Yesterday all the planters and garden statuary that my cousin and her partner had collected over their forty years in this house were removed, going to new homes. Nearly at the top of the long sloping garden, one remains, a Grecian figure carrying wine jugs. It draws the eye, now all the distractions are gone.
The house is free of boxes and much of the furniture, too, cleared two days past by the auctioneers. A door long blocked by a bookcase is now open, creating flow and light in the house. There isn’t a lot left to do, except some cosmetic improvements and the slow bureaucracy of probate.
And with the clutter, both mental and physical, gone, my mind is bubbling with ideas and dialogue and scenes for the book I’ve had to put off for the last few months. There is flow and focus and illumination, thoughts pushing themselves out of my subconscious like the bulbs bursting into bloom in the garden.
Empire’s Passing, I already know, is a complex, multi-layered book, not surprisingly. The last book of a long saga has a lot of threads to bring together, questions to answer, farewells to be made. The title is a deliberate nod to ‘This too will pass’, the adage that reminds us that all things, good or bad, are fleeting. “For one brief shining moment…” But there will be hope too, at the end.
It’s going to be a challenge. But one I can finally give the time and attention it needs.
I had an aunt (well, my father’s first cousin, but as she was of his generation we called her aunt) who lived a life that seemed to me both exotic and exciting. Born an estate-worker’s daughter on a large rural farming and shooting estate in Norfolk, England, her mother died in a death pact with her lover when my aunt (I’ll call her Polly) was very small. Her father remarried, and sent the girls (Polly and her older sister) away to a boarding school which was a female equivalent of Dotheboys Hall, from what I can tell. Perhaps his new wife didn’t want them around. Perhaps he wondered if they were his at all. But away they went.
But my family was and is full of strong women, so as soon as she could, my grandmother rescued Polly from the boarding school and basically employed her as an au pair, helping take care of my father and his sister while my grandmother cared for her dying father. (Older sister had left by then, found employment, soon married and disappeared from the family.) And probably because of connections through the family who owned this large estate, Polly found herself taken on by a very wealthy industrialist’s family as a nursemaid, and then by another as a companion/secretary….and somewhere along the way she met a very eligible, well-placed Danish man and married him. Just as World War II broke out.
He and she were part of the Danish resistance: he spoke fluent and impeccable German and had connections in Germany, so he was thought to be a collaborator. She was his English wife, and beautiful, and ferried gun parts and more around Copenhagen strapped under her skirt. When dementia was taking its toll on her mind in her last years, she’d tell these stories over and over again: how she learned to take the guns apart and put them back together again in the dark; about flirting with German officers while carrying false documents, remembering the danger.
They survived, the war ended. The business he worked for flourished, and when they came to North America (via Cunard steamers – she hated flying) to mix business and pleasure, hobnobbing with the Kennedys at Hyannis Port (she didn’t like Jack), they took time to visit her cousins – my family, and that of my actual aunt in Alabama. Then her husband died, suddenly, and she was left well off and well connected.
She took herself of on an around the world cruise, had an affair, thoroughly enjoyed herself. For the next twenty-five years or so she travelled, entertained, mixed with people who were the equals of that family who owned the big estate in Norfolk. And then age and dementia took its toll. She died at 95, well taken care of in a private nursing home in England.
“Polly” is the inspiration for the grandmother of one of my two MC’s of Empress & Soldier, Eudekia. When she said to her granddaughter ‘My dear, how lovely to see you,’ and offers her cheek for a kiss, I heard that—unexpectedly—in Polly’s voice. And I thought what a perfect model for this character, who is ambitious for this granddaughter of hers, who knows the power of sexuality and how to use it, who won’t listen to those who say that the man Eudekia loves is socially beyond her grasp.
I’ve written before how my mother’s and my aunts’ service during WWII inspired the first book of the Empire series, Empire’s Daughter. This inspiration is a bit more direct!
I love road trips, and over the years Brian and I have driven thousands upon thousands of kilometers across all North America and Great Britain, much of Australia and most of New Zealand, plus bits of more other countries than I can count. But I never stopped wanting to do one on my own.
