Encore: on music and writing again

I have already written about the way in which some pieces of 18th and 19th century music inspired a handful of scenes in each of the three books in the Herzberg trilogy.

As a general rule I do not write to music playing in the background, much preferring to write in silence. The room in Norfolk where I do so overlooks a garden which greatly extends the quiet space in which I can let my imagination loose – a larger stage for characters to come to life whether during the day or in the evening.

Sometimes however I find it helpful before I begin writing to listen to a piece of music to help me let go of other preoccupations of the day. I choose at random from several favourite pieces. These include:

  • Jean-Philippe Rameau: Symphonie Imaginaire: a selection of Rameau’s best music assembled all in one work by the French baroque specialist Marc Minkowski and played under his baton by Les Musiciens du Louvre; or
  • Mozart: the aria Soave sia il Vento from his opera Cosi fan Tutte. In the trio two young women say farewell to their lovers who are about to deceive them cruelly revealing in turn the women’s own weaknesses. It is sublime piece of music accompanied by a superb libretto “On your voyage may the winds be gentle; may the waves be calm; may all the elements respond to your desires….”. What better words to hear at the start of a journey of imagination; or
  • Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, a setting of transcendent beauty of Psalm 51 and once one of the Vatican’s most closely guarded secrets which anyone found attempting to copy it was threatened with excommunication. But then Mozart came along and wrote out the whole piece from memory. The rest is history.

Selected extracts from A Motif of Seasons

With just over 3 weeks to go until the publication of the latest and last book in the Herzberg trilogy, A Motif of Seasons, my diligent team has selected six extracts to provide readers with a little glimpse into what they can expect.

My personal favourite is the poem written by Frederick in the bloody trenches of the Somme:

The Corporal’s Bloody Day

Inky black into battle grey,
Battle grey into bitter blue;
So becomes the hue
Of another bloody day.

Time to move each frozen limb,
Locked night-long in crusted mud;
The guns of the Hun begin to thud
Atop the trench’s brim.

“Sir, men ready for inspection,”
Barks the sergeant,
Midst his men shuffling to attention.
Knee-deep in slime,
Affection I convey
To weary faces, lifeless eyes.

“Will we make it home to Blighty?”
Asks the corporal,
Seeking reassurance.
“Yes,” I shout above the din.
“You’ll make it, Stripey.”

Inspection done, I move along
To the tune of loading rifles, whistled Tipperary song.
All standing ready for the sergeant’s fateful order:
“Lads, forward to the German border.”

Sudden comes the eerie whistle,
Then the deafening cascade,
And vivid pink, floating in the wind like down of thistle.
Alas! No Blighty for poor Stripey, despite the promise made.

And so the day goes on
As other days have gone,
On into another accursed night
Of vanquished hopes and unrelenting fright.

You can read the rest of the extracts here.

Why diplomats make good authors

As a former diplomat and strong advocate of the long view in history, I think I’ve got more experience than most of the good and bad in human nature amongst the many people I’ve met in my career. Like many authors I draw extensively on this experience in my writing, and A Motif of Seasons is no different.

For example, many things I learned and witnessed during my four-year posting to Berlin from 1985-89 made their way into the German settings in the book. In particular, I drew on my knowledge of diplomacy and how it works (little has changed in its principles and basic application over the past 200 years). It also informed the development of one of the main characters, lawyer Charles Hardinge, whose shrewd ability to observe events, people and their motives would have made him a good diplomat.

My diplomatic background also meant that I was able easily to draw on forty years of being part of the British foreign policy-making machine: of meeting particular historical figures (such as Henry Kissinger, US President Ford and Margaret Thatcher); as well as brave young Iraqis risking their lives to come to work in the Foreign Ministry I was helping to reform after the fall of Saddam Hussein; and not least the Deputy Foreign Minister of Iraq at the time, a close personal friend who was assassinated.

Above all, however, it is my first-hand experience of the extent to which fate – the unexpected – often has an impact on human affairs that has influenced my writing the most.

A trip to Nuremberg

The photograph below shows the main entrance to the building in Nuremberg where senior members of the Nazi regime were tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The process began on 20 November 1945 and ended on 1 October 1946, with those sentenced to death executed by hanging 15 days later.

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As my wife and I stood in court room 600 on the first floor on Sunday 11 September this year shafts of sunlight penetrated the room. Though still used for trials today its basic layout is the same as in 1945 – the defendants on the left in the box, their defence counsel in front, the judges facing on the right and the prosecuting counsel at right angles to the bench. As we stood close to where Goering, Hess, Frank, Ribbentrop and others had sat facing judges from the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and France (two judges from each of the four victors and occupying powers), the room still had a chilling atmosphere.

On the floor above the courtroom is an impressive and thought provoking permanent exhibition giving the full history of the trial (and the subsequent ones in Berlin of subordinates) and the steps thereafter over many decades leading eventually to the formation of the international courts to try offences committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and ultimately to the formation of the current International Criminal Court.

Afterwards we went to see the ancient St Sebaldus church badly bombed by the Allies in 1944, but where citizens continued to worship under open skies until the church was restored. Later we went to visit the house of Albrecht Dürer, the acclaimed artist and engraver (1471–1528), and after that to the Imperial Castle overlooking Nuremburg. Two days before we went out in a large boat on the Starnberger See (an hour out of Munich). That evening I photographed the opera house in Munich where I went one evening in 1985 to watch a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde while studying German before my next diplomatic posting in Berlin.

