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Posts Tagged ‘Writing

The value of experience

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me

For those who don’t know, as well as reviewing book and writing historical fiction, one of my other hobbies is kitting myself up as a late 1st century legionary and reenacting with the 20th legion at Chester. I would heartily recommend such a pastime to anyone interested in the era. The kit’s not cheap to assemble, of course, but many units will have spare kit that you can borrow while putting together your own, and some manufacture their own. And it’s a hobby that most folk could cope with. I myself am almost extraordinarily unfit and slightly portly, and yet this past weekend I marched 10 miles in the kit seen above with my legionary brothers to raise money for the Park In The Past project. It’s great fun, it’s fascinating, and there is a level of camaraderie you’ll find in few other hobbies.

But do you know what? It’s also extremely educational. One aspect of reenactment is regularly termed ‘experimental archaeology, and for very good reason. Reenactment is the only way to even attempt to understand what it was to BE those characters about whom we write. I know a number of my peers also march in kit, or take part in civil war battles, involve themselves with living history and so on. It is possible to be truly knowledgeable without doing something like this, but to actually experience something of the life is to add life to the knowledge. I have discussed the matter at length with the superb Christian Cameron, whose works are very human and personal, and who reenacts ancient Greek, medieval and also Revolutionary War eras!

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The thing is: for those of us writing in the ancient world, and particularly in the Roman era, on which I am focusing here, the documentary and visual evidence leaves huge gaps. Rome is one of the few distant worlds which has left us a wealth of sculpture, painting, written texts and buried artefacts that help us understand their world. And yet despite this, there are holes in our understanding. Here are some examples:

Military clothing. We know that legionaries wore tunics from the Republican era right through to the late empire. But even at the height of the Principate when we have the best records, there are few notable reference to the tunic’s colour (I’m not including the late empire here, as it’s a different beast entirely.) Wall paintings from Pompeii and an Etruscan tomb suggest red tunics, as do some vague references, but there is no direct text to support that. Other sources show legionaries in white or undyed tunics. It is my personal belief that only officers wore the red and that undyed was the standard for legionaries. This is largely the work of logic, since the cost of purchasing and importing red dye to dye between two and perhaps five garments for each man of a five-thousand strong legion seems unrealistic to me. Yet some reenactors will point to their white tunics and the russet stains left by wearing armour in bad weather and will use that as evidence for the need for red tunics. Some (I marched alongside two this weekend) wear blue tunics, just to outline the fact that no one knows for sure. The unit I serve with allows a wide variety of colours and fabrics, so long as there is a common element, in the belief that since legions were based long-term in a region, they would take to using whatever local sources and dyes were commonly available and cheap. This is another very reasonable assumption. The answer to the colour question might never be known, but by trial and error we can start to understand the potential of the answers.

Footwear. It is a general common understanding that Roman soldiers wore Caligae (the strapped sandal-like military boots) everywhere. More recently a wealth of evidence has begun to appear to suggest that closed boots were a lot more common that previously believed. And believe a reenactor when they tell you that boots are much more practical and sensible in damp conditions, and therefore it has to be believed that the Romans wore mostly enclosed boots in more adverse environments. Many of the men I marched with this weekend own both types of footwear, but the weekend was generally a damp one, and the number of caligae in evidence compared to boots was extremely small. Experience overturning theory. That is the value of reenactment.

boots

Tweaks. Legionaries are shown carrying their shields on their backs in numerous depictions. And yet there is little evidence as to how that actually worked. This is one aspect in which reenactment is a prime source of information. For instance, the way I carried my shield (above) was comfortable throughout the march, and yet if we had been attacked by slavering barbarians somewhere outside Lower Kinnerton, I would have been dead long before I’d struggled with the buckles and got the shield on my arm. So there goes that theory. Len Morgan of the 14th showed me his shield strap, and things fell into place, for his was carried over one shoulder, not the neck, with a second strap around the chest. The result? Unbuckle under one armpit and the shield was already on his arm. That quick. Trial and error. The reenactor has potentially solved how this was done. Some shields’ grips within the boss are so restrictive and tight that manoeuvering with them comfortably shreds the back of the hand. It would have been near impossible for a legionary to have functioned with my shield, until I took a leaf from a friend’s rulebook and rebuilt the grip. Now it is comfy and I can throw it around as required:

shield

There are so many other things. How were men arranged in the testudo? Think about the aspect of height! A shorter man between two taller ones will result in a hole in the defence. I discovered this last year at an event when I was hit in the face with a thrown missile. So a testudo should, for preference, be organised by height, so that when called, every man knows his place and there are no gaps. How do you stop a helmet bouncing around when it’s hanging down your front during a march? Simple: you tuck the cheek guards around the baldric of your sword. I never knew that until this weekend, but it makes so much sense.

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The list goes on. I could spend all day telling you just the things I learned this last weekend, let along over the past year or two.

And that’s where it becomes more than a hobby for a writer. It becomes research, pure and simple. I’ll freely admit that in my earlier work there were mistakes and assumptions. I cannot go back and correct such assumptions at this stage, but I can try and avoid any and all such issues with every new book. Consequently, there is a wealth of detail in my more recent books that has come directly from first-hand experience with the 20th Valeria Victrix. Without that experience, I would have missed out on some gems of knowledge and colour, and a few directly-related events. There is little that prepares you to write about the difficulties of stomping up a hill laden with gear than doing it.

The effect of several contubernia of men chanting while marching under a bridge or tunnel has to be heard to be believed!

