Best of 2011

The other week fellow author Douglas Jackson pointed out that we’d both been highlighted in The Scotsman as two of the stand out historical novelists of 2011.

So, it’s that time of year again, when newspapers are full of such lists and we start reflecting on what’s gone.  As I’m miserable with lurgy and chapter 41 is giving me jip, I thought I’d take a break and add my own bunch of “best ofs” to the pile.

BEST BOOK

As Meat Loves Salt, Maria McCann

Admittedly, I haven’t had time to crack open many novels this year, but this was the stand out for me.  Set during the English Civil War it revolves around Jacob, a servant forced by an act of murder to join the New Model Army.  The depth and authenticity of period detail makes it possible to believe McCann herself must have spent time on the mud-soaked battlefields and stinking streets of 17th century London.  The use of period dialogue, which was both convincing and engaging, was particularly impressive, as was the fact that while Jacob is not at all likeable as a protagonist, I somehow felt able to exist in his head for the whole novel, despite how discomforting it was.  Highly recommended.

BEST TV

Trueblood, Season 2.

I thought my love affair with vampires ended with the final episode of Buffy, until a friend convinced me to try Trueblood.

Sexy, sassy and packing a wicked sense of humour, this tale of vampires in America’s Deep South is an absolute treat.

BEST ALBUM

My One and Only Thrill, Melody Gardot.

A friend bought this for my other half and we can’t stop listening to it.  I can do no better than repeat what our friend said, “her voice just melts.”  A great album for any time, but especially on a Friday evening when the wine is cold in your glass and something good is cooking.

BEST BOOKSHOP

Goldsboro Books, Cecil Court.

OK, I count the owners, David and Daniel, as friends, but in truth I’ve loved the shop since I first set foot in there to sign a bunch of Brethren’s back in 2006.  In a time when we’re sadly losing so many independent bookshops they’ve managed not only to buck the trend, but to go from strength to strength this past year – opening a larger store, expanding into non-fiction as well as signed first edition fiction, organising a number of hugely successful events and sponsoring the HWA prize for debut historical fiction.

And, hey, it’s not just my opinion – Goldsboro has just been named by Time Out as one of London’s best shops.  Well done, boys!

BEST NON-BOOKSHOP

Resident, Brighton.

I have to give it up for Brighton’s best music shop, situated in the North Lanes.  I could spend hours (and hundreds of pounds) in here.  Think – the record store in High Fidelity, but with more helpful staff.  Best thing is that they do staff reviews of all the albums, making it easy to try new things.  I’ve tripled my music collection since shopping here.

BEST RESEARCH TRIP

Tomb of King Edward I, Westminster Abbey.

I’ve been meaning to visit the abbey for years.  Typically, it’s one of the sites nearest to me and I ended up going to all the furthest-flung places long before making it here.  I’ve read a great deal about it, but it’s not the same as entering those doors and walking beneath the epic vault, past the tombs of dead kings and nobles, among them Aymer de Valence and Edward II.

The shrine of the Confessor, where several scenes in Renegade are set, is normally closed off to the public, but I played the author card with one of the helpful ushers and got a private viewing.  The shrine itself was incredible, but the best part was walking up the steps past King Edward’s tomb, close enough you have to brush by it.  All the sepulchres around it, including Henry III’s and Queen Eleanor’s, are gilt and bronze, covered in gold effigies and cherubs.  Edward’s is a large, dark marble tomb with nothing but the inscription: “Edwardus Primus Scotorum Malleus. Pactum Serva” (Edward the First, Hammer of the Scots. Keep Troth), although this inscription didn’t appear until the 16th century.  It gave me chills.

BEST PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENT

Planning – over a boozy 9 hour lunch – to go to France and write a WWII screenplay with two fellow authors.

And doing it.

BEST NEW DISCOVERY

Dalmore, Alexander III whisky.

I discovered this at my local Hotel du Vin one evening – and had to try it, of course.  It’s delicious; lots of spicy, smoky orange flavours.  Pricey at £13 a shot, but well worth it if you like your drams.  Could do with one right now.  Sniff.

BEST MEAL OUT

Porthminster Beach Café, St Ives.

I’ve been here before and loved it, so when staying in Cornwall over the summer the better half and I drove an hour just to return.  The Cornish crab soup and sticky Asian pork salad were heavenly.  It’s right on the beach, so perfect for sun-downing and moon rising.  The staff are great and the wine list awesome.  Can’t ask for much more.  Except to go back.

