Unearthing a Lost World in Island of Gold

Friend and fellow author Amy Maroney’s newest novel, Island of Gold, has just released. It’s set in the 15th century featuring the Greek island of Rhodes, the Knights Hospitaller, and a story of love, danger, and ambition. Amy studied English Literature at Boston University and worked for many years as a writer and editor of nonfiction.

Readers and authors will be fascinated by Amy’s insights into the techniques and research required to create such a long ago time and place.

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Island of Gold, the first book in my Sea and Stone Chronicles series, was inspired by a visit to the Greek island of Rhodes back in 2012. With my husband and two daughters, I got to know the island and its people over a period of three weeks. 

In the port community of Rhodes Town, we wandered past fragments of ancient temples half-buried in the soil, then strolled along medieval stone ramparts built by the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St. John. Gazing out at the sparkling waters of the harbor, I imagined the fabled Colossus of Rhodes straddling the seawalls. Had the statue truly existed? Did merchant galleys and warships glide beneath it, their crews staring up at the giant bronze man with awe and fear in their eyes?

History Architecture Greece Castle Fortress Rhodes

Later, exploring the rebuilt palace of the Order of St. John, we saw dusty granite slabs emblazoned with the coats-of-arms of long-dead knights. I wondered about the origins and fates of those men. What had life on the island been like under the rule of the knights? How had local Greeks fared? Who had thrived in the shadow of the knights—and who had suffered? My curiosity only grew as the years wore on. Rhodes had cast a spell on me, and by 2020 I knew it would star in my next historical fiction series.

MINING THE HISTORICAL RECORD. For Island of Gold, I needed to ground my tale in two settings: France and the Greek islands ruled by the Knights Hospitaller. I had a head-start for the French research—my first historical trilogy was set in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century France and Spain. Fifteenth-century Greece, however, presented a new challenge.

UNDERSTANDING THE MEDIEVAL MEDITERRANEAN: In 2020, I started to dig into the historical record, relying heavily on Academia.edu, Interlibrary Loan, and the kindness of researchers all over the world.

To understand the maritime economy of the Mediterranean during that era, I studied The Book of Michael of Rhodes, an illustrated journal of sorts written by a Rhodian-born seaman who made a living working on various Venetian ships in the early 1400s. Michael’s book is a treasure trove of information about sailing, navigation, merchant ships, the Venetian influence in the Mediterranean, and more. 

UNLOCKING THE SECRETS OF THE KNIGHTS HOSPITALLER: To gain insight into the Order of St. John, I relied on several key books about the Knights Hospitaller, especially The Knights Hospitaller by Helen Nicholson and The Knights of Rhodesby Elias Kollias. I learned the knights were few in number—about three hundred of them lived in Rhodes Town during the mid-fifteenth century, when Island of Gold takes place—but they were supplemented by thousands of mercenary soldiers and bolstered by their powerful naval fleet. Their primary goal was to defend Christendom from Muslim forces in the East, both the Ottoman Turks and the Mamluks who ruled Egypt. 

Academic papers by researchers who specialize in the history of Cyprus proved especially illuminating (the knights were also power players in Cyprus at the time). I followed clues in footnotes to historical tidbits that became excellent fodder for plot twists.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: As I dove into history, I began imagining the people who inhabited this distant world. The only real-life character who figures large in Island of Gold is Jacques de Milly, the organization’s grand master from 1455-1461. Fictitious characters roamed my mind, demanding attention. I could not shake the image of a tumultuous relationship between a French falconer and the daughter of a wealthy French fabric merchant. What would happen, I asked myself, if they somehow ended up in Rhodes living in the shadow of the knights?

To create my hero Cédric de Montavon, I read The Hound and The Hawk by John Cummins and H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. I discovered six-hundred-year-old manuscripts in the digital archives of France and other European countries that helped me visualize Cédric’s surroundings and influences.

One, a treatise on falconry written by a Frenchman, relies heavily on the advice of Rhodian Agapitos Kassianos, a Greek falconer who became pivotal to Cédric’s story.

Three other manuscripts contain exquisite painted illustrations and woodcut drawings of medieval Rhodes. Finding any images of that time and place is extraordinarily difficult, so I studied these precious visual aids constantly while writing Island of Gold.

