Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Ways and Means

I made a discovery a few years ago that has informed my work as a writer ever since. Whenever I try and write slowly, I fail. If I spend longer than a month or so on a single book – in terms of writing the draft – it all falls apart; I begin to second-guess myself, and that's fatal. Now this applies from when I actually start work on the book itself, not the preparation time. Sometimes I'll spend months or years thinking and making notes about a project, perhaps even take a punt at writing it before realizing that it isn't quite ready yet.

That's the key. Any project can be divided into three – and it's very much like a movie, really. Pre-production is usually by far the longest phase, and really has no defined structure for me. I'll have the 'one idea' that kicks things off, then, along with several other projects, do a bit of reading, do a bit of thinking, jot down the occasional series of notes, working at a fairly slow pace at this stage. Then comes the next phase – which is actually writing the book. I've been attempting to maintain a pace of one book released every month for the last few years, and I've come surprisingly close to accomplishing it; my current average is a little over nine a year, up to about one every forty days at present. Though I'm always working to accelerate my output – twenty-eight days remains the ultimate goal, thirteen books a year. (I won't make it – quite – in 2017, but I hope to manage it in 2018.)

In any case, the production phase begins when I decide that it is time to, well, write a book. In my hat as a Science-Fiction writer, I currently have two series in progress, and I like to alternate between the two. It keeps me flexible, and it's usually a good idea to keep releases a reasonable space apart to avoid reader- and writer burnout. Moving to another genre has been high on my list for a while – and I'm very excited to be making the leap with Dragon of Outremer. Donning my 'business hat' for a moment, I almost always work in series, rather than writing stand-alone books; readers like to see the continuing adventures of characters they come to know, and it also allows you to re-use a lot of the 'grunt' work for new books – background notes, characters and so on. Aside from the fun of working in character and story arcs from one book to the next, which is always interesting.

Normally, I'll have a lot of potential plot lines churning around when I work on a novel, and it's often a struggle to choose one of them to work with. Often, I'll end up smashing two or even three of them together to make a richer storyline – it's all about adding the texture to a plot. (How do you write a good book? Easy. You just need a good plot, good characters, good setting. Those, you ask? Well, that's the hard part.) Once I've done that, well, it's head-down and drive through it. The thinking time come before I sit down to write – after that, it's a question of getting it onto the page. I usually aim for ten to twelve days to complete the draft; though I've managed it in eight in the past. (Little secret – a lot of authors will work the same way, no matter what they say, especially if it is their living. That was true in the 1930s when legends such as Erle Stanley Gardner and Raymond Chandler were working – or Harold Lamb, for that matter – and it's just as true today.)

After that, editing – post-production. While technically a part of this, I'll usually have the cover commissioned before I start the draft, or once I'm certain that it is 'sticking'. The bulk of the post-production work involves me going over the work a few times, making corrections and changing anything from a single word to a paragraph to a chapter. (The best piece of advice I ever had when I was starting out was to write your first draft as though it was your last – making changes and edits as you go. It saves a lot of time later on – my 'second draft' is always piecemeal, rather than a complete rewrite as a result. Oh, another piece – edit your first chapter right at the start. You always see it when you start work for the day, and if it's already polished, it makes you feel better.)

For the purposes of historical fiction, the pre-production phase will be considerably more involved, and structured, than has been the case with my other work. Not that research hasn't always been involved with the science-fiction, but in this genre, it's a darn sight more critical. Which means some sort of structure will be required to determine what I need to know. I already have the shape of the story in my head – which is the hard part – and I've already decided to use a period where many interesting events were happening in a general scale, without necessarily relying heavily on specific events for the plot. Will I do the Fall of Edessa? Probably, but not in the first book or two, certainly. For the present, I need a more general overview, with some specifics that I can't mention here because they would be pretty huge spoilers.

Essentially, the first step is the skeletal structure of the plot; that will tell me what I need to know. Locations, dates, historical characters, that sort of thing. Once I've put what will probably at this stage amount to a page or two of notes, I can start fleshing them out into something stronger, taking the next few weeks to adding material from my research – anything from the tastes and smells of a location, to specific dates and times, even notes of what is happening elsewhere – any material to provide me with additional data. The goal is to have a 'cheat sheet' of perhaps a page per chapter, something I can quickly glance at while writing, as well as more notes to consult. (The 'cheat sheet', I must say, can be a great ally of a writer. Often you don't want to spend an hour going through your notes, when you can usually sum up most of what you need on a single piece of paper.)

So – now, the fun begins...

Sunday, 9 July 2017

When, Where and How...

There are periods during the time of the Crusades that, in my experience, writers seem to gravitate towards. The time of Saladin is perhaps the most prominent, understandably, I suppose, given the wealth of characters involved – Saladin himself, Richard the Lionheart, Conrad of Montferrat, Philip Augustus, Guy of Lusignan, the list is almost endless, a vast sandbox with which to play – with the fall of Jerusalem as the major event. The later fall of Acre and the end of the Crusader Kingdoms is also popular, as is the First Crusade, the event that established it.

I knew from the outset that I wanted the road less travelled, and it didn't take me long to find the period I was most interested in, a historical nexus where a lot of major events took place, events that almost naturally inspire stories and tales, and yet little used in fiction. I speak of the fall of the County of Edessa, the reason for the disastrous Second Crusade, and the time of the early 1140s. This was the first major defeat faced by Outremer, and in many ways, rendered the later fall of Jerusalem inevitable. The war leader involved, the fearsome Zengi, is every bit Saladin's equal as an exciting character in my humble opinion, and Joscelin II a worthy foil. Edessa itself is a fascinating area, a true melting pot of cultures, and the beginning of a trade route spanning thousands of miles. Sites dating back four thousand years litter the landscape, one that of course is still the focus of major fighting today.

