World-weaving with invisible strands

Melissa Addey is on the blog today talking about novels featuring the unseen figures of the past. Like her earlier post on approaching research as a child, Melissa offers a unique angle on writing historical fiction. Melissa’s latest novel is From the Ashes.

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As an author of historical fiction, I have always been pleased that many of my best reviews mention my ability to world-build. Writing in this genre, after all, requires a whole world to be rebuilt from nothing but bits of paper and crumbling ruins, from an odd mixture of official records which often forget or deliberately omit whole groups of people and events, to hearsay and quasi-legends passed down orally which you sense hold certain truths but often get questioned if you use them. For my PhD in Creative Writing, I wrote about looking beyond the inevitable ‘is it true?’ question. I suggested that as well as that question, another question to ask of authors would be: ‘What fictional elements did you add to your historical setting and why was it important to your vision of the past?’ And one obvious answer, of course, is that when you set out to build your world, you are very likely to find parts missing, strange holes in the tapestry you are weaving which you must fill in, one way or another. 

This recently happened to me when I decided I would like to write a series set in Ancient Rome, following the backstage team of the Colosseum. I spent the first three years of my life in Rome, my mother worked in an office just over the road from the Colosseum, perhaps it had been bubbling away in my brain, waiting for a chance to be included in my writing. I began in my usual fashion, gathering up the first strands with which to string my loom: children’s reference books for the basics of daily life in that era, several large tomes entirely dedicated to the Colosseum and its spectacles. These, I reasoned, would give me a good overview of the shape and size of my eventual world, which I could then follow up on with more detailed research. 

And then I found the hole. In an extremely well documented time and place in history, right in the centre of one of the most famous buildings left to us from ancient times and featured in countless books and films was… a huge, gaping hole. Because there is no mention of a backstage team. We do not even know the name of the architect who designed the Colosseum, let alone the people who must have run it on a day-to-day basis. Oddly, no academics or authors of substantial works on the Colosseum seem to even mention the existence of this gap in our knowledge, to such an extent that I spent a lot of extra time doubting my research abilities, certain that somewhere, known to all but myself, was a neat list of the team and their roles. But no such list exists. And yet: I could feel the invisible strands out there, waiting to be woven. There were 100 to 200 days of Games put on per year, each of which took up most of a day: beast-hunting in the morning, criminal executions at lunchtime, gladiatorial bouts in the afternoon. The Emirates Stadium (a similar sized 50,000-seater arena) today employs 3000 people. The invisible backstage team must have existed. But I would have to create them. 

In the end, creating the invisible team required three main strands:

What did they make?

The historical record does not mention the backstage team. But it does describe what they created. We have mentions of animals, both wild and tamed, which means there were people placing orders for them, catching them, transporting and storing them, as well as taking many months of hard work to train those that were made to perform in specific ways, such as horses who would willingly run through water when the Colosseum was flooded for naval battles and an elephant who would bow of its own accord upon seeing the Emperor (bit of subtle signalling there, do we think?). The gladiators, of course, had to be trained, appropriately kitted out in both battle and theatrical parade armour and patched up by physicians. There were synchronised swimmers, whom the poet Martial admired, asking whether a sea-nymph had taught them, or whether the performing swimmers had been the ones to teach sea-nymphs their moves. As for the criminal executions, many were turned into re-enactments of bloody myths, requiring costumes, scenery and rehearsals. The list of staff quickly grows long when you look at what they created. Even something as tiny as a mention of using coloured sand in the arena leads to the question, where do you get that from? Was there a known supplier of coloured sand in first-century Rome, with a colour chart to pick from and a regular agreed delivery day? Would the manager frown when taking delivery and say that this wasn’t the shade they’d agreed on? And why do you need different colours of sand? Are you making patterns? Illusions of water or grass? Vast sand ‘paintings’ across the arena floor? Even modern-day recreations of, for example, the lifts that brought beasts and fighters up into the arena, only briefly mention that each one requires four to six people to operate, which means easily 150 people just for the lifts during a show, and that’s leaving aside the question of, who is giving the signal to release a beast or gladiator from a specific lift to a given schedule? World-building in such circumstances relies on endless questions of this kind, each question making one thread at a time become visible. My novel began to take on a shape: the endless day-to-day logistical challenges of running such a vast amphitheatre, mixed with the vast and terrifying events of 79-80AD, from Vesuvius erupting to a ‘pestilence’ that killed ten thousand people in Rome, a three-day fire and the knowledge that not delivering a spectacular inaugural Games would result in certain death in the very arena the team worked in. 

