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)
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?
Lena and Maya, characters in Empire’s Daughter, are partners in life and work; like many young village couples, they’ve known each other all their lives, moving from playmates to a closer bond. They apprenticed together, and now as adults – which they’ve been for a year, in their world – they work together on a co-owned fishing boat. Maya is six months older than Lena, practical, organized, disliking of change. “Maya needed order and predictability,” Lena thinks. “In our business partnership, her need for stability balanced my impulsiveness. In our personal relationship, it had always cast a small shadow.”
Lena describes herself as a dreamer, given to mood swings and doubts. But Maya sees something else: “You think this is an adventure, Lena?” she accuses. “Something new? Something different? You always want to sail a little further, find another cove, even though the ones we know provide us with all the fish we need.”
Now the Emperor has made an audacious request: will the women of his land learn to fight, to help protect their country from invasion? They’re needed, in his judgment: the men alone cannot win, not without leaving the northern frontier underguarded and vulnerable. It’s a departure from hundreds of years of tradition, an abandonment of the Partition agreement that structured the lives of men and women into distinct roles. Men fight; women fish and farm.
Lena doesn’t admit to Maya that, yes, she sees an adventure in the choice that has been presented. Fishing needs all her wits: the seas can turn nasty in a moment. It should be enough to deal with that day to day. But there’s a drive in her – inherited from her father, although she doesn’t know that – for new horizons, new challenges.
Maya just wants things not to change. Tradition is important to her. She wants her village to refuse the request: it’s the men’s job to protect the land, not women’s. And she thinks if they agree to this, and survive it, what else will change? The idea frightens her, and she’s become rigid in her thinking. “Don’t make up my mind so soon?” she snaps. “I know how I feel, Lena. What Casyn is asking, what the Empire is asking, is wrong. I know that, and so do you. Women don’t fight. We don’t kill or harm others.”
This relationship had some issues before this divisive request. So, readers, here’s your question: even if the request to fight had never come, could this relationship survive?
This scene didn’t make it into the final version of Empire’s Reckoning, mostly because the book was already long, and while this added to character- and world-building, it didn’t feed the plot. But I awoke to snow today, and was reminded of it, so here it is. If you’re in the middle of the Empire’s Legacy trilogy, there are spoilers here.
“Teannasach, may I go?” I asked formally. He stepped forward, offering an arm and the kiss of farewell. Our lips brushed for the briefest of moments. I wondered if knowing what I was made him uncomfortable, but if it did, he did not show it.
“Go safely, Lord Sorley,” he said. I swung up onto my horse and turned its head south.
I’d woken with a scratchy throat, but we’d talked and sung into the small hours, so I thought little of it. But as I rode through the morning, I reluctantly admitted to a cold. My throat was painfully sore now, and my nose alternately running and blocked.
Ingoldstorp was some distance away yet, but they would give me soup and fuisce, and a warm bed, and perhaps a night’s sleep would chase the illness away. I found my hat in the saddlebags and wrapped my scarf a little tighter around my neck. The day was getting colder, I was sure.
An hour later the snow began. Big flakes, wet and heavy, at first: then, when the wind picked up, smaller and denser. The world around me turned white, and still the snow fell, thick and fast and rapidly shrinking the visible world to no more than a few arms’ lengths in front of me. I started to shiver. I couldn’t see the road now; all I could do was trust my horse to seek shelter.
I let the reins lie slack. The gelding plodded steadily forward, its head low against the wind. My fingers were numb, and my toes. The snow stung the exposed skin of my face. I closed my eyes.
Random thoughts: lambs would die in this. Had I wrapped my ladhar properly? Druise would be so angry with me. I drifted into a daze, time and the white world passing without sense or recognition.
My horse roused me, swinging his head and snorting. I looked around me, slowly realizing we stood in the lee of a building. I pushed myself up in the stirrups, my right leg dragging over the saddle as I dismounted, feet sinking into snow well over my ankles.
I fumbled along the wall of the building, looking for a door. I found one, but its latch resisted my stiff fingers. Swearing loudly, I pulled a glove off with my teeth and tried again. The horse pushed up against me, wanting cover.
On the fourth try I got the latch and the door open. I stumbled in, the horse following. A cattle byre, I could tell, from the smell and the heat, although almost no light found its way into the building. A cow lowed, and another. Probably the torp’s milk cows, I thought muzzily. I hoped so.
