Friday, March 29, 2013

History or Your Story?

This week I’m very pleased to have author Roberto Calas as a guest on Writing the Past. Roberto’s recent Kindle Serial, The Scourge, has definitely made a splash in the realm of historical fiction/fantasy and to me, it is a wonderful melding of good historical research and fantasy. Oh, and it has Zombies! 14th century England has never been so exciting and yet so terrifying. Roberto talks to us about the creation of this unique work and the choice that all historical novelists must face: History or Your Story?

Can you imagine what people eight hundred years from now would think of our civilization if all they had to judge us by was a Fox News story? Or a Huffington Post article? Or, God forbid, an article from the parody newspaper, The Onion?

I think about this sort of thing all the time as I research my stories. Because, really, we base all of our knowledge about the Middle Ages on personal accounts written by biased sources, and a tatty old tapestry in France.

How do we really know that King Harold was shot in the eye with an arrow? How do we know that Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar? How do we know that Justinian’s wife convinced him not to flee Constantinople?

How do we know that the 14th century plague wasn’t a zombie virus?

We don’t. Not for certain.

We take other people’s written accounts of it. If history is always written by the winners, then we never get more than half the story. But this nagging knowledge should not stop us from trying to be as accurate as we can.

We are writing a story that, we hope, will move readers. We want to entertain, we want to quicken pulses and control what readers feel and when they feel it. So we have to make the reader believe what we are writing.

Okay, so I’m fairly certain that the 14th century plague wasn’t a demonic virus. But if I want to write a novel like The Scourge, where a trio of knights travels across zombie-infested England, I need my readers to suspend their disbelief. I need to add enough realism and detail to the setting and language and props of the story so the reader can put aside his or her doubts and, for a time, believe that those plague victims staggered and ate human au jus.

How do I do that?

I have to learn as much as I can about the time period. From the clothes people wore to the political ideology of the time. I need to know common surnames in the region. If the towns and villages had different names in the 14th century. Which churches were around and which were not. Is there chalk beneath our heroes’ feet? Or slate? Are there elms above their heads? Or Ash? What type of flower grows in the marsh? What’s that little circular thing that dangles down over a knights’ armpit called? How much did a dairy cow weigh back then? Where in London did the peasants confront King Richard II? Why are there Flemish in Sudbury?

I need to immerse myself in 14th century England. And I need to do it from sources I know might well be flawed. Really annoying, actually. But I have to do it. Because there will be someone out there who knows the established wisdom on Richard II and the Peasant Revolt. Or what a dairy cow weighs. Someone who knows what that little dangling thing is called. Who knows exactly why the Flemish came to Sudbury.

And even after researching it, someone will still point to a fact and say (probably in a nasally voice) “Um, actually, that sort of cannon wasn’t around until 1401,” or something similar. There are too many contradictions in historical research. But you have to do the legwork. Try to visit the places you write about. Read books, don’t just search the Internet. You can find fifty great facts in a book in the time it would take you to completely research one fact on the Internet.

Okay. Now that I have said all this, I will refute every word.

After all your research is done, forget it. Write your story. The research is for the world and the details. It is the anchor that grounds your tale. When there is a conflict between history and your story – an honest to God one that you can’t possibly avoid no matter what you try – then your story should always win out. Because story is what readers really want. They just want to believe that the story you wrote could have happened. And it takes a lot of work to satisfy them. Historical fiction lets you lean on factual people, places and events, but it is merciless in your accurate portrayal of them.

Even though no one is completely certain what that accurate portrayal is.

Roberto Calas is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. He lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut (yeah, that Sandy Hook), with a set of wonder twins. His fiancĂ©e lives in England and his closest relative lives four hundred miles away. That’s how he rolls. His most recent novel, The Scourge (47North), takes place in a demon-ravaged 14th century England and is completely, one-hundred percent, absolutely, historically accurate. Sort of.

You can find him at his website,, on Facebook, or on Twitter @robertocalas


I’d like to thank Roberto Calas for taking the time out of his very busy schedule to write such an interesting post and give us a hint as to what went into the writing of The Scourge. If you haven’t read this yet, I highly recommend it. Part of me was left thinking that the Black Death was indeed a plague of zombies! As ever, historical fiction/fantasy can explore beyond the boundaries of what is known, and that always makes for an exciting read. 

To get your copy of The Scourge visit   

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

In the last few weeks I have been searching YouTube for some older documentaries I had seen when living in Britain. There is just something very comforting to me about watching a documentary on the ancient or medieval world. Why is that?

Well, I suppose that as I am passionate about history and love to travel, documentaries offer a cheaper alternative to getting to those actual places. The good ones help me to walk in peace among the ruins of far-off places and as a result, ignite my creativity. The particular series I was looking for was one written by John Romer, a British archaeologist and historian.

