8 Tips from Guest Post Authors

During 2019, A Writer of History had the good fortune of securing many guest authors to discuss a range of topics related to historical fiction. Below are 8 tips that stand out for me.

Historical fiction, in its very essence, is a way of falling together in time—a story is set in the past, but it is being written from the present, so, for me, the process of writing such a story is in itself a synchronizing of different times.

Mary F. Burns, author of The Love for Three Oranges

In Keeping Historical Figures Real, Mary Sheeran discusses how to weave real historical figures into your novels. She says that:

“we can’t just report; all characters need to drive the story and have something of the writer in them.

A Surgeon’s Advice … on how to Write Books with Andrew Lam

Writers must choose topics that matter to people. Stories that center on a controversial topic, an important historical event, or a way to help others improve their lives are all more likely to succeed. If your book isn’t about something important, it won’t be important to readers. Make sure it matters.

 

Marc Graham whose novel Song of Songs is about the legendary Queen of Sheba, writes of the challenges in going far back in time.

While it’s simply not possible to recreate these tales with certain accuracy, harnessing the best available resources (archaeology, linguistics, epigraphy) and cross-referencing the myths among different cultures can help us frame our stories in a realistic world.

 

In Writing the Stories of History’s Powerful Women, Judith Cromwell tells us that:

such writing requires meticulous research.  Research resembles a mixture of jigsaw puzzle and mystery.  The writer must identify clues, track each to its source, evaluate each within the context of the subject’s life and character.  Original research brings the thrill of unearthing new information.

Donna Baier Stein, author of Scenes From the Heartland, discusses using actual images as a basis for building a story in her post Turning Images into Tales:

as a fiction writer, my desire was not to capture the truth of the actual image (the way a photographer might want to do), but to imagine a potential story behind this scene.

 

Luke Jerod Kummer is the author of The Blue Period, a novel about Pablo Picasso. He writes about examining the works of Picasso in order to gain a deep understanding of his character:

when I sought to reconstruct the look and feel of where and how a maturing Picasso lived in Barcelona and Paris, or what his households, friends or lovers were like, there were  paintings, pastels and drawings allowing intimate glimpses both of his surroundings and what was going on inside him.

 

Elizabeth Bell’s guest post The Importance of Warts brings out the theme of creating characters and stories that don’t gloss over the warts of historical events, culture and social mores. She says:

As historical novelists, we are tour guides and teachers … We do [readers] an enormous disservice if we’ve whitewashed that truth… If we don’t make our readers think, if we don’t make them at least a little uncomfortable, we’re not doing our jobs.

Important lessons. I’ll have a few more for you next time.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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 Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

A Threadbare Tapestry by Marc Graham

Marc Graham, author of Song of Songs and now Son of the Sea, Daughter of the Sun, shares the inspiration behind his latest novel. Marc was on the blog earlier this year with Legends of Sheba.

A Threadbare Tapestry – Weaving Together a Lost History by Marc Graham

9 October 1929 — Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, Turkey

Gustav Deissmann breathed deeply of musty air. For months he had picked his way through forgotten ruins of a failed empire, now a mere backwater republic among the dozens of republics that had sprouted from the ashes of the recent Great War.

“Such is the way of the world,” Deissmann muttered to himself. He flipped open his pen knife and cut through the hemp twine that bound a stack of cracked and crumbling parchments. “The mightiest lion may be brought down by a pack of dogs.”

His own native German Empire—now the emasculated Weimar Republic—had been allied with the late Ottoman Empire, a fact that made the current situation no more comfortable. Deissmann flexed stiff fingers, joints swollen by the damp air of the cellars of this sad remnant of a once-glorious palace. He began flipping through the worthless animal skins.

A pity, he mused. This city, this empire had been the heir to Rome itself. Steeped in learning and law and science when his own forebears had been illiterate pagans, sacrificing livestock and slaves and children to their rumbling thunder-gods in hope of a good harvest. If only the Byzantines had held fast to their faith. If only they had stood against the encroaching—

Gott im Himmel!

Deissmann flipped back to the parchment he’d almost summarily dismissed. The random scratchings and illegible text might have made this any common land deed, except for the ships scattered about the central portion of the chart. This was a seafarer’s map.

With trembling hands, he pulled a magnifying glass from his jacket pocket and looked more closely.

The upper right extremity of the chart depicted something resembling a smiling demon. But within its face was drawn a farmer, in its gullet a castle. Below these, across the small gulf between chin and distended belly, were drawn gardens and sultans and fortresses, ostrich and elephant.

