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.

The Place Below: The Maer Cycle Book III, by Dan Fitzerald

In The Place Below, Dan Fitzgerald brings his Maer Cycle to a satisfying conclusion. A generation after the first two books of the series, Sasha, daughter of human and Maer, is now an adult. Empathic, sensitive to touch, her natural skill with languages and communication enhanced as needed by magic, Sasha is searching out the tombs of the Ka-lar, the ‘forever kings’ laid to rest in a form of stasis hundreds of years earlier.  Then one day, her empathetic connection to the minds of the dead encounters an awakened, living Ka-lar among a branch of the Maer who themselves are legendary: the underground-dwelling Skin Maer.

The book alternates between the viewpoints of Sasha and Kuun, the awakened Ka-lar, and they serve as counterbalances to each other: Kuun, who at first presents as confident and powerful, slowly reveals motives and doubts; Sasha, who presents as unsure and solitary by nature, grows into her own competence and agency. Familiar characters—Sinnie, Finn, Tcheen—are reintroduced, but as characters to support Sasha in her quest, not to direct and overshadow her.

Kuun, the scholar-scientist Forever King, choosing stasis in the face of unfinished research in a time of plague, is a nuanced and ambiguous character, his motives slowly revealed over the course of his narrative. Again, Fitzgerald’s themes of communication and understanding play into the development of his character and his actions.

Like Fitzgerald’s first two books, this is fantasy with few battles and heroics of a martial sort, but with questions asked and answered about the power of language; about acceptance of differences that are superficial; about what we might sacrifice for the good of the whole. Commonalities that connect, not contrasts that divide. Sasha, neither human nor Maer, embodies both the possibility and the questions that arise about differences between Maer and human, a question that will be, finally, answered through Kuun’s determination. Recommended (as is the whole series) for readers wanting character-centred fantasy that makes them think.

Find The Maer Cycle, including an omnibus edition with bonus features here.

Dan Fitzgerald

Dan Fitzgerald is the fantasy author of the Maer Cycle trilogy (character-driven low-magic fantasy) and the upcoming Weirdwater Confluence duology (sword-free fantasy with unusual love stories). The Living Waters comes out October 15, 2021 and The Isle of a Thousand Worlds arrives January 15, 2022, both from Shadow Spark Publishing.

He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When not writing he might be found doing yoga, gardening, cooking, or listening to French music.

He can be found on Twitter or Instagram as danfitzwrites, or on his website, www.danfitzwrites.com



Release Day Reality

My sixth book is out today.

The cat just loudly deposited a hairball on the rug. Her retching woke me.

The dishwasher needs emptying; the birdbath filling.

My day planner tells me I have a guest post due today, reading to do for a book review, and various tasks related to my volunteer job as editor of our community newsletter, as well as feedback notes to write for a first-time author I’m mentoring.

In other words, the world hasn’t stopped because I have a new book out, and, you know, that’s ok.

Brian and I will go out for ice cream at our favourite place by the river a little later today, to celebrate. (Normally, we go out for a meal, but as it’s also our 40th wedding anniversary this week, we’ll do that on Friday.) Friends are sending congratulations. I am suffused with the sense of accomplishment and pleased with the book’s reception so far. It’s the sixth book in a series; there will be a small spike in sales this week, and then it will trail off, to be purchased as people work their way through the first five. Six years and six books into the life of an indie author, I know it’s a long game.

Next week I’m taking a holiday, travelling a couple of hours north to Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, for a few days walking and birding, leisurely brunches on outdoor patios, some pleasure reading, and whatever else catches my fancy. After this short break. Heir will take up some of my time – guest blogs, interviews, a blog tour, perhaps some readings, but it’s out in the world, no longer mine alone but belonging too to its readers, to make what they will of it. Both the next two books – Empress & Soldier and Empire’s Passing – are nudging me: work needs to start in earnest there.

As it will. Alongside dishwashers to empty, and meals to cook, and community work…and hairballs.

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.

From Concept to Finished Novel(s): Part II: Beginning with the End

With Empire’s Heir coming out in just over a week, my mind has inevitably moved on to the next book. While still set in my fictional work, and with familiar characters, Empress & Soldier will be something a little different.

