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.

~~~

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.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.

Across the Great Divide

Today, I welcome Michael L. Ross, author of The Search, book II of his series Across the Great Divide. His post reflects on the challenges of seeking oral sources for history, eliminating historical bias, and bridging a cultural divide.

Historical fiction is an unusual type of writing, because many events, and even characters are already determined. There is a basic timeline for the story that can’t change. Most writers of history do mountains of research to make their work as authentic as possible, true to the culture, times, known facts, and people. 

Research means delving into the internet, written archives, libraries, diaries and newspapers, and possibly visiting the places of the events. But what if there isn’t much written down? What if there isn’t much left to see? Authors concerned with ancient history often encounter this problem, but it can be equally true when writing about more modern but not literate societies. 

In writing my most recent novel, The Search, I follow my main character Will Crump from the ashes of the Civil War to the high country of Wyoming and Montana, in the period 1865-1868. Suffering from what was then known as “soldier’s heart”, Will follows the trail of immigrants west, searching for peace – and runs into the middle of Red Cloud’s War. Along the way, he acquires a companion, Huwei or Dove, a young Shoshone woman, a survivor of the Bear Creek Massacre. 

Though the novel is half the length of The Clouds of War, the first in the Across the Great Divide series, it took nearly twice as long to write. Tracking down information about the Shoshone, Sioux, Arapaho, and Crow tribes is daunting, and means consulting oral sources. The written documents are often slanted to the white or Army point of view. When you are forced to deal with oral history for research, grabbing scraps from various people, it can be quite difficult to construct an accurate world view.

For example, one primary written source is Francis Carrington’s book, My Army Life. While informative, Mrs. Carrington had a vested interest in protecting her husband, Colonel Henry Carrington, and his reputation following the Fetterman fight. Since there were no survivors, her arguments were persuasive, but suspect.

I constantly ran into roadblocks, due to Native Americans’ understandable reluctance to discuss their history and culture with a white person. I read Red Cloud’s Autobiography, The White Indian Boy (first person account of a boy who lived with Chief Washakie of the Eastern Shoshone), biographies of Jim Bridger, material from Idaho State University that told about Shoshone culture, and countless pioneer diaries.  I even got a little help from Drusilla, a Shoshone who consulted on Hollywood movies – but she retired, and quit answering questions. There were still huge gaps in the knowledge of the Shoshone way of life and customs. Finally, I found Darren Parry, modern day Chairman and “Chief” of the Northwestern Shoshone Band, on Twitter

Darren was mounting a run for Congress in Utah’s first district, and was willing to meet with me. His ancestors were the victims of the Bear River Massacre, the largest US Army massacre of Native Americans in history – and which is barely mentioned in most history books. Darren had written a non-fiction book on the Bear River Massacre, and when we met, he gave me a personal tour of the massacre site – the real one, not the one marked by the National Park Service. The tribe is raising money and applying legal pressure to acquire the site. The current owner cannot farm it without encountering human remains. 

Darren said that as a boy, his grandmother made him memorize all the stories of their tribe. He had to repeat them word perfect before he was allowed to play. The stories, language, and customs were passed down through six generations, each learning them perfectly. For me, he patiently answered question after question on history, culture, dealings with other tribes, dealings with the soldiers – especially Patrick Conner and the California volunteers. I checked what he told me with Drusilla, and the few written historical sources like Sergeant Beach’s diary that provided a map of the Bear River massacre.  

Not all research can come from books – sometimes people are the books. Darren and I forged a friendship, one that reaches Across the Great Divide.

Follow Will’s journey into another culture with The Clouds of War and The Search.

This is fascinating, Mike. As board members for the HNS North America 2021 conference, Mike and I have gotten to know one another this past year. Mike’s writing routine includes getting up once or twice a week around 3am to get some work done! Congratulations on your series, Mike, and best wishes for The Search.

The Search by Michael L. Ross ~~ The guns of the Civil War have ceased firing, and the shots are but an echo… yet the war rages on deep inside Will Crump’s soul. His soldier’s heart is searching for peace, and in that quest Will joins the westward movement, setting his path on a collision course with adventure, loss and love. 

The Westward Expansion floods the sacred, untouched lands with immigrants bringing conflict to the Shoshone, Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Amidst the chaos Will finds safety in the shadow of the US Army, but the army brings battle-hardened troops into Red Cloud’s War, pulling Will into a tornado of conflict. Broken treaties and promises, leave both sides searching for answers. Will’s search leads him to a battle for survival, and there he finds a love that could change him forever. 

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest 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.

Have passport – will do research

Kathryn Brewster Haueisen combines a degree in journalism and a career as a pastor to write about “good people doing great things for our global village.” [Love that sentiment.] She’s a descendant of two of the Mayflower passengers and a grandmother to three young people with Native American heritage. When I learned that she’d written about the Mayflower journey and what happened when the English met the Pokanoket people, I just had to invite her onto the blog. Over to you, Kathryn.