Despite having only just completed the final volume in the Herzberg trilogy, the purpose of this visit – and to the court house specifically – was to research the backdrop to my next book, and collect sufficient material to begin writing in the weeks and months ahead.

Remembering Private Charles Alfred Lawrence

With World War 1 as part of its concluding backdrop, I have decided to dedicate A Motif of Seasons to Private Charles Alfred Lawrence of the 9th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment. The Royal British Legion gave me his name as part of their programme to have members of the public remember individually every British and Commonwealth soldier killed in the four year conflict.

Lawrence was killed one hundred years ago today, 15 September 1916 – the same day as Lieutenant Raymond Asquith, son of the then serving Prime Minister Herbert Asquith – in an offensive against German lines during the Battle of the Somme (1 July–18 November). He has no known grave but his name is recorded on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in northern France.

I visited the memorial on Sunday 10 June this year during a short tour of the Somme battlefields with a military expert to check facts about the battle, and saw Lawrence’s name inscribed on one of the sixteen pillars. It was a moving moment.

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Music as a source of writing inspiration

writing-789835_1280All three of my books contain a significant number of musical references: the baroque period in The Music Book; baroque and classical in Fortune’s Sonata; and the classical and romantic period in A Motif of Seasons.

The performance of music in all three books – either by a fictional chamber orchestra or by fictional soloists or singers – is an integral part of each story line. It not only reflects my affection for classical music but has been a literary tool occasionally used to help convey the context of a scene I am writing about. To put it another way, I seek to translate into words the music which depicts what I see in my imagination.

For example, the second movement of Ludwig Abeille’s piano concerto for four hands underpinned a sexual scene in Fortune’s Sonata. It was equally the case with the second movement of Bacarisse’s guitar concertino to convey in the same book a scene in Andalusia of impending and poignant finality.

In short, for me there are times where music has provided inspiration for the conveyance of particular images in words.

How a one-off romantic story became a historical fiction trilogy spanning three centuries

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Portrait of Frederick the Great of Prussia, believed to be by the painter Christian Friedrich Ziesenis (1729–1792)

August has been an incredibly busy month for me. The final manuscript for A Motif of Seasons has been sent for production, and the publicity machine is preparing for action. This has given me time to reflect on my journey as an author over the last few years.

I originally intended for The Music Book to be a one-off historical romance story written for fun. Covering the years 1764–1766 it would be woven around fictional characters in England and Prussia, sparked by an 18th-century portrait of Frederick the Great and a 19th-century British passport in our family’s possession. I did it as a welcome antidote to decades of writing Foreign Office policy papers, briefs and speeches, writing for my own enjoyment and then to share the outcome with others if they so wished.

Once written I felt the characters nagging me to continue the story. Buoyed by some excellent reviews and feedback, I decided to do so in the sequel, Fortune’s Sonata, which covers the much longer period 1767–1816 and is set against the backdrop of the later years of Frederick the Great, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

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Passport issued on 3 October 1853 to Mr Robert Whitfield, his wife and son for the purpose of “travelling on the Continent”

It seemed only fitting to then conclude the chronicle of the two families I introduced in The Music Book, following them from 1853 to the First World War in the final novel A Motif of Seasons.

Though I had access to many sources, the stories stem entirely from my imagination. After dark, during the long winter nights in Norfolk, I was able to shut out the modern world and imagine these families struggling with the bitter legacy of an ancestral marriage in 1766 against a background of looming war. Writing was like driving a car alone late at night across an inky black landscape absent of landmarks – with the way ahead illuminated only a short distance by the two shafts of light from the headlights. Everything else either side or beyond was in darkness, providing ample scope for invention of what might be there. The Herzberg Trilogy is the result of that long dark journey.

A week of book launches

I want to express my gratitude and thanks to all those who attended the London and Norfolk launches of Fortune’s Sonata. I hope you enjoyed yourselves as much as I did. If you didn’t manage to pick up a copy of the book, you can purchase one from The Holt Bookshop, Waterstones in King’s Lynn (click and collect here), or Amazon UK (where you can also find the Kindle edition – if you already bought the paperback from Amazon, then you will be able to purchase the Kindle edition at a significant discount).

I was also pleased to pick up a copy of the current North Norfolk Living magazine and find a glowing review on page 46. You can read it online at www.northnorfolkliving.co.uk or below.

Download The Music Book for free

To further celebrate the release of Fortune’s Sonata in paperback and Kindle editions I am offering the Kindle edition of Book 1 of the Herzberg Trilogy, The Music Book, free to download for a limited time, to introduce new readers to the series.

It can be downloaded from http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00KAWXLCW or http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00KAWXLCW.

As a still relatively new author, I rely on interested readers reading and reviewing my books, and I hope by making these titles available in these ways, you will be encouraged to read and then rate/review them.

Win a signed copy of The Music Book

To celebrate the official launch of the paperback version of The Music Book, I have decide to give away 5 signed copies to Goodreads members based in the UK.

To enter, simply go to the Goodreads giveaway page and click the “Enter to Win” button. The giveaway will run until 21 July 2014, after which I will send copies to the lucky winners.