Oh and the weight of a good Celtic torc came as something of a surprise too! And as for wearing the jangling willies…. 😉

torc

The value of reenactment and living history in writing. Ask Christian Cameron, Robert Low, Caroline Lawrence and others. I guarantee they will all have taken value from their experience and put it into their work.

Now to take my experiences of the post-march booze-up and apply it to Fronto’s experiences in the wine trade.

Written by SJAT

May 5, 2015 at 11:03 am

And a book is born…

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From time to time, I find myself discussing methods of research, planning and writing with other literary folk, and I thought it would be interesting to try and put the whole thing down on paper (so to speak.) And here it is in all its gory. It may interest you. It may not. But it’s interested me, so there!

There are two ways I write books, and it depends on what I’m writing. Essentially, if I’m writing a Marius’ Mules novel, it begins with reading the appropriate year of Caesar’s diary and that gives me the historical events and the bare bones of a plot to work around. Essentially, MM novels are defined closely by what I can do to play with the events in Caesar’s diary, so they do not fit so well with the rest of my works.

For anything else (the Ottoman books or Tales of the Empire, for example – or other works I’m presently keeping hush about) it works like this:

  • An idea/theme/character/event piques my interest. These vary greatly. The discovery of a wonderful, strange – and hardly historically mentioned – event sparked The Thief’s Tale. The exotic Barbary pirates sparked The Priest’s Tale. The terrible effects of revenge upon its perpetrator sparked The Assassin’s Tale. Interregnum was born from a game of chess. Ironroot from the idea of a dead man solving his own murder. Dark Empress from the the idea of how divergent and truly altered friends can become, dependant upon events. Often I will worry around the subject like a wobbly tooth for a week or so and gradually the framework of a plot will evolve around it.
  • I examine the historical and geographic framework of the story, selecting any historical characters or events or real places that will impact on the plot. I will then go and purchase appropriate research materials for them, making my bank manager shed a tear and book stores buy party favours for the fourth-quarter-upturn celebration, and I will bookmark half a million websites (badly indexed, of course, so that I will only find half of them when I need to. I am not half as organised as I like to think I am…)
  • I sit down for a week with all my info and write, re-jig, plan, and then tidy it all into a single series of events, including anything historical in the appropriate position. This is the point when a pile of papers, books, websites and dictaphone notes becomes a viable story. At this point I create an extra file that contains details of the characters, locations, themes I want to bring out, and story arcs that will thread through the tale. From this point on until the book is finished, the office gradually clogs up with piles of books which periodically get tidied away only to come out the next day and block out the light from the window as they tower threateningly above me.
  • Around here (sometimes one point earlier, sometimes one later) I plan and embark upon a research trip. It is important to me to understand not only the geography and physical layout of any locations in my books. I also like to know what they smell like. What they sound like. How they feel on a hot day (or cold, rainy, etc.) How tired it makes you walking up it. I like to check the flora and fauna. While there I take a thousand photographs and make endless dictaphone notes. Anything that happens to me there almost always makes its way into the story (tripping on tree roots, getting drenched in downpours etc.) This often ends up with me taking Tracey and the kids on a 300 mile round trip so that I can walk up a small mound and photograph it from a hundred angles while I sniff a lot!
  • Another week and I will take that long text file and break it up into chapters of appropriate length, with cliff-hangers in appropriate places, making sure that I try to spread out the action, the plot reveals and the slow, deep character stuff so that there’s a little of everything in every chapter if at all possible. This is the week my wife doesn’t like because I get grumpy when I’m interrupted. As often as not this week actually ends up, rather than everything tightening, with an increase in chaos and clutter.
  • And then… I write. I try to set  myself goals. These vary depending upon circumstances, but might be a daily wordcount of 5,000, or five pages of text in 10pt arial. It might be to complete two chapters in a week. You get the idea. I will have a schedule on a calendar on my office wall. Regularly this will be tweaked depending upon how often the kids come into my office with armfuls of toys and drive cars across my keyboard. It may also be coffee-or-beer-supply dependant!
  • Each time I complete a chapter, I go back over it with a fine-toothed comb for grammar, spelling, typos and the like, but also for anything I’ve missed out, anything that’s blithely superfluous or anything that doesn’t quite fit or sound right. Since my actual book writing happens over a short time (usually less than 3 months for the first draft including by-chapter edit) I find it easy to check whether the theme, pace and plot threads are staying in line as I do these edits. Plus, this way, when it comes to the post-draft edits, half the work is already done for me. Speeds up the editing process and takes a lot of the pain out of it.
  • Also, at the end of every chapter, I run it past two proof-reading friends, who pick me up on anything they find. So I guess you could say that every chapter has had three edits  before the draft is complete.
  • Invariably, as I write I will find the plot drifting off course. Sometimes this is unhelpful and has to be put right in the chapter edits or even a full re-write if too bad. It’s just simply that I leave room for variation in my planning so that if I am hit by inspiration and epiphany as I write, I can allow it to influence the plot. You see, sometimes the accidental drift actually improves the plot. And once, in my past, it has been so good it has actually caused me to rewrite the whole chapter plan and change the ending completely! Characters have a tendency to take on a life of their own and that makes them fight their destiny, you see?
  • Some time in the last week of my schedule (which is several weeks past the original end date as it keeps getting set back and back on account of kid-based jollity) I write the word ‘Epilogue’. That is the best moment in the world. Much better than ‘The End’. Because if you’re at ‘Epilogue’ the plot is complete and all you’re doing is wrapping it up in the nice emotional part (or the dreadful unforeseen violent end part, of course.) I thoroughly enjoy this part. When you hit ‘End’ conversely, the drawn out process of editing begins, crushing the joy a little.
  • End. Bottle of something fizzy to celebrate.
  • Edit. Plus potential hangover. Now begins the process of going over the whole book, reading it as best I can as if I were a genuine reader and not the writer. I will mark whole sections that need to be changed, removed or explained with extra text. The writing gets tidied. Extra description added as necessary. Bumf gets removed. I gather that it is common practice for writers to pare down their wordcount heavily through this process. I generally find I add 10%. Ah well. Can’t have too much of a good thing, eh? 😉
  • After a major edit, I am left with pretty much the finished article. It’s had four edits by now, three during the writing and one after. I will then have a really quick last read through, checking for anything glaring.
  • Then, with a sigh of relief and a lip-bite of tension, I send the finished work to perhaps half a dozen test readers, who will undoubtedly find the odd typo or error, but mostly will point out anything that needs to be changed for the good of the story and its flow and arc. A couple of weeks will pass and I will get the results, which will resulty in another feverish week of editing.
  • And lo and behold: the book is ready.

