Winston Churchill as Indiana Jones: Adventures in the Age of Empire



Hear the name Winston Churchill, and what comes to mind? Most likely, it’s Churchill the war leader with his ever-present cigar, bulldog scowl, and never-surrender spirit. But long before Churchill’s Finest Hour, there was Winston Churchill the young adventurer.

Between 1895 and 1900, Churchill covered wars of empire in Cuba, India’s North-West Frontier, the Sudan, and South Africa as a correspondent for several London newspapers. In September, Da Capo will publish my book Winston Churchill Reporting, which details this rollicking period in Churchill’s life. Consider it Winston Churchill as Indiana Jones.

Churchill’s dispatches are vivid, graphic, and make for compelling reading. Although he published some of his articles in book form, I wanted to rely on his reports as they originally appeared.

As a war correspondent for the Morning Post in 1898, Churchill was attached to General Kitchener’s army and followed the Anglo-Egyptian re-conquest of the Sudan. At the Battle of Omdurman, Churchill was commissioned with the 21st Lancers and took part in an epic cavalry charge against several thousand enemy Dervish.

We can see exactly how he described it in this report, printed in the Morning Post on September 29, 1898:


Equally vivid is his detailing of the bloody aftermath, which appeared in the Morning Post on October 6, 1898:


In 1899, Churchill was again reporting for the Morning Post, this time from the South African battlefields of the Second Boer War. It was here he made an international name for himself after being captured and then escaping from an enemy Prisoner of War camp.

In January 1900, he was present at the disastrous Battle of Spion Kop. This article was published in the Morning Post on February 17, 1900. It’s yet another example of his gripping journalism:


I’ll post more details on the book throughout the year!

(The blog first appeared on the website for the British Newspaper Archive.)

Legend of the Fall: Jim Harrison on Writing



Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall) has, in recent years, become one of my favorite authors. His books are populated by lovable misfits and loners, and generally focus on man’s relationship with nature. This is never done in a preachy way, but in bold tales of drinking, sex, and love-gone-wrong. He’s been compared to Hemingway—but whereas both have a bare-boned style of writing, Harrison’s work exudes much more warmth. Indeed, Harrison himself once summarized Hemingway’s work as a “woodstove that didn’t give off much heat.” His output includes an amazing number of novels, novella collections, and volumes of poetry. This is good news for me; although I’ve read a half-dozen of his books, I have plenty more to go.

Earlier this year, in a piece for The Atlantic, he described his approach to writing prose and poetry. You can read the article here in its entirety, but I’ve excerpted my favorite part:

I think about my novels for a long time before I start to write them—a year or more, sometimes many years. I’m half Swede, and Swedes are brooders. I just sit around brooding about it. A lot of this happens when I’m walking or driving. I’ll take long, directionless car trips to try and see where my mind is. Usually, the story begins with a collection of images. I’ll make a few notes in my journal, but not very much. Often not much more than a vague outline. A tracery, a silhouette.
That’s how the story “Brown Dog” came to me—from an image. I had visited the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Sault Ste. Marie. They had photos of the cook in the galley of a sunken ship that went down in the 1890s. The lakes up there are so cold that the cook looked perfectly preserved, floating around in the galley—except he didn’t have any eyes. That’s how the story started.
Once I start, I very rarely change my mind about the nature of the story. And when I begin writing, it’s sound that guides me—language, not plot. Plot can be overrated. What I strive for more is rhythm. When you have the rhythm of a character, the novel becomes almost like a musical composition. It’s like taking dictation, when you’re really attuned to the rhythm of that voice.
You can’t go to it. It has to come to you. You have to find the voice of the character. Your own voice should be irrelevant in a novel. Bad novels are full of opinions, and the writer intruding, when you should leave it to your character.
When you’re not writing in the first person as the speaking character, the danger is there’s too much temptation to show off. And many writers do. They hit what they think is a high note, then keeping shooting for that. I like what Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker says: She has to have a story, she can’t just have effect. There must be more than writerly effect. And it’s true. Nobody likes a showoff.

Stephen King On Writing a Good Opening Sentence



Stephen King is one of two authors—Ian Fleming being the other—who made me, when I was thirteen, want to become a professional scribe. While cruising around online the other night, I found a piece King wrote last year for The Atlantic, in which he details the importance of a good opening line. You can read the article here in its entirety—but here’s a glimpse at what he had to say:

There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s a tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.
But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
How can a writer extend an appealing invitation — one that’s difficult, even, to refuse?
We’ve all heard the advice writing teachers give: Open a book in the middle of a dramatic or compelling situation, because right away you engage the reader’s interest. This is what we call a “hook,” and it’s true, to a point. This sentence from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice certainly plunges you into a specific time and place, just as something is happening:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Suddenly, you’re right inside the story — the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting — and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.
This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do. In “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” we can see right away that we’re not going to indulge in a lot of foofaraw. There’s not going to be much floridity in the language, no persiflage. The narrative vehicle is simple, lean (not to mention that the book you’re holding is just 128 pages long). What a beautiful thing — fast, clean, and deadly, like a bullet. We’re intrigued by the promise that we’re just going to zoom.

The rest of the article is worth checking out, so stop hanging around here!

