Sea WolvesI’ve just finished reading Sea Wolves by Tim Clayton with a view to rewriting my WWII submarine story ‘Under the Radar’ for possible submission.

This book had the capacity to have me in tears–the sheer loss of human life in the submarine service was staggering–but it didn’t.  And it wasn’t that the book didn’t focus on the human face of the service. There were human stories mixed in with the development of the submarine and the progression of the war and how the Powers That Be viewed the use of submarines in the war effort. Tales of their life at play as well as time spent on duty, of falling in love, and, in most cases, of how they died.

The origins of the submarine service, and, to a degree, the chapters on the pre-war service were fine as background information to the main event. The problem for me, and I think the reason that I didn’t connect with the book on an emotional level, was that once war was declared the author chose to focus on the different areas and campaigns. Chapters on the invasion of Norway, the submarine base at Malta, Japan taking over the Pacific, the development of midget subs.

The same names cropped up again and again as they moved from one submarine to another or were promoted—quickly, ensuring relatively young officers in a service that many didn’t want to volunteer for—and transferred to another campaign. I’d say eighty to ninety percent of the names mentioned died or were on board a sub that ended up being missing in action. And yet I could not cry for them. I recognised the names, recalled other submarines they had served on, people they had served with, even on occasions the women they had courted or married. And yet I could not cry for them.  I felt the despair of such vast losses, the futility of some of the campaigns (midget subs may have well have been titled suicide missions), their realisation of time running out, could often tell which report would be each participants last. And yet I could not cry for them.

I can’t deny that I cry easily. So why couldn’t I cry here?

Because the author would not let me. There was no continuity to each participant’s story. The information was probably all there, but in most cases it was spread over so many chapters that it left me feeling disconnected from the human aspect of their tale, and ultimately their death. The characters in this book—and believe me there were many interesting characters in the submarine service—were nothing but pawns in a document that detailed the campaigns and what happened to damn near every ship. In the end, despite the final chapter and his acknowledgements, I felt that the author treated the personnel of the submarine service no better than the Powers That Be, as a means to an end.

As a documentation of the development of submarines, of how it felt to be on board in wartime, and the changing view of the PTB this book could not be faulted. If you want to know what happened to most subs in the service, again this book is probably for you.

However as a celebration of the characters and mavericks that made up this service, as a thank you to them for putting their life on the line every time they stepped on board (even in peace time or friendly waters) this book was sorely lacking.

If you want to check out Sea Wolves or see what other folks thought of it, here’s the link on Goodreads.



Last summer at a yard sale,  the corner of an old book caught my eye.  Old books always do.   To me, there are few things that tell more about a time than the facts and ideas that people saw fit put in print.  Buildings, maybe, as they’re even more lasting.   I dug the little volume out from under a bunch of plastic robots, saw 1907 on the cover, and bought it right away, but I didn’t actually look at until weeks later—the short Canadian summer is for gardening, not browsing century-old reference books.

 But when the weather started closing in toward autumn, the little book became a fascinating time capsule. Fact #1:   They liked long titles that told you exactly what to expect:  1907 C. Regenhardt International Guide for Merchants, Manufacturers, & Exporters:  A Directory of the best accredited and most reliable firms of Banks, Bankers, Commission and Forwarding Agents, Lawyers, Notaries, Solicitors and all the Consultants of the Globe, Containing also many commercial Statistics and indicating for each place of any importance a trustworthy firm that gives direct information.

 Yes.  That is all on the title page.

 This book has all kinds of businesses and brand names, also currency equivalents for European and US money, the various calendars (European, Greek/Russian, Jewish, and Muslim) various advertisements (it has a little pencil loop and an accordian-fold pocket on the back cover, that still has a bookmark-size slip advertises “CP Goerz prismatic binoculars, (theatre and miltary styles”).

 My favorite ads so far are for the “Ideal” type-bar typewriter–it “causes sensation!”  (Especially, I guess, if you get your finger caught in the type-bar…)  and the Frister & Rossmann Schnellschreibmaschine (quick-writing machine, sort of a high-rise typewriter.)  The technology really has evolved in the last 102 years. I look at these ads sitting here beside my notebook computer, and the mind boggles.    The F&R ad didn’t photograph well, but type-writing machines were a hot item–Blickensderfer has one, too:

Ja, das ist ein Schreibmaschine!