And then begins the hard bit! For a first time, or an agent manuscript, printing, promotional stuff, letters, synopses, recommendations sought etc. For those self-published works, a cover, formatting for release, dealing with the various publishing companies etc. And then: promotion, promotion, promotion. After all, book sales are competitive. Readers can only afford to buy so many books, and while I will always direct fans to those other writers whose works enthrall me, I want to try and make sure I don’t sink to the bottom of the current release pile. 🙂

So that’s it. That and the fact that I always have the plans for at least the next half dozen books floating around in my head and/or laptop.

Hope that if you’re a budding writer this helps in some way. To be honest, it helps me no end!

As an old friend used to say: ‘see you in the funny pages…’

Written by SJAT

July 29, 2014 at 10:59 pm

May Author Interview: Paul Fraser Collard

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Starting  today, I will be interviewing an author on the 1st of each month, and I am absolutely delighted to say that my interviews begin this morning with Paul Fraser Collard, author of the excellent Jack Lark series.

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A lover of history and the military, Paul debuted as an author with the superb ‘The Scarlet Thief’ in May of last year, and followed quickly upon that with a  sequel ‘The Maharajah’s General’ in November. The Scarlet Thief made it into my top ten reads of 2013, and the sequel will probably do the same this year (read it in January.) Links of my reviews, purchase sites and more will follow at the end but for now it is my pleasure to pick Paul’s brain. Sit back and enjoy…

What inspired you to write historical fiction, and the eras you write in particular? Also what other authors’ works have influenced you?

I loved history as a child but it was not until I discovered the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell that I really started to read historical fiction. The first one I read was Sharpe’s Honour and I simply devoured it. I cannot think of any other book that captured my imagination in the same way and from there I was inspired to find out more about these men who fought in the red coats. Around the same time I saw Zulu for first time and I was hooked.

I have read every book Bernard Cornwell has ever written and I still think he is head and shoulders above every other writer of historical fiction. The day when my agent, Dave Headley, told me that Bernard Cornwell had provided a quote for the cover of The Scarlet Thief is far and away the pinnacle of my writing career to date!

When I sat down to give writing a go there really was no other type of novel that I could even imagine starting. It just had to be redcoats. The Crimean War seemed to be rather an unknown series of events and it seemed ripe for a new writer and a character like Jack Lark to start their adventures.

Your protagonist in the first two novels, Jack Lark, is one of those loveable rogues, like Han Solo or Jack Sparrow, or Spike from Buffy. Those types of character are renowned as hard to write well, so that they are not dislikeable. How difficult was it keeping Jack in that narrow band between ‘safe’ and ‘dislikable’?

To be honest I didn’t worry too much about making Jack likeable or not. I had a firm idea of exactly who he was going to be and I was determined that he would be his own man. For better or worse, he was going to be Jack Lark and no one else!

I did know that if Jack was going to take centre stage in a long-running series of novels then he had to be an incredibly strong character. I spent an age working on him before I had even finalised the details of where he would start his adventures. I was certain that he had to capture my readers’ imagination enough to bring them back for more. I hope (I still hope!) that I can create each book in such a way that my readers can never be sure where Jack will turn up next and what challenges he will face when he gets there. As I am not tied to a regiment, a campaign or even to a single war, I can take Jack all over the Victorian world and, as he is a rogue, he can take on a role and a life that I could never have created if he was a more traditional fellow.

How do you research your books? I know people who make heavy use of reenactment, and people who walk every inch of their locations, and people who research deeper than any mainstream academic. And, of course, there are people who make things up, it all being fiction after all. All of these seem viable routes in their own way and for their own types of work.

You are right that these are all viable routes and I am a strong believer that in writing there is no “right” way of doing things; there is just “your” way.

I am definitely an armchair writer and for my research I rely heavily on books and on the Internet. I start any research by reading some very general overviews of the period or the event that I am covering so that I can work out the sequence of events and the main players involved. From there I try to find as many primary sources as I can and this is where the Internet is so fantastic. I doubt I would ever be able to find as many old publications had not so many of them been digitised. There is a great thrill in searching online and discovering a first hand account of the events I am writing about. It is the experiences of the people who were there that really add the detail about what it was really like; from what the weather was like, to what people were talking and thinking about.

I start to write all of this information into a story plan so that I know exactly what goes where. It is only then that I start to weave Jack into these events, plotting his story against the backdrop of the actual things that happened. All of this research finishes up as a 30-40,000-word story plan that I break down into rough chapters and sequences. Then all I have to do is work my way through, fleshing this outline plan out into the full story. Simples!