BEST BIT OF UNEXPECTED PUBLICITY

England rugby player Toby Flood writing an article in The Telegraph about the fact he was reading and enjoying Insurrection, before England’s match against Scotland. Cheers Toby!

And Happy New Year to all.

I hope 2012 brings you much health and happiness :)

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A FEAST OF HISTORY

Just back from the HWA’s inaugural Festival of Historical Writing, which took place over the weekend, during English Heritage’s Festival of History at Kelmarsh.  All in all, it was an unqualified success.  Despite the torrential rain, that made it feel a bit like Glastonbury with Spitfires, history lovers turned out in their thousands for the annual event and our 12 lectures were packed out over the 2 days.

I’ve done a fair few events now and in terms of organisation they can range from smoothly efficient to hopelessly inept (I can’t forget one I did with Simon Scarrow, where we were given no brief about the talk and, when it came to it, had 5 people, one of whom walked out halfway through).  Having done a talk at Kelmarsh with English Heritage before, I knew they were at the smooth end, but I think they surpassed themselves this year.  The HWA were provided with a huge lecture tent (we had about 200 people for each talk), which backed onto a marquee selling the books of all 32 authors who attended.  Among them, HWA founder Manda Scott, Michael Morpurgo, Ben Kane, Anthony Riches, Robert Low, Giles Kristian, Saul David, Sarah Gristwood, Micheal Jecks and more.  The whole thing ran like clockwork.

I chaired a panel on Myths in History, in which I discussed the origins of Robert Bruce’s famous spider story.   Joining me were fellow novelists, Imogen Robertson (discussing folklore and legends from Cumbria from her latest novel), Angus Donald (with his take on Robin Hood) and Tom Harper (on the piece de resistance: the Holy Grail).

Now, despite the fact my “to read” pile is less pile more skyscraper at the moment, I haven’t had the opportunity to crack open a novel in a while, what with reading so much non-fiction for the Insurrection Trilogy and, err, writing the things.  But I was forced to take four days off last week to read my panelists’ novels.  And what a treat.  The books I’ve read recently have been quite heavy-going and, although worthy, not all that entertaining and I’d forgotten what sheer, unadulterated pleasure you can get out of reading a good, rollicking adventure with taut, yet lyrical writing and superb history to boot. I thoroughly recommend you check out all three:

Island of Bones, Imogen Robertson http://www.amazon.co.uk/Island-Bones-Imogen-Robertson/dp/0755372026/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0

King’s Man, Angus Donald (third in the Outlaw Chronicles) http://www.amazon.co.uk/Kings-Man-Outlaw-Chronicles-3/dp/1847444911/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1311086824&sr=1-1

The Lazarus Vault, Tom Harper http://www.amazon.co.uk/Lazarus-Vault-Tom-Harper/dp/009954783X/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1311086872&sr=1-4

So, a massive thank you to English Heritage, my fellow HWA committee members and all the authors, publishers and public attending for making it such a storming success.  Looking forward to next year already!

Enjoying a beer (or 4) in a brief patch of sun. (C.C. Humphreys, Robert Low, Saul David, Angus Donald, Imogen Robertson, my partner Lee, and Tom Harper)

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HWA LITERARY FESTIVAL LAUNCHES WITH ENGLISH HERITAGE

Earlier this year I was invited to join the Historical Writers’ Association (HWA), the brain child of novelist Manda Scott, who wanted to establish an organisation for professional writers of history, run by writers.  With historical fiction proving ever more popular we felt it necessary that the genre have its own platform, much in the same way that crime authors have the CWA with its literary awards, the famous Harrogate Festival and various social gatherings where authors get to meet other likeminded nutters – I mean, people.

A few years back an editor suggested something similar to me – feeling that history writers and lovers should have their own Harrogate – and I thought it was a great idea.  Of course, neither of us got round to doing anything about it, so when Manda asked me to join the HWA committee it was an easy decision.

Now, after months of hard work by the committee, lots of good will from around the industry and support from fellow authors, the HWA is a fully-fledged organisation, with over 100 members and our very own festival, which launches this July, over the weekend of 16/17.  It will be held in partnership with English Heritage’s fantastic Festival of History at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire, so not only do you get to come along and meet your favourite authors, you’ll also be able to enjoy an action packed day out, complete with Spitfires, explosions, jousting, WWII trenches and, if the one year I went is anything to go by – a re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings where William and Harold get attacked by a bunch of feral children wielding latex swords.  Laugh? – I nearly died.

