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 »


Good Help is So Hard to Find

June 27, 2009

In the course of researching Belisarius’ various campaigns, I can’t help but marvel at the insubordination and outright incompetence of some of the commanders he was saddled with.

While there are some hints of idiocy in the African campaign against the Vandals, the real problems start to arise in Italy. It’s a major testament to Belisarius’ leadership that he was able to corral such a collection of hotheads, thieves, and morons and actually defeat the Goths. But once he was called to the east to fight the Persians in 540…wow…it’s like the three stooges take over.

In the three years from 540-543, the generals that remained in Italy managed to basically lose most of the peninsula to an enemy that was on the verge of total extinction when Belisarius departed. The bickering, the infighting, and the total lack of cooperation are really something to behold.

And when Belisarius is sent back to Italy to clean up the mess, well, things are so far gone, and the resources at his disposal so limited, that there’s not much he’s able to do. If he’d had a solid officer corps, or if he’d been facing a daft enemy, maybe, but poor Belisarius gets stuck with guys like Isaac the Armenian, who’s ordered to guard the city of Portus while Belisarius tries a desperate resupply run to a besieged Rome. So what does Isaac do? Takes 100 guys out, loots a Gothic camp, and goes and gets himself captured.

I’ve always admired Belisarius for what he was able to accomplish with what he was given, but researching his story in-depth, I have to admit I feel a huge amount of sympathy for the crap and incompetence he had to put up with on a daily basis.

But at least it’ll make for some great storytelling…

The Research Continues

June 21, 2009

I have to say, it feels great to be back to researching after nearly two weeks away. The notes continue to pile up (my “Events” document is now at 76 pages…), and story ideas that have been percolating are starting to bubble to the surface as I gain a deeper understanding of so many complicated events.

Look for more posts soon, including Belisarius’ role in the Nika Riots of 532, as well as introductions to some of the supporting cast, beginning with everyone’s favorite redneck nuveau-riche emperor, Justinian…

Byzantine Factoid

June 16, 2009

In the Byzantine Empire, there were two paths to fame, fortune, and influence. The first of the these was the military. The second was the civil service – the bureaucracy. Competition for posts was fierce, and individuals employed nearly every tool at their disposal to gain a coveted position. This usually involved family or personal influence, the recommendation of a higher ranking patron, and, of course, bribery.

By the fifth century, bribery had become so common that the emperor, Theodosius II, had it regularized and regulated by law.

Progress Report

June 4, 2009

The research continues. As of tonight, I’ve progressed through Ian Hughes’ Belisarius: The Last Roman General up through the conclusion of the Vandal War.

At this point, I’m still unclear on how exactly I’m going to portray such a rich life in the span of a single book, but certain story elements are already leaping out at me, and some subplots already seem fully formed.

I’m looking ridiculously forward to story development, but I still have a good bit of research ahead of me. At this point, though, I’m thinking a thorough reading and note-taking of Hughes should be sufficient to begin building an outline.

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.