I like my own company, and I like, perhaps need, space and silence to think. So when, in the summer of 2013, Brian went birding in Papua New Guinea – a place I had no interest in, having had enough of hills and humidity – I left the cats in the care of their usual sitter and drove west, out to the silence and space of the Great Plains and the Canadian prairies. A two week trip.
I’d originally planned to follow Highway 2, a non-interstate that runs not too far under the Canada/US border, but I soon learned it didn’t suit my needs: too many trucks, too few safe opportunities to pull of to look at birds. So I took myself up to the parallel county roads, where there was almost no traffic, and many opportunities to stop.
I’ve written before of the recurring dreams I’ve had since childhood: dreams of roads and paths, in cities but more often out of them. Some of these dreams involve water, paths crossing wetlands on causeways. They stay in my mind, holding their own authenticity overlaid on the real world. And on a county road in North Dakota, just west of the tiny hamlet of Whitman, I drove into one of those dreams. The road became a causeway, crossing a lake filled with birds. I pulled over, stopped, got out. Wonder coursed through me. I know I laughed aloud in recognition and delight.
Black terns hunted insects over the water; ducks of a half-dozen species swam and dabbled. I stayed maybe half an hour, the occasional pickup truck passing, but nothing else to interrupt, interfere. I got out the scope, looked at the birds, but it was almost an excuse to linger.
What has this got to do with my books? Just two lines. In Empire’s Exile, not too long after Lena and Cillian reach Casil, she asks:
“What did you think? It must be strange, to see these buildings you have read about.” “Like finding the landscape of a dream is real,” he answered.
Midwinter’s eve, and the fire burned high. Food had been shared, and beer, and for once the sheep were unguarded, the fire and songs thought to be enough to dissuade the wolves. We sat with Fél and Kaisa and Aetyl, and beside me Audo and his three dogs. His brindle bitch, who had taken a liking to me, lay with her head on my feet.
Kaisa had instructed me in the expectations for tonight: come newly washed and in clean clothes, and bring something to give to the fire. The more precious, the better. The sun must be honoured, she said.
I had struggled to find something to bring. Audo sat with an ermine skin on his lap, his gift to the sun. My most precious possession was Colm’s history of the Empire, and I certainly wasn’t sacrificing that. Cillian had devised a solution for himself: a poem, written on a small piece of his carefully rationed paper. In the end, I gave an arrow, one of the small ones from the bird bow that had kept us fed on our journey across the mountains.
One by one, people rose to throw their offering to the fire, the men first. When they were finished, the women gave their gifts, and finally, me. Drumbeats had sounded throughout, and now the men began to sing. Audo, on one side of me, growled the words, not keeping time, but Cillian sang true. When did he learn the words? His singing voice was light, but clearly trained: Dagney’s hand there, I thought.
Aivar rose as the song ended. Everyone quieted. The two boys who became men tonight stepped forward. They both looked tired and a little disoriented: I guessed they had fasted for at least a day. There had been rituals earlier for them, attended only by the village men.
In any other year they would now just be presented to the village as men, but I had something to do, first. Aivar, leaning on his stick, called my name. He and I had spoken a few days earlier about what I should do.
“This village has never had a devanī,” he told me, “but others have. I remember what their vēsturni told me. A blessing from you is all I ask. Will you do that?”
I told him what Cillian and I had discussed. “Very good,” he said.
I rose, the two arrows in my hand, walking to where the two boys waited. At a word from Aivar they both knelt. I kissed each boy on his forehead and placed an arrow in each waiting hand. “The huntress guides your hand,” I told them as I did. Aivar had chosen those words.
The devanī should give her blessing to us all for the new year,” Ivor shouted, as I turned to leave. Other voices joined his. I thought I heard Gret’s among them. Aivar raised his hand.
“We…” He began to cough, a deep, racking cough. He tried again. “We do not ask for what we do not need,” he rasped. “Our men hunt well. If we need the devanī to give luck to a hunt, she will give it at the time. Do not waste the gift.”