The eastern landmass gave way to sea, and Deissmann shifted his focus to the western half of the map. A jagged coast debouched numerous rivers, its interior populated by flame-headed monsters, monkeys, tusked deer, and—unicorns? Numerous islands dotted the coastlines, but Deissmann focused on the landmasses.

Yes, that was Iberia and the Straits of Gibraltar. That, the great sweep of western Africa. Which must make this Brazil? And Panama? Might that be the Yucatan? Or Florida?

Deissmann carefully drew the parchment from the stack of moldering skins. He placed it in his leather folio and rose on trembling legs. He must show this to his comrade, Paul Kahle. While Deissmann took no small pride in his knowledge of the classical European scripts, Kahle’s knowledge of Near East Semitic scripts was unmatched. Perhaps he might make something of the numerous legends about the periphery of this map.

A cool wind swept down the stone-lined stairwell as Deissmann made his way from the cellar. He clutched the folio tight against his ribs as he climbed the ancient steps, their surfaces deeply grooved over the centuries by the countless footfalls of those who trod before him.

* * *

Or something like that.

There is little documentary evidence of the discovery of the Piri Reis map, and the above account is an extrapolation of the known facts. It was discovered by Gustav Deissmann in the newly founded museum of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. It was initially translated by Paul Kahle, who identified the author as Piri Reis, an admiral in the Ottoman fleet of the sixteenth century. And the map was dated to 1513, a mere twenty-one years after Columbus’s first voyage to the New World.

Source: Wikipedia

But here’s the rub.

Piri Reis acknowledged his map as a compilation of earlier charts ranging from before the destruction of the Library of Alexandria to a hand-drawn map by Columbus himself. However, certain portions of the Piri Reis map—particularly as relate to longitudinal (east-west) coordinates and parts of the western coastlines of the Americas and Antarctica—show greater accuracy than any map for the next three centuries.

Thread number one.

My recent novel, Son of the Sea, Daughter of the Sun, grew out of the question of where Piri Reis found the raw material from which he crafted his map. Initially, I thought I might follow the story of some unknown sailor, an assistant who—having helped his admiral in the compiling of the ancient maps—may have desired to explore those unknown coasts for himself.

The realities of sixteenth century politics soon dismissed that idea. And so I drifted farther westward and backward in time. The Venetians or Genoans would certainly have stopped such a voyage from crossing their waters. Or, if such a mission were deemed profitable, they might have exploited it for themselves. In which case, Columbus—born of Genoa—would have sailed under the flag of his birth rather than having to seek the patronage of Spain.

And so the story evolved until a suitable candidate appeared. In Visigothic Spain of the seventh century arose Iudila. Unknown but for two ancient coins, this Iudila Rex Gotorum—King Iudila of the Goths—is lost to history. He appears in no official king lists. His name is nowhere in the chronicles of the many court and church proceedings conducted throughout seventh-century Spain, to which the coins date.

And yet…

Why might this king have been excised from history? What might he have discovered and returned to Spain that so threatened the Church Regnant and the political powers of the time that his name was obliterated, save for two small coins that have somehow survived?

And is it coincidence that on the western side of Piri Reis’s map, the Central American realms of the Maya were at their cultural peak during this period? That the southernmost city-state of Xukpi—known today as the ruins of Copan in Honduras—reached its greatest development at a time when the elite of Europe thought the world flat?

Thin though they be, these are the threads that underlie Son of the Sea, Daughter of the SunOf course, few of the story events can be corroborated by conventional history, but that is the curse and the joy of the historical novelist: to weave a cohesive and unique tapestry of story from the barest scraps of the past.

How fascinating, Marc. A great combination of sleuthing, conjecture, and deduction!

Son of the Sea, Daughter of the Sun by Marc Graham ~~ A shipwrecked prince on a foreign shore and a young princess coming into her powers battle dark forces that would destroy her kingdom and their love.  Nine hundred years before Columbus, a sailor with a mystical map and a vision of a glorious destiny is shipwrecked on the far side of the world. A prince of Visigothic Spain, Iudila finds his match in Chakin, daughter of a Mayan king. Can love span the gulf between them, or will they be cast apart by their different gods—or by the dark shaman who desires Chakin for himself?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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 Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Legends of Sheba – Tracing the Elusive Queen by Marc Graham

We’re going way back in time today. Marc Graham, author of Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba, used the latest archaeological findings and linguistic research to construct an accurate depiction of the Old Testament Middle East and to revive the untold story of Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, and Bathsheba, wife and mother of Israel’s first kings. Over to you, Marc.

Legends of Sheba – Tracing the Elusive Queen by Marc Graham

Did she or didn’t she…?