To create my heroine Sophie Portier, I started with research I had already done for my first series. Next, A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman gave me essential background about the fourteenth century and how the plague and other major events set the European stage for the fifteenth century. Two books about medieval life helped me create realistic domestic scenes and deepen Sophie’s character: Living and Dining in Medieval Paris by Nicole Crossley-Hollard and A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life by Margaret Wade Labarge. 

Then I turned once again to academic papers and the breadcrumbs in their footnotes to find evidence of women in medieval Rhodes and Cyprus who owned property, bought and sold goods, left wills, were enslaved, or were freed after periods of enslavement. The historical record from this period has scant information about women, so each of these discoveries was hard-won. I also unearthed small but critical details about the cost and origin of silks and camlet fabrics, about the currencies in use at the time, about the way fabrics were measured, and more.

WORLD-BUILDING: Of course, I had lovely memories to draw upon from my time in Rhodes, but that was a decade ago. I found bits and pieces of memoirs by medieval pilgrims and other travelers who had spent time in Rhodes en route to Jerusalem. A footnote led me to Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes by Lawrence Durrell. Written in the period immediately following World War II, the book is rich with history, descriptions of flora and fauna, and cultural observations. I also studied data about plant and animal species endemic to Rhodes, and learned as much as I could about weather, wind, and other natural influences on the island.

Rhodes Cove and Ruins – Unsplash

As Anthony Doerr wrote in his memoir Four Seasons in Rome, “Not-knowing is where hope and art and possibility and invention come from.” That’s what fuels my research—the tantalizing promise of all the astonishing things I haven’t yet unearthed. The questions I pondered a decade ago in Rhodes launched me on this particular journey, but it’s far from over. Inevitably, the more I learn, the more I want to know. 

Many thanks, Amy. You’ve provided excellent suggestions for other authors as well as a rich and rewarding look at the research involved in historical fiction for those who love reading this genre. I wish you every success with Island of Gold. PS: love the quote from Anthony Doerr.

Island of Gold by Amy Maroney ~~ When Cédric is recruited by the Knights Hospitaller to the Greek island of Rhodes, his wife Sophie jumps at the chance to improve their fortunes. After a harrowing journey to Rhodes, Cédric plunges into the world of the knights—while Sophie is tempted by the endless riches that flow into the bustling harbor. But their dazzling new home has a dark side. 

Slaves toil endlessly to fortify the city walls, and rumors of a coming attack by the Ottoman Turks swirl in the streets. Desperate to gain favor with the knights and secure his position, Cédric navigates a treacherous world of shadowy alliances. Meanwhile, Sophie secretly engineers a bold plan to keep their children safe. As the trust between them frays, enemies close in—and when disaster strikes the island, the dangers of their new world become terrifyingly real. 

You can reach Amy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on her website.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, 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.

Encounters Unforeseen: 1492 Retold

Andrew Rowen practiced law for almost 30 years prior to retiring to write his first novel, Encounters Unforeseen: 1492 Retold. He has long been interested in the roots of religious intolerance and devoted six years to research and travel to nearly all the Caribbean, European and Atlantic locations where the book’s action takes place, including the archaeological sites where the Taíno chieftains lived in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Here’s the story of bringing this novel to life.

Encounters Unforeseen: 1492 Retold dramatizes the history leading to 1492’s momentous encounters from a bicultural perspective, sharing fictionalized life stories, actions, and beliefs of three historic Taíno Indian chieftains and a captive who knew Columbus alongside those of Columbus and Spain’s Queen Isabella.

The book presents the history through the protagonists’ eyes and intimate relationships, all based closely on primary sources, anthropological studies of the Taínos, and my investigations of the locations where the action took place. Readers often ask why I wrote the book as a historical novel, rather than a history, and the purpose of the on-site investigations.

I wanted to present the Taíno and European protagonists and their beliefs with commensurate stature and gravitas, thereby avoiding the Eurocentric focus of most accounts of 1492, including those that are anti-Columbus. The Taínos had no written history, and I felt there wasn’t enough historical information regarding them to permit writing a history with that balance; the speculative, reasoned fictionalization of a historical novel was necessary to achieve it.

But I also sought historical validity—to present each protagonist’s actions and thoughts consistent with my researched interpretation of the historical record to the extent one exists and, to the extent one did not (as I speculated likely could have occurred) without inventing overarching literary story plots. I believe well-researched historical novels cannot only educate readers on historical topics, but it can also communicate the essence of what historical protagonists experienced and thought, so long as the reader understands that the work reflects the author’s interpretation alone, rather than an analysis of possible interpretations. I included a sources section in the book citing the works I relied on and explaining contrary interpretations.