The HWA festival has something for everyone, with authors such as Michael Morpurgo of Warhorse fame, historians Tom Holland and Kate Williams, and some of the best writers of historical fiction in the UK today.  The schedule is looking truly superb.

I’ll be there on Saturday 16 July, giving a talk on Myths in History: The Truth Behind the Legends, with fellow authors Angus Donald, Imogen Robertson and Tom Harper.

See the HWA site for further details, and whatever you do, don’t miss it!!

http://www.thehwa.co.uk/content/festivals

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THE BOOK FACTORY

It’s World Book Day and I’m on a train with David Headley of Goldsboro Books, heading northeast, broad-side to the setting sun.  We’re off to Clays, the UK’s leading book printers, for a tour tomorrow morning.  As we rattle past the steel skeleton of the Olympic Stadium and through a concrete jungle of urban apartments and tower blocks, Dave pops a bottle of champagne to the sidelong stares of a huddle of commuters.  One of my first book signings back in 2006 was at Goldsboro and we cemented a friendship then over a bottle of the stuff.  It only seems right to honour that now, especially since Goldsboro – under the direction of Dave and his business partner Daniel – have just expanded into a shop twice the size in London’s Cecil Court.  Their success is heartening, when both independent and high street bookshops are feeling the pinch of the recession and the industry rocks with the seismic shifts of the digital revolution.  Only last week the trade was dominated by headlines proclaiming digital sales may overtake print by 2014.  But such news seems far away as we sink into our seats with the slipping sun and Essex towns give way to the green levels of Suffolk.

At Diss we wobble off the train and are promptly whooshed off to Bungay, a pretty, unassuming village that forms the hub of Clays’ slick operation.  At Cambridge House, which has been offering hospitality to the book industry for decades, we’re treated to a hearty meal and a roaring fire courtesy of hosts Sandy and Peter.  Afterwards, stuffed and wedged into an armchair, ice clinking in my glass, I’m presented with a visitors’ book to sign.  It is one of a pile, the dates in the oldest going back to 1938.  I turn the pages from the faded calligraphy of publishers’ past to the biro-scrawl of last week’s guests.  Seventy years of signatures, the names of the companies mostly unchanging – Hodder & Stoughton, HarperCollins, Penguin.   And this is only half the story – Clays has been printing books for almost two hundred years.  As I climb to bed I pass a portrait of founder Richard Clay, born 1789.

Next morning, after a breakfast of champions, we’re taken across the road to the site.  As the doors open, Dave – who’s been here before – asks if I have any idea how books are actually printed.  I admit that I don’t and it’s a strange thing to be presented with: the realisation that I’m absolutely ignorant of the process – one of the most fundamental aspects of being a published author – that takes what I’ve written on my PC at home and turns it into something tangible that can be put on a bookshop shelf.  After an introduction to the business, which includes the staggering – and comforting – fact that Clays produces around 180 million books per year, we don Hi Vis jackets and prepare to enter.  Dave grins and tells me to watch out for Oompa-Loompas.  I laugh, but from the moment we step from the clean, corporate reception into a vast maze of warehouse-scale chambers filled with clanking and hissing machines, I know exactly what he means.  We are in a Book Factory and I’m suddenly as excited as Charlie.

The first surprise is how books are put together for printing.  I imagined that each page would just whizz off a printer somewhere, but the reality is a great deal more complicated and more efficient.  Each book, which comes from publishers via a shared electronic system, is arranged on a document that calculates which page fits where when a large single sheet covered in multiple pages of text is folded many times.  Remember those Christmas decorations you made at school – folding a sheet of paper again and again until you had a small, thick rectangle that you’d cut into the shape of an angel and open out into a long row of angels?  Well, that’s the best, or at least most simplistic analogy I can give to something that seemed to me as complex as a Pythagorean equation.

From here we enter a room lit an eerie Sci-Fi yellow to protect the ink, where huge sheets of aluminium pass through machines that look like oversized photocopiers.  The sheets slide out the other side printed with many pages of text.  From here, more machines take these aluminium sheets and introduce ink and water to transfer the words to paper.  The paper itself is the next surprise, as we’re led into a warehouse filled with what appears to be loo roll for giants (see photo 1).  A reel holds 6000 metres of paper, each takes 16 minutes to run through a machine and they get through around 500 a day.  Clays have 15 printing machines, 11 of which are running as we enter.  The noise is tremendous and the smell of ink sharpens the air.  We watch a roll of paper spin round at an alarming rate, the machine slicing, splicing and folding the single sheet of multiple pages into the book’s component ones (see photo 2).  Each sheet provides a section of the book, until all the folded sections are glued in a machine with a barcode reader that understands how it all fits together.