My hands were too cold to remove my horse’s bridle, or its saddle, even with both hands bare. He stood placidly enough, so I left him, moving towards the cattle. A warm, heavy body loomed in front of me. I put a hand on its side; it didn’t flinch. Slowly I moved around it until I was among the cows. I leaned up against one, almost hugging it. Apart from a flick of her tail, she didn’t object. Milk cows, as I had hoped, accustomed to being handled.
The heat radiating off the animals warmed me, even though the strong smell of urine in the byre made my eyes water. I would stink of cow, I thought, but I didn’t care. The cattle chewed and belched and shuffled, and one nosed me, its hot breath scented with hay. I’d never liked cattle much, before.
Warmed, I went back to my horse, removing his tack. He’d find hay and water, although the cows might kick him. By feel I found the bread and cheese in one saddlebag. Then I sat down to eat and wait.
The food tore at my sore throat, but I made myself swallow it, in small mouthfuls. I sat as close to the cattle as I safely could, and at some point, exhausted, I fell asleep.
A man’s voice woke me. Concerned, not angry: no torp or house would turn away a traveller in this weather. He knelt. “Are you well?”
I tried to speak, coughed instead. “Well enough,” I managed. “My horse brought me here. Where am I?”
“Ingoldstorp. Who are you?”
“Sorley.” A bout of coughing racked me. “Toscaire to the young Teannasach. I was riding south from Dun Ceànnar.”
“Well, sit quiet while I give hay to the kyne and your horse. I’ll take you up to the house, after.”
He was quick with the feeding. Then he piled the water trough high with snow, the byre door letting in blasts of cold as he went back and forth. It would melt soon enough from the animals’ body heat. Then he gave me a hand up, threw my saddlebags over his own shoulder, and took me to the house.
The snow and my cold ran their course together. Ingold—or rather his Konë—distractedly welcomed me, found me a bath and a bed, fed me, and sat me by the fire when I coughed. I had been lucky: I could well have died, had my horse not brought me to the cattle-byre. But my cold remained only a cold, preventing me from singing to repay my hosts’ hospitality, nothing more.
Not that the Eirën was often present. Ingold, a handful of years older than I, spent all the daylight hours out with his men and the sheepdogs, digging ewes and lambs out of drifts. I offered to help, but he refused. “I don’t doubt your skill with sheep, Sorley,” he said. “But you’ve work to do for the young Teannasach, and that can’t be risked.” So instead I fed the penned and stabled animals, and warmed half-dead lambs by the hearth of the house, with the Konë and the torpari women.
The weather changed on the fifth day, the wind shifting south, warm on the skin. Snow melted rapidly, turning the yard and the track to muck. “I’ll turn the sheep out in the morning,” Ingold told me, as we shared fuisce that night. I had played for them earlier; I couldn’t sing, but music of any sort was always welcomed. “You’ll be on your way, no doubt?”
“I will. If this weather reached south, the Casilani ships will have been delayed, but if not, they could be in harbour already. I have letters to go to Casil, from Ruar and the Raséair, and I must stop at the Ti’ach na Perras on the way.”
I had been gone well over two weeks. Ingold sipped his fuisce. “What are they like, these Casilani?” he asked.
“Wily. Sophisticated, and skilled with words and subtlety. At least the officials. The soldiers,” I shrugged, thinking of Druise, “are not so different from any men.”
“You’ll need all your wits about you, if you’re to ensure they treat us fairly,” he commented. “But the same was needed with the Marai. I suppose it’s no different. But we’ll be hard-pressed to pay tribute this year.” The talk drifted to the effect of this unseasonal snow, and how many lambs had been lost. “We’ll have been better off than most,” Ingold said. “I had enough men to rescue most of them. Some of the torps will have lost almost all, I’d think.”
“Why did the Marai leave you alone?” Had he supported them?
He snorted. “I’m a practical man, Sorley. I sent my wife and children to Dun Ceànnar, and then I went too, but later. I told the torpari I’d gone south to fight at the Wall, for the Marai, and I left them orders to cooperate. We lost a lot of animals to feed the raiders. There’s some pale-haired babies born this year, and they took a few girls, and a boy or two, as slaves, but they didn’t burn the byres, or the cottages. A small price to pay for our lives, I’d say.”
I couldn’t argue. I toasted him silently, and he grinned and drank his fuisce down. “Bedtime,” he said. “I’ll be out at dawn tomorrow, so I’ll say goodbye now. Safe travels, Sorley.”
(c) 2020 Marian L Thorpe
Featured Image: Beneath The Snow Encumbered Branches, Joseph Farquharson. Public Domain