~~~

Since Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures was my first attempt at writing historical fiction, I attended a few workshops to hone my skills. One presenter emphasized repeatedly how crucial it is to visit the places we write about. I was researching the background of the story before COVID-19 became a dreaded reality. I love to travel, especially to England, where the Mayflower journey began for the English culture. As I learned along the way, the Pokanoket people were the other culture.

In 2017 I visited many of the popular London tourist sites and then inserted a bit of tour guide trivia into a scene set in London. I also ventured north to the village of Scrooby, located about 50 miles south of York, along the old North Road that connected London and Edinburgh. This is where the Mayflower story had its roots. At least that is where the story started for William and Mary Brewster, two of the central figures in my retelling of the religious and political events that serve as backdrop for the famous voyage.

I am twelve generations removed from this couple. Before becoming the spiritual leader of the Pilgrims, Elder Brewster served as bailiff at Scrooby Manor. Not much of the grand old manor remains today, but in the 1500s, it was a thriving stop over for royal messengers and high-ranking officials traveling between London and Edinburgh. The Bishop of York, who owned the estate, played a role in the Mayflower story. 

There is little to see in Scrooby today, but the church where William and Mary married in 1591 is in good condition, still in use, and only a few yards across the lawn from the remnant of the manor. Walking around the church yard and village gave me a sense of what it might have been like for my ancestors to take their afternoon strolls.

I didn’t expect to ever get to Leiden, where the Brewster’s and several dozen other Separatists lived as refugees from 1608 until they sailed in 1620. They left England to escape almost certain imprisonment and perhaps execution as religious heretics. They joined other English refugees in Amsterdam for a year; then moved down the road to Leiden in 1608. However, in 2018 my husband wanted to sail on a genealogy research cruise from England to New York. I eagerly agreed, as long as we built in time to also see Cambridge and Leiden. 

William studied briefly at Peterhouse, part of Cambridge University. Though I couldn’t go inside Peterhouse where he lived and studied, I wandered around the grounds and took a tour of the Cambridge University system. What I learned on that tour helped immensely in writing about that part of William’s life.  

I fell in love with Leiden. Many details in the completed manuscript are the result of an afternoon I spent at the American Pilgrim Museum, run by renowned historian and Pilgrim expert, Dr. Jeremy Bangs. I walked the same places the Pilgrims did. I was astonished to discover a plaque over an archway of an alley named after William Brewster. The plaque states this was the site of the Brewster home and William’s printing business. He got in trouble with the authorities for publishing anti-Established Church of England documents and smuggling them back into England. Strolling around the University of Leiden, I envisioned William, and his dear friend Pastor John Robinson, walking there and perhaps discussing their plans to establish a new religious colony. 

My goal in writing this book was to include the perspective of the Natives who encountered the new English settlers wandering around the shore of Cape Cod after they arrived in November. To research that part of the story I visited Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts. The living museum recently changed its to Plimouth * Patuxet, to honor the Native name for the place we know today as Plymouth. After spending a day wandering through the museum and both the English and Wampanoag villages, I had an eye-opening interview with the head of the Native village. 

Before I signed off on the final manuscript, I told Green Writers Press Publisher Dede Cummings we needed another Native to review it. I’d already spoken with several Natives, and paid a Native sensitivity editor to review portions of the book; but no one from the Native community had actually seen the entire manuscript. 

A friend in Rhode Island put me in touch with three generations of descendants from the great Pokanoket leader – Massasoit Ousa Mequin. They corrected some of my misinformation and filled in gaps in my research. They then wrote the forward to the book. Of all the places I visited, and all the backstory I learned along the way, meeting this family remains the highlight of the entire endeavor. We are convinced our ancestors knew one another and worked together to ensure the safety and wellbeing of both cultures

Today, we, their descendants, share this same philosophy. In the forward they wrote, “We truly believe that this book has been written in good faith and in holding to the renewing a dream that our ancestors aspired to, that both our people can prosper in this land in peace and fellowship.” Aquene (Peace), Sagamore Po Wauipi Neimpaug, Sachem Po Pummukoank Anogqs, and Tribal Historian Po Menuhkesu Menenok.

That workshop presenter was right. The best way to write authentically about history is to first visit places where it happened and speak with people who live there today.  

Many thanks, Kathryn. I’m sure many readers will be fascinated with your novel.

Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures by Kathryn Brewster Haueisen ~~ For thousands of years two distinct cultures evolved unaware of one another’s existence. Separated by what one culture called the Great Sea and known to the other as the Atlantic Ocean, the course of each culture’s future changed irreversibly four hundred years ago. In 1620 the Mayflower delivered 102 refugees and fortune seekers from England to Cape Cod, where these two cultures first encountered one another.  The English sought religious freedom and fresh financial opportunities. The Natives were recovering from the Great Dying of the past several years that left over two-thirds of their people in graves. How would they react to one another? How might their experience shape modern cross-cultural encounters?

The book is available now wherever books are sold, including www.bookshop.orgwww.amazon.com, and the distributor, http://www.ipgbook.com  .

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest 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.