Now the rows of white blocks coming out the other end are starting to look a bit like a book, but still in the embryonic stage and, what’s more, it’s twins!  Imagine two books placed end to end and stuck together – this is what I’m looking at as each one flies off the press and along a crowded conveyer belt (see photo 3).  This process apparently all aids in saving paper wastage, something Clays is passionate about.  At the moment, I’m still mystified as to how it’s going to turn into a more recognisable form, but next we’re on to covers.

Various covers are whizzing out of machines as we enter, each one (back, front and spine) printed several times on single sheets, which will be cut to fit.  We see rolls of multicoloured foil – book cover Bling (see photo 4) and we’re shown handmade brass and silver plates used for embossing authors’ names and book titles.  I think back to when I picked up Brethren for the first time and ran my finger over the raised letters on the cover.  I had no appreciation of just what went into that, or the craft and skill that still exists beyond the functionality of machines.

Next, we’re back to the blocks of doubled books, which are running along in tiny trains, with little wings that flap up and stick the covers on.  On the conveyor belt the finished books – these ones all reprints of Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – rattle along towards a terrifying contraption that makes a mechanical chomping sound as it separates the twins into individual books and deftly slices them into neat-edged novels, finally recognisable.

After a quick stop to look at the digital presses and the distribution and storage warehouse, complete with robots and skyscraper towers of packaged books (see photo 5) the tour is over.  I emerge, wide-eyed with wonder and a newfound appreciation of the whole process of publishing and producing a book.  Leaving Clays and its 700 employees to their work, Dave and I head for the train.

Publishing is changing.  The digital revolution is here and we, as an industry, must change with it.  Without doubt, digital has its place.  It offers benefits for consumers and opportunities for authors, publishers and booksellers, but that mustn’t come at the expense of the written and printed word.  I dread a world without paper books; without all my senses satisfied by the reading experience – the smell of the paper, the glorious colours on the cover, those embossed and foiled letters under my thumb, the knowledge of how far through I am, those spine-creased, dog-eared favourites, the grains of sand still wedged in the pages from last year’s holiday.  My bookshelves are loaded with these beautiful things, each one a world, painstakingly produced.  What on earth would I keep in their place?

As we rattle towards London, Dave reads me the headlines from the trade.  A survey for World Book Day finds that printed books are holding their own over digital formats.

With thanks to David Headley, Vicky Ellis, Sandy and Peter at Cambridge House, and all at Clays.

www.goldsborobooks.com

www.clays.co.uk

Posted in Publishing | 4 Comments

WHAT’S IN A NAME…?

Had a great meeting with my editor at Hodder yesterday, one of the outcomes of which was that we agreed a title for the second book in the new trilogy.  I’ve been mulling it over for months and it’s finally stuck.  Drum roll please, as I stop referring to it nebulously as Book 2 and welcome it into the world as “Renegade.”  The exact publication date is yet to be confirmed, but it’s looking like summer 2012.

It’s a bit like naming a baby I guess – gives it an identity and brings it to life with the acceptance that it’s coming.  (Although imagine a household with two kids called Insurrection and Renegade?)  It’s not a figment of your imagination any longer, but is taking shape and getting ready to become something apart from you.  It’s possibly the most used analogy among novelists – that writing one is like having a baby, but it’s still the best way of describing the process I think.  The conception, the gestation, the delivery.  All that and then you have to let the little bugger go out into the world, and possibly get kicked around in the school playground.

This week I’m loving spring flowers, listening to Mumford & Sons, and the fact that a mate just sent me a link to a blog advertising royal wedding sick bags.

Who said romance was dead…

Posted in Insurrection Trilogy | 25 Comments

AM I BOTHY’D?