Aivar’s edicts could not be disputed. Ivor and his friends quieted. The drumbeats began again, and this time women began to sing, and a few to dance. More beer made the rounds, Cillian, as usual, refusing. In the northern sky, green lights flickered; shadows rose and fell in the firelight. Fél wrapped a fur around himself and Kaisa, holding her against him. “Keep Lena warm,” he told Cillian, “or she’ll have to cuddle Audo, or his dog.” I glanced at Cillian. We had never touched in public.
“Then I better,” he said. I moved close, tucking the fur around us, leaning into him. We listened to the drums.
Ivor walked by, dressed only in a light tunic, spurning the cold. The empty mug in his hand told me what he searched for. He gave us a scornful look. “Devanī,” he said. “Why waste yourself on this man?” One of Audo’s dogs snarled. “Incapable vēsturni and idiots,” Ivor spat. “I will show you what a real man is one day.” He kept walking.
“Be careful of him, Lena,” Fél warned.
“I am,” I assured him. The drumbeats continued, faster; the dancing grew wilder. Under the fur, Cillian’s hand began a gentle caress.
“Shall we go to our bed?” he murmured.
We rose. Fél looked up. “Sleep well,” he said, “when you finally remember to sleep, that is.” Kaisa laughed. “Can we send Aetyl to sleep with her cousins?” I heard him say to her, as we left.
In our hut the fire had burned to coals. Cillian added wood. “Do you need to make tea?”
“I did, earlier.” My mouth was dry. I dropped the fur on the bed. We regarded each other across the space, in the light of the newly blazing fire. “It is a new year,” I said softly. “Don’t you have a fancy to fulfill?”
He crossed the room to me, beginning to smile; not his usual, quickly-gone smile, but one slow and genuine, lighting his whole face. My breath caught. He looks so much younger, I thought, and so beautiful. I saw tenderness in this smile, and vulnerability. He took me in his arms. I raised a hand to his face.
“This is something I haven’t seen before,” I murmured. “Why have you kept such a beautiful smile hidden?”
He turned his head to kiss my fingers. “My one legacy from my mother, I am told,” he said. “As to why, it is just reticence, Lena, like much else about me, long habit.” He bent to kiss me, a long, exploratory kiss. “Perhaps I will have more reason to let it show after tonight.”
I didn’t need to damp down desire now. My hands, low on his back, found his skin. I pulled him closer. Part of my mind noted the ridges of a scar under my fingers, but it wasn’t important. Nothing was, except his lips on mine and his hands, under my tunic now, making me gasp.
“You are very sure?” he asked, his voice low and barely controlled. “Tell me now, if you are not.”
“Yes.” I fought to speak. “Are you?”
“I am.” His mouth came down again, demanding now, insistent. How long has it been for him? I wondered, before I gave myself up to my need, and his. He hesitated once, just for a moment, and then there were only lips and hands and cresting pleasure, and unexpectedly, tears that were not mine.
“Lord Sorley,” he said, coming over to me. The puppy squirmed in his grasp.
“What is that?” I asked. Shugo was one of the shepherds, and his sheepdogs were the best around. We bought young dogs from him, rather than breed our own. But the puppy he was holding was no sheepdog, although its black and white colouring suggested one of its parents was.
He spat. “Hagen came through with his hound just when Meg was in heat,” he grumbled. “This is the result. I drowned the others at birth — what good would they be? Left her this one to raise so the bitch wouldn’t pine, but I need her back with the sheep. So it’s drowning for this one, too.”
“How old is he?” I could see from how he held the pup it was male.
“Don’t drown it,” I said. “I’ll buy it from you.”
“Buy it? What do you want it for?”
“The Comiádh’s son is ten. Just the right age for a puppy. Will you send it? I’ll write a note, if you’ll wait a few minutes.”
“Aye,” he said. “It’ll make a boy’s dog, I warrant.”
One of the advantages of writing what I write – historical fiction of another world – is that I don’t have to stay true to historical fact. I do, a lot, but in the case of Colm’s puppy (and other dogs in the books), I may not have.
