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.

~~~

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.

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 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.

World Building – a look at geography

I found an interesting article on world building at Well-Storied, which is run by Kristen Kieffer, a fantasy fiction writer. Keiffer breaks world building into geography, cultures, social classes, history, technology, and because it’s for fantasy writers, magic. Today, I’m looking at geography.

If you’re like me, geography is something you last actively considered in high school. It was never one of my favourite subjects and I had trouble fitting the pieces together into a meaningful whole. However, writing historical fiction demands that I bring geography into my novels as part of transporting readers in time and place – in other words, as part of building that historical world.

In essence, geography is the details of the physical world of your story – landscape, terrain, weather, borders, significant landmarks such as rivers, forests, mountains and plateaus, the natural resources that support the population, the sources of water available, and the climate.

According to National Geographic, “geography is the study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.” It’s an examination of “how human culture interacts with the natural environment, and the way that locations and places can have an impact on people.” The people, culture, politics, settlements, plants, landforms, and other aspects of an historical world are influenced by its geography.

Source Wikipedia – 1870 Map of Paris by Eugene Deschamps

What is Paris without the serpentine sweep of the Seine and its ultimate link with the sea? What is Scotland without its rugged mountains to the north and its lowlands to the south? What is South Carolina without its shoreline of beaches and its marsh-like sea islands? What is India without its monsoons and the staggering diversity of its landscape?

The Seine plays a role in my soon-to-be-published novel Paris in Ruins as do the bridges that cross it, the children who fished along its banks, and the boats that traveled along it bringing wounded soldiers back from the battlefield. Montmartre, a hill in the northern part of Paris that was once home to a small village outside the city’s walls is also featured. Camille Noisette, one of two main characters, walks that hill to spy on a radical group calling for the overthrow of the government. It’s a long climb that culminates in cobbled streets and narrow alleyways that twist and turn to accommodate the hill’s incline.

Climate is another part of geography. Is your world temperate or seasonal? Are the winters mild or long and dark? Is the sun bright and hot at midday? Does little grow in the rock-strewn land or is there an abundance of farmland to nourish people and animals alike? Do Horse Chestnut trees flower in April or does jasmine scent the air from late spring to summer?

The places where our ancestors settled and the way they lived were strongly influenced by the elements of geography. When geography is brought subtly into an historical novel, readers will be more deeply transported to another time and place.

More on world building in another post.

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.

World Building – another of the 7 elements

Having looked at setting and character, I thought it would be useful to consider world building as it relates to historical fiction.

If you’ve read or watched Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll have an inherent understanding of world building.

I would argue that within historical fiction, we’re always building worlds for our readers in order to take them into another time and place – not a fantasy world, but a real world that existed at some earlier point in time.

Let’s begin with a rough definition. I’ve borrowed these questions and examples from self publishing.com – they’re straightforward and will give us a guide for subsequent posts.

What does the world look like? Include things like landscape, weather, terrain, city structures (if there are cities), density, borders, natural resources, rivers, mountains and the like.

Who are the inhabitants? Population, class structure, neighbouring peoples, alliances, origins, dominant tribes, language.

What is the history behind the time of this story? Relevant rulers of the past and present, key events leading up to the story, government structure, historical events of religious or political significance, major environmental disasters, important wars of the past.

What are the rules of this society? Political structure, people of power or influence, rules and norms governing society and individual behaviour, punishments for violating rules, prevailing attitudes towards rules, the role of the military.

What are the religious and social customs? Religious belief system, gods, places of worship, sacred entities and symbols, rituals and customs, religious festivals. Holidays, the world of work, customs, norms of behaviour, gender roles, family structure and significance, ceremonies, marriage customs, morality and immorality, secret societies.

World building for more recent times such as WWII may require less work than for the middle ages or ancient Rome. However, we could argue that a story involving war still requires the author to build a military world for readers.

I’ll explore these questions in more depth and may add a few more critical questions as we go along. Would love to hear your thoughts on the topic as we go along.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS 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.