Given that your main character relies heavily upon deceit and subterfuge to survive and is now a past master at assumed identities, how difficult is it to find a new angle to attack his particular traits and tendencies without seeming stale? I wondered how a second book for Jack could possibly be anything other than a broad repeat of the first, and yet it was thoroughly fresh and different.

I decided early on that Jack would be an imposter. I was fascinated by the tale of Percy Toplis, a rogue and a charlatan who spent a lot of time masquerading as an officer during the First World War. It seemed such a fabulous way of taking a character on a rollercoaster of a journey that I knew I had to make it central to the plot.

However, I am very aware that if the series became just a procession of new identities that happen to be left lying around easily to hand just when Jack needs them, then it would not last very long as I imagine any readers would be put off by such a trite approach. So I have plans for Jack that will see him pulled in all sorts of directions but which do not rely on him simply stealing identity after identity. I will not reveal how I plan to do that. You will need to keep reading the series to find out!

If you could live in any time period and location, which would you choose? And as a counterpart to that, what historical character would you most like to meet and talk to?

I can think of a hundred periods that I would like to experience but only if I was rich! It seems to me that the best experiences in the past were only available to those born with a silver spoon in their mouths (something that the young Mr Lark finds so very frustrating too!) I know that my own ancestors were almost entirely farm labourers and as romantic as that occasionally sounds I am not sure I could handle working so hard!

If a reader asked me ‘Why should I buy Paul’s books? What’s different about them? What’s the hook?’ I know what I’d say. What would you say to that? 

I would have to say that Jack sits at the very heart my books. No matter how well I tell the history, no matter which fascinating backdrop I set the story against, my series will live or die on the success of Jack as a character. I like to think he is unique and although I am sure he shares traits with many other fine protagonists I will try incredibly hard to make sure he is always his own man.

The other key feature of the Jack Lark series is that each book will be set against new events. I will never plod through a single campaign but will flit from country to country, even from continent to continent! I want readers to wonder where the next Jack Lark novel will be set and to be intrigued when they find out that he makes it to Persia, or to India or even to America.

Oh and then there are the battle scenes! I love writing battle sequences and I want them to really grab a reader by the throat. I promise that every book will be full of them!

* For reference, my own thoughts on this are that Paul’s novels are the perfect mix of action, humour, danger, history and intrigue. They hit the spot on numerous levels at once, while being set in little-used milieu, so that they feel refreshing. *

Time for the obvious question, I guess. If your books were ever optioned as a movie or series, who would you like to see play Jack Lark? I’m sure a name must have crossed your mind at some point.

I’m not very good at answering this question, as I cannot think of anyone who matches my mental picture of Jack. I do know I would like to find out! So if anyone reading this wants to make my books into a film or TV series then I will be ready to come to the casting to see who gets the part!

How would you describe your process as a writer? I know people who have every last crease in a supporting character’s face documented and his entire family back four generations to make sure they don’t miss anything. I know people who are intuitive writers and don’t truly know how the book will end until they get there. I know people who write carefully with lovely fountain pens on pads and then later transcribe and I know others, who hammer at the keyboard whenever their distractions leave them alone for a minute. How do you work?

Well, either fortunately, or unfortunately, I am still just a part-time writer. Working 50-60 hour weeks really cramps my writing time! So I have to work where and when I can and the vast majority of my writing is done on the train to and from work. Writing novels on a train can be a little challenging but it does make me very disciplined at simply sitting down and getting on with it and making the most of every single minute that I can find. I simply don’t have time to plan each session in great detail or to agonise over what I am going to write. I find a seat (not always easy!) and then hammer away. On a good day the writing gushes out of me but even on the days when every word feels like it is being ground out I still plough on knowing that I can always re-work and improve it later.

In movies, the creator often gets to release a director’s cut and tweak things after release. Authors get no such option. Have you ever written a scene that you wish you’d done another way? That you think was too violent, or too tense, or too languid (or of course not violent enough!)

This is definitely something that I refuse to let myself think about. I find it difficult to go back and read either The Scarlet Thief or The Maharajah’s General as I always see bits that I would now do differently. I try to accept that my writing ability and taste is changing as I go along and so I try to be proud of what I have done without agonising about how I could now do it so much better.

I would say there are bits from The Scarlet Thief that I wish hadn’t been cut! There are a few scenes still sitting quietly on my hard drive that I may just recycle at some point!

What are you reading at present?

I am currently reading all sorts of books about World War Two, from fiction to non-fiction. I love Ospreys (from any period) and have half-a-dozen on my desk at home waiting for me to dip in and out of in the coming weeks. I am also completely fascinated by the Forgotten Voices series that was put together by the Imperial War Museum and which record the stories of the men and women who fought in the Second World War. I think that these are utterly compelling reading and I find them nearly impossible to put down.

One of the downsides of being a writer is that I now don’t have a lot of time to read fiction. My to-be-read pile is now huge and I cannot wait for my next holiday so I can start to make a dent in it. I am also quite obsessed with apocalyptic fiction and my son and I are working our way through the entire series of The Walking Dead graphic novels. There is nothing better than a zombie apocalypse for a last thing at night read!

And finally, can you give us any clues or hints as to what your next project is? What we can hope to see on the shelves in the next few years?

I have so much that I want to do; there are just not enough hours in the day! I am working on more Jack Lark novels alongside some short stories set before The Scarlet Thief. I don’t want to jinx anything so I won’t reveal more about any of these for the moment but I hope to be able to soon! All I will say is that there are plenty more Jack Lark adventures to come.