This isn’t to say that herding dogs and hunting dogs were unknown in the classical and early-medieval world. They were. Dogs have likely accompanied people and their herds since long before recorded history; once domesticated and relating to people as part of their pack, dogs’ protective instincts would easily extend to the animals associated with their people. Archeological excavation of sites dated to the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE has found the remains of sheep and dogs together. But the physical separation of hunting dogs and herding dogs by breed is thought by some researchers to have occurred much later – so Colm’s dog Peritas, which I envision as a cross between a border collie and a deerhound – appears anachronistic.
Or does it? About 200 CE, Oppian of Apamea, a Greek poet, wrote a poem on hunting, in which he observes that, for the hunter, the black and white dogs of the farmer and shepherd (the mosaic above may show one of these) are not desirable. These may have been more guardian dogs than herding dogs – a couple of centuries earlier, Marcus Varro, in his De Re Rusticae, wrote:
As there are, then, two sorts of dogs — the hunting-dog suited to chase the beasts of the forest, and the other which is procured as a watch-dog and is of importance to the shepherd…
In the 2nd C Roman relief of a herdsman and his dog (above), there are no features that point to this dog as a ‘black and white herding dog’ as we know them in later centuries (and as I picture the herding dogs of Linrathe) – but no evidence it isn’t, either.
Hunting dogs – of the sort, perhaps, that has fathered Colm’s puppy, were praised and prized, and some of the best reputed to come from Britain. Oppian, again:
There is a strong breed of hunting dog…the wild tribes of Britons…call by the name of Agassian…. It is by virtue of its nose, however, that the Agassian is most exalted, and for tracking it is the best there is; for it is very adept at discovering the tracks of things that walk upon the ground, and skilled too at marking the airborne scent.
Later in Empire’s Reckoning, the protagonist Sorley, after a long journey south in the role of an itinerant sheep-shearer, sends the sheepdog that has accompanied him home, a long journey on its own. I took this idea from The Drove Roads of Scotland, the author commenting on this practice among the drovers of the 17th and 18th centuries. But it goes back much further than that: Varro, again:
Publius Aufidius Pontianus, of Amiternum, had bought some herds of sheep in furthest Umbria, the purchase including the dogs but not the shepherds, but providing that the shepherds should take them to the pastures of Metapontum and to market at Heraclea. When the men who had taken them there had returned home, the dogs, without direction… returned to the shepherds in Umbria a few days later, though it was a journey of many days.
This is a distance of some 300 miles, about the same distance that Haldane suggested the sheepdogs of Scotland, 1700 years later, travelled alone on their return home.
Maybe Colm’s Peritas isn’t completely anachronistic, nor is the black-and-white sheepdog Sorley sends home. In my fictional but familiar world, all that really matters is that the reader can believe in these dogs and their journeys.
Haldane, A.R. B. 1960. The Drove Roads of Scotland (2008 edition, Birlinn).
Featured Image: A child holding a dog, detail of the 6th century mosaic floor from the Palatium Magnum (Constantinople’s Great Palace), Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul . Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Never before have I had two books in my head at once, competing to be written. One is the last book that directly belongs to my series, working title Empire’s Passing. The other – Empress & Soldier – is a side novel, the story of the Empress Eudekia and of the soldier Druisius, growing up at the same time but in very different environments in Casil, the Rome-like city of my books. It will intersect at its ending with Empire’s Exile, providing a different entry point to my series, but also further deepening and exploring the increasingly complex character of Druisius.
For the sake of the series (and my readers) I should write Empire’s Passing first. But here’s the dilemma: prior to that, I need to write at least a draft of Druisius’s half of Empress & Soldier. I can’t learn things about Druise that might be important in Passing after it’s out. And character sheets don’t work for me. Within an overarching structure, I’m a discovery writer, and that’s not going to change.
I’m going to document this process of two overlapping books, because it’s new. A challenge, and my brain likes challenges, and I want to see how I do it. What I plan, what appears serendipitously, what the struggles are.
Here’s where I am today, June 20, 2021.
Empress & Soldier (hereafter E&S):
It will have, I believe, a three act structure, each act a period of 4 – 5 years. Druisius is 16 at the start; Eudekia 12. He is the son of a trader; she is the treasured daughter of the equivalent of a Roman senator. Other than brief, unknowing glimpses, their lives will not intersect until he becomes a palace guard at the same time she marries the young Emperor, at the end of the 2nd act.
