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From Concept to Finished Novel(s): Part I: The Very Beginning.

This will be a sporadic diary, not meant to be a guidebook to writing a novel, or advice – simply a record. Follow along if you like!

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!

Readjusting

I’ve got used to having just about endless time to write. What happens once I can go out in the world again?

Last night, after a day or so of feeling under the weather from my second vaccine, I realized that in three weeks, when my antibody count should be firmly up, that life will change.

For eighteen months, pretty much all I’ve done is write and exercise (and, yes, shower and eat and sleep, etc.) It started in our winter retreat to England in 2020 – that’s pretty much our lives there: long walks, the occasional movie, and writing time. Then the pandemic arrived, we came home, and since March 2020, with no lunches out, weekly writers’ meet-ups, movies, game nights with friends, visits to family….I write. And read and research. But mostly, I write.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

Blogs, guest blogs, newsletters, non-fiction pieces, verse.  And the current novel, of course. I’ve been hugely productive. But I can’t keep this pace up in a closer-to-normal world, and I have two more books to write in the current series, with ideas beyond that. Something is going to have to give.

At this moment, I’m not sure what. I value my friends and family, and I’ve missed them. Creativity needs the breaks movies and game nights give. Books already written need the exposure the guest blogs and interviews provide. It’s likely a matter of reducing, not eliminating. I write ‘smarter’ these days – more planning, more thought before hands-on-keyboard; not necessarily faster, but less tiring to my aging muscles, joints, and eyes, and my writing is cleaner, needing less rewriting and revision.

But the first step will be reacquainting myself with the bookstore I haven’t been in since December of 2019. After that, we’ll see.

Featured Image: by TaniaRose from Pixabay 

Cillian

What intrigued me about Cillian were the dichotomies – and slowly a portrait of a deeply moral and deeply complex man emerged.

The Characters of Empire’s Legacy, Part 1.

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)

Series links:

US: https://amzn.to/3eR1zxL

UK: https://amzn.to/33LsF3c

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

Bards, Monasteries, and Education

The concept of the Ti’acha – the elite schools of Linrathe – is introduced in Empire’s Hostage, when Lena, standing as hostage to a truce between Linrathe and her country, is sent to one. What is a Ti’ach, and where did the idea come from?

Ti’acha are boarding schools. Both boys and girls attend: depending on which Ti’ach, the focus may be history and politics, or mathematics and science, or the healing arts, but music and languages are always part of the learning. Children of landholders mix with children of the peasantry: while the wealthy pay for their children to attend, demonstrated intelligence or skill will always guarantee a place.  The schools are based—loosely—on the monastic and cathedral schools of Ireland, Scotland, and England.

Image by MAGIC BOIRO, SL BOIRO from Pixabay 

In the mid-500s, the Irish monastic movement began, possibly at the monastery of Clonard, and spread out across Ireland and into what is now Scotland. Most monasteries had a school attached, both for young men who had a religious vocation and for those who would take their place in government or the military: boys of the land-holding class, for the most part. Latin and Greek were part of their education, as was a study of classical authors such as Virgil and Socrates, as well as mathematics, astronomy, and music. These subjects are what are taught in my world too.  I changed the names of the Greek and Roman writers, but their thoughts remain the same.

At the Ti’ach Lena is sent to, the Comiádh, or head of school, is a man named Perras. In A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland (1906, and a rather romanticized view) Patrick Joyce writes of the Fer-leginn, the ‘man of learning’ who was responsible for the educational direction of the school, in concert with the abbot, who was responsible for the religious aspects of the monastery. Organized religion doesn’t exist in my invented world, so there is no one to direct a religious side. There is a ‘Lady’ of the Ti’ach, Dagney, who is also the scáeli (bard) attached to the house. Her authority is equal to that of Perras, but he teaches history and politics; she music and literature.

For Dagney’s expertise, I borrowed from the tradition of bardic schools, which may have existed in pre-Christian Ireland, taught (perhaps) by Druids and likely by bards. Their role was to pass on oral history and literature, continuing in some form into the 19th century.

I simply combined the bardic schools and the monastic ones. Is it accurate? No. Does it feel familiar? Yes, and that’s what I wanted.