I have also embarked on another series, this time one set in World War Two. The first novel is now on its second draft and the project has my agent’s backing which is incredibly exciting. I have quite a lot to do, including working through some fantastic suggestions from the brave souls happy to help me out by reading my work at the first draft stage (thank you Robin and Jamie!) I am having a blast writing it and I am really looking forward to seeing if this one will make it anywhere.

***

My huge thanks to Paul for taking the time to answer my questions and enlighten us as to what makes him tick as a writer. I cannot think of a better author to have kicked off the interviews. If you have not read his novels, I seriously urge you to go pick one up and get started. Shuffle it to the top of your list.

Visit Paul’s website here, follow him on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. Then check these out:

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The Scarlet Thief (Jack Lark 1) available at Amazon and all good stores, and read my review here.

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The Maharajah’s General (Jack Lark 2) available at Amazon and all good stores, and read my review here.

All that remains is to say once more a huge thank you to Paul Fraser Collard and to look forward to his next work. In the meantime, go buy, catch up and enjoy the adventures of Jack Lark.

My writing has a process?

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I was invited by the lovely and talented Prue Batten to take part in a writing process blog tour. For any of you who’ve not listened to me blather at great length about Prue before, you might like to check out her work: the fay fantasy Chronicles of Eirie and the medieval Gisborne saga. Her words are like silk. They are like a fine wine. They are beautiful. Check out Prue’s writing process here: Am I Unique?

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The tour requires that I answer several questions, and I find them to be sharp, complex ones on the whole, but we start with the easy one:

1. What am I working on?

And yet even that is far from simple. You see unlike most writers, who are sensible and logical and not clearly barking like me, I am apparently unable to concentrate on one project at a time. My imagination constantly runs riot and hurls thoughts at me that begin with phrases like ‘But what if…’ or ‘And what about…’ and I find myself branching out and adding another tandem project to my roster. And so… what am I working on?

Well, the simple one is The Assassin’s Tale, which will be released in less than 2 months. This is the third book in the Ottoman Cycle, following the adventures of Skiouros, a Greek former thief at the end of the Fifteenth century as he journeys around the Mediterranean on a quest for vengeance. For those of you who’ve read The Thief’s Tale and The Priest’s Tale, you might be interested to hear that the action here moves from Spain to Italy in the hunt for the exiled Turk.

But then there’s another project. A secret project. Shhhhh! No details, hints or teasers for you here, I’m afraid, but this is a project that is taking place intermittently between the others, alongside the talented Gordon Doherty. Yes we are working together on something, and I love it. 🙂 News on that will follow in due course.

And then there’s the OTHER project! This third one is a joint project with the superb Dave Slaney, the man who has designed most of my book covers and done other wonderful sterling illustrations here and there. Dave and I have joined forces to create a childrens’ book based on the Roman military, with my story and Dave’s amazing images. Having seen some of the early sketches, I can only say it’s going to be a belter of a book! 🙂

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2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm. ‘Which genre?’ I would have to ask. I’m mostly known for writing in the Republican Roman era, but I’ve also written Roman principate stuff, 15th century Turkish/Byzantine, epic fantasy with a classical feel, a few contemporary short stories, and so on…

I suppose, then, that I simply have to try and answer ‘what is different about my work?’ Probably nothing is my answer. After all, such a question can only reasonably be answered by the readers. I can tell you what I think might be different, or perhaps what I hope is different:

I think I hit a nice mix. I have a tendency towards graphic violence in my work (hard not to when dealing with ancient warfare) but I think it is tempered by my general avoidance of sexual content beyond suggestion, my sparsity with bad language and the general idea that my books are suitable for all ages, so long as they don’t mind a bit of blood & guts. They’re also tempered with a bit of humour. I do feel that Historical Fiction is often lacking a sense of humour, and I like a little lightness of mood in my work.

Is that a good answer? I’m afraid it’s the best I have. 🙂

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3. Why do I write what I do?

Ye Gods! Because I love it. Anyone who reads this blog will be aware of what I read from my book reviews. If you note the sort of books I read, you’ll be left in no doubt as to why I write what I do. I am inspired to ever greater heights by people like Guy Gavriel Kay, Manda Scott, Anthony Riches, Ben Kane, Angus Donald, Giles Kristian, Doug Jackson and so many, many more. And, of course, I am obsessive over ancient history. I cannot spend enough hours wandering among ruins or visiting the most far-flung and exciting archaeological sites. And when I’m not visiting, writing, or reading other people’s novels, I am reading non-fiction. Incidentally, in that regard check back early next week for a mega-review of one of the giants of Roman non-fiction, Mike (MC) Bishop.

Marius Mules I Italian Cover

4. How does my writing process work?

Ha. Like a gaudily-painted runaway steamroller!

Actually, I start with an idea, often based upon a specific tiny event. These are usually unknowns, such as the event at the heart of the Thief’s Tale (no spoilers.) Equally often it is because I just want to write about a certain place that fills me with awe, or a character who fascinates me.

ThenI pick a concept. A theme. Brotherly strife. Irreconcilable political divides. Civil war. And then build a plot based around the concept and the hook. It rarely takes long. Terry Pratchett in his Discworld novels explained the concept that inspiration sleeted through the universe like shooting stars. Most people get pelted occasionally, but the really lucky (unlucky) ones get battered by them like a soggy cardboard box left out in a rainstorm. I am the latter. If I wrote every hour the Gods sent and subcontracted to four people I would still end up with ideas backing up!

