Saturday, December 8, 2012

Writing Alexander

Alexander the Great
I don’t often write about my book projects until they are completed. Perhaps it is a sort of superstition, a fear that if I talk about it prematurely, it won’t happen. There is so much that goes into the writing of an historical novel, let alone a trilogy. With this one, I feel as though I have taken on the Titan of all subjects: Alexander the Great.

My own expectations are high, perhaps unreasonably so, but it is a story that I have wanted to tell for a long time. I feel like Atlas with the weight of the world upon my shoulders and I won’t be shrugging it anytime soon. This is a long-term project, a campaign to the ends of the earth with an historical figure who was as big as they came. I grew up not only with the name (middle) but with the stories. Whenever I would read history, there was always some reference to Alexander, his deeds, or some later personage wanting to emulate him be it Julius Caesar or Napoleon. Generals throughout history have wanted to be Alexander, they have studied him (and still do), his genius, his persona, his propaganda, his tactics, his personal life.

Every aspect of Alexander the Great has been studied over the centuries and yet, it seems like nobody can really know him. He is one of the biggest enigmas of history and so, a dream for any historical novelist willing to take him on.

The Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii
He is the ‘marquee character’ (a term I have heard many agents and publishers use) of historical fiction. That certainly is true but which Alexander will people write about? There are so many. There is the son of a doting, sometimes scheming mother, the mortal son of an angry but brilliant general. There is the merciful man, kind towards women, but often brutal towards his enemies. There is also the genius tactician, the lover, the poet, the scholar, the megalomaniac, the Persian ‘Horned One’, and there is the god. There are other Alexanders too and the more I research and write, the more I realize that there is no possible way I can fully and satisfactorily get into that mind.

For the Alexander novels, I decided to get at Alexander through his men. The Alexander I am interested in discovering is the one that men followed to the ends of the earth, the man that inspired his troops to do the impossible at every turn. Few people in history have inspired their followers in such a way and that is the focus of my campaign to discover and get to know this larger-than-life character.

There are of course, some remnants of superstition clinging to me so I will not reveal the whole of my plot. However, I will say that the main character is named Hanbal son of Akil. He is an Egyptian horse breeder-turned-assassin who has lost everything to the Persians. He is angry, bent of vengeance and, by painful means (I know, too cryptic), he ends up in Alexander’s army.

Siwah Oasis
The first book of the trilogy begins with Alexander’s liberation of Egypt and the young king’s journey to the oracle at Siwah in the western desert. For those of you who know the history, this is a turning point for Alexander. It is also a time when Hanbal becomes acquainted with the men and women who surround the king, Ptolemy, Craterus, Nearchus and the rest of the Companions.

These are big names and I have to admit, it is utterly daunting. But it is also very exciting to weave the fiction in with history. That is why I love writing historical fiction.

The primary sources I have decided to focus on are those texts that Alexander would have been influenced by such as Homer and Xenophon. The latter’s ‘Anabasis’ was used by Alexander as a field guide when marching into Persia. Primary sources on Alexander himself are of course, Arrian and Curtius who both have their own style and focus.

As far as secondary sources, there are so many books that have been written on Alexander the Great, there is no way I could cover them all. And let’s face it, story has to come first in fiction. I have several secondary works on Alexander but the one that has proved most useful is my old copy of ‘Alexander’ by Robin Lane Fox. For those of you who are interested, this is a fantastic, accessible and interesting biography of Alexander.
Oliver Stone's Alexander - Battle of Gaugamela scene

I will post updates on the project as I go. I am almost finished the first draft of the first book which I am writing long-hand whenever I can. However, I have one major event yet to write: the Battle of Gaugamela.
Gaugamela is one of the major battles of history and it displays Alexander’s military genius to perfection. So how can I do it justice? I think many writers feel like this at times and this certainly is the time for me. For now, more research is required to attain comfort. I’ll take my time getting there and wait for the opportune moment to jump into the fray. Like Alexander, I can see the battle waiting for me on the other side of the Tigris.

The drums of war are ringing in my ears and I must write on…
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