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 »

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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.


The Early Career of Belisarius

June 17, 2009

As with so many other prominent figures from antiquity, pretty much nothing is known about Belisarius‘ childhood or the earliest stages of his career. We know only that he was born somewhere between 500 – 505 in the town of Germana (in modern Bulgaria).

Though we cannot know for certain, Belisarius likely hailed from a relatively noble family. This would explain his rapid rise in the army, as well as Procopius‘ silence on his upbringing in the Secret History (in contrast to the vitriol directed at the mean origins of Justinian, Theodora, and Belisarius’ wife, Antonina).

Whatever the circumstances of Belisarius’ upbringing, he appears to have enlisted in the military at an early age and risen rapidly through the ranks. By the time we meet up with him in 527 A.D., he is serving as an officer in Justinian’s bodyguard. At that time, the Roman Empire was at war with the neighboring Persian Empire, and Justinian, acting as commander of the eastern campaign, sent Belisarius and Sittas into Persarmenia to plunder the countryside in retaliation to Persian attacks on the regions of Iberia and Lazica. The expedition was a success, and Belisarius and Sittas returned with booty and captives.

Read the rest of this entry »


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…