Once I have my basic plot, I write it out, change it, tweak it, alter it, hate it, change it, rewrite it, bin it, start it, alter it, write it out, spill coffee on it, change it, give up on it and eat cake, have a beer, have an epiphany, have another beer, and then at 2am with a mad glint in my eye, I have the story.

The I break the plot down int0 sections, and then into subsections and turn it into a chapter plan. Then I assign a rough word count to each part based on its content.

Then… I drink several coffees, crank up the volume on a little Pink Floyd or Anathema in my office and…. WE’RE OFF!

I write each chapter and – I know this is unique to me, so here’s a helpful hint – at the end of every chapter I run a close edit of that chapter. Then, periodically, I go back when I reach critical moments and run another edit. I also have grammar nazi’s running edits for me throughout. Then, when I’ve finished it, I have one final edit and then send it out to a few trusted test readers. Then it’s a last edit based on their findings, and then it’s ready.

Tales of Ancient Rome

***

Ok folks. I’ve given you an insight into the randomness and craziness that is my process. Now, the next part of this tour I am supposed to recruit 3 others to pass on the torch to. However, due to time constraints and the fact that I was abroad for a chunk of the planning of this, two of the people I have asked simply did not have time to take part. I can sympathise with that, in truth. But I have managed to secure for you two more writers to investigate. Go check out their blogs now and watch for their own responses on Monday.

ELAINE MOXON:

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Elaine Moxon is a Birmingham-based Historical Fiction writer and former Holistic Therapist. Her grandfather’s tales of his youthful adventures in rural Italy gave her a love of storytelling, inspiring her to write from an early age. She has a passion for languages, travel, art and history, her favourite eras predominantly the Saxon and Viking ages. She has contributed articles, short stories and poetry to online magazines ‘Birmingham Favourites’ and ‘Crumpets & Tea’. Her Grime-Noir Thriller short film ‘Deception’, produced and directed by Lightweaver Productions, has been nominated for the 2014 American Online Film Awards in New York. She is also a frequent speaker at Letocetum Roman Museum in Wall, Staffordshire, giving historical talks and readings from her forthcoming debut novel.

On a personal note, I have read a large chunk of Elaine’s forthcoming Saxon epic, and it’s a tale with style and oomph. I look forward to the full thing, and I urge you to keep an eye on her. Her responses to these prying questions will go live on Monday 14th on her blog at: http://elainemoxon.blogspot.co.uk/

 

aaaaaannnnnddddd….

A J (ANTHONY) ARMITT

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A fab fella, engaging writer and sometime partner in crime of mine, here’s Tony’s bio in his own words:

‘I live in Manchester, England with my wife, three kids and two cats. In our household hierarchy, I figure just beneath the felines.

On moonlit nights I can be found looking under the bed or checking the back seat of my car. I have an over-active imagination.

I write dark, twisted fiction, and have an irrational fear of zombies, and, thanks to Stephen Spielberg, I’m also terrified of sharks. My biggest fear would have to be zombie-sharks. (Damn that over-active imagination!)

My first book ‘Entwined – Tales from the City’ has been the #1 bestselling horror anthology on numerous occasions. I hope the follow up book ‘Entwined – Tales from the Village’ will do equally as well when I finally get around to finishing it.’

… Tony is a man with a cruel, vivid, stunning imagination and when he puts his tales into words they will shock and thrill you. Look his work up on Amazon, including his many contributions to the ‘Inkslinger’ compilations from which the funds go to charity. Tony’s responses will also be up on Monday 14th, and his blog can be found here: http://ajarmitt.blogspot.co.uk/

Written by SJAT

April 11, 2014 at 8:00 am

Publishing, social media and the writing fraternity

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Ok. I know it’s late at night, but in all fairness, I do some of my best thinking late at night, and most of my best scenes are written in the wee hours. But tonight I felt, given an email I just read, that I needed to say certain things (no, not a rant at all, but an acknowledgement, at the least).

I am – and some of you will snort or laugh at this – a remarkably shy person in reality. I am the sort who clams up and gets all coy when someone says something nice. When introduced to people I will invariably make a horribly inappropriate seafood joke or badger scrotum related comment that seems funny in the very instant that I panic about being told I am standing next to ‘hero x’ but later seems the height of buffoonery.

So in some way, I would say that the greatest advantage social media has given me is the ability to appear glib (while floundering amid a pile of terrible jokes) and to get used to folks enough that when I meet them, I am not quite such a buffoon as I might otherwise be.

I started writing because I was stupifyingly bored with my job and while careers like ‘gameshow host’, ‘royal executioner’, and ‘leader of the free world’ all had their advantages, I enjoyed writing, had an imagination, and felt that it was something I could do without ‘putting myself out there for ridicule’.

10 years (almost to the day) down the line and how much more wrong could I have been? Not a lot. It seems that writing a book is maybe 30% of the job description. The rest is all advertising and media based self-promotion. Left to myself in such a situation, I would have disappeared without trace – despite the fact that my lovely and resourceful wife takes it upon herself to promote my work at every social occasion 🙂

But I managed a few forays into the media/advertising world back in 2009 when Marius’ Mules and Interregnum came out. And I was somewhat surprised at what I discovered. The writing world is not like the job market or the commercial high street. It is not heavily competition-led!

One of the first connections I ever made (and he will always have a place in my personal pantheon for it) was Angus Donald. Angus was producing Outlaw at the time I was producing Marius’ Mules, and his well-timed words of encouragement (and even a mention on his blog) really made a difference.