The lost art of writing ghost stories

Image credit: Daily Telegraph

Image credit: Daily Telegraph

I love a good ghost story—but, as a general rule, I don’t read them during the summer. Sunshine and swimming pools minimize the creep factor. This month, however, I made an exception. I’ve been trying to read every unread volume on my bookshelf. I have no set strategy; I simply grab whatever catches my fancy. The most recent book to do so was Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories. It’s been sitting on my shelf for several years and, for whatever reason, has always been overlooked. It’s a collection edited by Dahl and contains some real gems. Ignoring my rule about specters and summer, I dived in and was pleasantly creeped out by a good number of tales. If you enjoy the macabre, check it out.

While reading the book, it occurred to me that writing a genuinely good ghost story is very much a lost art. Horror stories today focus on the gory and have an in-your-face quality to them. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, it’s a lot harder to scare someone by what they don’t see. I prefer English ghost stories for the simple reason I’ve never read a decent one by an American author (okay—Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is an exception). The Grand Master of the English ghost story is, without doubt, M.R. James (1862-1936). He served in his lifetime as provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and Eton—but it’s for his disturbing tales that he’s best remembered. In total, he published four books. Penguin has collected all his stories in two great volumes, Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories and The Haunted Dollhouse and Other Ghost Stories. In the preface to his 1911 volume More Ghost Stories of An Antiquary, James details what makes an effective ghost story:

I think that, as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear on any day. A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, “If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!” Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story. Again, I feel that the technical terms of “occultism,” if they are not very carefully handled, tend to put the mere ghost story (which is all that I am attempting) upon a quasi-scientific plane, and to call into play faculties quite other than the imaginative.

No doubt he would have loathed Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Henry Miller’s advice for writers



To be perfectly honest, I only read Henry Miller in high school for the sex. I remember tearing through Under the Roofs of Paris, quite shocked—yet enthralled—by what was on the page. In his book Henry Miller on Writing, he lists his eleven commandments for getting the job done. I think he offers great advice; commandments five and eight are most noteworthy, in my humble opinion. Don’t waste your time, initially, on searching for that golden phrase. Just get the words down . . . and be sure you enjoy the process. If it’s not making you happy in some regard, it’s probably not worth it.

1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.

2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.”

3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!

5. When you can’t create you can work.

6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.

7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.

8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.

9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

Notes on the origins of a book



Author’s Note: The Case That Foiled Fabian is the first book to examine one of Britain’s most infamous unsolved murders. It distills the facts from the many rumors and wild stories that are today accepted as the truth.

Several years ago, while visiting family in the Cotswolds, I had a drink in a pub outside Evesham. A friendly gentleman at the bar, upon learning I write books on crime and history, suggested I ‘do one on the Lower Quinton murder.’ He summarized the case for me: On Valentine’s Day 1945, 74-year-old farm labourer Charles Walton was found on the lower slopes of Meon Hill with a pitchfork plunged through his chest and a trouncing hook buried in his throat. Numerous crosses were carved into his flesh. Scotland Yard dispatched their best man, Chief Inspector Robert Fabian, who was stymied by superstitious villagers: they claimed Walton was a warlock who could converse with animals. Out of fear, they refused to cooperate with police. The case was never solved.

This immediately piqued my interest. I read numerous articles, all of which played up the witchcraft angle: Walton was found beneath a willow tree, he was killed in the middle of a stone circle once used for Black Magic rituals, he bred large toads he used to curse local crops, he was clairvoyant, he could communicate with birds, as a boy he was haunted by a headless woman and a black spectral hound. I paid several visits to Lower Quinton, but was warned villagers did not take kindly to questions about the ‘Pitchfork Murder’.

A section of the Rollright Stones, which feature prominently in the murder. Some accounts claim that Walton was killed in the middle of the ancient stone circle--but the stones are 12 miles away from the actual murder site.

A section of the Rollright Stones, which feature prominently in the murder. Some accounts claim that Walton was killed in the middle of the ancient stone circle–but the stones are 12 miles away from the actual murder site.

For research, I went straight to the source: the Scotland Yard case files and the detailed reports and notes kept by Fabian. What I found intrigued me. Rumour and myth had overshadowed the facts of the case and, because of retellings in books and newspapers over the years, had been accepted as the truth. Charles Walton’s murder was bloody and grotesque—but there were no crosses carved into his flesh. He was not murdered in the middle of a stone circle, nor did villagers—who spoke with investigators—believe the man to be a practitioner of Black Magic. Indeed, the witchcraft angle seems to be a device hatched by reporters and authors—including Fabian, himself, who references the case in two volumes of memoirs.

That’s not to say the case isn’t strange, for it very much is. The residents of Lower Quinton did not seem at all alarmed by the vicious murder in their backyard. In a village of 493 people, not one person could shed any light on the subject. Although locals answered Fabian’s questions, they never volunteered information. The seasoned detective thought they were hiding something and believed ‘some local history’ unknown to the police played a part in the murder. There is a definite element of the creepy in Charles Walton’s killing.

As to the murderer, the circumstantial evidence points heavily to one man—a man Fabian believed for the rest of his life to be the killer and whose family operates a successful Cotswolds pub to this day. But any concrete solution to the case has forever been lost to history. Perhaps this is why the story of what many believe to be Britain’s last ritual witchcraft killing continues to fascinate.

The book, released by UK publisher The History Press, is available now.