Know What You Don’t Know

When I need to write something I have no expertise in, I look for a template. A model.

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.

Image by Gioele Fazzeri from Pixabay 

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?

Featured Image: Mudassar Iqbal from Pixabay 

A Different Perspective

When is north south?

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.

By Tyrannus Mundi at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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.

Featured image: by Santa3 from Pixabay

The Sterre

“The other Wall—it is not a stone wall, or not mostly, but an earthen dyke for the greatest part—is The Sterre.”

I scanned the map. I found the roads I had ridden, and Karst, and followed the road with my eyes back to the Wall. Then I let my eyes travel down toward the bottom of the map. I could not read the names, but I could see the line of another wall, and named villages, and then a gap of ocean where the islands lay, and then just the edge of another land. “There is another Wall!” I said. “And what lands are these, here?” I pointed to the bottom of the map.

“The land to the far north, at the bottom, is Varsland, and the islands belong to it.” Perras said. “The other Wall—it is not a stone wall, or not mostly, but an earthen dyke for the greatest part—is The Sterre.”

Empire’s Hostage

160 kilometers north of Hadrian’s Wall, another wall spans Scotland, from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. Sixty-three kilometers long, twelve years in the building, the Antonine Wall was abandoned a mere eight years after its completion.

Hadrians_Wall_map.pngCreated by Norman Einstein, September 20, 2005

There’s little of it left. Other than its foundation, it wasn’t a stone wall, but built of soil and turf and probably topped by a wooden palisade. The Emperor Antoninus Pius ordered it built to subdue the Caledonians.

I borrowed the concept of the Antonine Wall, but in my world it is a dividing line not between the ‘civilized’ south and the wild north, but between the country of Linrathe and the disputed territory north of it, Sorham. Sorham has been controlled by both Linrathe and Varsland, a country of seafarers even further north, just as parts of Scotland were under Norse rule until well into the 13th century. In Empire’s Hostage, it belongs to Linrathe.

This map of my imagined world has a different orientation than what we’re used to: south is up. This is how the nation of Varsland sees the world.

Why ‘The Sterre’?  I wish I could remember. One thing I should have was keep a record of how I developed words in my constructed languages. But its purpose in my books is to have kept the people south of it – the people of Linrathe – from moving north during a time of plague, many generations before the events of Empire’s Hostage.  It’s still a border, though, and a defensive earthwork, so it can be repurposed as politics demand – and they will.

Featured image: Antonine Wall at Barr Hill near Twechar, by Excalibur, CC 3.0