Inspiration and Memory

Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay 

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.

Why am I thinking about her?  Because today I introduced a new character to my work-in-progress, my MC Eudekia’s grandmother. And when she says 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 inspiration 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’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out; how many of those stories find their way into a book set in a fictional world 1500 years earlier.

Of Birding and Writing

May is the month when my two avocations – writing and birding – compete for my time and attention. For most of the year (or at least my Canadian year – our English months had a different rhythm), I write in the mornings, and do everything else in my life in the afternoons. But birds – especially songbirds, migrate primarily at night, dropping down into woodland, hedgerow and grassland to feed in the early mornings. So morning, during migration, is when to be out.

I’ve been birding at some level for over fifty years. I’ve been writing for at least as long. Birding keeps me in touch with the rhythms of the earth, and the non-human lives that we share it with: I may be primarily looking for birds, but I’m also seeing and paying attention to reptiles, amphibians, mammals, insect life – and plants. Honing skills of observation, layering experiences of sight and sound and smell – and even feel and taste – into my day and my memory, often to reappear in my writing.

I’m always birding. If there’s light in the sky, whether outside or near a window, if a bird moves, I look at it. Reflexively. (Not always the best reflex, when you’re having a serious conversation with your boss in the parking lot, but, there it is. They were all remarkably forgiving.) I’m always writing, too. Words move in and out of my conscious mind: description, conversation, mood. Sometimes I even write about birding.

Regardless of my respectable list of birds seen, garnered over seven continents, I’m not a world-class birder, and I never was nor will be. I have no ear for song, a requirement to be really good, and, at sixty-four, my eyesight isn’t what it once was. The details are harder to distinguish now. But I was at my best a solidly good birder. But I didn’t get there overnight. It took a lot of work, birding with people who knew far more than I, studying books, making mistakes, learning from them: hours and hours in the field and analyzing that field work afterwards. A lot of work for a ‘hobby’? But a discipline that overlaps with that of writing. I’m not a world-class writer, either. I’m probably a solidly good one. But I didn’t get there overnight. It took all the same steps, the same discipline, the same willingness and drive to learn, and keep learning.

As I walked the familiar paths of my birding patch this morning, I thought about how these two parts of my life complement each other. Birding taught, and continues to teach, lessons far beyond that of identification: patience, for one. But more subtle ones, too: yesterday I watched a bluebird hunting insects. Except I didn’t have my binoculars, and the position of the sun meant the bluebird was only a silhouette. How did I know it was a bluebird, then? From all the things it showed me: its size and shape, how it flew, how it returned to the same branch over and over – all these things said ‘bluebird’, without me having to be told, by an in-your-face, look-at-me view, that it was a bluebird.

Birding taught me, too, about glimpses, how to construct a whole from pieces. Tapaculos are small birds of the undergrowth of central America. They are, most of them, very hard to see, because they skulk under thickets. But if you see enough pieces of a tapaculo: an eye, a beak, the tail feathers – they add up to a whole bird in your mind. Just like worlds and characters are best built in the mind of the reader from pieces, hints, brief views.  

I could keep drawing parallels; I won’t. But this morning, as I left the coffee shop downtown where I’d had breakfast, still early, and stepped into St George’s Square, a raven flew low over the space, calling. Unexpected, delightful, (and perhaps portentous for some). I’m still thinking about it.  A plot twist, if you like.

The Landscape of a Dream

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.

Why I Don’t Write Actual Historical Fiction

In my work-in-progress, Empress & Soldier, the last third of its story overlaps with about a quarter of my third book, Empire’s Exile.  In Exile, we see this section through the eyes of the narrator, Lena, and the characters of the soldier Druisius and the Empress Eudekia are peripheral (although very important) to the story.