Then I discovered forums (fora!) and tried to involve myself in several, but overstretched. Because of my forays, I met Robin Carter (Parmenion Books) who was the second person ever after Angus to take an interest in my work, and who actually encouraged me enough to push me into the limelight, and who has since become a firm friend. Also, at this time – though I didn’t realise it because I’d overstretched – I first met Ben Kane.

Fast forward at little, and I was socialising with the lovely Prue Batten (your fault, Prue: this blog), who had come up through the same website as I, Tony Armitt and Gordon Doherty (and others), who I met on my first forum extravaganza, and a lady in the states called Julie Richards. (Julie, I seem to have lost touch with you and am tremendously sad about it. If you read this, please do get in touch.)

I realised that what I’d initially suspected was truly the case. The writing world (at least certainly in the case of Historical Fiction) is very much a fraternity. Competition is pointless. Readers will read what they like, and cross publicising with other writers of a similar genre is by far more valuable than trying to outdo them.

I began to explore the world of my genre and I have met so many excellent people that it would be hard to list them (many of them with the elusive ‘traditional’ publishers). Some have been startlingly friendly (witness as a prime example Robert Low, of whom I was initially in extreme awe). Some have been truly supportive and fraternal (witness Douglas Jackson, whose opinion I hold most high these days). Some have been constructive and aided me tremendously (Ben Kane and Anthony Riches!)

I have made friends galore (many more than are mentioned here). People I hold in very high regard and take every opportunity to meet with (Giles Kristian, Manda Scott, Mike Arnold, DE Meredith and many more).

But the upshot of all this is that I have become well aware that I owe a great deal of my current success to people who I would – in my naive early days – have considered the competition – and also to a number of stalwart friends in the reviewing and publishing trade who deserve my thanks, too!  My eyes are open these days, and I am grateful to each and every one. I am proud to be included in peoples’ tweets alongside them, or to be invited to events by them. As an indie writer (the poor cousin) I am overwhelmed by the level of acceptance I encounter every day. And I hope to share a drink with you all at History in the Court this month.

So that’s it. Rather than being an awkward, shy (borderline loonie) on my own, trying to write books and hoping someone will read one, I seem – almost accidentally, or at least through the designs of benevolent others – to have become part of two fraternities (cannot off the top of my head think of the non-misogynistic term for that). One of writers, and one in social media. A lot of my new friends are in both, but that’s just greed! 😉 Kudos for the world of Historical Fiction and the level of friendly cooperation. Long may it reign, and if only nations were governed in the same manner, Syria would currently be playing backgammon with Israel while sharing cake!

And now, I go to re-read the email that triggered this pile of verbal blancmange and smile at the fact that I have made good friends in the most unexpected of places.

Then: to bed.

See you all anon.

Happy writer, of Yorkshire.

Written by SJAT

September 1, 2013 at 2:39 am

The Tony’s Gold

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I’ve been a fan of Tony Riches since Corvus first put in an appearance in Wounds of Honour, and I’m always pleased to pick up an ‘Empire’ book.

I’ve done reviews of the others so far, and I would reference them in this review. The first three in the series I always considered very much a single story arc over three books. Moreover, they were staunchly and solidly novels of the Roman military.

Cue Tony’s curveball: The Leopard Sword. The fourth book in the series was something of a departure in style, concentrating more on an ingenious plotline of intrigues and banditry than on the military campaigns we’d come to expect. Having read reviews and spoken to people since, I’m not sure how well-received the change was. I personally thought it was a triumph and a real growth in character, style and plot crafting.

Well The Wolf’s Gold should be an all-pleaser as far as I can see. In one way, it’s very much a return to a military-oriented plotline, with stretches of good solid campaigning in there, which should please the die-hard ‘Military Riches’ fans, and yet also involves a depth, ingenuity and intricacy of plot that has been born – in my opinion – from the style of Leopard Sword.

The plot to this masterpiece moves us once more. The first three books had us in Northern Britannia, and the fourth shifted the action to the forests of Germany, while in this one, the poor beleaguered Tungrian cohorts are sent to Dacia (modern Romania) into the Carpathian mountains to provide defence for the gold mines that are essential for imperial revenue. It is here that they will meet a number of interesting and often dubious characters and fall foul of plots and tricks that will once again have them fighting for their lives and have centurion Corvus creating crazy plans that have little chance of success.

As always with Tony’s writing, he sacrifices just the tiniest modicum of uptight concern for anachronistic idiom (something more authors could do with trying) in favour of something that feels realistic and appropriate to the reader and creates a flow of text that’s never interrupted.

And that’s a big part of this book. From the very start it races away and takes the reader with it. The flow is just too easy to read and hard to put down. As usual there is a humour among the soldiers that borders on the tasteless at times, and feels thoroughly authenic (and also happens to make me laugh out loud) combined with a brutal combative narrative that pulls no punches and coats the reader with gore, all overlaid with a few saddening scenes and thoughts.

From the might of Sarmatian hordes and their perfidious nobles to the treachery of self-serving mine owners, the untrustworthiness of border troops, the mindless buffoonery of the upper class legionary Tribunes, the madness of battles on ice, and the heart-pounding stealthy infiltrations of installations by a few good men, Wolf’s Gold should win on many levels and certainly does with me.

Moreover, this novel sees a significant advance in the overall arc of Corvus’ history, his murdered family and the imperial intrigues that accompany it.

As a last aside, Tony is one of few writers of Roman fiction who rarely feels the need to name-drop, his characters almost always fictional and self-created, which I find refreshing and even when he does so, it is fascinating. In this case we are introduced to not one, but two, future attempted usurpers of Imperial power.

