I figured it was time to give my readers an update on how my new books are progressing, and let you read an example of what I’m doing.
A few years ago, I conducted an experiment by writing all three volumes of my “Cochrane’s Company” trilogy before I released any of them. I then published them at approximately 30-day intervals, to see whether the closely spaced releases would boost sales of the second and third books as reader interest was aroused and maintained by the expectation of more to come. As far as a series is concerned, I think it proved pretty successful. I wrote about it at the time, analyzing both the state of the market and the performance of the trilogy. It was an eye-opener all round.
As regular readers will know, in November 2019 I suffered a heart attack (my second). Recovery was complicated by the addition of some new medications to my existing daily cocktail (the result of my semi-crippling injury back in 2004). The new medications were in use for a year, and while I was on them I found it very difficult to get my mind back into creative gear, so to speak. They had a “deadening” effect (even while keeping me alive, about which I’m not complaining, you understand!). The situation was made even worse by the advent of COVID-19. Miss D. and I both contracted it in early 2020, and again (presumably a different strain) in early 2021. Recovery was slow, although we’re both fit again by now. Added to the stress of my medications, this made writing even more complicated.
One of the ways in which I tried to cudgel my brain back into creative mode was to start several projects at once, and work on one whenever I could find the creative energy to do so. Multiple projects meant that if I found one frustrating or boring, I could simply pick up another and carry on with it. I’ve had the following books under way for more than a year now.
- The sixth volume in the sci-fi/space opera Maxwell Saga, working title “Venom Strike” (more than half finished).
- The fifth volume in my Western “Ames Archives” series, working title “Silver” (more than half finished).
- The third and final volume in my Laredo War Trilogy, working title “Knife to the Hilt” (about half finished).
- The first volume in what may become a hard sci-fi trilogy (i.e. less of the space opera, more of the science), no working title yet (about a third finished).
- A Viking-era fantasy saga (about two-thirds finished, and from which I’ve already published excerpts here, here and here).
- A naval novel set in a fantasy world, involving a great deal of similarity to the late Age of Sail, at the beginning of the steam era, and the Napoleonic Wars, but also battle mages and some sword-and-sorcery stuff (about a quarter finished).
So, as you can see, I haven’t been idle. I’m planning on writing at least three or four of these projects to completion, then bringing them out in rapid succession at about thirty-day intervals, just as I did with the Cochrane’s Company trilogy. The reason for that is because I’ve “fallen out of the public eye” in terms of my book sales, thanks to the long hiatus caused by my heart attack and two bouts with COVID-19. I’m going to have to rebuild my fan base, and that means giving potential readers a reason to buy more of my books. I demonstrated pretty conclusively that rapid releases do boost readership, but that was of a specific series. I’m hoping I can achieve similar results by rapid-releasing several books across different series and/or stand-alone volumes, to entice those who read widely, across multiple genres, and might be persuaded to try my output in more than one of them.
To prove that I’m hard at work, here’s the opening chapter of the sixth book I mentioned above, a naval fantasy set in an equivalent of the Age of Sail, but with a bit of steampunk and sorcery thrown in to spice things up. I don’t yet have a working title for it. If it proves successful, it’ll probably grow into a series.
The lower gun deck was foul with sulphurous powder smoke, drifting around the massive thirty-two-pounder cannon as their depleted crews desperately swabbed them, rammed fresh powder charges and cannonballs down their hot barrels, and ran them up to the gun ports again to fire their lethal loads. By now they were no longer firing disciplined broadsides. Every gun fired when it was ready, in frantic haste, desperately trying to fend off the larger enemy ship on the starboard side.
Lieutenant Amon Rhys bent almost double, coughing harshly, hacking as a bitter billow of powder smoke engulfed him. He straightened, peering through the fog. “Come on, men! Pound them! Pound them!” he encouraged his gunners. They didn’t show any sign of having heard him – not surprising, when they’d been exposed to the shattering din of their weapons for the last twenty minutes. The tufts of cotton stuffed into their ears did little to protect their hearing.
He bent to peer through a gunport, just as the cannon next forrard from his position fired. He could see the cannonball as it sped away, a black dot in the air – but then it seemed to waver, as if passing through a curtain of moisture, and visibly slowed in its passage. It struck the outer hull of the enemy ship, but didn’t penetrate through the two feet of timber to her gun deck. He cursed. That damned battle mage was still protecting his ship! Didn’t the bastard ever get tired under the strain of sustaining the shield spell? How the hell could Blackmain’s guns cripple the enemy when their fire was robbed of the power to do all the damage it otherwise would?