As the title suggests, it focuses on two characters: the Empress Eudekia, and the soldier Druisius. In my third book, Empire’s Exile, we are introduced to both characters in the last half of the story.  Empress & Soldier will overlap with those chapters from Exile, although it will begin much earlier in the lives of both Eudekia and Druisius.

Empress & Soldier will – or can – serve as a second entry point into my world, so it creates some structural and conceptual challenges. In the overlapping part of the story, I will be writing scenes from either Eudekia or Druisius’s point of view. Sometimes these are scenes that are in Exile; sometimes they are scenes that happened ‘off page’ in that book, and are only referred to. 

I can’t skimp on this by assuming the reader has read Exile.  Nor should I just reverse the POV. What happens –  what either Druisius or Eudekia think, want, act on – is what matters. And that may be the opposite of what the main or supporting characters in Exile think, want, or act on. In fact, I already know it is, in some cases. A friend who has read some of the early draft scenes said, “I thought I knew Druisius. I was wrong.”

I’ve created a planning document, with the entire section from Exile on half the page, and blank space on the other. Now I’ll start going through each scene, thinking about the purpose of a parallel or supporting scene from the viewpoints of my two new main characters – but still conveying the important parts of the arcs of the other characters, those whose actions and reactions we saw in Exile.

I expect to spend a good chunk of time on this. Planning now will save a lot of energy and words later. I also intend to write this last section of Empress & Soldier first, because what happens here tells me what I need to show in the character development as Eudekia and Druisius grow up in much different ways in Casil, my Rome-analogue city. The plot, which will include some antagonists familiar to readers of my other books, has a framework, with details to be worked out which also depend on these last chapters.

There’s also an enormous amount of research to be done, and another advantage of writing these last chapters first is that I can juggle writing and research, because this section will require the least – I did most of what’s needed when I was writing Exile.

My last challenge – or I should say the last challenge I know about now! – is how Druisius wants to tell his story. Unlike my previous protagonists, for whom the written word either is or becomes their preferred mode of expression in journals or histories, song or poetry, Druisius is an oral storyteller with a distinctive voice – and a desire to tell his story in present tense.

“Druisius!”  My captain’s voice. What does he want? I am off duty. Friends are waiting to dice.  I turn.

“I’m reassigning you. A ship arrived this afternoon from the west. One of the passengers might be a queen, or something. They’ve asked for an audience with the Empress. The harbourmaster says they look like barbarians to him, but,” he shrugs, “they’ve been assigned a house, and guards, and you’re one of them.”

“Why me? And who’s the other?”

He snorts. “As if we don’t all know how bored you are.” He drops his voice. “Anyhow, it was the Magistere Quintus who suggested you. You know what that means.”

Can I/he maintain this?  I don’t know yet. (Nor do I know Eudekia’s voice at all, right now.) But this is a new adventure, in more ways than one!

Featured Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

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. 

Listening

My current work-in-progress, Empire’s Heir, is probably the most planned book I’ve ever begun. I’m moved from complete pantser to at least acknowledging that an outline isn’t a bad idea. With Heir, I did a really detailed outline. I know my themes and my subplots, and where I was introducing a new twist to support the saggy middle – all before I began to write.

I got 50K words in, and I stopped writing. Not because I didn’t know what came next, but because I was both bored and frustrated by my own writing. Bored because I’d already done ‘young woman coming of age under challenging circumstances’ story with my protagonist’s mother – it’s what my whole first trilogy is about. Frustrated, because some of the themes and subplots meant I was stretching credulity to have my MC present for some of the conversations and action, but without them, the book would be too simplistic.

My last book, Empire’s Reckoning, also challenged me in different ways, and I found having a playlist for it helped keep me focused. Maybe that would help, I thought, and went looking for (and soliciting) ideas for songs. And I gave my playlist for Reckoning one more listen.

One of the songs on that playlist is Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children, one of the anthems of my youth. I listened to it, and sang (ok, that too is stretching credulity – let’s say I vocalized) along with it, and then I went to bed.