All in all, Wolf’s Gold is a storming read, and Riches’ best yet. I cannot wait to see what is going to follow in book 6 following the events of this.

Written by SJAT

October 25, 2012 at 7:22 pm

No…. I’M Spartacus

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I’ve waited until I finished the second book to review these two, since I read them back to back and a 2-part series is relatively rare. Given that, I will not be writing a separate review for each book. This review is for both Spartacus the Gladiator and Spartacus: Rebellion.

I’ve been a fan of Ben’s writing from the start. His Forgotten Legion series was groundbreaking in a number of ways and quite astounding as a debut. I was then fairly stunned by Hannibal, which I consider to be one of the finest pieces of ancient Historical fiction written. Despite the high quality of FL, Hannibal showed a new maturity in writing and more depth of character and soul.

So on to Spartacus. I won’t say, for the record, that this series is better than Ben’s Hannibal (and its future sequels.) It is as good as Hannibal, and that’s just dandy by me. I wouldn’t have wanted Ben’s style to change after Hannibal, as that book hit the spot just right for me. What I will say about these books is that there has been a slight change in conventions that I found refreshing and excellent (more of that shortly).

I won’t say much about the plot, to be honest. Anyone who follows any review I write knows that I don’t like to risk spoilers. But, that being said, the general tale of Spartacus is a matter of record that most people will have at least a basic knowledge of. So, bear in mind that you sort of know how this saga is going to end. I mean, there’s only a certain amount of license a writer can realistically get away with (and Ben Kane seems to be very sparing with artistic license anyway) and to have the books end with Spartacus riding off into the sunset would be a little hard to swallow.

So prepare yourself. I spoke to Ben at the History In the Court event a few days ago and he wondered whether I’d cry at the end, given that apparently a lot of others had. Well, Ben, I have to admit to a few sneaky tears there, but to be honest there had been eye moistening for at least two chapters in anticipation…

One thing I find I have to say and it’s the only thing that could be construed as criticism, I suspect, is that in both books, I actually wished they were slightly longer, despite that they were long anyway! The reasoning behind this is that the time spent in the ludus at Capua has some of the most important plot buildup of the whole story, but I felt that I would have liked to see more of the non-plot-important gladiatorial contests during that time (some are reminisced about or alluded to that I’d have liked to have read directly.) It is possible, of course, that this is my own problem fuelled by having recently watched the Spartacus series and craving such fights – bear in mind that it’s almost impossible to read Spartacus without drawing certain comparisons if you’ve watched the series, but I’m confident these books will come out of the comparison favourably. Similarly, in the second book, a number of the smaller battles or skirmishes that are not critical are referenced only in reminiscence or conversation, and I kind of missed seeing them myself. Again, perhaps just my bloodthirsty tendencies showing through.

But on with reviewing: One thing that I particularly loved that was, if memory serves me correctly, a new convention in Ben’s writing, is the regular inclusion of an ‘inner dialogue’ for the major characters. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about this, but as the books progressed, I decided I really liked it and loved the effect it had on conversation. Often two characters will converse, but their private thoughts have a secondary conversation above them. This really gives a boost to the understanding of the motives and desires of the characters.

Another big win for me was the character of Carbo. Clearly a fictional creation, Carbo is the Yin to Spartacus’s Yang in many ways and provides a counterpoint to the main star. I will say that he is in no way a sidekick or comedy relief. He is a strong protagonist in his own right, but helps to balance Spartacus. Well done for Carbo, Ben. Not only is he an important character, a plot foil, a companion and so much more, he is also the main chance the book has for any sort of positivity in the outcome.

Similarly, I loved Navio, and the portrayal of the young Caesar. On the Roman side, it is interesting to see Caesar and Crassus at this stage in their development, giving an insight into what creates the men who will exist and are portrayed in the Forgotten Legion.

Incidentally, as well as the sadness of the inevitable conclusion, there is one scene in the first book (a death scene) that I actually found worse. It was for me a harrowing read with all the soul-crushing skill of a Guy Gavriel Kay work. Fabulous in its awfulness.

In an echo of the plot construction of the Forgotten Legion, there is an overriding element of the mystical and the divine in this work which goes deeper than simply describing the attitudes of the people in the setting, but actually provides foretellings, insights, and even explanations as to the reasons for the events of the Third Servile War. One day I may well go back through these books and read them with a different mindset, going in to them with the idea that the whole string of events is somewhat defined and informed by prophecy and divine whim, rather than the straight historical viewpoint I attacked them with this time.

All in all, these two books create the deepest, most realistic and yet refreshingly different telling of the Spartacus rebellion yet. Forget Blood and Sand and Kirk Douglas. The characters here are authentic feeling and very much sympathetic, even on the Roman side. The fights and battles are up to the very high standard that fans of Ben Kane’s work will have come to expect. The undertones of divine influence are subtle and yet powerful. As always, Ben appears to have meticulously researched everything and the historical accuracy of the books is as strong as I can believe it could get. There is never a let up in the story’s pace or the action, and you will genuinely be as sad at the conclusion that you have no more to read as you are at the storyline itself.

It’s a win on many levels. It’s so sad that there’s nowhere to go and the series has to end there. There could always be the possibility of a prequel, of course, since sequels are unrealistic. But anyone who watches Ben on twitter will be able to heave a sigh of relief knowing that he’s working on the next Hannibal book now.

Written by SJAT

September 22, 2012 at 7:55 pm