The converse wasn’t true, of course. Blackmain had no battle mage of her own, only a weatherworker, so the enemy’s fire was slowly but surely wrecking her from stem to stern.
His attention was distracted by a tugging at the back of his uniform jacket. He whirled around. A pale-faced midshipman stood on the last two rungs of the ladder, his hand outstretched. He leaned close to Amon’s ear as he shouted, “Sir! Compliments of the First Lieutenant! Lieutenant Poyl has been killed. You’re to take command of his division as well as your own.”
“Very well. Tell him I’ll do that.”
As the youngster scampered back up the ladder, Amon stepped around it to peer through the smoke at the second division of cannon, on the rear half of the gun deck. To his horror, only four of its eight guns were still in action. The middle four had been smashed into scrap iron and wooden splinters by a concentrated enemy salvo. In the din of battle, he hadn’t noticed the destruction. Many of their gunners had been ripped apart. Their mangled corpses were splayed across and among the wreckage. As he staggered closer, bracing himself against the pitching of the deck and the recoil of the guns, he could see Lieutenant Poyl’s body on the port side of the deck, lying motionless against the so far unused guns of that division. The top half of his head was missing. He was recognizable only by the epaulettes on his uniform jacket.
He looked around, raising his voice to a bellow. “Who’s senior?”
An older man with a graying beard straightened from his place behind a cannon. “Gunner’s Mate Saxon, sir! I’m the senior man still alive.”
“Very well, Saxon. Carry on, but listen for orders from the forrard division. If necessary, use a wounded man as a runner to listen for them, then bring word to you.”
“Aye, sir! Carse! You heard the Lieutenant! Go with him, and bring back any orders!”
“Aye, Gunner’s Mate!”
Carse proved to be a small, wiry man, nursing a wooden splinter that had rammed its way right through the outer, fleshy part of his upper arm. He was binding a cloth of some sort around it, trying to soak up the blood that dripped from the entrance and exit wounds.
“What was your station, Carse?” Amon asked.
“Cap’n o’ number fourteen gun, sir.”
“You should go to the orlop. The surgeon will see to your wound.”
Carse shook his head emphatically. “Wi’ no healer aboard, sir, he’d just cut me arm orf, an’ leave me ter take me chances. I’d rather have one o’ me mates cut out the splinter an’ try to clean it up. Might keep me arm that way.”
Amon nodded reluctantly. During the heat of battle, the ship’s surgeon couldn’t take too long over any one man, for fear another might die before his wounds could be treated. He’d therefore almost certainly amputate the limb above the injury, working in frantic haste, then suture the stump, seal it with hot pitch, and leave Carse to take his chances. Amon couldn’t blame the gun captain for being unwilling to face that. He felt his flesh crawl at the prospect of such surgically short shrift.
He scrambled back to his division, looking around. Nothing had changed in his absence. The crews still loaded and fired their cannon as fast as they could, hardly needing to aim, so close was their adversary now. He screamed, “Keep it up, men! Smash them!” as he moved from gun to gun, giving an encouraging clap on the back to each gun captain as he passed. Some grinned at him, but most ignored his touch, concentrating on firing as fast as they could get their guns reloaded.
Amon stuck his head out of the port of number seven gun, knocked off its carriage by an enemy hit right on its muzzle. Through the drifting clouds of gunsmoke, he could see the enemy ship of the line creeping ever closer, surely now no more than fifty yards away. Her hull blazed fire through at least half a dozen more gunports per side than Blackmain boasted. She was of the third rate, like Blackmain, but significantly larger, probably just below the number of cannon required for a second rate. His own ship was only just large enough to merit her third-rate designation.
From behind him, Carse asked, “Where’s the frigate, sir?”
Amon peered across the deck of the enemy ship. Faintly, through the smoke, he could see the outline of masts and sails beyond her. He pulled his head back inside the gunport and said, “Looks like she’s staying out of the fight for now.”
“Can’t blame her,” Carse said sagely. “Her light timbers’d never stand up to our heavy cannon.”