Other types of formal education do occur. Younger children of landholders, or those not suited to the rigors of advanced study, may be taught by a travelling teacher. These men and women, themselves taught at the Ti’acha, may stay for a season or many years. Again, this is based on a long tradition throughout Europe of itinerant teachers, attached both to noble households and wealthier towns.

But women in the Ti’acha? In the real early-medieval world, women weren’t all as badly educated as popular culture would have us believe, but neither were they included in mixed schools. Daughters of the nobility were tutored in mathematics and sciences, languages and history; nuns in certain houses were taught Latin and Greek. I deviated quite a bit from real history, but I had my reasons: the exploration and challenging of gender roles is one of the themes of the series.

Diplomacy was one of the roles played by the English scholar Alcuin at the court of Charlemagne, in the mid-700s. Columba of Iona, two hundred years earlier, undertook diplomatic negotiations between the Kingdom of Dalriada and the Kingdom of Ireland. Diplomacy needs educated, agile minds: those who acted as envoys and negotiators must have been taught well, either at the monastic schools or by teachers who themselves had learned there.

The role of the Ti’acha in politics and diplomacy continues to be important in the books following Empire’s Hostage, including the book releasing in September, Empire’s Heir.

This article has been modified from one first published at https://rwranniewhitehead.blogspot.com/2020/06/guest-post-marian-l-thorpe.html

Featured Image: By Fulda – Manuscript: Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod.652, fol. 2v (Fulda, 2nd quarter of the 9th century), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=380431

Thinking about Success

Most of us want both reviews and sales; our hearts and confidence are riven or rewarded by what we see on the KDP graphs and the stars on Goodreads and Amazon.

This is likely to be a rambling piece, because when I’m trying to work out how I feel about something, I write about it. And that’s what I’m doing now.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

What I’m puzzling over is how we – I – measure success. I write for the love of the art of writing, and the need to tell stories, and the desire to tell the stories that present themselves to me in the best possible way, not to make money. (Yes, I realize the privilege inherent in that statement, but this is a personal essay, and my reality.) So why do I find myself falling into the trap of equating ‘success’ with commercial success?

Most of us want both reviews and sales; our hearts and confidence are riven or rewarded by what we see on the KDP graphs and the stars on Goodreads and Amazon. There is no doubt these things validate us as writers. But then I think back to my two previous careers: as a research scientist, and as an educator. In the first, I did good, solid, and to some extent ground-breaking work in a specific area. That work mattered to – how many people? A good question. So I did a Google Scholar search for citations of the nine research papers my name is on.  Based only on that search method, just under 50 people have cited one of more of those papers. Others may have read them, but they didn’t cite them. Not a huge number – but I never felt unsuccessful as a scientist.

I spent 25 years as an educator, both as a teacher of secondary students and then in a district-wide position, working with the most complicated of students and their parents. Over the years, perhaps a double handful of parents and another handful of students expressed their appreciation for what I did. But I never felt unsuccessful in this position, either.

Nor, actually, do I feel unsuccessful as a writer. I sell a few books every month. Occasionally, people take the time to tell other readers what they think of them, via reviews, and a few let me know personally.  I appreciate that: that there are readers out there who love my imagined world and my characters as much as I do remains a source of wonder and delight. But it is so easy to let the comparisons creep in.

If I walk away from social media for a while, and evaluate what I do, I am completely content. I get to work with words for most of my day, either my own work or the work I do as an editor or beta reader for others. I get to read books on things that interest me as research. That I have fewer reviews than many writers (and more than others) isn’t a measure of the quality of my book, just its reach. I remember I have other aspects of my life that bring me joy. And more than anything else, I remember I love writing.

The pandemic has taken a toll on our collective mental health. It’s taken me a little while to notice and evaluate this particular negative aspect of social media – which otherwise keeps me connected with other writers, and informed of developments in my research fields like nothing else could – and I haven’t quite decided what to do about it. But the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging there is one, right? 

Your thoughts on this subject are most welcome.

Featured Image: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

Hostage

We exchange our heirs, in surety for each side’s good behaviour.

In the modern mind, the term ‘hostage’ conjures up someone taken by force – the Iranian Embassy hostages; the person grabbed by a gunman in a robbery. But in Empire’s Hostage, Book II of the Empire’s Legacy series, ‘hostage’ is used in an older way.

“What does it mean, to be a hostage?” I asked. I saw something flicker in Turlo’s eyes. He grinned again.