But Empress & Soldier is told through the alternating viewpoints of Eudekia and Druisius, and so we are seeing the same events through different eyes – and discovering some those events can have very different motivations and interpretations. That’s not the problem: I enjoy exploring the ‘what ifs’ of different perspectives. But everything that happens in this section of Empress & Soldier must fit the chronology of events in Exile. Actions must occur within a framework that is set. Just like a real historical novelist, I can’t change what has already happened.

For me, working within this constraint is a huge challenge. It’s not how my brain works. I’m used to saying ‘oh, look, I really like how The Battle of Maldon is described, so I’ll borrow that but change its outcome.’  Now I can’t even change a conversation, a dinner served, a walk through the city. At the same time, these things are now background events, most happening off-page. My focus is on what Druisius and Eudekia are thinking, doing, feeling, learning—from and alongside the actions and events that already exist.

Which is, of course, what writers of real historical fiction deal with, in every story—and the more recent the history, the more records of events, the more constraints there are. I am not sure I could do this for an entire book, let alone more than one!

This is how I’m handling it: by a detailed analysis of each chapter (and each scene) in Exile that is reflected in Empress & Soldier.  This is an exacting and layered process that is very different from the creativity of writing, and is remarkably tiring.  But it must be done, and once it is, my mind will switch back to writing mode—and another challenge: how much of Lena’s story do I retell? (Enough for a new reader to understand what’s going on. Not too much, or I risk boring a returning reader. A fine balance.)

I occasionally consider writing a novel based firmly in historical fact. To save my temper, my hair, my liver—and perhaps my marriage— I don’t think I will.

On Restless Pinions

Imagine, if you will, a child at a table, pen in hand. He, or possibly she, is learning to write a legible hand. But not on paper: on a thin sheet of wood, with ink made from carbon and gum Arabic and a pen with a metal nib.  One side of this sheet has been used, a letter begun and discarded, but the other side is fine for a child to use for practice.

Outside, the soldiers and officers of a Roman fort are going about their business. There are patrols to ride, to keep an eye on the Brittunculi, the soldiers’ derogatory nickname for the native inhabitants. Drills to practice, swords and armour to clean, cooking to be done, board games or dice to be played.

Would the child prefer to be out watching the soldiers drill on the practice field? Or perhaps hang around the stables, breathing in the scent of horse?  No such luck: not when you are the child of an officer. Restless or not, your education comes first.

So you write. Perhaps you are copying, perhaps you are writing from dictation. But here, in this northern fort at the edge of Empire, in the year 100, you are writing a line from Virgil:  interea pauidam uolitans pinnata perurbem (Aeneid 9:473). A line we know, can still read, can still write today. (On restless pinions to the trembling town had voiceful Rumour hied…)1

Fájl:Philo mediev.jpg
 Cours de philosophy du Paris; Grande Chroniques de France.  Public Domain

This fragment from Virgil, copied nearly two thousand years ago, is tablet 118 of the Vindolanda letters. From this brief glance into the (probable) life of a child, perhaps one of the children of the Prefect Flavius Cerialis, I have extrapolated: my characters Perras and Cillian use the ‘classics’ in this way as they teach; the children of my books, of the right rank, learn to write a fine hand, and know the words of my world’s equivalent of Virgil and others. Even at a northern fort at the edge of an Empire that never, quite, existed.

Striking Fear

A Random Research Note

File:Slingers on Trajan's Column.JPG
Slingers portrayed on Trajan’s Column.
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Smooth stones shot with a sling…are more dangerous than any arrows, since while leaving the limb intact they inflict a wound that is still lethal, and the enemy dies from the blow of the stone without loss of blood…This weapon should be learned by all recruits with frequent exercise, because it is no effort to carry a sling. It often happens too that warfare is carried on in stony places, that some mountain or hill has to be defended…

Vegetius: De Re Militari

Druisius, one of the main characters in my work-in-progress, Empress & Soldier, is a new recruit facing his first battle, defending a mountain pass. In the vanguard of the troops facing the enemy are the slingers. (No, this isn’t historically correct: what I write isn’t. It’s a created world that looks a lot like ours, but I’m not bound by absolute accuracy.)