After the first episode, I felt like I had reconnected with something. But it was not the documentary itself, nor the host. It was the subject of the documentary that pulled me in:

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

The mere mentioned of the Seven Wonders stirs a longing in me for some vague but powerful reason. Perhaps it is because it reminds me of bygone ages of which I have often daydreamed?

The truth is, I am not alone in this feeling, this fascination with a list of monuments created so long ago. The Seven Wonders have captured the imagination of people since the Hellenistic age. Sure, the list might have changed a little, but its celebration of artistic and architectural inspiration and achievement most certainly has not.

Where did the list come from?

Consensus points to two figures of the ancient world who may have compiled the most popular list: Philo of Byzantium and Antipater of Sidon. Philo of Byzantium was a 3rd century B.C. resident of Alexandria who wrote a compendium of mechanics and Antipater of Sidon was a Greek poet of the 2nd century B.C.

It is no coincidence that the two men were Greek. After the campaigns of Alexander and the fall of the Persian Empire, the East opened up and Hellenic people and ideas spread far from the homeland. Greeks had been living in Egypt and Persia for a long time already by then but now they could move about more freely and that meant one thing: tourism!

To that point in time, Herodotus was the Lonely Planet guide of the day but people didn’t necessarily want to travel. War with Persia kind of made that a risky undertaking. But when the last embers of the Wars of Succession finally died and the world was safe again, there was mass movement of people and ideas. The list of the Seven Wonders could have been a wonderful itinerary or at least a list of popular hotspots around the eastern Mediterranean.

It is no surprise that Philo was a mathematician inclined to mechanics and that Antipater was a poet. The Seven Wonders would have appealed to both as monuments of inspired artistic beauty and incredible architectural achievement that many could not even guess at how they were constructed.

Let’s have a brief look at this wonderful list of monuments.

The Pyramids of Giza
It is ironic but the Pyramids of Giza which were built around 2,600 B.C. are the oldest monuments on the list and yet they are the only ones that survive to this day. I had a chance once to go to Egypt on a dig but that was the year just after 9/11 and all hell had broken loose. The dig was cancelled. No matter how many times I see the pyramids on television, I can never get over their simple magnificence. And I’m sure they are even more striking in real life. As the last remaining wonder on the list, I hope I don’t miss out.

Artist impression of the
Hanging Gardens

Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The hanging gardens of Babylon are interesting and their existence is still widely contested, the date of their possible building unknown. From what is said, the Hanging Gardens were created by Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 605-562 B.C.) for his Median wife, Amytis who was homesick in that dry land. So, he is said to have built a sort of stepped pyramid with terraces that were covered with lush gardens of flowers and fruit trees. It is said there was a complex irrigation system for the entire gardens from top to bottom and that exotic animals roamed its heights. I don’t know if this is truth or fable but I do know that this was supposed to be one of the most ancient civilizations on the planet. Here is what Quintus Curtius Rufus says about the Hanging Gardens:

Possible location of the Gardens today
“On its summit [of the Babylonian citadel] are the hanging gardens, a wonder celebrated by the fables of the Greeks. They are as high as the top of the walls and owe their charm to the shade of many tall trees. The columns supporting the whole edifice are built of rock, and on top of them is a flat surface of squared stones strong enough to bear the deep layer of earth placed upon it and the water used for irrigating it. So stout are the trees the structure supports that their trunks are eight cubits thick and their height as much as fifty feet; they bear fruit as abundantly as if they were growing in their natural environment… It has a substructure of walls twenty feet thick at eleven foot intervals, so that from a distance one has the impression of woods overhanging their native mountains.” (Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander)

The rest of the monuments on the list from now on are Greek. No surprise since the compilers of the list were Greek. Nonetheless, these monuments are indeed deserving of ancient accolades.

Artist impression of the
Temple of Artemis
Temple of Artemis at Ephesus
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, built in the sixth-century B.C. in what is now modern Turkey, was one of the largest, most beautiful temples of the ancient world. Its construction was paid for by the wealthy Lydian King, Croesus. It took ten years to build and brought pilgrims to Ephesus for centuries. The temple was said to be about 137 meters long, 69 meters wide and 18 meters high with more than 127 columns. Sadly, the temple was destroyed by raiding Goths in the third century A.D. However, the memory of the beauty of this temple to the Goddess of the Hunt would live on. 

Ruins of the Temple of Artemis
For Antipater of Sidon, it was the most beautiful of all the wonders:

“…when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, "Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand".” (Antipater, Greek Anthology)

Statue of Olympian Zeus
Statue of Zeus, Olympia 
Ancient Olympia is one of the few sites on this list that I have been fortunate 

enough to visit. It is one of my favourite sites in Greece, this peaceful, green sanctuary nestled between the rivers Alpheios and Kladeos in the eastern Peloponnese. Sadly, the twelve-meter, ivory and gold statue of Olympian Zeus was looted from the sanctuary long ago to fall victim to fire in another land.