What kind of people were the backstage team, given the era in which they worked? Gladiators, actors, dancing girls, criminals, beast-hunters, women who fought… all of these performers at the Colosseum formed part of an underclass that was both despised for not conforming to the norms of society, but that also held a certain allure. We know that actors were considered sexy and that gladiators had enthusiastic fans who followed their careers with interest, much as boxing fans might have their favourites today, often gambling on the outcomes of a bout. If these were the performers, the backstage team would have associated with them and been associated with them, their own status determined by the work they did. There would have been slaves to work the lifts and keep the Colosseum clean, there were up to 200 sailors who rigged the awnings that kept the sun off the audience’s heads. There would have been a man whose job it was to play Charon, to kill with one blow of a hammer any gladiator or criminal who would not make it but had not yet died. I spent time talking with modern-day boxing promoter Steve Goodwin, who talked about the ethics of the job, which resulted in the creation of two very different fictional gladiator trainers in the final novel. Throughout, I had to find a way to make my characters likeable, even though they were engaged in putting on Games that we would find brutal in the extreme, yet which were entirely acceptable in their time. The more I explored the team, the more I saw them as a motley crew of misfits and outlaws: tough, sexy, rude and dangerous. 

What is required of any backstage team, regardless of the era?

Two qualities. Showmanship and organisation. Like it or not, the Games were a magnificent spectacle, capable of drawing crowds of 50,000 and more, up to 200 days a year. When you read about what they could do, from flooding and draining the arena in half an hour each way to raining down perfumed water to cool the crowds, you can’t help but be impressed. Meanwhile, from an organisational point of view, to manage what must have been thousands of staff and performers but without any modern technology, must have been quite a feat. My two main characters came to embody these two qualities: a manager with a gift for showmanship and his female scribe who keeps the team on track, day by day, through tragedy, loss and danger. And the slow-burn romance I have included, developing across four books, comes from the growing intertwining of these two characters and their qualities.

And so back to that question I dislike because of its too-narrow gaze. ‘Is it true?’ No, it isn’t. There is absolutely no record of the team I have created, so it is purely a fiction, albeit set into what I have strived to ensure is an accurate historical setting. But why did I create that fiction and why was it important to my vision of the past? Because I looked into the past and saw a gaping hole at the very centre of one of the most famous historical buildings of all time, and I saw the invisible threads that I could weave together to create a world that must once have existed.

From the Ashes by Melissa Addey ~~ Rome, 80AD. A gigantic new amphitheatre is being built. The Emperor has plans for gladiatorial Games on a scale no-one has ever seen before. But the Games don’t just happen. They must be made. And Marcus, the man in charge of creating them, has just lost everything he held dear when Pompeii disappeared under the searing wrath of Vesuvius. Now it will fall to Althea, the slave woman who serves as his scribe, to ensure the Colosseum is inaugurated on time – and that Marcus makes his way out of the darkness that calls to him.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS  is available for pre-order on AmazonUS, AmazonCanada, Kobo and Barnes & Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

10 thoughts on “World-weaving with invisible strands”

    1. Thank you so much Sharon, and for sharing the post, much appreciated. I hope you enjoy From the Ashes, no doubt we share a lot of research material around Pompeii!

    2. I really enjoyed this post. Even before I started writing historical fiction, I had a tendency to find holes in the historical record. Perhaps it is my training an interest in science? As a scientist, the “what if’s” lead to hypotheses and experiments and possibly important new medicines or technologies. In fiction, of course, they create openings for new characters, scenes or entire novels.

      But what if there is a historical record, but the evidence is weak or implausible? What if a century of scholarly work has been based on this sketchy or inaccurate data?

      1. I know, Marshall, it’s fascinating, isn’t it… and of course we do often see ‘facts’ about the past overturned when new evidence comes to light… often thanks to science!

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