Slings are an ancient weapon, most likely in use long before any written record. The first written record in the western world is the story of David and Goliath in the Old Testament of the Bible (1st Samuel), thought to have been written about the 6th century BCE. Used across the world, the oldest-known slings are from coastal Peru, radio-carbon dated to c. 2500 BCE.

Roman slingers, which I am using as my model, used lead sling-bullets: the density of lead means that the mass of a sling-bullet made from the metal is much greater than one of stone. Lead sling-bullets could therefore be small, able to travel further than a stone of the same mass due to less resistance in the air, and difficult to see in flight. A painful projectile, with larger ones capable of speeds up to 160 kph.  As archaeologist John Reid of the Trimontium Trust told Scientific American, it could take the top of a head off. Romans (and Greeks) literally added insult to injury: bullets were sometimes inscribed with images of snakes or scorpions, or inscriptions such as ‘catch!’.

File:Romans used also small sling bullets of lead.jpg
Peter van der Sluijs, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most interesting of all the sling bullets found from the Roman period are those from Burnswark, or Birrenswark, Hill in southwestern Scotland. In the second century CE, troops under the command of Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Roman governor of Britannia (himself following orders from Antonius Pius, the Roman Emperor) attacked the hillfort of the Caledonian people here. Archaeological investigations at the site discovered about twenty percent of the sling bullets were smaller than average, and had holes drilled into them. These bullets whistle as they fly. Their assumed purpose is to terrify the enemy: small, stinging, whistling projectiles, almost like a swarm of biting insects.

Druisius isn’t a slinger; he’s infantry, a foot soldier using shield and sword. But he sees the value of the sling in his first battle.  Will he ever use it?  You may have to read Empress & Soldier to find out!

References:

Translated Texts for Historians Volume 16: Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science. N.P. Milner, Translator. Liverpool University Press, 1996. pp 16-17  

Whistling Sling Bullets Were Roman Troops’ Secret Weapon. Tom Metcalfe, LiveScience on June 14, 2016: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/whistling-sling-bullets-were-roman-troops-secret-weapon/

Burnswark Hill: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burnswark_Hill#Battle_details

You Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours.

A Random Research Note

“We ourselves have seen Manius Manilius walking across the forum; a signal that he who did so, gave all the citizens liberty to consult him upon any subject; and to such persons, when thus walking or sitting at home upon their seats of ceremony, all people had free access, not only to consult them upon points of civil law, but even upon the settlement of a daughter in marriage, the purchase of an estate, or the cultivation of a farm, and indeed upon any employment or business whatsoever.” Cicero, De Oratores, Book III:XXXIII 

https://pages.pomona.edu/~cmc24747/sources/cic_web/de_or_3.htm
aeneid
DEA / G. Dagli Orti / De Agostini / Getty

Manius Manilius, whoever he was*, is represented in this passage by Cicero as a patron: an important position and concept in the hierarchical structure of the Roman social contract.

In the Roman world, a patron-client relationship was a form of noblesse oblige, although with the loyalty and support of the client expected. Based on the Roman ideal of ‘fides’, loyalty, the patron – (the word derives from ‘father’) – the head of a high-status family, dispensed advice, loans, and influence to his clients – men of lower status, in exchange for political support, respect, and sometimes the physical presence of their clients for protection.

In Empress & Soldier, we see this in action when Salvius, Druisius’s father, goes to ask his patron for help in acquiring certain licenses he needs as a merchant. He takes his oldest son (Druisius) with him, as part of his education. They go early in the morning, are admitted to a waiting room, where they and the others waiting are seen in order of their social status. I based this on the salutatio, the morning greeting of clients to their patrons, and also the opportunity to ask the patron for a favour.

By the late Roman Empire, the patron-client relationship had changed quite a bit, to a more self-serving relationship between the two. But one of the advantages of writing a fictional world is I can pick and choose what aspects of history I want to use and adapt – and so I’ve kept patronage in my city of Casil to reflect patronage in the Roman Republic.

