From writing about history to publishing fiction

When I started this website in mid-2017, it was to promote information about Sir John Wolfe Barry I had collated over many years. I was anticipating a formal launch in January 2018 to commemorate 100 years since Sir John’s death.

Three years on and a soft launch took place, coinciding with the start of the Year of Engineering and a number of related campaigns to promote engineering as a worthwhile career for young people.

Then, in early 2019, I began writing a book about Wolfe Barry, his family and the Brunels. This was self-published at the end of that year as ‘Building Passions’ (long title Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture) with a special website set up to promote the book at www.buildingpassions.co.uk .

The book launch coincided with the placing of an English Heritage Blue Plaque on the Chelsea house where Sir John had lived and died. I had started the application process for this at the end of 2015.

I have now moved on to writing fiction, an area in which I now feel relatively comfortable. I need to thank a group of local writers based in and around Canterbury, England for this. My second book, to be made available to readers soon, is about the fictionalised story of my grandfather who was a spy for the British in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany (or was he?).

I am currently drafting a third, fourth and fifth book as a fictional trilogy of novellas. These will be published during the course of 2020 I hope. I’m also collaborating with my local writing group on a murder mystery.

I have just created a new website (www.ashfordpublishing.co.uk) for all of my books, whether published or not. The plan is to transfer my sales platform to it in due course, but feel free to bookmark already.

This website will be an archival resource, with a new website about Sir John Wolfe Barry, Tower Bridge and other structures available as soon as possible under the transferred domain name for this site.

I may continue to blog occasionally here …

Dictatorship vs democracy

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a number of issues about how societies run themselves.

I have been exploring democracy as part of writing a trilogy of novellas. The basic premise is that a long-lived, family dictatorship is finally coming to an end, but the people need to be prepared for transition to democracy.

You can’t just throw it at them if they’re not ready for it!

There are plenty of dictator analogies in real life and fiction. States where the supreme leader has moved to a status of leader for life, or pretty much there. The most famous early historical example was Julius Ceasar taking out the Senate, for which retribution came back inevitably on the Ides of March. But his nephew Augustus went on to found a dynasty of emperors. Napoleon is another case in point, from general to leader to emperor – once again he met his downfall. Then of course Hitler more recently and Kim Jong-Un currently.

The transition to democracy is more fraught with troubles, witnessed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and failed attempts in Libya and Syria. As I write my second novella, I show how anti-democratic forces can be manipulated to defend the status quo, if needs must. A bit of bloodshed can help incite civil war, irrespective of whether either side has really thought through the logic …

I’m on the verge of starting the final book in the trilogy – I intend it to be full of hope, since that is the kind of message we all need currently amidst the lockdowns. But it will also look forward to a calmer future when society has hopefully picked up a few pragmatic lessons and, hopefully, reacted positively to a temporary but repeatable crisis.

In the meantime, chill out and read my book covering the history of architecture and engineering during the Victorian era: ‘Building Passions‘.

Experiments in writing

My first book was non-fiction and specialist (‘Building Passions‘). It was self-published in 2019 and then I moved on to fiction.

My second book is almost finished. The text just needs a final proofing and the cover is designed for the e-book. The printed version may be print-on-demand. It is historical fiction based on the true life story of my grandfather.

My third project is a trilogy of novellas within the same theme about dictatorship versus democracy. All pure fiction but related to politics and philosophy.

My fourth book is a collaboration with three other writers. It’s a murder mystery where we have created our own individual characters and are writing from their different points of view.

I may need to restart the cycle with some non-fiction. This depends how things develop with my historical research. If I get PhD funding then it will relate to that topic within architectural history. If not then I will go wider to consider other areas.

I enjoy writing and experimentation with different genres makes it even more worthwhile – they all have their challenges and surprises.

We all have the right to write #buildingpassions

I blogged a while back about writing. It is what I do.

My current writing is in fiction, in fact a trilogy of novellas is in the works.

The theme is dictatorship versus democracy, which raises interesting issues about people, society and freedom. We are experiencing a stress on our current democratic systems during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I have set the trilogy in a fictional nation somewhere in Europe. The context is about a family that has been in sole power for many generations. Something is beginning to stir and its name is democracy. But it’s the family itself which is doing the stirring!