I have a good but incomplete idea of what I need to learn about Druisius, both in his personal life and his military and guard positions. I have less idea about Eudekia, except to more fully understand how she became such a skilled diplomat and leader, and her marriage to the Emperor. However, this will reveal itself.
On my study wall there is now a timeline chart. On my bookshelf is a pile of books for research into private lives of both plebeians and the senatorial class in Rome; the Roman army; daily life in ancient Rome, and travel. Those I need to read for Druisius as well as Eudekia. I have other books specific to Eudekia, but they can wait.
Empire’s Passing (hereafter Passing):
Two narrators: Cillian and Lena’s son Colm, and Lena. Colm is somewhere to the east of Casil, in a war zone, serving as a battlefield physician. Lena and the rest of her family are at Wall’s End, in Ésparias. This is about ten years after the end of Empire’s Heir. (I’ll try really hard in this diary not to give too much away.) The war in the east is affecting the governance and stability of Ésparias…and that’s just about all I know at this point. (Except its end: I’ve known that for at least a year, but I won’t ever reveal that.)
On my bookshelf are the books related to this, with more on order: books on Roman medicine, on Roman military conquests; on Viking travels to Kiev and Byzantium; on slavery in ancient Rome; on daily life on Hadrian’s Wall. I have a whiteboard and a notebook where I jot down ideas.
This really is the very beginning of the creative process – and in a day or three I’ll have to stop to do the final revisions, and then the proofing, on Empire’s Heir. This will be a sporadic diary, updated when I have something to say, or I remember. It’s not meant to be a guidebook to writing a novel, or advice – simply a record. Follow along if you like!
We first meet Cillian early in Empire’s Hostage, and he’ll be present, at least in memory, through to the end of the series. Because I wasn’t, at that point in my development as a writer, a plotter in any form, I had no idea how important he was. But he is central to the next three books, both to the personal and political arcs of all my characters.
I don’t ‘invent’ my characters, in that I don’t say ‘I want a character who is funny and bad-ass and scared of commitment’ to fit into a place in my books; they just appear, more or less fully formed, in my mind, and I learn about them as I write. What intrigued me about Cillian were the dichotomies.
The man we first meet is thirty-three, unfriendly, distant – and yet clearly devoted to both Perras and Dagney, the two teachers at the school in Linrathe where we first encounter him. He wants next to nothing to do with Lena, my protagonist, because she’s from the southern Empire. He nurtures a near-hatred for that land, because his father was one of its soldiers, a man who left his young mother unmarried and shamed, making Cillian a bastard, another shame in Linrathe.
Over the course of the next four books – Empire’s Exile, the novella Oraiáphon, Empire’s Reckoning, and the upcoming Empire’s Heir – we learn a lot more about Cillian. He is a man who loves the country of his birth passionately – and yet he abandons it. He had sworn an oath of loyalty to its land and people in his role as toscaire – something between an envoy and a spy – but broke that oath. He is skilled in (some) of the arts of the bedroom – and yet says he has never been in love.
From these – and other – dichotomies a portrait of a deeply moral and deeply complex man slowly emerged. Torn always between love for individuals and love for the concept of land and people; working secretly and dangerously to create a future at the risk of a charge of treason, and yet a follower of stoic philosophy: “Accept what fate brings you.” A scholar who nonetheless nearly dies of war wounds, Cillian profoundly loves Lena – he calls her his greatest love, and his greatest blessing, but he is willing to give her up to save both their lands. And he also loves a man who is his close companion.
Cillian is aware of his own complexity. (In modern terms, and playing armchair psychologist, Cillian not only would be diagnosed with depression, but likely has an anxiety disorder, for which both his stoic philosophy and his meticulous, detailed planning are coping strategies.) Sometimes he wonders why he is loved, considering how difficult and complicated a man he is. (Sometimes those who love him wonder the same thing.) Watching him emerge as an individual was fascinating to me as a writer, but in the newest book, Empire’s Heir (September release) half the story is told in his voice – and that gave a whole new dimension to my understanding of him, because for the first time I knew what was going on in his mind, not just what he allowed himself to say.
