As Luck Would Have It…

June 30, 2009

One of the most challenging facets of writing historical fiction is staying true to, well, history.

On the one hand, “connecting the dots” between recorded events and exploring the motives and interests of those involved can lead to some fascinating story developments.

But recorded history can also be a trap. It can set up an intriguing story, and then fall apart, or peter out to an unsatisfying conclusion. The latter is precisely why I decided to shelve a novel on Alaric, Visigothic king who sacked Rome in 410 A.D. His life, who he was, what he did, would all make great story material, but his life culminates in one of the most infamous tantrums in history, and then he drops dead a few months later. Talk about a bummer of an ending.

In the course of researching Belisarius’ life, I will admit I’ve been fearing the worst. When I embarked down this path, I was fairly well versed…to a point. But after Belisarius’ second recall from Italy in 548, my knowledge of the man dropped off a cliff. With every note taken, I’ve been bracing for disappointment.

But tonight, I read about “the last battle”. And it’s practically the stuff of Hollywood. Read the rest of this entry »


The Fog of War

June 22, 2009

In following the recent events in Iran, I’ve been amazed at the depth, nuance, and sense of immediacy Twitter has lent to the proceedings. Reading tweets from thousands of miles away, I can’t help but feel a sense of being there, on the ground, experiencing the excitement, the terror, the bravery and the confusion in real time.

In a world where everything is covered, where canned statements are issued ad nauseum, where pundits pontificate endlessly, there’s something disconcerting yet refreshing about not really knowing what’s going on. We don’t have Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper or (god forbid) Geraldo Rivera reporting live. Instead we’re getting this rough, confused, ecstatic, frenzied, scattered reporting straight from the protesters. This unedited, unabridged data flow is something new, even in this world of mass, instant communication. In many ways, it’s very similar to actually being there, in the crowd.

This realization got me thinking about the very real, on-the-ground confusion that’s so often ignored in history. When we read the accounts of battles, or protests, or disease, or any other calamitous event, it’s typically from this bird’s eye, 20/20 hindsight perspective. But the on-the-ground reality, as we’re seeing in Iran right now, is so much messier, so much more confused. Carl von Clausewitz called this confusion, this lack of information, the “fog of war”. While a very apt description, I do think it’s important to keep in mind that this fog extends beyond the battlefield, especially when we’re talking about an age where information could only travel as fast as a guy on a horse (or in a boat).

As I start thinking about how to structure and approach the Belisarius novel, I keep coming back to this sense of confusion. Information flow, or lack thereof, plays a critical role in pretty much every aspect of Belisarius’ career. And while it’s something I’ve always planned to bake into the story, it’s taken a new media revolution in a far-flung Middle Eastern country to really bring it home.


Laying the Foundations

May 29, 2009

As I discovered while writing The Scourge of Rome, historical fiction requires a ton of research. Even if you think you know everything there is to know about a topic or time period, you don’t. And so out come the books and the maps.

Everyone seems to have their own preferred method of research, which is as it should be. Personally, I prefer to read a modern account (or two or three) to get the lay of the land, establish characters, events, themes and the like, and then dive in to the primary sources. Dealing with the ancient world, these are often less than ideal, but I prefer to read them myself just in case I come to some different interpretation of events.

Once I feel the story starting to come together, I sketch out a rough outline. This usually begins with dropping events into chapters and adding a few thoughts. As I go, the outline gets more and more fleshed out, and once it’s in a place I’m happy with, it’s on to the story synopsis.

But I get ahead of myself. I’m just embarking on the research phase, and this time around I’m hoping to work a bit more efficiently than in the past. To that end, I’m planning to start with three documents:

  1. Events – This one’s pretty self-explanatory. A running catalog of events, supplemented by thoughts and interpretations. As I go I’ll probably break this out into sections – so a section for Belisarius’ early career, one for the first Persian War, another for the Nika Riots, and so on.
  2. Persons of Interest – Basically a running character compendium that will help me keep track of personalities. Even at thsi early stage I’m struck at the level of detail available for Belisarius’ various commanders and soldiers (half of whom seem to be named John). All notes will be tagged with source and page number for easy reference later.
  3. Random Thoughts and Story Ideas – As I research, I often find scenes or themes or character beats jumping out at me. This document will provide a place to capture all of them.

So that’s where I’m at. Now it’s time to crack open Belisarius: The Last Roman General by Ian Hughes…


A Blog of a Novel of Belisarius

May 27, 2009

Back in 2003, I embarked on writing my first novel, The Scourge of Rome, a historical set during the early years of the Second Punic War. It was a lonely, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding journey.

Now that I’m gearing up for my second novel, I thought it might be interesting to set up a dedicated blog where I could ramble on about sources, characterization, pacing, and everything else that comes along with the herculean task of writing a novel. If nothing else, it will spare friends and family from having to wade through so many writing posts over on my main blog.

I don’t know if the idea will take hold, but at the very least I think it’s a worthy experiment.