SCOTLAND – DAY 11
We’ve been on the road for 11 of our 17 days, the Mini’s windscreen has become an entomologist’s dream and can I just take this opportunity to moan about the cost of hotel laundry services? £3.50 for a pair of socks!! Should’ve popped into Tesco. Still, my notepad is full and the camera smoking. We’ve driven down one side of Kintyre to Dunaverty, from where Robert is thought to have sailed to the island of Rathlin, and back up the other. We’ve sped through moody Glen Coe, Scotland the Brave ringing from the stereo; mountain biked in the shadow of Ben Nevis through swarms of midges; sailed with dolphins on the Moray Firth; visited countless battlefields and castles, including the remote island fortress of the Comyns’ at Lochindorb and the haunting ruins of Kildrummy, where fate and Aymer de Valence caught up with one of Robert’s brothers; had various press encounters (you can read my interview in the Scotsman – which even features the Mini – on Events & Extras page of website) and now, here we are, bouncing through a glen in a Land Rover.

I’ve come out with Stephen, a ranger from the Atholl Estates in Perthshire, to get a sense of the wild, mountainous country into which Robert fled soon after the battle of Methven. We’re jolting slowly along a rocky, extremely narrow road and God help us if we meet anything coming the other way. We’ve left civilization far behind and I can see how a man could hide in this wilderness, but comfort would certainly be hard to find. After miles, deep in the valley, we pass a house – which according to Stephen was lived in until fairly recently. To a girl from the heart of bustling Brighton, it feels like the end of the earth. The only thing near it is a stone bothy, a shelter for hikers. I know that in Book 3 Robert will be heading into the Western Highlands, parts of which you can only explore on foot or hoof, and turn in my seat to tell Lee that on the next research trip we may well get to see the inside of a few bothies. He gives me a look, which tells me I will be forking out for a couple of plane tickets to Hawaii in the not too distant, before we’re distracted by a deer leaping away through the bracken. Stephen points out buzzards, black grouse and wheatears, which apparently used to be called white-arses, until someone – probably the Victorians – thought that was far too inappropriate. On the brow of a hill we spot what must be close to 60 stags, nicely visible through binoculars. It’s stalking season and they’re clearly wary. I ask Stephen about stalking and one thing he tells me is that the stags are brought down from the hillside on the backs of ponies. Now, I’ve been planning a hunt scene in Book 2 and I’ve read a fantastic book on medieval hunting, in which this very thing is described, but I was going to avoid using it because I just couldn’t imagine a horse allowing a dead animal to be slung over its back. The trick, apparently, is to leave deer carcasses near to where the ponies eat and drink when they’re young and to slowly get them used to the smell. My hunt scene resurrected, we turn and bounce back along the long road home.

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THE LONG MARCH

SCOTLAND – DAY 5
After a quick getaway from Glasgow to avoid the incoming pope we drive north along the west bank of Loch Lomond, taking a quick detour (in Scotland there is no such thing incidentally) down the scenic route our skipper had suggested. Three hours and two rolls of film later we arrive at Tyndrum, where you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve landed in Austria, with its pine lodge rest stops and plethora of climbing equipment, OS maps, and Hikers – thousands of them. We park up and step on to a 2 mile stretch of the 96 mile West Highland Way to join a marching army of Gore-Tex. We smile bravely and nod to our fellows, who doff caps and nod back, unaware that we’ve been sat in a car all morning.

Following the rushing waters of the River Fillan, we pass the hill-ringed site of the battle of Dail Righ, where Robert found himself attacked by a kinsman of John Comyn – John of Lorn – in the wake of the battle of Methven. It was an assault his beleaguered forces were sorely unprepared for. This whole area is closely connected with one of Scotland’s most prominent saints – St Fillan, and is where Robert sought sanctuary in the aftermath of Methven. We continue on to the evocative, moss-stained ruins of St Fillan’s Priory, endowed by Robert in 1317, perhaps in light of the refuge he’s believed to have been provided by the monks of nearby Inchaffray Abbey. It’s a remote, stunningly beautiful place and we spend some time, and another roll of film here before trekking back. Leaving Tyndrum, we wind our way west, quite inspired to return one day and join the Hiker Army for real. Little do we know that our 4 mile stroll is just the beginning of our long march today.

