My Writing Journey
I suspect that most authors get asked the standard questions such as ‘when did you first realise you wanted to write’, ‘where did you get your idea from’, and ‘How do you have the patience’?
I would also suspect that the answers are as numerous as the authors responding.
For my part, the writing journey started in a private school at the age of ten when I wrote ‘Ten minutes to wait’, an updated version of which is contained in the ‘Short stories’ section.
The piece won the school short story competition but mysteriously disappeared soon afterwards and I always expected it to resurface with someone else’s name on at some time.
I cite that piece as the start because I truly think it was, although it was also the end of my writing for some considerable time, save for submissions to the school magazine and later on to the Royal Berkshire Fire Service’s brigade magazine, the fantastically irreverent ‘Stag’.
My scribblings were, for many years, focussed on compiling the wargame rules that will form the basis of a work yet to be perfected and released upon an unsuspecting public.
However, in the late nineties I had the wisp of an idea that refused to go away and started to distract me.
I have always had a fondness for history, with military history being my greater focus, and specifically World War Two.
Within that huge subject, my attention was generally drawn to the combat and combatants on North-West Europe 1944-45, and to the greatest of all battles, namely that for Russia from 1941-45.
I have always respected military excellence, no matter what the uniform, so perhaps it was inevitable that I should be drawn to the elite units of the Waffen-SS and Heer and develop a reasonably intimate understanding of them, their trials and tribulations, their good and bad sides, and their achievements in the face of extreme adversity.
In no way am I an apologist for the excesses they visited upon combatants and civilians alike, and I have nothing but the utmost disgust and revulsion for those who wore the same uniforms and tended and managed the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Mauthausen, and the like.
My interest lay in the men who fought and endured in situations and conditions we can scarcely comprehend.
Their portrayal has always tended to be less than objective and focussed on the regrettable and downright awful side that some displayed.
My idea was to redress the balance in some way, and hope to show that, as I said in my writing, honour and bravery lie on both sides of the divide.
The acorn of Red Gambit was planted and I started research.
A divorce came into the equation and proved to be a very real barrier.
New life, new wife, new beginning… but no time for my project.
I think that it came back to the forefront in about 2009 when I decided that I simply must write a book. Literally, I felt I could and I should, so just get on with it, otherwise I would always regret not having done so.
I had no idea what I was doing, and some wag will certainly be thinking ‘it showed’.
The plan was made in straight-forward fashion and I sat down to write, starting with the words ‘His name was Uhlmann and he was SS.’
My intent was to write one book, narrative in style, no dialogue, just information.
I very quickly realised that my plan was about as faulty as a plan could be, and that chapter moved well down the list as I moved to insert characters, words, and explanations.
Those of you who have read ‘Red Gambit’ may well be shocked to learn that Uhlmann was intended to be my main German character, and that he was to be accompanied on his journey by the main characters of Crisp, Yarishlov, Stelmakh, Lavalle, and Ramsey.
Yes, you read that correctly. My initial plans did not include De Walle, Anne Marie de Valois, Haefali, Charles, Barkmann, Nazarbayeva, and Ernst-August Knocke, the latter two undoubtedly the most popular characters in the whole series.
That illustrates how little I knew of or understood about anything to do with writing a book, which was also all that I intended to write; one book.
That Red Gambit ended up as eight healthy size offerings also shows my naivety!
I started with the idea of using the ex-SS in the Foreign Legion and that was that, so I fleshed out a rough scenario to satisfy that idea and that alone.
It is quite scary to look back and realise how little planning I really did and how insubstantial was the framework on which I hung my story at the start.
In total honesty, I am surprised that Red Gambit developed into something readable and that gave the impression of being organised and well-thought out! I may be doing myself an injustice, but I do know that the finished article in no way resembled the intent and ideas with which I started the journey, save only in the use of the SS and in the general ending where nothing was actually gained or achieved, despite the considerable loss and sacrifice expended in the causes for which the characters fought.
Ideas came thick and fast. Some made it to my various pieces of paper, others went into the recesses of my mind, only to surface again later. Many more were either forgotten or discarded.
I can honestly say that the journey that Red Gambit became was as much the book writing itself as for me steering it.
That may sound weird, but it is true. I found myself drawn down routes that I hadn’t originally thought of, or had rejected as unnecessary, only for the book to demand their insertion. If you have written you may well understand exactly what I mean.
I was very fortunate to have a loyal group of fans and followers on Facebook and on my website, who provided me with support and encouragement throughout the years it took to bring RG to its conclusion, many of them finding their way into the pages as characters, such as Hanebury, Towers, Banner, and Wild.
Perhaps most fortunate of all was the fact that the books sold, certainly enough to allow me to continue visiting the places about which I wrote.
I did scrape together enough funds to do a week in Europe during the writing of Opening Moves, which allowed me to stand on the banks of the Hunte River at Barnstorf, visit Tostedtland and Selestat, and to walk around the Chateau du Haute-Koenigsbourg and the high Vosges.
Opening Moves was all but finished when I made that trip, all save the chapter set in the Chateau when the Symposium was visited by violent men who did not have their best interests at heart.