The foreign currency exchange table is wonderful.  One silver piaster in Arabia was worth 3 marks, 52 pfennigs, or 89 cents American, or 3 shillings sixpence.   One gold Balboa in Panama was worth 4 shillings, 2.5 cents, or $1 American, or 4 marks, 19 pfennigs.   In Siam—shades of Anna and the King–1 tikal was worth 60 cents, or 2 shillings sixpence.

 Worried about European taxes on your merchandise?  The rates are listed for all bills of exchange, for dozens of countries.  You can check the size of your market—for instance, Hungary’s population is listed at 19,254,559, with an area of 125,000 square miles.   The minutiae are amazing. 

In honor of Hercule Poirot--All About Belgium!

And it’s a business directory, so of course it took advertising.  Got a cold?  Try the Bath of Ems, Germany, best cure of catarrhs of the Respiratory organs, the digistive (sic) organs, the Female organs, Urinary Systems, & Rheumatism, Gout, Asthma. Season from 1st May to 15th October.. Drinking & Baths Cure, Inhalation, Pneumatic Chambers, &c.    Get on the road without a horse or carriage with a Brennabor bicycle, Germany’s best, from the Brennabor Works in Brandenburg, Berlin, or Hamburg.  Oldest and largest cycle works of the Continent!  Need Licht? You can find the most up-to-date modern gaslight systems installed by Louis Runge, whose business may be found on Landsbergerstrasse in Berlin. 

 The typefaces are old-fashioned, perfectly suited to the antique illustrations—which were up-to-the-minute modern at the time.  Even the owner’s name, in old browned-out ink, is in an elegant European script… Thank you, EJ Beammon.  He must have dealt with Germany quite a bit–the book falls open to those pages, and some are dog-eared.  Not surprising–this area was settled by German farmers; many old people still speak it as their preferred language, and until WWI the town was Berlin, Ontario.  There’s only one disappointment – Mr. Beammon never used the blank memo pages at the end of the book, so his name is all the record he left of his activities in 1907.

 I wish I’d had this when writing Gentleman’s Gentleman–lots of hotels all over the world, and unquestionable authenticity.  And.. yep, the Neil House Hotel in Columbus, Ohio is listed here.  I was there once, back in the 80’s, for a sci-fi convention.  The Neil is gone now, torn down a couple of years later.  In 1907 it was ritzy enough to get a listing in this book.

 It’s strange and wonderful to hold, in my own hands, a book that might have belonged to my Gents characters.  It would be just the thing for a traveler who might want to find a bank or an embassy in a hurry.   The only risk, I think, would be allowing my enthusiasm to create an info-dump.  Sherlock Holmes might ask Watson to check the train schedule in his Baedeker, but he’d hardly want to know what patent nostrums were advertised in the back pages.  

I’ve always loved historical fiction, but in school history was one of the most deadly boring subjects.  I think that was mainly due to how it was taught, all memorization of dates and battles, nothing about how people actually lived.   It’s a shame that so little has been done to bring the past alive, to make things real to students.  I’m probably excessively optimistic, but I have to hope that if people realized how many of the stupid mistakes we see today have been repeated over and over, there might be a chance of avoiding a few of them.

Or maybe not… still, I’m staying on the lookout for tattered old books—there are others I’ve snagged at library sales—and having looked at Regenhardt again  I may have to nudge Lord Robert and Jack Darling to get into trouble so I can use some of these interesting gadgets. 

If you’re working on something that needs info I may have here, feel free to drop me an email!



What books would you want beside you if you had a lovely, private cottage with your computer on a solar-recharger, a story to write, and lots of time … but no library available?   I know which ones I’d want.

I’m not going to list the bare-bones: an Unabridged Dictionary, Bartlett’s Quotations, The Elements of Style, a World Atlas, or Roget’s Thesaurus – almost anyone who’s serious about writing has probably got favorites in that category, and those are essential tools for anybody writing anything, from contemporary horror to the wildest fantasy.

The books I’ll be talking about here are the ones closest to hand on my reference shelf, and they’re the ones I’ve turned to most often in writing m/m historical. They’re the books I would want with me if I had a month to spend on a quiet island with nothing to do but write… what a lovely notion!

1. A Sea of Words (King, Hattendorf, & Estes, Henry Holt, 1995.)

A Sea of Words was written as a companion book to Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, and it did the job beautifully. It’s also a boon companion to writing Age of Sail – you will find not only explanations of the sea-dog terminology Mr O’Brian used so fluently, but a copy of the dreaded Articles of War – the document that essentially abrogated the civil rights of anyone serving in His Majesty’s Navy. An article on how medicine was practiced, diagrams of the essential bits of a ship, and a brief explanation of how the Royal Navy was organized during the Napoleonic Wars makes this essential for any grass-combing landlubber of a writer who doesn’t know a head from a halyard.