The Pass of Brander follows a torturous route beneath the shadow of Ben Cruachan, the hulking mass of which looms 3693ft over a narrow limb of Loch Awe, which at this point becomes more of a gorge, with Cruachan on one side and mountainous cliffs on the other. It’s the kind of road Jeremy Clarkson would love, each swing of the car revealing another gob-smacking vista. Lee grips the wheel and grins, as my pen skitters across my notebook. I was here in 2007, following in Robert’s footsteps for Requiem, which I’d anticipated him having a major role in. During his struggle to win back his kingdom this was the site of one of the most spectacular battles of the period. Heading west to confront his enemies in Argyll, Robert was attacked once again by John of Lorn, who met him on the field at Dail Righ. Lorn prepared an ambush as Robert’s army came through the pass, stationing men on the slopes of Cruachan, who pushed boulders down the hillside on top of Robert’s forces, whilst Lorn, on a galley on the loch, fired stones from his ship’s siege engines. Robert, knowing they were waiting, sent a band of men under the feted James Douglas higher up the mountain to attack Lorn’s forces from above, with yet more boulders and arrows. It was a battle made for Hollywood. It was here in 2007 when I reread that battle that I realized Robert’s story couldn’t be contained in a novel about Templars and to do such scenes justice would require a whole new series.

I viewed the area – exact site unknown – of the battle from the road last time and now I’m determined to see it from above. Discovering a route which ascends the mountain to a reservoir, we make to turn off, only to discover said road barred by locked gates and covered in No Entry signs. Refusing to be defeated we drive a couple of miles to a visitor centre, which offers tours around a power station built inside Cruachan itself – think James Bond meets Gimli the Dwarf. A nice lady informs us that no, the only way to get up to the reservoir is by the road – closed, she says with a certain amount of eye-rolling, for “health and safety” reasons. God damn the nanny state, I mutter, as we wonder what to do. The nice lady had said we could walk – it’s only a 6 mile round trip to the reservoir. Trouble is, the day’s wearing on, storm clouds are gathering and we’re due at our B&B in Oban. Oh, sod it, is the decision as we do what Lee gleefully refers to as a screaming U-ey, and hare back down the road.

Parking up, we don gaiters and waterproofs, and clamber over the gates. At first we’re rewarded for our potential foolhardiness by increasingly breathtaking views out over the expanse of Loch Awe and I get an awesome sense of what it might have looked like with boulders and men crashing down the hillside. Buzzards circle above us, their wings catching the gold of the late afternoon sun. A huge rainbow appears and we dig into the steep climb. As we get higher, the clouds begin to thicken and through the murk we spy a loch hidden in the peaks on the other side of the pass. We smile at one another and agree it was worth it. In moments, the sun is blotted out, the temperature plummets and the rain begins to – no, not fall, that’s far too gentle – hammer, lash and pound. I discover that my state-of-the-art waterproof isn’t proof against Scottish rain, which is a special kind of wet. Now we’re up in the lonely heights, where strong gusts of wind threaten to blow us off the mountain. At every twist of the pot-holed road is a new sign warning of the danger of falling rocks. I mean, really, what on earth could you do if they did?! Finally, out of the mists above us loom the dark arches of the Cruachan dam, straddling a defile in the mountain’s side. We stand at the highest point we can get to – the walkway along the dam itself, and look down over – well, bugger all, because we’re in the clouds. Frozen and soaked to the bone, bearing blisters the size of oranges, we limp our way down. Back in the Mini, feeling like new recruits at the end of a forced march, we drip and shiver all the way to Oban, where the twinkling lights of our B&B and the promise of warm food and a wee dram have never, ever felt so inviting.

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CHAMPAGNE AND RAINBOWS

Scotland – DAY 4
After a day in and around Glasgow doing press interviews and photo shoots – sounds glam, but basically me perched on castle ramparts in a gale trying to look wistful, while my hair sticks to my lip-gloss and rain dribbles down my neck – the next, my birthday, dawns with a menacing sky. The gale has grown worse (in meteorological terms it’s blowing a hooley). This is the day we had booked a 6 hour trip down the Firth of Clyde to Dumbarton Rock and the Isle of Bute – by speedboat. Lee (who’s a bit of a landlubber) is already green as we struggle our way across a deserted carpark at Glasgow docks, leaves, plastic bags and small birds whipping past our faces. Inside a Portakabin that feels like it might launch itself into the sky, are three burly Glaswegians (probably the only things anchoring it down). Alas, they’ve been watching the weather and it’s not looking good. In the skipper’s words, The boat can take it, but the human body cannae.

After being informed of a good scenic drive that will let us see some of what we would’ve seen by water, we drive to Dumbarton, where soaring twin peaks of rock hold the ruins of an ancient castle, which Robert took possession of in 1309. The sun streams out from behind the racing clouds as we climb the many steps to the summit where we’re rewarded with a spectacular view. The steep sides plunge to the wide mudflats and rough waters of the Clyde estuary, where along all its great length not a boat can be spied chancing the storm. To the north the humped back of Ben Lomond rears over the famous loch, invisible in the valley below. Closer, a rainbow arches itself gracefully over a hill. Ah, Scotland – land that launched a thousand calendars.