From what I understand, that chapter is generally considered to be the best in the first book, and it made me understand the real value of going to somewhere and understanding it in the flesh, rather than interpreting a photo or street view on Google.
I still did that, of course, as I chose not to cross some national borders, and the Far East was well beyond my pocket, but I invested a great deal of my earnings in ensuring that I could write effectively about the places I described and in which I set my events.
My biggest errors of all came with submitting Red Gambit to the public on Amazon.
I simply did not do it right.
There were flaws in production, in spelling, in construction, in just about everything, for which I apologised and continue to apologise.
It was revisited and corrected some time later, but that naivety in rushing the release will ever stand against me and the series in general, and the reviews reflected reader’s exasperation.
Of course, some of the reviews were simply set to spoil, for reasons known only to those who created them. It is a common thing with online reviews, where the review writer can simply trot out whatever nastiness they want without fear of repercussions.
None the less, a few books sold here and there, ticking over ten or twenty a month for some time until something happened that kick started the success that the series became.
After that, the book and then books sold regularly and new fans came to the website and Facebook.
My predictions rose to three…four…five…seven… and finally eight books in the series.
Something of a change from my first thoughts of just the one!
The biographies were written for myself, as I realised that it was going to be tricky to keep tabs on the large number of characters that came into the series. I then realised that if I was going to have that problem, so would the reader.
So the Biography set was born, and I put a huge amount of work into them to make them both useful and informative.
They contain so much fact woven into fictitious characters’ lives, and I am extremely proud of them.
I decided not to miss out a single character, no matter how small their part.
To illustrate how far I was prepared to go I must cite Schalburg, the husband of Rolf Uhlmann’s sister, Krystal.
He was not mentioned in the books by name, only in her bio, but I created a bio for him.
His bio reflects that he was shot down and killed by friendly fire from Italian bombers during an air raid on Harwich, UK.
On the day in question, the Italian Air Force did indeed accidentally shoot down some German ME-109s over Harwich. I know that sort of detail would generally have gone unnoticed, but it suited me to write that way and, for some, will have been appreciated.
I am extremely proud that there is only one grounded complaint on my research in all of the eight books, and that was my own fault for transposing the aircraft in two FAA squadrons into the wrong units.
After each book I took a small writing break by design, although other breaks were foisted on me by the dreaded writer’s block, by apathy, or by outside forces.
In general, my stress problem was of no great import, but on two occasions the pressure of having to write was so great that I simply lost both the ability and wish to do so.
As Red Gambit progressed, I realised that I had created a monster. It was big in terms of everything: size, words, and scope. On some occasions that daunted me, on others I saw it as a challenge to be met and overcome.
The whole project simply grew, as red herrings suddenly resurfaced and became crucial strings, and others melted away, no longer needed to take matters forward.
I set my standards early on and was determined to achieve them at all times. My combat was to be as gritty and realistic as I could make it. I think I once said that to do otherwise would be to do a disservice to those who have fought and continue to fight. Some of the most treasured comments from my readers are those that speak of the reader’s disbelief that I never saw the whites of the enemy’s eyes. I think I drew on the yarns of old men sharing a whisky with my grandfather, the biographies of those who served, and my own experiences of violent death as a firefighter.
I would try to make my people as human as possible, and to reflect the real-life characters as much as I could from my own understanding of them, hence Eisenhower was a chain-smoker, something that drew derision from certain uninformed reviewers.
I also did not want to shy away from difficult aspects where they presented themselves.
Most certainly, I sought out the Auschwitz scenario deliberately, and there were other occasions when I could have swerved to avoid a tricky situation but chose to head straight into it.
Of course, that scenario where Nazarbayeva became the victim of unspeakable acts drew a great deal of attention and criticism, often because the reader had invested in her and felt real pain and disgust at the events I described.
Could I have done it differently? Of course, and to this day I am unclear if I should have. None the less, my aim to reduce her to her lowest point and give her reasons to drive her willingly into the events that later came to pass was reasonable, even if the method I chose was not.
Red Gambit was also to be told from all sides, something that proved to be a wholly correct decision and one that earned me some fantastic comments. I will long remember the US service personnel who used to sit opposite the Soviets during the tense years of the Cold War questioning how they could read about Deniken and Yarishlov, Chekov and Istomin, and find themselves rooting for the ‘bad guys’ when fighting their own. In many ways, my work was done, as the theme of the series was ‘there are no bad peoples, just some bad people’.
And perhaps the greatest example of that was Knocke.
An ex-SS tank officer who had fought against all sides during the main war, a member of a reviled group, a beaten enemy, now a prisoner.
Ernst-August Knocke, late of La Légion Étrangere.
The most popular, respected, and dare I say loved character in the Red Gambit series by a country mile.
I suspect that was because he was a superb soldier, brave, humble, charismatic, loyal, a man of honour and integrity, equipped with a sense of humour clearly tinged with a hint of mischievousness, and quite possibly the sort of man that we might aspire to be.
