In Empire’s Hostage, my protagonist Lena is told of a historic battle, one that forced an uneasy peace and the setting of a border. But I truly have no talent for writing battles, even one where it’s only a story being told, all the rough and bloody action reduced to a tale.
Many many long years ago, in another life entirely, I had to write my first grant application for major funding – several hundred thousand dollars – for the research lab I was responsible for. I’d never done this before, and it was going to fund my lab (and pay my salary) for several years. But, I knew someone who had done this successfully the previous year. So, nicely, I asked if I could see his application, which he gladly shared with me. I read it, analyzed it, and then used it as a template for the one I wrote. Not a copy, because we worked on different things and needed different equipment. But a framework. He read it, made some suggestions, which I incorporated. I got the grant.
Ever since then, when I need to write something I have no expertise in, I look for a template. A model. So when it came to writing this battle tale for Hostage, I went looking for an account of a battle fought across a river in an early medieval setting. That’s all I needed, and I found it, a beautifully written account of the Battle of Stamford Bridge. I took its details, and placed them in my setting, and wrote the tale Lena is told:
“Word came that the Marai were up the Tabha,” Donnalch continued. “The summer had been wet, wetter than normal, and so the boats of the Marai could be rowed up the river much further than usual, nearly to this spot. They found naught but sheep; the shepherd lads or lasses had fled at the sight of the boats. But one of those lads at least was fleet of foot, and so word reached his torp quickly, and from there a man and horse rode out across the hills, to find Neilan’s army at the coast.”
If you know the Battle of Stamford Bridge well, it might be recognizable from what happens. But even if it is, I don’t find that a problem. It can only add to the historical feeling of my invented world.
Importantly, in my mind, I did all this with the permission of the original author of the piece I used as a model. It took a little while to track him down: first I had to contact the webmaster of the source site, who contacted his writer, who contacted me. But he was glad to share, and I ensured that both he and the website are credited in Empire’s Hostage. (I sent him a copy of the paperback, too.)
The lessons I learned writing that grant application back in the early 80s have stayed with me across three careers: know what you don’t know; find a model and use it; ask for help. I’ve used this in every book since, whether it’s in writing the last battle in Exile, the music for the song in Reckoning, or the descriptions of Casil in both Exile and the upcoming sixth book, Empire’s Heir.
But there’s one more thing. In Empire’s Heir, the character Cillian is thinking about the responsibilities of those who teach:
“I believe that when the records are written, to be remembered as the teacher of Colm of Ésparias will be a great honour, ” Gnaius said. A reminder to me, I knew, of the responsibility we shared, the unbroken line of learning we had to maintain. We honoured those who had taught us, while expecting one or two students in our lives who would both exceed and succeed us.
I became very good at writing grant applications. Very good. Which leads me to the final piece of advice, if advice this is: give back. Pay it forward. Share your expertise with others, give them a hand. Provide the model and the assistance, and perhaps your student will exceed you. If so, wouldn’t that be wonderful?