All I will say is he can still surprise me.
(My vision of Cillian when we first meet him is represented here by Ed Stoppard in Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire)
This is a map of Scotland; the county shown in red is Sutherland. Suðrland, in Old Norse, Southland, even though it is some of the most northerly land in mainland Britain. But from the point of view of the Norse, who ruled parts of what is now northern Scotland from the 8th to the 15th centuries, it was south.
We are used to maps with north at the top, but if you’re a northern people, that’s not the most useful view. A rotated, south-up map of western Europe gives you a sense. Sutherland is the red star.
I borrowed this concept in its entirety for Empire’s Hostage: Sorham, the name for the land north of Linrathe, means ‘south-home’ in one of my semi-invented languages. Like northern Scotland, this area bounces between Linrathe and Varsland, my Norse-analogue country: disputed territory, with many treaties and much intermarriage.
Lena, the protagonist, sent into Linrathe as a hostage to a treaty, encounters this concept through, literally, a map turned upside down. Lena will learn many things in Linrathe, many of which – most – will change her understanding of not just her country and its history, but of the subjective nature of what she has been brought up to believe is truth. A different perspective.
Tali grinned, her teeth white against her tanned face. “Oh, there’s a problem,” she said. “Our prospective new metalworker is neither from Delle, nor newly-qualified. As a guess, I’d say our new smith brings thirty years of experience—military experience. And his name is Casyn.”
I stared at my aunt, my hands tightening on the crab trap. Maya gasped. All men left the villages at seven to enter the Empire’s military schools, spending their adult years serving in the army. In retirement, they raised horses or grew grapes or taught in the schools, finishing out their days with whatever part of their regiment had survived. Twice a year, war and distance allowing, they came to the villages for Festival, to be provisioned, to gather food and cloth and wine, to make love and father children, to give and carry messages. Festival lasted a week, and then they left. This pattern had shaped our lives for generations.
I shook my head. “But he can’t.”
Can you imagine a society where men and women’s lives are so divided? But this is the society into which my protagonist Lena has been born, and it’s all she knows. Readers ask where this idea came from. There isn’t a simple answer, but I’ll do my best.
History is one source. The idea of male children being taken at seven into military training is from the social structure of the ancient city-state of Sparta, where exactly that happened. Spartan boys were basically cadets until age 20, when they took on greater responsibility in the military; they could marry at 30, but did not live with their wives, but stayed with their military comrades in barracks….and that was the germ of the idea of the men and women living almost completely separate lives, except for a couple of weeks each year.
Icelandic and Viking women, where women frequently were completely responsible for farming and fishing and all the other work while the men were at sea, either fishing (Iceland) or raiding (Vikings) was another source. The apprenticeship of girls at twelve to a trade is simply based on long practice throughout much of the world.
I must tip my hat, too, to a book with a similar societal structure, Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Woman’s Country. In her book, set 300 years in the future after nuclear war, a society has developed where women and children live in towns with a few male servants; most men live in warrior camps beyond the town walls. I read The Gate to Woman’s Country about five years before starting Empire’s Daughter, and it was definitely a direct influence.
In Empire’s Daughter, we learn that this division of men and women’s lives came about due to a disagreement between men and women about the expansion of the Empire. Villages were governed by a council of three women, the men being away too often for war. When the Emperor asked yet again for men to fight, the women had had enough, forcing a country-wide assembly resulting in the partition of their lives, known from then on as the Partition Agreement. Here I was tweaking two ideas: Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, where women withhold sex until the men stop fighting, ending the Peloponnesian Wars, and, the Ent/Entwives conflict in The Lord of the Rings, where a similar wish for exploration vs a settled life leads to the sundering of the lives of male and female Ents.
This way of life is not without its costs, and some of those are made evident in Empire’s Daughter, and over the rest of the books in the series, as war and peace bring new challenges and new ideas.
More on this divided life, on the idea of twice-yearly Festivals, and on partnerships between men and women, in future posts.
By the way! Subscribers to my newsletter are getting a monthly instalment of a story about how the Partition Agreement came about, a prequel to Empire’s Daughter set several hundred years earlier.
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