Such figures occur elsewhere in Red Gambit, in all nations, but none made such an impact as Ernst-August Knocke. It was no coincidence that he was the man I chose to tackle the difficulties in Auschwitz.
The villains and incompetents wrote themselves in so many ways. The useless Molyneux and the downright nasty Skryabin were easy, Molyneaux mainly because he was positioned directly opposite our favourite character, Skryabin because he lacked anyone to offer him checks and balances so his behaviour could be as outlandish as I chose.
Beria was simply a nasty individual and I needed no variation from real life to portray him as a monster, nor any of his real-life henchmen.
Making Deniken transition from competent officer and sound human being to the merciless damaged person he became was more tricky of course.
I am not wholly sure how the confrontations between Nazarbayeva and Beria came about. I suspect they just happened, but soon enough they became a necessity, and one that the readers seemed to expect in every book. I confess it was sometimes tricky to write her parts, keeping true to my notions of her as brave and fearless, yet vulnerable and politically inept.
Certainly, she grew in the books and I really do wonder whether readers realised just how important she was to the overall story, bearing in mind that she was an afterthought of mine. From what I gather, the significance of the Red Queen on every cover was wasted on most of my readers.
The technology of RG threw up some interesting challenges. I think we can all accept that war brings about more rapid advances than peace, which is why I felt comfortable with bringing forward certain machines and weapons ahead of schedule. I think I was mainly successful although that I accept some felt the advance in time was a little too much in some cases.
I enjoyed the intrigue and political shenanigans, despite the fact that I had never intended to write anything like the scenarios I managed to pen. The success of them gave birth to the idea of ‘the Chancellor Chronicles’, which project will be started once Atlantisch is complete.
Red Gambit was a journey that started out as a proverbial short stroll in the woods and ended up as a mammoth expedition across the continents of the world. Sometimes I simply held on tight and went where the damn thing decided it wanted to go.
But it was a great challenge and I had a lot of fun along the way, went some fantastic places and met some great people, both in the flesh and in the electronic world we all now inhabit.
Are there things I would change? Yes, for sure. I have read it since and thought ‘I could have done that’ or whatever. I think that is the province of the author, as we always like to tinker.
In the end I feel I produced a huge but intelligible ‘what if’ that satisfied my requirements re the Waffen-SS and the need to write a book, and that will not embarrass me when examined in the future.
I am often asked which part is my favourite. I don’t have a favourite but I do have some of which I am more proud than others.
For sure, the Chateau scene where Knocke is joined by Haefali in tending to the paratroopers is right up there, the more so as I have no recollection of writing it. It was penned over two nights, a Wednesday and Thursday, and I decided to read the fresh work over lunch on Friday. It was all new to me and I was moved to tears, such was the power of it to me. I know I wrote it, but I recognised next to nothing of it. I guess that I had been in the zone at the time.
I derive great pleasure from Knocke’s interactions, especially with Molyneux and the sentries, and the crew of Lohengrin.
The scene where the Soviet spy witnesses the camaraderie of the ex-SS Legionnaires is very important to me.
Most certainly, the Battle of Barnstorf was notable, mainly as I had walked the fields and river banks about which I wrote.
I penned all with my mind’s eye, every scene having been contrived whilst I stood in the October drizzle. I do remember feeling mentally drained when I finished writing that chapter.
There are some pieces that bring a lump to my throat. I am an old softy so no surprises there, but when others, be they friends or reviewers, speak of the emotion that transfers itself from my words to their hearts, I feel proud and humble.
The chateau is one of those, and I cannot read that sequence without a moist eye. I think that the same can be said of the sheer anger of Nazarbayeva’s physical trials, for wholly different reasons of course.
I would add to that Ramsey’s scene at the grave of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow and the final act in the book with Haefali at Nietuja.
Perhaps the last one, where the solitary legionnaire stands amongst his departed peers is the strongest of them all for me, I suspect because it also marked the end of the journey that was Red Gambit. It would have been easy to wax lyrical and put together a titanic ending, but I really believed that a simple emotional piece would be more appropriate. I believe I was correct, although my tears might have been for more than one reason, especially when I typed ‘The End’.
The voyage of discovery that was Red Gambit ended, but new paths waited to be trod.
I had thought to write Chancellor Chronicles first, but Atlantisch simply would not wait. There are other ideas milling around in the mush that counts for my mind.
Honestly, I am so fortunate that things have worked out as they have, that I brought together something that was coherent and gave pleasure, and that I wrote stuff that people wanted to read.
Long may that continue.
The journey continues with Atlantisch but I must look back and thank a few special people who helped me that little bit more than others.
My best friend, he who cannot be mentioned, of course. His advice, help, and general forbearance of my obsession ensured a successful project.
My brother Jason for his fantastic work on the RG covers.
My friend Gary for his assistance getting the books out to publishers and his help with proof reading and the new Atlantisch venture.
My friend, Jim Hanebury, who left us last year but leaves a hole, I shall miss his input and conversation immensely.
And to you, my readers, without whom my efforts would simply be another vanity project that lies unnoticed.