(The identity of Druisius’s father’s patron is important to the story, by the way, but I’m not about to reveal that yet!)

* an orator and jurist of the Roman Republic, c 150 BCE, actually.

Lucius Primus’s Unauthorized War

A Random Research Note

Look back over the past, at the empires that rose and fell, and predict the future.  Marcus Aurelius (or Catilius, in my fictional semi-parallel world.)

There are – as there are in almost all multigenerational sagas – two areas of focus in my books: the personal arcs of my characters, and the political/social background against which those character arcs unfold, and by which they are challenged and tested and developed. In Empress & Soldier, the work-in-progress, the political plot will (perhaps) be foremost, and, as I currently envision the book, it will take place over about a 15-year period. A different challenge for me, the writer, in part because my knowledge of Roman political history outside the major events in Roman Britain and a few highlights elsewhere is fairly limited.

This entails a lot of research…which I’ll be sharing in random bits as I learn something that will feed the plot of the book. I’m doing this as much for me as anyone – this way it’s written down somewhere I can find it again 😊 – but perhaps it will entertain or enlighten someone, or provide me with feedback that will be useful! 

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The Odrysian Kingdom, which existed from the early 5th century BC at least until the mid-3rd century BC, was one of the most powerful of its time. Throughout much of its early history it remained an ally of Athens; eventually, Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father, would conquer it. But in the early part of the common era it was under Roman control, and in one jurisdiction, there was a proconsul governor named Lucius Primus.

According to Dio (54:3:2) Lucius Primus (or he might have been Marcus Primus) stood trial in 22 CE for starting a war against the Odrysae. The Odrysae were Thracian, and Thrace had been an important ally of Rome, especially in the Battle of Actium. Why Lucius Primus started this war I haven’t yet been able to find out, but apparently it was ‘unauthorized’ by Augustus. (Starting a war against allies doesn’t appear at first glance to be a good move on a governor’s part.)  He swore he had Augustus’s approval; Augustus said he didn’t…and Lucius Primus was eventually executed.

The event is mentioned by Dio because it’s important in Augustus’s gradual expansion of power: the jurisdiction Lucius Primus governed was a senatorial province, and it should have been the senate that decided the governor’s fate without Augustus’s interference. That’s not what caught my attention. In furthering the history of my fictional world, I need a reason for my antagonists (a family) to have a grievance against the Emperors. So I think this little bit of history will serve as a template. A governor who starts a war he shouldn’t have, a trial and execution….and then imagination can create a son who, exonerated because he was either too young or serving in another province (haven’t worked out the timelines yet) nurses his grievance and plans a long, multi-generational game of revenge – a game he trains his nephew in as well.

Gaffes in Historical Fiction by Mercedes Rochelle

Historical Fiction authors have all experienced it…blissfully writing away, unaware that we have just committed an anachronism. And chances are, we won’t even know until a reviewer calls it to the world’s attention—months, or even years later. Oh no! 

I hate to admit it, but outside of my knowledge of historical events, I don’t know everything about everything historical. Trust me: it’s a tall order (according to the OED, earliest use of this phrase was 1893). Not every animal or plant was native to England (or America!). Sometimes they were introduced later than the period we are writing about. One time a reader penalized me for having Canute the Dane eat a rabbit because he said they were brought over with the Normans. D’oh! I looked it up and discovered a Roman recipe (in England) for rabbit, so they must have brought over the little buggers. That doesn’t excuse me, unfortunately. It never occurred to me to look up the origin of rabbits in England.

One little slip like giving King Alfred a tomato can wreak havoc with an author’s credibility. Potatoes are another bone of contention, as are turkeys, sugar, and chocolate, to name a few. Such foods may have existed but may not have made their way to England until late in the period. Not everyone agrees on the timing.