2. Every Man Will Do His Duty (Hattendorf & King (again), Henry Holt, 1997)

This book covers the period of 1793-1815. An excellent selection of first-hand accounts, log entries, and source material drawn on by the likes of CS Forester and Patrick O’Brian, both of whom borrowed heavily from the adventures of Thomas Cochrane, Sir James Gordon, and other real-life naval officers. The excerpts from the memoir of one officer who spent time as a POW in France could spawn any number of plot bunnies all by itself. It isn’t a reference in the strictest sense, but the language gives a feeling for the time that no textbook could.

3. English Through the Ages (Brohaugh, Writer’s Digest Books, 1998 )

Not sure if your 1800 sailor would use the term ‘pile-driver?’ This incredibly useful tome has words indexed and cross-referenced to the page where the word passed into general use… so, given the way the language migrates, you find that you may safely put the word in his mouth, since its pedigree says 1775. But he wouldn’t ask a friend, “Are you okay?” since that wasn’t heard of until 1839.

4. The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (Rodger, 1986, W.W Norton)

This book deals with a period slightly earlier than the Napoleonic Wars, but it’s the era under which many adults of that age first went to sea as boys, most of them 14 or younger. Wooden World has useful charts – how many guns would you find on a Third-Rate man-o-war? How many lieutenants on a sloop? It also shows how things altered in His Majesty’s Navy over a few decades, from an age where sailors might complain of a bad captain with some hope of relief to a structure where the ordinary seaman could only pray that a bad captain would be killed before he took the whole crew with him.

5. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Grose, Dorset Press, 1992.

As Erastes has posted elsewhere on this blog, a very useful book, and very colorful. If only someone had thought to index it, it would be very much more useful, because in its present condition it gives an interesting browse but a frustrating search. If you happen upon ‘wapping mort,’ you know she’s a whore (tis pity..) but you can’t start with “prostitute” unless you have an hour to search.

6. Colonial American English (Lederer, A Verbatim Book, 1985)

This is a step up from Grose in terms of organization. This contains not only slang, but ordinary terms (eg, ‘fustian,’ that favorite of Heyer, is “a coarse, stout, twilled cotton.”) It also gives hints of how words have changed – “manure” used to mean working a field (a quote from a letter reveals that George Washington once “manured a field and then laid dung on it,”which would seem awfully redundant in the currant usage.)

7. Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, (Benet et al, 1st ed 1948, Harper & Row.)

Do you want your character to toss off a reference to a contemporary work but you’re not sure if it had been written yet? This is not only useful for that purpose, it’s interesting to browse through. Where else would you look up “ode” and find you have Pindaric, Horation, and irregular to choose from?

8. Pages Passed from Hand to Hand (Mitchell & Leavitt, Houghton Mifflin,

This book is a collection of what the title says: many of the excerpts in it were not published at all, or published only after the writers’ death. EM Forsters’s Maurice is among them; at the time it was written, censorship prevented its publication. This is another book useful mostly for inspiration and the sense of speech patterns, and ideas. There’s a big, conspicuous time-period missing in this collection; the period between 1757 and 1857, when persecution against “sodomites” was fierce.

9 My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (the indispensable Rictor Norton, Leyland Publications, 1998.)

What can you say about a book that contains snippets of love letters from as long ago as 139 AD to as near as 1960? This is a fascinating window into history and the human soul, and another excellent source of how men spoke and wrote… and an illustration of why ‘happy ever after’ is a bit of a stretch for most historical m/m couples.

10. Debrett’s The Stately Homes of Britain (Flower, Webb & Bower, 1982)

Bless the history-lovers of England and the second-hand stores of Ontario! I’ve found some real gems since moving here, and this is one of them. It’s considerably easier to describe a staircase and gallery (the better to spy from, my dear) if you have a picture of the entryway and stair of Antony House open before you. I would love to someday take a “stately homes” tour, but in the meantime, this book and others like it are a good second-best. Before you can set the scene for a reader, you have to set it for yourself.

Ten books seems a good round number to include in this sort of post – I’d be happy to hear suggestions from anyone out there. You may see another book list from me, or other Macaronis, in the near future.