The lieutenant didn’t have time to reply. A full division of cannon on the enemy’s main gun deck fired at once, raising a great splash from the sea as some shot, aimed deliberately low, ricocheted off the surface before the entire salvo slammed into Blackmain’s hull. A great rent appeared twenty feet ahead of him in the wooden hull, almost two feet thick at that point, letting in sudden, unexpected sunlight. At least one cannonball ricocheted off the muzzle of one of the cannon with a deafening crash, and two of the carriages of the great guns were smashed to shards. The guns’ crews were mercilessly lashed by splinters. Many fell or were thrown to the far side of the gun deck, with shrieks and screams of agony. Others collapsed silently, their grimy slop-chest cotton duck shirts and trousers turning red as blood flowed.
Amon’s ears rang with the concussion of the concentrated impact. It had been masterfully directed, taking out the most powerful battery with the heaviest guns still firing aboard Blackmain. With most of her starboard thirty-two-pounders silenced, she could no longer hope to keep the enemy at a distance. Boarding was now almost a certainty.
He turned to Carse. “Tell Gunner’s Mate Saxon to muster his men and give me a total, quick as you can!” As the gun captain scuttled away, he began to do the same with the men of the forward division. His mouth tightened as it became clear that well over half of the guns’ crews were now casualties.
Carse came hurrying back. “Gunner’s Mate says he’s nobbut fifteen men left, sir.”
Amon closed his eyes in brief despair, but duty would not wait. “Can you manage a ladder with that arm?”
Carse flashed a shaky grin. “Have to, won’t I, sir?”
“Very well. Tell the First Lieutenant that the main gun deck’s starboard broadside is reduced to seven thirty-two-pounders still in action. We have only thirty-three gunners. Quick as you can.”
“Aye, sir!” The gunner turned towards the ladder leading to the upper deck.
Amon reorganized the guns’ crews of both divisions, dividing them evenly between the surviving cannon. Each was normally served by a dozen men, but now they had to make do with less than half that number, which would make reloading very slow and laborious. That, plus the destruction and damage to most of the guns on the deck, meant that their fire would be almost ineffective compared to when they’d started the battle.
As he finished his task, a smoke-stained, hatless figure threw himself down the ladder. “Hot work, damn me if it ain’t! First Lieutenant sent me to see conditions here and report back. Captain’s down. They’ve taken him to the orlop.”
Amon winced. “That’s bad news. What else?” Sigri Dun was the Third Lieutenant, senior to him, but a good friend.
“It’s bad. They aren’t firing wildly, but by divisions, and their fire’s being directed very accurately, hitting one part of our ship at a time. They’re chewing us to pieces. That’s what hit the after division here a while back, and just took out most of yours.” He waved his hand at the destruction all around them.
“Can’t our weather mage do anything to stop their battle mage?”
“Different magic. He doesn’t have battle powers. He’s also been wounded, so we’re losing the wind – he can’t keep it stronger.”
Yet another blow. Blackmain’s steam boiler hadn’t been fired up when she came across the two enemy ships, so she’d had to rely on the weather mage to give her favorable winds to maneuver.
Carse had followed Sigri down the ladder, moving more slowly, hissing with pain, and gone to peer out of an open gun port. Now he shouted, “Sir! Frigate’s comin’ out from behind the big ’un!”
The two officers hurried over to the gun port and looked out. Sigri cursed as he saw the smoke rising from the smaller ship’s tall funnel, between her mainmast and mizzenmast. Their sails were already being furled, reducing the risks of sparks causing a fire.
“Damn him! Now that we’re half-crippled, he must reckon he can fight us with little risk to his smaller, lighter ship. I’ve got to get back on deck.” He held out his hand. “Just in case…”
Amon shook it firmly. “In case. God be with you!”
“And with you.”
Sigri vanished up the ladder as Carse called, “Thick black smoke coming from the big ’un’s funnel, sir! She’s speeding up. Prob’ly going to round our stern and rake us.”
Amon’s blood ran cold. If both ships raked Blackmain from ahead and astern, their cannonballs ploughing all the way down her length, they’d kill almost everyone still alive on her decks and reduce her to a shattered ruin. They could capture or sink her almost at their leisure. On the other hand, if the enemy commander became careless…
Sudden hope flared within him. He whirled around to his guns’ crews. “Everyone lie down on the forrard side of a cannon! Take cover behind it!” As his men obeyed, he ran back past the mainmast. “Gunner’s Mate Saxon, with me!”
He pointed to the rearmost cannon in the second division, still mounted on its carriage, but now unmanned due to the lack of gun crews. “Is that cannon loaded?”
“No, sir! Not enough gunners to man it!”