To wake up early the next morning hearing, very clearly, the voice of my protagonist’s father, a voice I’ve never heard, although he’s been a central character in all books but one – and the solution to both my problems with the story. Switching its focus just a little, creating a two point-of-view story that contrasts Gwenna’s youth and naivete with Cillian’s wisdom and experience, adding a ‘passing of the torch’ theme – all those made the story so much more interesting. Situations central to overarching themes in the series can unfold without Gwenna directly observing them.

I should know by now that linear planning doesn’t work for me. I’m a mind-mapper on paper, a doodler, working with free-flowing thought and image, creating lateral connections – and I think that’s what ‘pantsing’ is about: letting the subconscious make those connections and drive the story. “Feed them on your dreams…” Graham Nash wrote, fifty years and more ago…and it seems it’s still the best advice for my writing.

(Lyrics to Teach Your Children here.)

Uncharted Ways

Yesterday I had a discussion with someone regarding what my new book, Empire’s Reckoning, is really about: not its plot, but its theme. Its deeper story, if you will.  (There are no spoilers here; you can keep reading.) “Courage comes in many forms: a hero’s weapon is not always a sword,” I have written in the pre-publication advertising. But that could say: “Courage is seeing a life past betrayal,” because that is closer to the heart of the book.

By betrayal, I do not necessarily mean duplicity, or disloyalty (or not only), but also the tiny betrayals of expectation: expectations of others, of our governments, of our cultures and friends and loves, and, importantly, of ourselves. Of our own best intentions, of our belief in our own abilities and motives and actions. All my main characters but one– and there are five now, in one of the two timelines in the book – face this loss, this realization of imperfection in ourselves and those we love.

My characters react to those betrayals, large and small, external or internal, in different ways, and to say more would be spoiling the story. I began Empire’s Reckoning two summers ago, long before COVID, but I can’t help thinking about its theme now in the face of our collective confusion and sense of betrayal. I’ve written before about how the overall theme of the series is about the power and limits of love to provide shelter and sanctuary in a turbulent world. In Reckoning, I ask that question again, but this time the turbulence is mostly from within, from the breaking of implicit contracts and the shattering of beliefs.

We too have had beliefs shattered, implicit contracts broken as the world grapples with COVID. We too are facing loss, bewildered by the change in our lives. We are afraid, angry, confused, exhausted, but also compassionate, generous, altruistic. We focus on ourselves, and we worry for others. I’m not saying Reckoning is a guidebook to navigating the changed world we find ourselves in. But as I emerge from the cocoon of creating a book, and am thinking more about what the post-COVID world might be, I wonder. Can I be as brave as my characters, and find in this upheaval the guideposts to uncharted ways, to a different way of living in this world?

World-building through Historical Characters: Gnaius and Galen

“Exactly so,” Gnaius agreed. “May I say more? I have lived in many of Casil’s provinces over the years. A physician travels with the army, if he wishes to become a skilled surgeon.”

– from Oraiáphon: A Novella of the Empire, 2020.

In my Empire’s Legacy series and its sequels (both completed and planned), the supporting character Gnaius plays, and will play, an important role. Gnaius is a physician, erudite and highly skilled, who has held many positions with both the army and to the Empress of Casil. He is a product of my imagination, of course, but he is based on the historical physician Claudius Galenus, best known to the modern West as Galen.

Galen (public domain)

I want to talk about Galen not so much in terms of the historical person, but as an example of how, in my alternate-world historical fiction, I use history to inform my world without being bound by it. The city in my world, Casil, is physically based on 4th century Rome, but politically it’s a blend of Rome and Byzantium. However, many of the conflicts that occur are from later in Europe’s history, between about 600 and 1000.

Galen lived in the 2nd century of the common era, at the same time as the emperor Marcus Aurelius, who appears as a figure from the past in my series (under a different name, of course). But this doesn’t matter: I’m not writing history. What matters is that Galen did almost everything I wanted Gnaius to have done: travelled extensively, learned about surgery and wound treatment in the field, practiced medicine in the capital city and became the personal physician to Emperors. So I have, effectively, lifted Galen out of the 2nd century and inserted him into my world at a later date.

