When Amazon.co.uk sent me their most recently generated list of ‘books recommended for me’, one stood out.
I don’t buy a lot of books any more, for reasons of both economy and a concerted effort not to buy what I don’t need. Libraries provide me with most of what I read. But I will buy a book if I need it for research, and I can’t get it any other way, or, it falls into a category I call ‘contemplative books’: books I will read several times, books that make me think about my relationship to the world. Mostly these are books like The Wild Places, by Robert MacFarlane, or Four Fields, by Tim Dee, thoughtful, insightful books written about the relationship between nature and humans. Mostly British, as this is the country I love best of all the world.
So when Amazon.co.uk sent me their most recently generated list of ‘books recommended for me’, one stood out. (By the way, I don’t understand the algorithms they use, but they get it right 95% of the time. I want to buy almost all of them. I resist.) The Green Roads into the Trees: A Walk through England, by Hugh Thomson, ticked enough of the boxes. My libraries didn’t have it and weren’t interested in getting it – too specialized. I was pretty certain I would read it more than once. So it became one of the rare books I bought.
I was busy, so I didn’t look at it for a few day after it arrived. But when I opened it….call it grace, call it serendipity…but it ticked a box I hadn’t realized it would. The book is about the author’s walk from Dorset to Norfolk on an ancient trackway called the Icknield Way, a route and an experience I need to research, not for the Empire’s Legacy series, but for another novel which is in the very early planning and research stage. I was absolutely delighted. And if I know the way of things, there is a good chance that somewhere in this book there will be a line, a comment, that will inform and change that novel in a way I can’t foresee.
This created world must be real and coherent and true to itself in my mind, or I can’t write about it convincingly.
Occasionally readers ask me why I do so much research – the world I have created in Empire’s Daughter is fictional, after all! But it’s a thinly-disguised fiction, an imagined country based on Britain after the departure of the Roman Empire in the 4th century A.D. While there are many many departures from whatever the reality of that time was (and if you are interested, I recommend Robin Fleming’s book Britain after Rome), this created world must be real and coherent and true to itself in my mind, or I can’t write about it convincingly. I can’t, for example, suddenly introduce the internal combustion engine, or llamas.
In an earlier post I explained that I am currently on a side track – the history of the Empire that the character Colm gives to Lena in Empire’s Daughter becomes a key theme in Empire’s Hostage, and I realized I didn’t know what that history says, entirely. I’ve started work on that history (which I plan to be included as an appendix in Empire’s Hostage, providing it isn’t too long in the end) but I’ve been struggling to find an authentic voice. How would Colm write?
Discussing it over breakfast with my husband, we bounced around a few ideas. What sort of history is it? Is it a collection of stories, like the Scandinavian sagas? (No.) Is it a collection of facts and names and dates, like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle? (Also no.) Is it a history like Tacitus’s Agricola, and Germany? Yes! And there was my model – Agricola, written by the Roman historian Tacitus in AD 98, and Germany, apparently also written in the same year. Both books
discuss not just military history, but social and political as well. Exactly what I needed.
My copy of the books, which are almost always published in translation together, is the fairly recent one by A.R. Birley, and the language is accessible while maintaining a formality of style. I won’t be copying it exactly, of course, but it will give me the rhythms and cadence and structure to make Colm’s history sound right. So, off to start re-reading Agricola, paying attention this time not to the facts, but to the style!
I am doing my best to remember the emotions generated when I first realized that two different peoples could see history in very different ways.
One of the dilemmas that Lena faces in Empire’s Hostage is seeing history from two sides, and attempting to sort out which version – or which elements of the conflicting versions – is true. In her sojourn north of the Wall, she will be presented with quite a different history than the one introduced to her by Colm in Empire’s Daughter.
I am doing my best to remember the emotions generated when I first realized that two different peoples could see history in very different ways. This occured when I read Zane Grey’s depiction of the historical character Simon Girty as a physically unattractive, filthy, greasy-haired ‘Indian Lover’, a traitor to his race and country, which stood in direct contrast to how I had learned about him: as a United Empire Loyalist, compatriot of Alexander McKee, friend of Tecumseh and key player in the British victory in the War of 1812. A hero, not a traitor. There is (was?) even a memorial stone to him in Amherstburg.
I remember being confused by this, and angry, and those emotions giving way to understanding that history was written from the point of view of the beholder, and that there was not one truth. I was a bit younger than Lena is when she confronts this, but I believe that she will react in much the same way – especially since she revered Colm, whose history is under question. But she is also learning to respect her new teachers, so there is significant conflict generated – and it is in considering conflicting viewpoints and reactions that all of us – not just Lena – learn.
As work progresses on Empire’s Hostage, Book 2 in the Empire’s Legacy series, I have an interesting dilemma. The ‘History of the Empire’, written by Colm and given to Lena at the Winter Camp plays a larger role in EH….but I don’t know what it says. And I need to. So, before I can continue with this section of EH, I need to write Colm’s history.
It begins “In the third year of the reign of Emperor Lucian…” – and that is all I know. I’m not sure I even know quite how many years have passed between that time and Lena’s time. So…a side track…which are never shortcuts. Once it’s taken some shape, I’ll post some of it – a timeline at least – here. Until then, more research, more thought, more writing.