Tom asked me what I wanted him to write about for my blog, and I said “something stupid that you did, so we can laugh about it after.” Well, he sent me this, and I thought it was pretty funny, and when I got to this part, “I had a map from 1809 and maps (and satellite images) from today, but I couldn’t marry the two together”, I was nodding sagely – yes, here is a tale most any author can relate to – research gone wrong. Enjoy!
The first book I ever wrote was The White Rajah which is set in Borneo. It came about because I’d made a visit to Borneo (my mother-in-law was living in Singapore at the time, so it wasn’t that strange a things to do) and I wanted to write about the history of the place.
The White Rajah was followed by Cawnpore, which is set in India, a country that I have never visited.
The next book I wrote was Burke in the Land of Silver, which, again, grew from my love of a particular country and its history – this time, Argentina. That was duly followed by Burke and the Bedouin, which is set in Egypt. Fortunately I had visited the Middle East before, so I had some sense of the country I was writing about, but I didn’t actually visit Egypt itself until well after the book was published. Similarly (and it’s embarrassing to admit this) I only got to Waterloo some time after the publication of Burke at Waterloo (despite the fact that my wife’s family live about half an hour’s drive from there).
In view of my repeated inability to research the countries that I write about ahead of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), it should come as no surprise to learn that when I wrote Burke in the Peninsula, set in Spain and Portugal, I had never been to either of those countries. Actually, I had visited Barcelona, but as Catalans will all tell you, that’s is hardly Spain at all.
After I had finished the book, but while I still had plenty of time to make changes, I decided that it would be a really good idea to visit the place. I met somebody who makes a living out of organising tours to Napoleonic (and other) battlefields and he set up a trip for us. My main interest was to see the site of the battle of Talavera, which is one of the highlights of the novel.
Unfortunately, our guide was taken seriously ill just ahead of a planned holiday. However, he had booked hotels and worked out an itinerary and suggested that, if we wanted, we could make a trip on our own. We had been meaning to do this for years and we thought that if we put it off one more time, it might end up never happening, so we decided that that’s what we would do.
We arrived in Madrid to discover that the car we had booked had been upgraded to something bigger. This, it turned out, was not necessarily a good thing.
Although I’ve driven a lot in France and I’m used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road, this was the first time I had ever actually driven a left-hand drive car – and one that was significantly wider than my own car at home. The result, I very soon found, was that I had no idea where the near side of my car was. As we made our way out of the airport, this meant a fair amount of kerb banging, but it was, I thought, nothing that I couldn’t cope with. In any case, I would surely soon get a feel for the width of the vehicle.
Our first stop was to be the mediaeval town of Toledo. It doesn’t feature in the Napoleonic Wars, but we been assured that it was worth a visit anyway. We made good time down the motorway, with my wife, in the passenger seat repeatedly squeaking that her side of the car was moving out of lane but the road was quiet and the lanes were wide and it really wasn’t an issue. Then we arrived at Toledo.
Toledo is indeed spectacularly beautiful. If you get a chance I really strongly suggest that you go there. But don’t drive. We shouldn’t have driven into the city ourselves, but the hotel we had been booked into was on a very sharp left turn just ahead of the old town. We overshot it by about 20 yards which took us firmly into the town’s one-way system.
Had I had any idea what was going to happen next, I wouldn’t take my chances and just reversed out. As it was we decided to follow the one-way system. We couldn’t get lost – there really was just the one way – so we reckoned we would go round and find the turn on our next attempt.
Here’s a photo of a street in Toledo. This is not a pedestrian street. No, it’s a regular street.
I’m driving a ridiculously wide car that I’m totally not used to through twisting narrow streets that I have never seen before. Let’s just say that my key priority was not hit any of the pedestrians. The scaffolding that surrounded buildings under repair and some of the big stone corners that have been fending off vehicular attacks for about 500 years were not my priority. I think I can safely say that we did no measurable damage to the mediaeval fabric of the town. That’s a lot less than can be said for the car.
The charming lady who had rented it to me had strongly recommended that we take out the extra insurance on offer. My wife really wasn’t sure, but I went for it and never have we made a more sensible decision. By the time we got back to the hotel, I was shaking. Did we want to drive down the road to another car park or would we like to pay extra for the one on their site? It wasn’t a question that I had to spend any time thinking about. The hotel car park was underground with a ramp down to it the design of which seem to have been copied from the staircases inside turrets designed to enable the city’s defenders to prevent anybody from climbing up. It was only the all-too-visible signs that dozens (maybe hundreds) of previous motorists had had no more success of avoiding walls on the ramp than I had had in Toledo itself that made me feel rather better about myself.
We decided to put that experience firmly behind us and explore the town. Again, I can only say that you really, really should visit. I thought I’d been in a mediaeval towns before (like the Shambles in York) but this is a whole town that seems to have been preserved pretty much as it was in its heyday. It is just utterly, ridiculously beautiful.
The next day we left Toledo by a relatively wide road that was less exciting, but rather safer, than the roads we explored the day before and set off towards Talavera.
Talavera is a town celebrated for its ceramic tiles. People in Talavera are proud of their tiles and show it.
We weren’t there to see the town, though. We were there to see the battlefield. That was, after all, the whole reason for the trip.
I had rather expected road signs and maybe a museum, but I got the distinct impression that Spain was in no hurry to celebrate Talavera. There is a street named after General Cuesta who, nominally at least, won the battle for Spain, but it’s a small, short one and easily missed.
I had a map from 1809 and maps (and satellite images) from today, but I couldn’t marry the two together. We drove vaguely round the countryside for a while and we did find a ridge that looked to be in about the right position, but I’m not at all sure that we ever did visit the battlefield of Talavera.
It wasn’t a wasted trip. We saw so many beautiful things and our visit to the famous lines of Torres Vedras in Portugal may well be the inspiration for another book in the Burke series. Even our failure to find the Talavera battlefield was far from disastrous. The battlefield has been mucked about with a lot with a road built through the middle of it, so I was more interested to get a feel of the place. What was amazing was how the miles of Spanish plain suddenly turned into really quite steep lines of hills. The idea of trying to attack up slopes like that was quite terrifying. The time we spent driving to and from Talavera also gave the notion of the scale of these campaigns and the days that must have been spent marching across dusty, unshaded plain.
So there we are: my attempt to properly research a battlefield before publishing one of my books. And it was, let’s face it, a more-or-less total failure.
Never mind, judging from what has happened with all the others, it is only a matter of time before I go back and visit Talavera again.
Burke in the Peninsula
Burke in the Peninsula will be published in paperback and on Kindle at the end of September. For more information, please take a look at http://tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk/.
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