There are both pros and cons to doing this. Readers will fall roughly into three categories: those who know nothing about early-medieval medicine, and will assume I’ve made Gnaius up entirely; those who have some knowledge of Galen, may well recognize consciously or unconsciously that Gnaius seems familiar, or right for the times; and those who know a fair bit about the subject, and may object to him being dragged forward several centuries.

My goal throughout the series has been to create a world that feels familiar to a reader brought up on the history of Britain and northern Europe, but has enough dissonance to make readers think about the questions raised by the conflicts with which the characters must deal, both personal and political. The real-life Galen fits neatly into the world, he’s just in the wrong century. (Certain readers may throw the book across the room in disgust at recognizing Gnaius as more-or-less Galen, although if they are that wedded to historical accuracy, they’ve probably given up on the series long before Gnaius makes his appearance 2/3 of the way through the third book.)

By some combination of serendipity and synchronicity, I learned in my research trip to Rome last week that Galen had lectured extensively at The Temple of Peace in the Forum, and indeed had stored his writings there for safekeeping. This plays right into the plot outline for the book (#5) I was there to research…and then I learned a fire at the Temple destroyed a fair number of those works. I’d already considered a fire in that general location as a plot device; now I have a historical occurrence to build around. The fire is not just plausible, it happened, and the destruction of some of Galen/Gnaius’s writings may well feed part of the plot of book #6, which is now little more than a concept.

The Temple of Peace in 1749 (public domain)

Gnaius is a minor character, although an important one. But by using Galen’s life as the basis for his, the verisimilitude of setting, character and plot is strengthened. Reviewers frequently comment on the depth and quality of world-building in my books: this is one way I do it. What are your methods for creating believable worlds?

Five Years an Author

Five years ago this month, Empire’s Daughter was published, the first book of my Empire’s Legacy trilogy. (Not that I knew, at that point, it was the first of a trilogy. I’d written it as a stand-alone.) I was 56.

I’d wanted to be a writer all my life, and I’d written all my life. And, to be fair, I was a writer, just not of fiction. In my first career, I wrote scientific papers for peer-reviewed journals, and procedural manuals, and monographs and chapters in highly technical books. Then I moved away from research and into education, and I wrote curriculum for the entire province, and a textbook, and many presentations and more technical manuals. Oh, and grant applications, in both careers: I was very good at grant applications.

All the writing I did in my previous two careers was very structured; there were protocols to follow. In scientific writing, precision of language was required: the exact scientific or technical term had to be used and the explanations needed to be accurate, unembellished, and follow a logical, clear, order. In writing grant applications, all those restrictions still applied, but I also needed to know what the ‘buzz’ words were, the terms that met the priorities of the granting agencies. Those terms had to be included in a natural way, not forced into the wording of the application.

In my career in education, I had to write for different audiences. A middle grade textbook uses different language than a guide to assistive technology for parents. A curriculum written for high school teachers, following the template provided by the province, is different again. I learned to match my word choice and sentence structure and the layout of the project to the audience.

Very importantly, none of this was done alone. I might be – and often was – responsible for the actual writing, but the final product had always gone through peer review, editing, rewriting, more review….and from that I learned the value of other eyes and minds, and how to take feedback (leave your ego at the door) and how to throw out something I loved.

So by the time I’d written Empire’s Daughter, and decided it was worth sending out to the world, I’d already learned a lot of the lessons a writer of fiction needs. (I’d written two previous novels during this time, too. They’ll never be published: they were practice in the craft.) I’d learned about structure and tailoring language to an audience. I’d learned ways to describe concisely and accurately. I’d learned about embedding concepts seamlessly into narrative. And most importantly, I’d learned about listening to those within my field charged with improving the work, and how even a competent and confident writer needs an editor.

The editors I worked with at the small, now-defunct press that first accepted Empire’s Daughter for publication taught me more about writing fiction, but much of what I learned was an extension of what I already knew about writing. I have four books behind me now, and I continue to learn: I hope I always will. But I don’t regret the years I spent in my other careers, the years spent absorbing and practicing how to use words to convey a message precisely, concisely, and with impact. They helped make me the writer I am now. Something else did, too, but I’ll leave that for another day.