Writing and Publishing

False Summits: Raising My Writing Ambitions

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Everyone has a good book in them.

It’s probably fair to say that most people who’ve heard that saying, and have repeated it to others, believe it to be true. At the very least they want to believe that it could be true.

I’ve counted myself amongst them since at least early adulthood. The question of whether or not I could write a book (never mind a compelling novel worth reading) has often nudged its way through the crowd from the back of my mind. Ideas have come and gone, and inevitably some have been better than others. A mythic fantasy concept occupied my imagination for a while until I had to concede my inability to wrestle the dragon-populated plot into anything resembling an arc. I might re-visit it one day as a children’s story. There was also a sprawling historical fiction epic, loosely biographical, set in Iron Age Britain around the time of the Roman invasion. I became immersed in the research for it for months, but was defeated in the end by the hordes of characters and the complexity of their relationships.

There are different schools of thought about the validity of the aphorism. For instance, everyone has a good book in them…

“…but it doesn’t do any good until you pry it out.” Jodi Picoult

Encouraging, yet cautionary and realistic about the difficulty of the task.

Alternatively, everyone has a good book in them…

“…but in most cases, that’s where it should stay.” Christopher Hitchens

More realistic still. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Some would take that as good advice and beat an honourable retreat. Others might take it as a challenge and want to pick up the gauntlet, even if only to answer their own nagging question. As I did.

The premise for Avarice of Empire, and the catalyst for all the research that went into the book, came to me courtesy of a little serendipity on 3rd May 2015.

Monuments to the ‘glorious dead’ of 19th century regiments, and the part they played in battles around the British Empire, are a common feature in places of worship all over the United Kingdom. More often than not they focus on the officer class to the exclusion of the men of the ranks. “…to his memory in token of their regard by his brother officers…” is a wording convention that crops up frequently.

However, on that Sunday morning nearly nine years ago, it was Canterbury’s magnificent cathedral that happened to be providing a welcome refuge from pouring rain. The unique phrase “…by the hand of an assassin…” made me stop and pay attention to one particular stone tablet as I walked along the south aisle. The memorial was dedicated to a Captain Charles Agnew of the 16th Lancers. It mentioned Egypt and a date in March 1873. I felt sure an interesting story was waiting to be discovered.

About a year went by before I started investigating Charles Agnew’s life and death in any meaningful kind of way, and it was another six months until I began writing.

I was very clear about my goal and its parameters from the outset. I wanted to tell Charles Agnew’s story in the form of biographical historical fiction. I wanted the novel to be sweeping in its scope, and I was determined its historical accuracy would be able to stand up to scrutiny.

But that was as far as my ambition went at the time. Just write the book. There was never a timescale or any serious thought of what might happen afterwards. Although the story was always going round in my head, and I never doubted I’d finish it eventually, for a long time making progress on the research and writing only happened sporadically between other priorities.

An important piece of the research puzzle early on was a group photograph held in the British Library’s archive. A copy of it has been my Macbook’s wallpaper ever since. Writing that scene, which takes place in Bangalore a little over half way through the novel, was a significant milestone.

If you’re someone who shares my love of walking in wild places, especially in the Scottish Highlands, you’ll know what it is to be teased by false summits. What you think is your goal heaves into view, but when you get there you realise there’s much more climbing still to do. The photograph in Bangalore was a bit like that. Getting past it bolstered my confidence that reaching the end was achievable, and raised my writing ambitions higher. It was no longer just about finishing the book. My goal became getting the book published, and for as many people as possible to read about Charles Agnew.

Other important waypoints soon followed: the word count going over 100,000; developing the scenes that relate most directly to the Canterbury memorial; and of course the final full stop at the end of final sentence. My ambitions were emboldened further with each one. Since completing the manuscript for Avarice of Empire in November 2023, I’ve organised a phase of beta reading and begun querying literary agents.

The metaphorical summit of publication (and all that follows) is still some distance away, and I’m realistic about how long it may take to reach, but that’s no reason to limit my ambitions. Research is already well underway for two sequels and a tangential fourth story.


If you’re an author, whatever stage of your writing life you may be in, please do share in the comments below how your ambitions for your work have changed over time.

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