Thursday, September 26, 2013

Escaping to Thugga, North Africa

Things have been pretty hectic lately, and especially this coming weekend.

I'm moving house and as a result, I'm caught up in campaign to load up my life, which includes about 25 boxes of books.

I feel like I'm caught up in an exciting adventure, but also a logistical chaos that can only be likened to Caesar's conquest of Gaul.

Ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration.

Needless to say I don't have a big post for you this week. The Gauls have us surrounded - or in this case, the Russian movers are coming.

But, I do want to share a photo with you.

On my oh-so-brief lunch breaks, I've been doing the final edits for Killing the Hydra which I'm hoping to get out just before Christmas.

It has been a long time since I've read Killing the Hydra all the way through and I'm pleased that it still has me riveted. I think you will enjoy it.

A portion of the book takes place in North Africa in the Roman city of Thugga.

When I went to this place a few years ago, I was blown away by the fact that this almost completely intact city, mosaics and all, was just sitting there, deserted, its mosaics open to the sky.

I was able to walk the cobbled streets of this magnificent place and explore the baths, the public latrine, the Capitol, the brothel, the theatre and so much more. It really is one of the most amazing places I've ever been to.

How could I not set part of my book there?

In Killing the Hydra, Lucius end up in Thugga. He's in trouble too, and the only person that can help him is a Punic prostitute by the name of Dido.

That's all I can say for now. I just wanted to show you the place where these two meet, the streets from which Lucius barely escapes with his life.

I'll post more updates soon, as well as a cover-reveal for Killing the Hydra.

In the meantime, if the story has piqued your interest, you'll want to check out the first book in the Eagles and Dragons series, Children of Apollo.

Thanks for reading, and I'll see you on the other side of my move!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Myth of the Marquee Character

Julius Caesar

Two weeks ago, I wrote about what I look for in historical fiction as a reader.

This week, I wanted to touch on something that I’ve discussed on several occasions with fellow writers, agents, and fans of historical fiction: the idea of the ‘Marquee Character’.

When I speak with true fans of historical fiction, I often find that they don’t read because there is a big name of history in the book. More often, they pick up a book because of the period in which it takes place, and because they like the premise of the book.

I’ve read a lot of historical fiction and seen a lot of historical movies that don’t feature marquee characters.

This reminds me of something a New York literary agent once said after reading my full manuscript. It went something like this:

“Your story and historical details are great, but you just don’t have a marquee character. People would rather read the hundredth novel about Julius Caesar than a book about some emperor they don’t know anything about.”

Alexander the Great
Another agent some months later told me this: “I like the story and your writing. When you’ve finished your Alexander (the Great) novel, definitely let me know.”

At the time those statements were infuriating. I was being told I had a good story, good style, good history, but then ‘no marquee character’!

Of course now, it’s all water under the Roman bridge. I’ve learned a lot since then, grown as a writer and a reader, and had the chance to speak with, and read books by, many other wonderful writers.

The lesson I’ve learned is this:

When it comes to historical fiction/fantasy, it isn’t the presence of a marquee character that draws readers in and makes them remember a book long after they’ve finished. It’s the historical period and the manner in which the story is told.

‘Hold on, one second!’ you might say. ‘If there is a book about Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, I’m much more likely to pick that up than any other.”

That’s true to an extent. Especially for readers new to historical fiction. Certainly, I take notice when a new book about Alexander or Caesar comes out. They are the celebrities of history and we can’t get enough of celebrities, can we?

Of course we can. If anything, I’m even more choosey when it comes to books about the biggies of history simply because there are so many books about them and I don’t want to waste my time. I don’t want to read about the same person over and over again. I know what happens.

It’s the period and how the story is told that will draw me in.

I think that the absolute need for a ‘Marquee Character’ is a total myth.

The Roman Empire
A 'Marquee' Period
How about a ‘Marquee Period’ instead? And that will be different for each reader.

We all have our favourite periods of history in which we prefer to read, write or watch.

As I’ve said before, time is precious. When I picked up a book about Hannibal (a marquee character, to be sure) I had to put it down because the story did not accurately portray the period or world through which Hannibal was moving. What I wanted was a story set in the time of Carthage’s struggle with Rome, and I didn’t feel that I got that.

There are numerous books in which main characters are ‘nobodies’ in history – soldiers, whores, farmers, sailors, widows etc. etc. It doesn’t matter, really. They all have stories to tell.

A Roman Woman
Gene Wolfe’s Latro in the Mist is about an unknown Latin mercenary who fought for the Persians in Greece. Gillian Bradshaw’s The Sun’s Bride is about an unknown Rhodian sea captain who is chasing pirates in ancient Greece. Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series’ fictional protagonist is Gordianus the Finder. In the latter series, Caesar is never more than background. It’s the period that Saylor is writing in and how he brings it to life that makes it such wonderful reading. You can read my interview with Steven HERE.

As far as writing, I’m a big believer in writing the story you need to write. Yes, I have started my own Alexander trilogy, but that‘s more because I have a particular story of Alexander that I want to tell, a story that hasn’t been told. In that project, my main character isn’t anyone important, a horse breeder’s son. But his story is taking place in a period of history that is exciting.

Medieval Peasantry
Whether a period is a ‘marquee period’ depends entirely on the reader and writer and what they want.

Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Medieval Britain and France, Renaissance Italy etc. etc. etc. – all of these periods may be ‘marquee’ to one person but completely uninteresting to another.

I guess what I’m finally saying is this:

Writers: write the story you want to write.

Readers: read the stories you want to read.

Everyone: explore the past beyond Alexander and Caesar. Get to know the nobodies of history, and in so doing, get a better understanding of it.

