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.

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.

Spotlight on Author Margaret George

During the recent – June 21-27 – Historical Novel Society North America conference, one of the authors spotlighted in the program was Margaret George. Margaret is a well-known and highly regarded author and I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know her over the years. Her novels can be classified as fictional biographies and she’s tackled famous people like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Emperor Nero, and Mary Magdalene. So, she knows a thing or two about historical fiction.

On Trends

  • The popularity of dual timelines as a window into the past that is still anchored in the present.
  • Margaret feels that WWII fiction will be around for a long time, especially given the relative recency of the time period which means that many readers know of parents or grandparents involved in the war.
  • Westerns may make a comeback with fresh insights into the settling of America, which American readers consider ‘our story’.
  • Medieval stories are in hiatus right now.

On Writing Male Characters

  • Margaret’s two novels featuring Emperor Nero are an example of male protagonists. But in general readers look for female characters (not surprising since a huge percentage of novels are purchased by women.)
  • At a presentation put on during the conference by the publisher Berkley, no novels about men were mentioned in their spotlight session.

On Writing Historical Fiction

  • With non-fiction an author has to give all the facts. With fiction an author can make choices as long as she/he is consistent.
  • Historical fiction authors have an obligation to be true to a certain point to the person and his/her voice.

On Shifts Since the 1980s

  • Books were ‘big’ in the 1980s.
  • The rise of historical romance gave historical fiction a bad name.
  • There is now so much cross-pollination between historical fiction and other genres like mystery and thriller, instead of the “more straightforward historical novels’ of Jean Plaidy and others.
  • Many versions of historical fiction now compared with the past.

How Does Margaret Choose her Subjects?

  • For Margaret, it’s not the time period, it’s the person.
  • She looks for people with “operatic lives” and “tragic deaths”. Choosing these people for her fiction allows her to live their lives vicariously. While she writes, she feels like she is that person.

The conference was an amazing experience – I was on the board and hence very directly involved. I’ll be posting more about it over the next while.

Margaret was on the blog about a year ago talking about her career. You can read that post here.

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.

1000 Posts – and a new novel!

I think it’s fitting that my 1000th post on A Writer of History is on pub day for Paris In Ruins, so I can celebrate both accomplishments at the same time. Had you asked me in 2012 what I imagined for the blog, I would have told you that I hoped to attract readers for my novels by talking about historical fiction. And I did attract readers – the current count is 1435 – and it’s both a joy and a blessing to be able to write for you.

Many of you are writers and I appreciate the time you take to comment on your experiences and to add your perspective to whatever topic is at hand. All of you are readers with a keen interest in historical fiction.

A Writer of History has even won some awards! Topics have varied over the years, and on many occasions, I have worried about how to keep things fresh.

Throughout it all, you’ve joined me on the journey with likes and comments and guest posts and shares. So here’s celebrating A Writer of History and the many friends I’ve made along the way.

And while we’re on the topic of celebrating, here’s to the birth of Paris In Ruins. May this new novel touch the hearts of readers far and wide.

Paris 1870. Raised for a life of parties and servants, Camille and Mariele have much in common, but it takes the horrors of war to bring them together to fight for the city and people they love.

Deeply moving and suspenseful ~~ Margaret George, author of Splendor Before the Dark: A Novel of the Emperor Nero

Tod is not only a good historian, but also an accomplished writer … a gripping, well-limned picture of a time and a place that provide universal lessons ~~ Kirkus Reviews.

A few weeks after the abdication of Napoleon III, the Prussian army lays siege to Paris. Camille Noisette, the daughter of a wealthy family, volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers and agrees to spy on a group of radicals plotting to overthrow the French government. Her future sister-in-law, Mariele de Crécy, is appalled by the gaps between rich and poor. She volunteers to look after destitute children whose families can barely afford to eat.

Somehow, Camille and Mariele must find the courage and strength to endure months of devastating siege, bloody civil war, and great personal risk. Through it all, an unexpected friendship grows between the two women, as they face the destruction of Paris and discover that in war women have as much to fight for as men.

War has a way of teaching lessons—if only Camille and Mariele can survive long enough to learn them.

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 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.