming out. To my surprise, I got an email straight back saying they wouldn’t tell me the good news yet, but to go and look at the Facebook announcement.

So I did. It was quite long and luckily recorded from about an hour earlier. I flicked through it to the announcement of the winners. Six runners up and a grand prize winner. I crossed my fingers and hoped for a place, but as Kathryn Le Veque, the owner of Dragonblade Publishing, read out name after name, my heart sank further down into my fluffy slippers. At last, she came to the grand prize winner. And it was me. I screamed. A proper scream. All I could do was squeal, “It’s me! It’s me!” at my somewhat startled but over-the-moon husband.

That was it, a chance entry to a competition I nearly bypassed, and my dream had come true. The thing I’d been waiting for all my life was finally going to happen.

So the moral of this is to never give up. If you’re a good writer with a good story, all you need is someone in the right sort of mood to read it for you and recognise it for what it is. I got that. I think success in finding a publisher is a lot down to luck – the time you send it off, who you send it to, who reads it, the mood they’re in. Obviously the book needs to be good, but that’s a foregone conclusion. I know there must be lots of really good books out there just looking for the right person to read them and see their potential. Thank goodness someone did that for me.

And now not only do I have a publisher,  but also an agent, the lovely Susan Yearwood.