So where is the fine line between innocent errors and unforgiveable lapses? Laurence Olivier had Henry V in armor hoisted onto his horse with a crane-like contraption. He was warned against this inaccuracy by his historical advisor but preferred the dramatic effect. This gaffe is imprinted on our cultural memory!

Henry V (Signet Classics) (c) 1998

What about language? Idioms are another trap for the unwary. When I am writing, I run etymonline.com in the background, as well as phrases.org.uk. There are certain words and phrases that wouldn’t have been used in the early days. You can’t explode before the use of gunpowder. Can you really be nervous before the discovery of nerves? Of course, etymology is only a guide; the first known use of a word would be in writing. But I doubt if it would be in general use verbally for more than a century or two previously. So if a word was first discovered in 1650, for example, I would hesitate to use it in 1400. The trick is being cognizant of an anachronistic word in the first place.

Bottom line? The writer is going to make mistakes. We can’t forgive ourselves, but maybe our readers will cut us some slack (first use mid-1900s).

Mercedes Rochelle is a historical fiction author. Her latest release is The Usurper King; find all her books here.

Mood Music

Songs and music have always been part of my stories, but it wasn’t until the musician Sorley moved from minor character to supporting in Empire’s Exile that I started to create playlists for part or all of my books. In Exile, it was only one song: there exists, in my fictional world, a song about two brothers separated forever by war. Sorley sings this one night, ‘for all we have loved, and all we have lost.’ Before and during writing this scene, I listened to Danny Boy, over and over again, trying to capture the sense of loss and love embodied in both its tune and its words.

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side….

Then Sorley moved from supporting character to main character, and the story he had to tell was one of love and betrayal, both in the immediate and looking back on it, and I needed songs to tell me of his pain and longing. The playlist started with Runrig’s This Beautiful Pain:

All that’s constant
And wise I still see in your eyes.
It was always this way from
The start. Right here where I
Stand on the last of the land.
But you’re still breaking the
Heart….

and Stan Rogers’ Turnaround:

…yours was the open road,
The bitter song, the heavy load
That I couldn’t share
Though the offer was there
Every time you turned around. 

Eventually it included Blue Rodeo, Gordon Lightfoot, more Runrig, Cat Stevens and CSNY. And one more, by the end: the song Sorley writes himself (or, rather, I did, of course – capturing the mood of Archie Fisher’s Dark Eyed Molly), his beautiful Paths Untrodden.

Then I started writing Empire’s Heir, which is the first of my books to have two narrators: the aging Cillian and his adult daughter Gwenna. There were two separate moods I needed to capture, along with a sense of a world changing, the torch being passed. I had Gwenna’s quickly: another Runrig song, Always the Winner

When you close your eyes there’s
A frightened pride that lives
For you. That your mother’s life
And your father’s eyes can’t
Hide. You had no choice, didn’t
Ask the dice to fall for you.
Still your courage comes like
Thunder through the skies. 

Cillian’s song took much longer – until a comment on Twitter discussing Leonard Cohen’s best songs took me to Alexandra Leaving – and it was perfect.

Suddenly the night has grown colder
The god of love preparing to depart
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder
They slip between the sentries of the heart…

Now, as I contemplate the two planned books – Empress & Soldier, the stories of Druisius and Eudekia before Lena and Cillian and Sorley enter their lives, and the last book of the series, Empire’s Passing, which will be narrated by Colm and Lena – I’ll have to go looking for appropriate songs again. They’ll be out there, somewhere.

Danny Boy lyrics:  Frederic Weatherly, 1913; copyright expired.

This Beautiful Pain: Songwriters: Calum Macdonald, Rory Macdonald lyrics © BMG Rights Management

Turnaround: © Stan Rogers, Fogarty’s Cove & Cole Harbour Music

Always The Winner Songwriters: Calum Macdonald, Rory Macdonald lyrics © BMG Rights Management

Alexandra Leaving: © Leonard Cohen, Sharon Robinson and Sony/ATV Music Publishing Canada Company.