My military scheduling in disarray, we opt for a cruise on Loch Lomond. I discover from the tour guide the position of an old hunting lodge of Robert’s on the west shore and the ruins of an island castle belonging to the Earls of Lennox. After the catastrophic Battle of Methven in 1306, Robert and his ragged band of men were forced to cross the loch using one boat. It’s said that whilst they were conveyed across in small groups, Robert kept them entertained by reciting epic French poems of heroes and battles.

Back at our Glasgow hotel I enter the room to see a bottle of champagne on ice, a bowl of chocolate-covered strawberries and a card. I turn to Lee, Oh, and I really believed you when you said you weren’t planning anything for my birthday! Before he can speak, I’ve bounded across the room and ripped open the card.
It’s from my publishers.

I’m going to kill them, mutters Lee.

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ROBERT, THE SPRUCE & THE CANNIBAL OF CARRICK

Scotland – DAY 2
It’s a bright, showery morning as we drive west from Dumfries towards the breathtaking wilderness of the Galloway Forest Park. The hills march before us, a restless landscape of peaks and troughs appearing and disappearing with every torturous twist in the road. To the northwest they climb higher still, marking the borders of the ancient earldom of Carrick, Robert’s ancestral lands. It’s late September and the slopes are copper and russet, the vivid purple carpet of heather now fading. Everywhere we see the ubiquitous plantations of spruce and Douglas fir that are constantly being felled and replanted for timber. These Scandinavian-looking forests, established here over the last century, wouldn’t have been familiar to Robert, whose landscape was dominated by towering Scots pines, oaks, birch and elm.

After a time we arrive at our first destination of the day, the vast, gun-grey sweep of Loch Doon, the brooding setting for another of Robert’s castles, which offered brief refuge to his comrade, Sir Christopher Seton in 1306, before the English took it. Clouds drift fast overhead as we make a pit stop at a tiny roadside coffee shack, the first sign of civilization we’ve seen in miles. Handing us frothy cappuccinos and confirming that we’re on the right track to reach the castle, the owner points out a series of concrete bollards on the loch’s far shore, below the dark fringe of another spruce forest. He tells us they’re the remnants of a monorail system built during the First World War for target-practice. Trains would pull the targets along the rails as planes soared in across the loch, strafing them. Apparently they missed a lot, he says, pointing out the stone bridge we just crossed over, which we realize is peppered with bullet holes.

Loch Doon Castle has moved. Once, it stood on an island in the loch, a stout, almost circular fortress that must have seemed pretty impregnable out on the water, but in the 1930s, during the implementation of a hydro-electric scheme, it was transplanted from the island and rebuilt on the side of the road. The origins of the castle aren’t certain, although it’s thought it might have been built by a former Earl of Carrick, making it one of Robert’s ancestral homes. After a good dig around the 13th century ruins, we climb into the hills behind to get a better view, narrowly avoiding death by quad-bike as a group of kids come roaring past. On the heights of a rutted logging road, we survey the vista. It’s so quiet we can hear the conversation of a couple of anglers far below.

We head on to Turnberry via Maybole, the sea opening before us. Although still debated, this is commonly believed to be Robert’s birthplace. Nowadays, Turnberry is given over to a luxury hotel and golfing resort. The last time I came here, I rode on the beach – which gave me the inspiration for the first scene in Insurrection where we meet Robert, although thankfully my horse didn’t throw me into the sea. I intended then to take a closer look at the location of Turnberry Castle, seen from the beach, but didn’t have time, so I’m back and determined. Parking our grubby little Mini (nicknamed the wee beastie) at the swanky hotel, which is swarming with elderly Americans in flat-caps and squeaky shoes, we get directions to the ruins from a doorman in a posh kilt. Armed with a map we head towards a distant promontory, marked by a lighthouse. Between us and the headland lie the green undulations of three championship golf courses. What is it with Robert’s castles and golf, anyway? As we enter the first course, incongruous without a caddy, I tell Lee I’m sure I’ve heard more people are killed by golf-balls than lightning strikes. Or is it choking on peanuts? We persevere, despite the warning signs that grow ever more ominous. Danger – golfers playing from the left. Stop and look before you cross. Turn back, before it’s too late…

In the distance, the dome of Ailsa Craig juts from the sea, a muffin-shaped island populated by seabirds, which we glimpsed from the rocky shores of Antrim the week before. The map and our actual route begin to seem more and more at odds. We duck across greens, past flags and frowning Americans, heading deeper into the course. A short while later, a man in a golf-buggy comes whizzing towards us. Busted, murmurs Lee as we stand and grin awkwardly, the map flapping in our hands.