This may be the foremost question relating to the Queen of Sheba. Did she or didn’t she have an affair with Israel’s King Solomon, as suggested in the Song of Solomon. Did she or didn’t she bear his son, as related in Ethiopia’s Kebra Nagast? More fundamentally, did she or didn’t she actually exist?

In researching my latest book, Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba, I faced the thrilling, yet daunting, task of chasing down the elusive queen. At first glance, the problem seemed simple: Use the most common tale (as told in the Hebrew Bible), and weave a more elaborate story around it. But no.

For starters, the Bible give us only thirteen verses to work with. Thirteen! It gives four times as much print to Jephthah and his daughter. Who? you ask. My point exactly.

Second, the queen’s name is never mentioned. Not terribly surprising for a book that lists twenty times as many men as women, and which names fewer than ten percent of those women. Add to this the fact that we don’t actually know where ancient Sheba was located. While the most generally accepted theory equates the legendary kingdom with Saba in ancient Yemen, the queen is claimed by various peoples ranging from Nigeria to Java, spanning nearly a quarter of the globe.

So where does the intrepid writer/researcher begin?

Fortunately, there exists a fairly rich body of legend in ancient Arabic and Ethiopian sources. These lands, as it turns out, are precisely in the area to be expected from the Saba-equals-Yemen school of thought. While the tales range from fantastical (Arabian djinns and flying carpets) to the anachronistic (adherence to one god long before the advent of monotheism), they do provide a rich source of story material. There was still, however, the matter of a name.

The Quran and associated Arabic tales give us the queen as Bilkis or Balqis, while in the Ethiopian legends she is Makeda. Choices, choices.

And, frankly, that’s what it comes down to. The author simply has to make a choice, to decide what shape the story wants to take, and then leaven it with elements from the legends. Which is where the fun begins.

I can hear the wails of protests from the historical purists. You must stay true to the source material! You can’t simply innovate. To which I calmly reply, That didn’t stop those initial writers.

The Biblical stories of David and Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were not written and canonized until some five hundred years after the events they purport to record. The Arabic and Ethiopian legends are removed by another millennium or two. Archaeology reveals that the Levant around the turn of the first millennium BCE was universally polytheistic, yet the sanctioned version of the story has the fabled kings calling upon the One True God. What goes on here?

As with most history (the purview of the victors), the Queen of Sheba legend serves a definite political agenda. The actual writing of the Bible came about in the years surrounding the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish aristocracy. Convinced by the priests of Yahweh that the disastrous turn of events was due to the people’s infidelity to their god, most of the Hebrew/Canaanite pantheon was destroyed and their history cleansed with the bloody hyssop.

So do we have any reliable means of recreating these tales? I believe so.

Archaeologists are making some extraordinary finds around Jerusalem and throughout the Levant. These give us a keen insight to ordinary life in the time around 1000 BCE. Between these finds and the official version of things, we can understand the distortion wrought by the lens of the patriarchal, monotheist agenda and reverse-engineer a likely (if not entirely accurate) version of how things might actually have been.

As with our ancient myths and legends, today’s stories give us an opportunity to explore what it means to be human, to look deep into our collective unconscious and find what lurks in the darkness. While it’s simply not possible to recreate these tales with certain accuracy, harnessing the best available resources (archaeology, linguistics, epigraphy) and cross-referencing the myths among different cultures can help us frame our stories in a realistic world.

Does the Queen of Sheba legend hold any meaning for us today? Of course. As with all great legends that stand the test of time, she has many stories to share, and the value of her lessons hold true even three thousand years later.

Marc Graham is pledging half of the proceeds from his latest book Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba to Yemen humanitarian relief in partnership with the Zakat Foundation of America , who will match his donation.

Many thanks for being here today, Marc. The furthest back I’ve gone is 1870 Paris. I can’t even imagine how challenging your research process has been.

Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba by Marc Graham

When Makeda, the slave-born daughter of the chieftain of Saba, comes of age, she wins her freedom and inherits her father’s titles along with a crumbling earthwork dam that threatens her people’s survival. When she learns of a great stone temple being built in a land far to the north, Makeda leads a caravan to the capital of Yisrael to learn how to build a permanent dam and secure her people’s prosperity.

On her arrival, Makeda discovers that her half-sister Bilkis (also known as Bathsheba) who was thought to have died in a long-ago flash flood, not only survived, but has become Queen of Yisrael. Not content with her own wealth, Bilkis intends to claim the riches of Saba for herself by forcing Makeda to marry her son. But Bilkis’s designs are threatened by the growing attraction between Makeda and Yetzer abi-Huram, master builder of Urusalim’s famed temple. Will Bilkis’s plan succeed or will Makeda and Yetzer outsmart her and find happiness far from her plots and intrigue?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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 Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.