Ruins of the Temple of Zeus
However the fifth-century B.C. remains of the Temple of Zeus, which contained this wonder, still exist. So too does the workshop where the artist Pheidias laboured to shape the ivory that would create a giant, life-like representation of the king of the gods. The column drums of the temple now lie in domino lengths, grass-covered victims of earthquakes and the workshop is bare and open to the sky. However, if you can make it there someday try standing on the paving slabs of the temple floor. Imagine the thick Archaic columns running the length of the interior to flank the giant statue of Zeus seated upon his throne. Then imagine how small a person must have felt in that space, the awe and the silence that resulted from being in the god’s presence.

Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
Back to Asia Minor now to the fifth of the Seven Wonders. Now we find ourselves in the ancient city of Halicarnassus, modern day Bodrum in Turkey. This was the site of the tomb of King Mausolus of Caria. The tomb, built in the mid-fourth century B.C., was not just any tomb. King Mausolus wanted to outdo all previous memorials and so he commissioned the tomb by which all others would henceforth be measured.

Artist impression of the Mausoleum

Ruins of the Mausoleum

King Mausolus’ ‘mausoleum’ was approximately 48 meters high and adorned top to bottom with the most beautiful, columns, reliefs and statuary of the day. The most talented artists and craftsmen of the Greek world were hired to work on it. It had statues of gods and goddesses, centaurs and lapiths, men and women, lions and other beasts. It rose into the sky to tower above Halicarnassus and to top it off was a massive four-horse chariot driven by Mausolus with his wife Artemisia at his side. Mausolus never lived to see his tomb completed and so the task fell to Artemisia. But she died two years later. It is a testament to the craftsmen that they stayed to finished the mausoleum even then, after their patrons had gone into the afterlife.

Colossus of Rhodes

The island of Rhodes in the south-east Aegean is one of the larger Greek islands and a place of great beauty. It was said to have been the domain of the sun god, Helios. To commemorate the victory of Rhodes over Antigonous I of Cyprus, the Rhodians erected the Colossus between 292 and 280 B.C. The bronze statue of Helios was said to straddle the entrance to the harbour of Rhodes to a height of 33.5 meters, making it one of the tallest statues in the world, visible from far out at sea.
The Colossus of Rhodes

Supposed bases of the Colossus
Today, if you visit Rhodes, it is the medieval city that really stands out to the visitor. The Colossus stood for only fifty-six years before it fell victim to an earthquake. It must have been an awe-inspiring sight while it stood. Now, the points where the feet of the statue were planted are marked by two pedestals at the harbour entrance. Though it did not stand for long, the influence of the Colossus of Rhodes lasted for ages, inspiring the Emperor Nero to erect his own colossus, as well as the French-built Statue of Liberty in New York, another beacon to guide and welcome travellers.

Lighthouse of Alexandria
The last structure on the list of the Seven Wonders was located in the most famous city founded by Alexander the Great: Alexandria. The Lighthouse, or ‘Pharos’, of Alexandria was built between 280 and 247 B.C. Some sources say it rose to a height of as much as 140 meters and that its reflected fires could been seen from unimaginable distances out at sea. The lighthouse guided ships into the city that had become the great metropolis of the world. For centuries the Pharos was the tallest structure in the world and was actually the third, longest-standing of the Seven Wonders after the Mausoleum and pyramids at Giza.

Artist impression of the Pharos

In addition to being inspired by a look at the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, I am also a little saddened by it.

I think of what was and what could have been had they stood to this day (we’re fortunate indeed to have the Pyramids!).  What would the world be like if we could still look upon the statue of Zeus at Olympia, or tour the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Part of me thinks that it would be amazing to sail up to Rhodes beneath the gaze of the Colossus or to walk the terraces of the Mausoleum gazing upon the statuary as upon an outdoor museum.

However, another part of me thinks that our modern world would ruin those things. I don’t want to imagine these once-brilliant monuments stained by exhaust and pollution, or surrounded by kiosks selling plastic souvenirs made in China. Would the names of countless tourists be scratched into the marble of the Temple of Artemis, or would the ankles of the Colossus be ringed with spray paint?

 I think those things would be infinitely more painful than looking upon the ruins of these wonders and imagining what once was. These artistic and architectural wonders were more than just tourist attractions. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were and are markers in the timeline of human history, intended to inspire and to raise man from the dust so that the gods might catch a glimpse of those achievements, those offerings, and smile back with pride.


To view John Romer’s series on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, you can check them out on YouTube HERE.

For fiction lovers, I highly recommend The Seven Wonders by Steven Saylor whose young Roman character, Gordianus, travels to see all of the wonders while solving some entertaining mysteries along the way.