Golf-patrol is wearing a windbreaker and has sparkly blue eyes and an appealing Scottish brogue. He inquires, wryly, if we might have lost our way. Showing him the map, he points out where we’ve gone wrong: 20 yards to our right is the path we should have been following. While we wait for a clutch of golfers to tee-off (or whatever it is they do) the man asks why we’re wanting to see the ruins as there’s so little left. I explain. He nods, Robert Bruce – oh, aye. He pauses. But, ye ken, there’s a muir interesting man from these parts? Lee and I frown, intrigued, and huddle closer. His blue eyes get sparklier. Aye, Sawney Bean. He robbed travellers. His voice lowers. But he didnae just rob ‘em. He ate ‘em! He says this last with relish looking over at the flat-capped golfers, as if wishing old Sawney might still be around.

As we say farewell and head toward the path, I must have one of those looks on my face, because Lee grabs my arm and says, You promised, no more novels set in Scotland after this trilogy – not until we’ve been somewhere warm!After swearing to shelve any novel about Scottish cannibals, I lead the way to the ruins on the cliff-top. They really are ruins – only a few stones can be seen, embedded in the scrubby grass. It’s a moody place, the sea swirling around the crumbled rocks. The Bruce family’s castle would have been impressive, certainly in setting, although it’s impossible now to get any real sense of the building, leaving my imagination to do most of the work, before we wend our way back and drive on to Glasgow.

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A MINI ADVENTURE

Scotland – DAY 1
The Mini, having just recovered from its 2000 mile run across Ireland, groans up the motorway towards Scotland, stuffed to the bonnet with 17 days’ worth of luggage. Lee gives me a hard time over the amount of shoes I’ve packed, so I tell him he’s lucky he’s not in King Edward’s retinue as he’d been lugging a four-poster bed. Medieval travel really did include the kitchen sink.

5 tea breaks, 2 chocolate muffins and a packet of Fruit Pastilles later, we pass the outskirts of Carlisle. Sunlight glints on the Solway Firth. Beyond, the hills of Dumfries and Galloway rise, dark against a storm-bruised sky. The landscape is familiar and I feel an unexpected sense of homecoming. This is the third such research trip I’ve done in Scotland and so I know it fairly well, but it’s more than that – for the past year writing Insurrection I’ve been living in this country in my mind. Coming back is like stepping into the novel. As we enter Annandale – the old gateway to the west – I half expect to see Robert and his grandfather riding across the fields.

We check into a hotel in Dumfries, which has half a dozen Scottish weddings going on and all the makings of a good farce. Men in skirts, mistaken identities, family crises – Shakespeare would have been in his element. Lee slumps on the bed for a moment, before I harry him off and back out to the car. It’s a glorious evening as we head up the road to Lochmaben, the scene of Robert’s formative years and stronghold of the Lords of Annandale since the mid 12th century. I’ve been here before, but I want to re-familiarize myself and it feels like a good way to ease myself into research for Book 2. We park in the town and walk the mile and a half along the reed-fringed waters of Castle Loch to the ruins on the southern shore, hidden in a tangle of woods. Built by King Edward I around 1299, it came to replace the former castle of the Bruce family, situated in Lochmaben on the edge of Kirk Loch. The old castle was captured in 1298 and it’s entirely possible Edward used some of its material to build his new stronghold here. The stonework dates from later in the 14th century, but the earthworks that remain are original. Like scores of Scottish castles it would change hands many times during the Wars of Independence. It’s an atmospheric place; broken, ivy-strung walls looming in the dusk, the only sounds the cries of birds flying low over the loch. I imagine the air filled with the thud and clatter of tools as the building work begins, the English watchful, aware that the Scots are out there somewhere, waiting to strike.

Back in Lochmaben we pause at the former Bruce stronghold by Kirk Loch. A mound is all that remains of the motte and bailey, barely visible behind the bunkers and flags of a golf course. We race for the Mini as the sun vanishes behind clouds that appear out of nowhere, the rain coming hard and sudden. Who was it who said, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing?

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