I’m now writing the sequel—with the same protagonists, in the same manner—to depict the Taíno chieftains’ resistance and subjugation when Columbus returned on his second voyage (1493–1498).

When I plotted Encounters Unforeseen, I typically placed the protagonists at the most important or revealing historical events, and on-site investigations were central to both the dramatization of events and the completeness of my historical research. The depictions of Isabella’s anointment as queen and Columbus’s recruitment of captains and crews (in Spain), the Taíno captive’s seizure to serve as Columbus’s interpreter (in the Bahamas), and Chief Guacanagarí’s rescue when the Santa María sank (off Haiti), all reflect understanding, detail and ambience learned visiting the historic site.

Even scenes that are largely fictional, such as the eight-year-old vignettes, incorporate my personal time spent at the sites described to help readers develop an appreciation of those sites—I hiked to a pond on the Turks & Caicos to visualize the future chief Caonabó’s duck hunting initiation, and I walked a route from Columbus’s parents’ home to port in Genoa to reconstruct what he would have passed in March 1460. Overall, I traveled extensively in the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, and the sequel has or will take me back to some of these countries and to Cuba and the Lesser Antilles.

After five centuries, many historical sites obviously can’t be visited—modern towns or buildings have superseded them, or they lie within private property. Condos now rise from the location of one of Isabella’s childhood castles. The villages of the Taíno chieftains are long gone, although archaeological digs approximate Chief Guarionex’s. Sometimes local people are unaware that a protagonist (frequently, Columbus) once visited, and, while a structure remains, nothing of the history has been preserved or commemorated.

The collections of our museums are substantial (particularly the National Museum of the American Indian’s collection), but my historical research could not have been complete without visiting the museums in the Caribbean, Italy, Portugal, and Spain with exhibits relating to the Taínos, Columbus, the encounters themselves, and/or the Spanish crown’s regulation of its colonization of the Americas. The Taíno exhibits of the Dominican Republic’s Museo del Hombre Dominicano in Santo Domingo were particularly helpful.

Traveling in the Caribbean also was essential for meeting Caribbean-based academics and local people of Taíno origin, supplementing conversations with academics and Taínos resident in the United States. My understandings of 15th century beliefs, religions, and prophecies have been significantly influenced by the guidance and insights of dozens of people I’ve met throughout the region. I try to be careful separating modern culture from that of the 15th century. You can hire caciques (chiefs) to conduct a Taíno wedding today, but I stuck to 16th century primary source descriptions of Taíno weddings to dramatize Anacaona’s marriage to Caonabó.

Last but not least, many historical sites I’ve visited triggered inspiration of what to dramatize and even the literary mechanism for doing so. The Hall of Kings in Segovia’s alcazar—where Isabella was held against her will when a teenager—displays the busts of Castile’s prior kings, and very few queens, and served as a prompt and vehicle for explaining her dynastic struggle to achieve the throne in a male-dominated society. The tiny harbor on Gomera (one of the Canary Islands, Spain)—where the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María departed west across the ocean—sits remote in the Atlantic and reminded (better than any historical account) of the courage and expertise it took to sail west. The beach at Bord de Mer de Limonade, Haiti—where Columbus began to deceive Guacanagarí that he intended an alliance rather than subjugation—lies unknown and forgotten to most, its tranquil beauty utterly belying the betrayal accomplished there and urging me to explain it. The majesty of Caonabó’s great ball court (the Taínos had a ball game) lies preserved in San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic, and inspired the balance of stature and gravitas I have sought.

I occasionally post photos of sites visited on my website and Facebook page. You can find them at www.andrewrowen.com.

Many thanks for sharing your experience of writing historical fiction, Andrew. Bringing such long ago events to life is a unique challenge. I wish you much success.

Encounters Unforeseen: 1492 Retold by Andrew Rowen ~~ After 525 years, the traditional literature recounting the history of Columbus’s epic voyage and first encounters with Native Americans remains Eurocentric, focused principally—whether pro- or anti-Columbus—on Columbus and the European perspective. A historical novel, Encounters Unforeseen: 1492 Retold now dramatizes these events from a bicultural perspective, fictionalizing the beliefs, thoughts, and actions of the Native Americans who met Columbus side by side with those of Columbus and other Europeans, all based on a close reading of Columbus’s Journal, other primary sources, and anthropological studies.

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