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.

6 More Tips on Writing Historical Fiction

Tuesday’s post highlighted 8 tips based on guest posts during the past twelve months. Today, I offer six more.

Blythe Gifford author of The Witch Finder starts every one of her novels with a map. In Creating a Sense of Place Blythe says:

Setting can, literally, symbolize your character’s situation and your character’s reaction to setting propels your story.

 

In History as a Mirror of our Present, Alice Poon, author of The Green Phoenix, writes that:

the modern world is still governed by forces as ancient as the hills: power vs. weakness, love vs. hatred, truth vs. lies, life vs. death. Thus, the stories of our past, be it recent or distant, tend to closely mirror our present-day situation.

 

In The People of our Past, George Dovel, author of The Geometry of Vengeance writes:

Not only has the path from then to now been continuous, but the way we define ourselves is largely in reaction to the generations that came before us. We may have rejected many of their beliefs and behaviors, but we reject in opposition to them and in so doing are defined in large measure by them. We are not painting on a blank canvas. As Booker winner Barry Unsworth put it, the past “belongs to us because it made us what we are.”

 

In Truth in Historical Story Telling, Tara Cowan reminds us that:

We’re missing a great opportunity if we gloss over moral dilemmas because we’re afraid to tell it like it was.  What better opportunity to show that women are equal than to tell the truth of what happens when they are not treated equally under the law?  What better way to highlight the injustice of what the enslaved faced than to be honest about how people felt about them? … We wrestle with the moral questions of our day, and so should our characters.

 

Harald Johnson explains how he researched Neanderthal times for his latest novel:

there are entire fields of scientific investigation—anthropology, paleoanthropology, archeology, evolutionary genetics—devoted to my subject. So that’s where I went. To read the research studies, papers, and articles that these scientists have presented since the first Neanderthal fossil was discovered in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856.

 

Melissa Addey, author of The Consort, provides an interesting perspective in Approaching Research as a Child:

This recent research teamwork has reminded me once again of the importance of approaching your historical research as a child, especially in the early stages. This means getting your hands dirty and staying focused on daily life.

 

And there you have it. A year of terrific guest posts and great insights on historical fiction.

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.

Approaching research as a child

Melissa Addey is a PhD student in creative writing – way to go, Melissa! In her spare time (although with two children, spare time is no doubt a challenge) she has written a series about 18th century China in the Forbidden City and another set in Morocco in the 11th century. Today, she shares an intriguing perspective on beginning historical fiction research as a child.

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Approaching research as a child by Melissa Addey

When I teach workshops on writing historical fiction, I naturally talk about the research to be done, but when I pull out the first few books that I recommend I can see the audience stiffen a little, believing me to be patronising at best, at worst not taking the research seriously. This is because in my own research I always start, where possible, with children’s books: the likes of Usborne and Dorling Kindersley being particular favourites. Because I tend to begin research in a new era with very little knowledge at all, I find that these books are perfect for giving me a quick overview and grasp on key dates and events. But more importantly, children’s books tend to focus very much on daily life, and when writing historical fiction, you can find out all you like about great events of the day but unless you also know how your characters wash, dress, cook and eat, go to the toilet, get married, what class they belong to, where they live and so on, your story is going to stutter to a stop pretty quickly.

Having completed two series of historical fiction, one set in 11th century Morocco focused on the army that defeated El Cid, the other set in the Forbidden City in 18th century China, I am now about to embark on a series set in Ancient Rome. And this research period happily coincided with my eight-year-old son, in Year Three at school, also studying the Romans. We became a research team.

Because primary schools often include a lot of hands-on activities for their topics, he brought home a delightful little model of a chariot, while I found myself involved in potato-printing a toga’s trim for dress up day, making little honey cakes for the class ‘feast’, decorating a shield, colouring in mosaic designs and explaining that the Colosseum once had many statues decorating it. My son cheerily portrayed this as over sixty tiny stick figures, painstakingly added to his model of the amphitheatre, earning him a coveted opportunity to show his work in assembly.

Meanwhile, he benefitted from hanging out with an author in full-on research mode. He came on a research trip to Italy where he played ‘gladiators and exotic beasts’ with his sister in the amphitheatre of Ostia (a beautiful deserted Roman town similar to Pompeii, near Rome, but far less full of tourists), walked on real mosaics at the ruins of the Trajan Baths and was given a gold laurel wreath for playing a kind of Gladiator Top Trumps on the kids’ tour of the Colosseum I booked. We bought a replica oil lamp, drew the curtains and turned off the living room lights to see what we could see (answer: not much). I took him to see a re-enactment event where he and his sister could ride in a full-size replica of a chariot (pulled by their dad). At Easter we will be going to Pompeii, although he is genuinely concerned about Vesuvius erupting just in time to coincide with our visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He has been helpful in the past as well. I told him off for teetering precariously near a lake edge when we visited Beijing on a past research trip, only to realise that my protagonist, a boy emperor, grew up by this very lake and no doubt gave his own mother cause for concern while balancing on the rocky ledges looking for frogs and dragonflies. The whole family dressed up in imperial clothing for a cheesy photoshoot during which the photographer reminded me that we should absolutely not smile for such a portrait, a stern demeanour being more appropriate to ancestral portraits.

This recent research teamwork has reminded me once again of the importance of approaching your historical research as a child, especially in the early stages. This means getting your hands dirty and staying focused on daily life. It means getting as close to the real thing as you can through trips to the locations, finding ways to re-enact the past through all your senses: food for smells and taste, clothes, sounds (I have not yet taken to replica Roman music!) and physical sensations. I have sat in a few saunas over the past months, but I must find someone to scrape oil off me with a strigil. To me, however serious and in-depth your research ends up being, there is also a need to play in the past as you go along. I have just finished a PhD in Creative Writing, where I suggested that we look at historical fiction as a ‘playframe’: the past providing us with a frame while the author plays (light-heartedly or seriously) within it, bringing their own unique vision of the past to create something new, a hybrid term for a hybrid genre.

And who better to play alongside than a child?

Many thanks, Melissa. I’ve never thought of children’s books as a way to kickstart my research.

Melissa was Writer in Residence at the British Library. She won the 2019 Novel London award for her book set in 18th century China, The Cold Palace. If you’d like to try her writing for free, you can pick up The Consorts on Amazon (http://getbook.at/TheConsorts) or sign up on her website to receive The Cup (www.melissaaddey.com). Each novella kickstarts a series.

The Consorts by Melissa Addey ~~ 18th century China. Lady Qing has spent the past seven years languishing inside the high red walls of the Forbidden City. Classed as an Honoured Lady, a lowly ranked concubine, Qing is neglected by the Emperor, passed over for more ambitious women. But when a new concubine, Lady Ying, arrives, Qing’s world is turned upside down. As the highest position at court becomes available and every woman fights for status, Qing finds love for the first time in her life… if Lady Ula Nara, the most ambitious woman at court, will allow her a taste of happiness.

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.