Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Don't Lose Your Head

Art by Taha Reda

Almost caught up on the book reviews, but I've also got some exciting news about my own books to come shortly.

One of which has been a right headache to research.

I'll be doing a cover reveal soon for my next novel, Secure the Shadow, which is tagged under the working title Still Life.

I could hardly believe my eyes when I looked at the file creation dates. I've been editing this one, very slowly, for almost a year. It has honestly been the hardest book I've ever dealt with. Fair enough, The Children of Lir took over thirteen years from concept to publication, but most of that time I'd simply forgotten about it. This one, I've actually been bashing away at. I recently said some rather uncomplimentary things about it and threatened to throw it away, but that resulted in an appeal from the people who had read it saying 'don't do that, just deal with the ending.'

There is nothing harder on earth than getting to the end of a complete manuscript and knowing there's something wrong. You start off with a story thinking you're in control. You think you know exactly where you're going. Then you start writing and the story has other ideas. Before you know it, you've jammed your silly putty of an idea through the slithering snake hole and it's come out in all these weird and wonderful shapes you never expected.

Most of the time.

Sometimes it comes out hideously malformed.

That was kind of what happened here. It didn't really need too much salvaging, but I wasn't in the mood. In my mind, I'd already checked out and moved onto the next project. So it took a monumental effort to go back through it.

Now, sitting on the other side of that, I'm really glad I did.

I'm looking forward to releasing it into the wild.

But the very last marker I'd placed between the pages was to go and fact check a date. I'd set a chapter in the midst of the Anglo-Ashanti Wars in West Africa. It was an absolutely fascinating battle in which British soldiers had only macaroni to load their guns with and literally sang themselves to death. At the end, the Ashanti warlords decapitated the leading general, rimmed his skull with gold and drank beer from him.

Many harbouring anti-colonial sentiment might be cheering at this point, but, unfortunately, all the British soldiers were abolitionists, trying to help another tribe, who were also decimated in the attempt.

History is nothing if not opaque.

The problem I was facing was that I'd written this scene as 21 January 1824, which is when the first Anglo-Ashanti war took place at the Battle of Nsamankow, according to Wiki:

On the night of the 20th, still without having joined forces with the other three groups, MacCarthy's force camped by a tributary of the Pra River. The next day, at around 2pm, they encountered a large enemy force of around ten thousand men...

Only, when you start reading the other Wiki page, about the Anglo-Ashanti Wars, it apparently happened on 22 January:

...they encountered the Ashanti army of around 10,000 on 22 January 1824, in the battle of Nsamankow.

Fecksake, Wiki!

Or, more correctly, whichever would-be historian got it wrong.

But that was the problem - who got it wrong? Which date was correct, 21st or 22nd?

The line in my book begins:

And so it was that, on the morning of 21st January 1824, Charles was reading Keats whilst Alfred buttoned his redcoat. 

And yes, I could have changed that to:

And so it was that, on a chilly morning in January 1824, Charles was reading Keats whilst Alfred buttoned his redcoat. 

But I didn't want to.

I mention the date twice and it has a nice ring to it, to be that precise. A lot of people died, you should know the date. And, besides, how hard could it be to clear up?

Bloody impossible, as it turned out. Alternating dates strewn throughout the internet. I tried Twitter, I tried an African History Forum on Facebook, I even tried writing to a professor at SOAS in London (still waiting on a reply).

It was driving me sodding insane.

The very final fact I needed to check and I couldn't find the answer anywhere.

Until it hit me.

The answer was rolling around in my skull.

Well, not my skull, exactly - the skull of Brigadier-General Sir Charles MacCarthy, former Governor of Sierra Leone.

The guy who got his head chopped off at the end of the battle.

So, thank you Wiki, you have redeemed yourself. The battle must have been on 21 January, because he couldn't have fought a battle without a head.

Sometimes you have to think really, really hard to write a book.

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