“Load it, quick! Double powder charge!”
“Double, sir? It’s already hot. It might rupture!”
“That’s a risk we’ll have to take. Load it!”
Saxon yelled at several of his gunners, pointing, and they ran to obey Amon’s orders. He waited impatiently while they rammed the powder, then the ball, then a wad down the barrel.
“Help me aim it as far aft as it’ll point!” he ordered.
They used crowbars to lever the gun carriage around so that the cannon’s muzzle pointed almost twenty degrees aft. Saxon warned, “The breechings won’t hold at this angle, sir, not wi’ a double charge! They’ll snap, or the gun may break the trunnion caps and come off the carriage.”
“Can’t be helped. If that ship cuts the corner to get behind us quickly, she’ll get very close – perhaps close enough that her battle mage’s spells won’t offer her as much protection. We’ve got to hope for that chance. Quick, shove in the quoin as far as it’ll go. Maximum depression!”
The gunner’s mate obeyed, the muzzle of the big cannon moving slowly downward as its elevating quoin was wound inward. Amon watched narrowly, then shouted, “Enough! Leave her so! Take cover!”
As the men scattered he cocked the firelock, jabbed a needle-like rod down the touch hole to pierce the cloth cartridge holding the rearmost powder charge, then poured fine powder from a charging horn into the pan, making sure it filled the touch hole to provide reliable ignition. He peered down the barrel as the enemy’s hull came into view. Just as he’d hoped, the cannon was now aimed low enough to hit the close-passing ship at or near the waterline – and her captain had abandoned caution. She’d pass within no more than thirty or forty yards of the muzzle. At such point-blank range, the battle mage’s protective spell wouldn’t have time to slow or deflect the cannonball, particularly when it was fired with a double charge of powder to increase its speed.
He waited, almost dancing on the soles of his feet. He had only one chance to inflict serious damage, and he had to hit a very precise spot to be sure of doing so with a single shot.
The enemy’s foremast passed the muzzle, then her mainmast; then her funnel appeared, spurting black, sooty smoke high into the air as her stokers frantically shoveled coal into her furnace. Amon summoned up a mental picture of how most marine engine rooms were laid out. The funnel would rise from the head of the horizontal boiler, fifteen to twenty feet ahead of the furnace at the rear that boiled its water. He had to rupture the boiler itself. If it had built up enough pressure, it would explode, causing devastating damage to everything and everyone around it.
He aimed down the barrel, quivering with tension. The funnel moved closer to the point of aim… closer… now! He tugged on the trigger string as he flung himself to one side, and the firelock snapped down.
The cannon recoiled with brutal force, roaring in angry protest at its double charge, flame and smoke vomiting from its muzzle – but its metal held. Its projectile flew straight and true to impact five feet behind where the funnel emerged from the enemy’s deck, and right on the waterline. Even as the cannon’s starboard breechings snapped under the strain of the sharp angle and the weapon slewed around, a brief billow of white steam showed at the point of impact. A shattering explosion followed almost instantly. The side of the enemy vessel disintegrated in a cloud of debris. Her deck bulged upward and backward, then burst. Its splinters cut down most of the officers gathered on the quarterdeck, which collapsed forward into the crater suddenly gaping where the falling mizzenmast had been.
Even as Amon heard the screams of triumph from his gunners, he saw through an open gunport a long, thin object fly upward and outward from the enemy’s quarterdeck. It soared closer, tumbling end over end, then speared through the open gunport in front of him. It bounced off the muzzle of the cannon he’d just used, and fell to the deck in front of him. Glancing down, he saw it was a staff of black wood, bound with what looked like bronze or dirty brass. Symbols had been carved down its length in four columns, but he didn’t have time to examine them. He bent and picked it up, then shivered as a strange surge of… something… ran through his body. He suddenly realized what he held, and dreaded the knowledge – but there was no time to worry about that now. He turned to his gunners.
“That’s dished her properly! Now, back to your guns, and let’s see about that damned frigate!”
“No need, sir!” the Gunner’s Mate replied jubilantly, hanging his torso out of a gunport to look aft, then turning to report. “Their ship’s been cut almost in half! The frigate’s turnin’ hard-a-port to head back to her. They’ll be too busy tryin’ to save her to worry about us!” More cheers came from the other gunners as they heard the news.
“Good! Load all working cannon, just in case; then half of you look for wounded among the bodies, and take them to the orlop if you find them. The rest will start to clean up down here.”