I’m hoping to self-publish the whole trilogy by the end of the year in three stages, each separated by at least a month. That gives me an overall target of about 60,000 words split into three. I’ve already written the first book and have started the second one. Once you get into a rhythm then it makes drafting a lot easier, and I always review what I write immediately afterwards.

Which brings me to the title of the post.

In a truly democratic society we have the right to write what we like, even thought those in power may not like it. Many states are parodies of democracies for this very reason and may just take everyone through the motions as a public relations exercise. Let’s not even talk about voting!

Define, design, refine #buildingpassions

I am scoping a new novella which will be pure fiction.

This is new for me as so far I’ve written non-fiction and historical fiction, which both seem safe ground for an historian/policy wonk by trade.

I decided to start with a blank document on my laptop and see what emerged. Curiously my approach seemed to reflect what probably happens when building a new structure – and I’ve written about many past ones in my book ‘Building Passions‘.

First off, I defined my parameters. What did I really want to write about and what environment would shape it? That was fairly easy with pure fiction, though even at this stage some feedback helped me make a decision.

Then I started to design my main characters. I’d not done this previously as they were already there based on (largely) historical facts. This was quite fun and allowed complete artistic licence. I could make them as mad or as sad as I wished!

My next step was to create an outline plot based on what I now had. This was considerably easier than I thought it would be. I had to pinch myself to believe it!

Last but not least I refined my characters and plot, tightening focus and removing superfluous material. The end product looked great, now I just need to write it …

Define, design, refine. No idea where this came from but a net search just got me to: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/define-design-refine-strategy-your-products-mayank-tiwari/ and https://medium.com/netbramha-studios/define-design-refine-a-strategy-for-your-products-2bbe55df8dcb . I would also highly recommend anything by Oliver Broadbent often on his eiffelover.com (get the pun?) website.

It seems I have surreptitiously found an existing product design mantra which can be extended to writing and structures!

Writing fiction is a matter of dialogue #buildingpassions

I am writing a novella based on the life story of my grandfather, who was a spy in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, we think.

I started the process with scoping the story back in the summer, and then some preparatory drafting until November, when I started writing proper. This coincided with NaNoWriMo which is held every November around the world to encourage novel writing. I met a group of local writers and we have continued to engage since then.

I thought I could write fiction as easily as non-fiction, having completed my book ‘Building Passions‘. As it turns out, fiction is equally difficult. While you don’t rely on the accuracy of historical facts, for example, you do need to now how to build a close, personal link to your readership.

The big learning curve for me has been writing dialogue. I found this a challenge as it wasn’t a strong point for me. I’m good at narrative. However, my writing group has helped me develop these skills, so now I feel more confident. I can turn narrative into dialogue fairly easily, though know I must resist the temptation to write a screen or theatre play.

“Tell me John, why do you not want to be an architect like you father and brothers? Why a civil engineer?”

“I like sketching and designing, but I’m more interested in the maths behind those structures first proposed by myself or others. I have no ego about creative proprietorship. I just want to be sure buildings and bridges stay up for ever.”

Such might be a fictional dialogue between a young John Wolfe Barry and a Victorian contemporary.

Perhaps I should write more such exchanges?

Developing my writing into fiction #nanowrimo

I blogged a while back that I’ve started writing a novel based on the life of my grandfather Baron Lex von Behr.

This fictional story connects with the non-fiction of ‘Building Passions’ and in deed this website, through the theme of families.

As I said at the book launch of ‘Building Passions’ last week, I’m fascinated with family relationships and legacy. My grandfather almost lived out a novel or even a series of short stories. These included his mother, brothers, sisters, cousins, life partners and children.

While I am more comfortable writing non-fiction, particularly linked to history or education or the built environment, I realise that fiction is the big one. You can mould your subjects and develop their stories in parallel with the flow of events around them.

The book will actually be a trilogy called ‘The Other Red Baron’, split between three phases of Lex’s life as there is so much to cover about him. However, the core story is on his spying career and his passionate love affairs in Tashkent, London, Berlin and Paris.

As things develop I will consider how best to communicate on my progress – currently I’m sharing my writing trials and tribulations as part of National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org), its Kent community forum on Facebook and in meet-ups with local authors in and around Canterbury.