“Exchanging the children of high rank as hostages is an old and honoured tradition,” he answered, “although not one we have respected, in some generations, and in truth needed to be reminded of. We’ll treat Donnalch’s son, and the other boy they are sending—his brother’s son—with every courtesy. They will lodge in the White Fort for now, and then be sent south to the Eastern Fort when the weather improves, to learn with our senior cadets. Darel, you will basically live the life that Donnalch’s son would have, whatever the education, in arms and tactics and books, they deem appropriate. That is the gist of it: we exchange our heirs, in surety for each side’s good behaviour. You will not be mistreated, but, understand, neither will you be truly free.”

In Hostages in the Middle Ages[1], Adam Kosto points out that:

In medieval Europe, hostages were given, not taken. They were a means of guarantee used to secure transactions ranging from treaties to wartime commitments to financial transactions. In principle, the force of the guarantee lay in the threat to the life of the hostage if the agreement were broken. 

Who were these hostages?  In her review[2] of Kosto’s book, Shavana Haythornthwaite tells us the preference was for sons of the family, but ‘the question of exactly who a hostage was in the Middle Ages was in fact part and parcel of the question of what the structures of power were.’ And that’s who stands as hostage to the treaty in my book.

He grinned. Nothing, ever, seemed to keep Turlo’s spirits down. “But the treaty, my lad, and lassie,” he added, “requires hostages. Donnalch’s son and another to us, and two children of our leaders to them.”

But peace treaties weren’t the only reason for hostages, and the interpretation can be broad:

Hostages were taken and held as surety for various reasons: the holding of property, the promise of paying off debts, the securement of peace. Hostages could be taken for social reasons, if broadly read. The fostering of sons is a form of social contract involving the holding of a boy by another family to strengthen a network of alliances. Betrothals and marriages of daughters and sisters, especially in the cases of making treaties between warring factions, served much the same purpose as a hostage or a fostered son: a promise of peace held in the body of a person.[3]

In later books in the series, almost all these broad definitions of hostage are part of the story, just as they were part of life in the middle ages.


[1] Kosto, Adam J. Hostages in the Middle Ages, 2012, Oxford University Press: https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199651702.001.0001/acprof-9780199651702

[2] Haythornthwaite, Shavana.  Review of Hostages in the Middle Ages, (review no. 1579)
https://reviews.history.ac.uk/review/1579

[3] Medieval Hostageship c.700-c.1500: Hostage, Captive, Prisoner of War, Guarantee, Peacemaker. Matthew Bennett & Katherine Weikert, eds., Routledge, 2019

The Lover: A Sufi Mystery, by Laury Silvers

I recommend The Lover strongly both as an engaging mystery, and to anyone who wishes to learn more about medieval Islam and the lives of women in that time.

Dust and cool water; ascetism and the bonds of love. In 10th century Baghdad, Zaytuna is torn between the mysticism of Sufi practice and her need for connection to the world – and the reality of survival day to day. When a child dies in a fall, she must try to understand why, bringing her into conflict with both powerful people and her own brother, and challenging, too, her own understanding of herself and her faith.

The setting is carefully and slowly built, with great skill: I could imagine myself there in the markets and courtyards, among the crowds on the streets and on the flat roofs of houses. Characters are drawn precisely, with a beautiful economy of words, giving the reader just enough.

Laury Silvers gives us a glimpse into a world unfamiliar to most of us, that of women of medieval Islam. Not women of privilege, but women whose lives are given up to labour, the women who wash rich families’ clothes, or sweep houses and cook meals. Lives that are limited by poverty, but sometimes joyous, sometimes transcendent, and sometimes cruel.

The need for relationships – with family, with friends, with God – is central to The Lover. (The title refers to one of the faces of God.) Zaytuna is driven to investigate the boy’s death for reasons that are interwoven with her own need for love, and the value she sees in each life.

The Lover is the first of a series. I hope to read the others soon; meanwhile, I recommend The Lover strongly both as an engaging mystery, and to anyone who wishes to learn more about medieval Islam and the lives of women in that time.


Discover more of the history behind Laury Silvers’ books on the author’s website.

Featured image: Girl Reciting the Qurān (Kuran Okuyan Kız), an 1880 painting by the Ottoman polymath Osman Hamdi Bey. Public Domain.