The gun deck was soon a bustle of activity. Dead bodies were shoved out of gunports into the sea, to find their rest there. Those whose injuries were clearly mortal, and who could not live for long, were mercifully hit over the head with a crowbar before being sent to join them. Those whose wounds were not as severe were carried down to the orlop, joining a stream of other casualties already headed in that direction.
Amon busied himself with checking the muster roll. His blood ran cold as he realized that the main gun deck had lost almost three-quarters of its gun crews, killed or injured. The enemy’s battle mage had proved himself to devastating effect before his commanding officer’s error of judgment.
A midshipman appeared on the ladder from the main deck. “First Lieutenant’s compliments, sir! Secure from quarters! Have the crews draw charges. You’re to report to him on the quarterdeck, sir. I’m to take charge here.”
“Very well. Gunner’s Mate Saxon! Draw charges, then swab out and secure the cannon. This midshipman has relieved me. Mid, this man’s forgotten more about the great guns than you’ve ever learned, so listen to him and take his advice before you give orders, you hear me?”
Amon took the strange staff with him as he climbed the ladder. The main deck was even more chaotic than the gun deck had been. Its twenty-four-pounder cannon were in just as much disarray, made worse by fallen blocks, tackle and rigging, as well as several shattered yards off the masts. Dead and wounded sailors and Marines were being cleared away, helped where possible, put over the side when not. At least Blackmain had not had her auxiliary steam propulsion fired up when the enemy had been sighted. That was a blessing, because the enemy’s battle mage would have been sure to target her boiler if it had been pressurized, just as Amon had targeted the enemy’s boiler.
Lieutenant Vall stood by the helm on the quarterdeck, his head bare, long hair blowing in the fitful breeze. He looked dazed, yet determined. Amon hurried up to him, came to attention, and knuckled his brow in salute. “Fourth Lieutenant reporting as ordered, sir!”
“Glad you lived through that, Lieutenant Rhys. You and I are the only officers to come through uninjured, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Amon felt a sudden chill. “Ah… what happened to Lieutenant Dun, sir?”
Vall shook his head abruptly. “One of the last enemy shots cut him in two. He’s already been put over the side.”
Amon swayed with the shock of the news, and the First Lieutenant put out a hand quickly to steady him. “You’re not wounded too, are you?”
“N-no, sir, just… I don’t know, dizzy, I suppose.” He steadied himself with the staff. “What about the captain?”
“He’s lost both legs. Surgeon isn’t sure he’ll survive the night – he lost a lot of blood. It’s a charnel house on the orlop, so I’m having him carried to his cabin. His servant can look after him. I want you to take charge of the cleanup. I’m going to read our secret orders, to find out if there’s anything we absolutely have to do before returning to port for repairs. I don’t think our friends over there will be in any shape to pursue us today.”
Both of them turned to look over the stern. The enemy ship of the line was settling lower in the water, the remains of her quarterdeck almost level with the sea. The frigate’s boats were ferrying wounded from the larger ship to the smaller, and work parties in the other direction.
“The frigate won’t be able to carry on the fight, ” Amon agreed. “With all those wounded, she won’t have room on her decks to fight her guns, and many of her crew will be busy repairing the other ship.”
“That’s how I see it, too. Which of your gunners fired that shot into her boiler?”
“That was me, sir. I saw she’d changed course to round our stern, and would get close enough to us for a shot to take effect. I had the aftermost cannon double-charged, and trained it sternward as far as possible. I waited until her boiler was lined up with the bore, then let her have it.”
“Good work! You’ll be hearing more about that shot, I promise you. All right. Get on with the cleanup. I’ve got the bosun sounding the well right now, and the carpenter patching holes. We may have to jettison some of the great guns to lighten her, if we can’t slow the leaks enough.”
“Aye, sir. There’s enough damaged thirty-two-pounders on the lower gun deck that they won’t be any loss.”
Grimly, Amon set about his tasks.
Well, there you have it. Seamanship, naval action, and a touch of wizardry (which will become more than a touch as the book progresses). I hope you enjoyed it.
Thanks, all of you, for your patience as I kick my writing back into gear. I hope and pray I’ll be able to start releasing books in the fourth quarter, on a monthly basis, to get things moving again. Meanwhile, your help in supporting the raffles I’ve been holding (to pay off medical bills and keep body and soul together) has been enormously helpful, and I’m very grateful.