Thanks for reading. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Queen of the Fairy Gully

This week I have something VERY different from the usual.

My family is moving, and for the last two weeks I’ve been trying to sift through, and eliminate, most of the detritus of years of academic study. That means lots of books (so difficult to cull books!) and papers that I feel pretty sure I will never ever look at.

One thing I did find, and had been looking for, was a binder of some of my early writing.

I found some pieces that I wrote when I was in my mid-teens and feeling particularly romantic about the past and Celtic mythology.

The image here is from one of my favourite books: Mythology of the British Isles, by Geoffrey Ashe.

The Fairy Glen
Betws-y-Coed, Snowdonia, Wales

As you can see, it’s a simple black and white photo of a place known as The Fairy Glen which is located in Snowdonia, an unbelievably beautiful region in north Wales.

I don’t know why (nor do I remember), but I was very drawn to this photo. My imagination was really taken with it, and the result was this attempt at a sort of freestyle poem.

I made no conscious attempt at style. I just wrote.

It’s not fantastic. However, it is a glimpse at some of my early inspiration and attempts to express myself through writing. It was even published in my high school paper - my first 'publication'. 

The best part is that recently I read this to my own kids at bed time one night and they LOVED it.

It was one of the most quiet bed times ever and they were all smiles. It was worth writing this all those years ago, just for that one moment of joy.

So, I hope you enjoy this no-blood-or-guts piece inspired by a single photo.

And if you have your own kids or grandkids, perhaps they’ll get something out of it too.


Queen of the Fairy Gully

There is a place
That man has not sullied,
Peace is always present
In the Fairy Gully.

A soft stream flows
Like sweet music to the ears,
The trees are emerald green
Their leaves shed dewy tears.

The moss-covered rocks
Protrude from the edge.
There the Fairy Queen sits,
The soft moss for her bed.

The fairy kingdom wakes
To see something afloat.
It is two young lovers
Asleep in a boat.

The young man and young woman
Had lately been wed.
The still fresh garlands
Under their tranquil heads.

Both are entwined
As pure as can be,
Love next to love
Ever so softly.

“Look,” said a fairy.
“The boat has hit ground.
We must send it down stream
Without making a sound.”

“Wait,” said the Queen.
“They pose us no threat.
I shall go see
What they dream in their heads.”

So down she went
To the lovers afloat.
Still laying asleep
In their small bridal boat.

The fairies watched
Their queen from up high,
As she placed her wee hands
On the lovers’ closed eyes.

“My dear Queen,” uttered one.
“Is something very wrong?”
“Yes sweet fairy.
They dream a sad song.”

“Their families spoke
And forbid them to wed.
Rather than obey
They picked up and then fled.”

“What do they wish for,” asked another,
“Within these sad dreams?”
“They wish for happiness, peace and love,
For the whole of eternity.”

“Help we will give
To this young couple,
By fulfilling their dreams
And freeing them of troubles.”

“Upon the morn,” declared the Queen,
“Take we them to the place,
To be alone under the Oak.
Untouched by all hate.”

The fairy Cordelia
Came forward to say,
“Dream dust shall I give them
To make sure they will stay.”

So the lovers dreamt dreams
And the fairies did too,
In this lush green world,
Glimmering moonlight and dew.

The early morning sun
Did thread its way down.
That orb shed its light
On the young lovers’ crowns.

The mist was thick
And the water calm,
As the fairies moved the boat
With their otherworld song.

“This deed shall we do,”
The Fairy Queen said.
“This couple will lie
In a warm bridal bed.”

The boat drifted up
To a white sandy shore,
Where a path led away
Through the Fairy world’s door.

Cordelia then spoke
With worry and haste,
“My Queen, how will we take them
To the ever-peaceful place?”

“Fear not, precious fairy.
I know what to do.
Behind that bush
There the stream flows through.”

“Spirits of the wood
Conduct this small boat,
Wherein lie these lovers
Who yet have some hope.”

The bush moved aside
And the boat moved along,
As the fairies sang again
Their ancient forest song.

Closer they came,
And the world all turned bright.
Water, rocks, moss and dew,
The gully flooded with light.

At long last there it was,
The life of this small folk.
Branching out to the sun
Was the old sacred Oak.

Its body was huge
And its limbs full of grace.
The leaves tell a story
Of countless lived days.

Down at the bottom
On the soft ground,
Grows a bed of bluebells
For the couple to sleep sound.

“Now,” said the Queen,
We must do what is best.
On bluebells lay we them
Before they wake from their rest.”

Once more the song came
With ever sweet delight.
The couple was lain
On flowers for that night.

“Fairies return to the wood.
We must not disturb,
These two that I wake.
We must be unheard.”

The fairies obeyed
The words of their Queen,
Who woke the fair couple
Upon the coming of eve.

The moon rose up
And the sun went down.
The couple awoke
To look all around.

“What beautiful place is this?”
Asked the young maid.
“I know not where we be,
But we must always stay.”

“Truly this is,” said the boy,
“A very peaceful place.
Never again shall we bear
Any anger or hate.”

Up above in the leaves
Sat the caring Queen.
A smile on her face,
A tear on her cheek.

“Live as one,” said the Queen.
“Be happy and free.
You will always be safe
In our green Fairy Gully.”

The maid and young man
Do dwell there all along.
At night, as they embrace,
They hear a comforting song.

And so the young lovers
Fulfill their life’s dream.
Due to the precious help
Of the loving Fairy Queen.

Here is the end
Of this ancient story.
New love and old song
In the green Fairy Gully.