Further afield, there are plenty of other fascinating events taking place. The Anarchy is at its height in England, and the chaotic battles waging across the land certainly provide plenty of scope for an origin story, as nobles great and petty struggle for power and position in an ever-changing landscape. In the Mediterranean, the reign of Roger II reaches its height in Sicily, with the conquest of Norman Africa (yes – Sicily controlled bits of Africa for some time, and that's something that has been of interest to me – sufficient that I intend to find some way of working it into the narrative in what I currently conceive as a six-book saga.) In Jerusalem, Fulk V's rule is coming to an end at the same time – the early 1140s were an extremely exciting period.

It seems logical enough to me that if I'm going to do this, I should take the opportunity to explore as many of my fields of interest as I can; while Runciman attracted me to the Crusades, Norwich attracted me to Norman Sicily, and given the interactions between the two regions, utilizing them both in the narrative I have in mind (and which, I say again, I will not spoil here) shouldn't be a problem. And given the number of exciting events that I can weave into the story (and one thing I will say is that I don't actually intend to cover the Second Crusade itself – focusing more on the events leading up to it) I have no doubt that I have the potential for a gripping narrative.

For the first book, I will be concentrating my research efforts on the Welsh Marches and Edessa; with the first, my main goal is to set the stage for the story to come, so the bulk of my efforts will be focused on Outremer – and given the title of the series, that's really essential, as certainly that's where the bulk of the story will be taking place. Frustratingly, there is too little written about the County of Edessa, but there are plenty of sources in other books to make use of, as well as journal articles and the like; time to resubscribe to JSTOR, I think. Sicily as well, naturally, as I will be wanting to introduce that aspect of the plot, but given that it won't come heavily into play until the second book, that's something I can worry about in more detail later on.

I am helped by one book, that is another of the reasons I am fascinated by this period, probably my favourite primary source – 'An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades'. (I stress the Hatti translation; Penguin have produced one that I find far inferior, a rare miss for them.) Nothing better outlines the flavour of the period, and in the past I have obtained page after page of notes from it. Best of all – the writer deals with the time of Zengi in some detail, the period of the 1140s, and if I am honest, this is the primary reason I have for focusing on this specific period. And the author may or may not make an appearance in the...who am I kidding, Usama ibn Munqidh is certain to turn up sooner or later. He's too interesting a character to ignore.

Naturally, there will be the opportunity for many posts here on various topics as I research them; I'm fortunate enough to have five weeks now where I can focus on this full-time, which is an opportunity too good to pass up, and with a couple of exceptions, I already have all the books I need already, some well-thumbed over the years, others new to me, but I'm extremely eager to dive into them. Angold's Byzantine Empire 1025-1204 has been on my waiting list for a while, as has Cobb's recent Race for Paradise. As soon as the last handful arrive (any day now, I hope) I'll be giving a little more detail, and there is going to be a bibliography attached to this blog shortly – as well as some posts relating to books I have recently acquired, as well as those found most useful in the research. As my very first step, I've been reading a few general histories of the Crusades, and those are intended to be the topic of one of the next few posts, though I've got a little fiction to review first...

Friday, 7 July 2017

And So It Begins...

I'm certain that the title 'Dragon of Outremer', both in terms of this blog and the series of novels it is planned to support, will probably be inspiring feelings of fear in any prospective readers, thoughts of some disastrous Sci-Fi Channel movie featuring dubious CGI and historical inaccuracy set to make anyone who has ever read a book on the Crusader Kingdoms wince. (And yes, there is a movie called 'Dragon Crusaders'. I even picked up a copy – at some point, based on the title of this blog, I'm going to have to watch and review it. Fear for me.)

For a few years now, I've been working as a science-fiction writer, have written more than thirty novels, but for a while, I've been wanting to break into historical fiction as well. About a year and a half ago, I actually completed a short piece, set in the County of Edessa in 1110, but I realized it wasn't quite what I had been hoping to do, and the pressure of other work forced me to draw back on the project for a while.

At the same time, I've been getting a lot of local inspiration as well; I live in the middle of the old Welsh Marches, and my family has a bit of history in this region, and wandering around some of the ruined castles and abbeys has given me the urge to work in that period as well, and recently I got quite far in a series concept based during the time of Edward I's invasion of Wales, the fighting and intrigue on the borderlands that preceded that event.

Neither concept really working, it was only recently that I decided to combine the two ideas, and at last, a few months ago, 'Dragon of Outremer' was born, the saga of a Welsh nobleman taking the cross, making his way in the Holy Land, while…well, that would be telling, and I have no intention of providing any spoilers here! Nevertheless, now that I am seriously pushing on this concept once again, with a targeted release date for the first in the series in December of this year, I decided that I needed some online presence, and this blog was the obvious result!

Given my surroundings, using Medieval Wales is an obvious touch (and I must admit the title 'Dragon of Outremer' appealed to me as well as a good name for the series, though I'll still have to come up with strong individual names for each book – always my most difficult challenge) but as for the Crusades, well, I've always been attracted to times when different cultures collide, and the era of the Crusades is one of the best examples of that – European, Islam, Byzantine, a dozen smaller peoples crashing into each other, creating one of the most fascinating periods in history, and naturally a time that still has immense relevance today.

And of course, there are the works of Robert E. Howard and Harold Lamb, some of the legendary pulp adventure writers who savoured this period, books I still turn back to today, and works that I confess have inspired me more than anything else to delve into this period. (I suppose Runciman, as well, but I'll be getting to that in a future blog post, so I'll leave that for here.) I'll be talking about them, and some of the lesser known writers of this period on this blog – as well as more recent works that have attracted my interest, those I have already read and those awaiting attention on my Kindle as I speak!

Those of you who have followed my other blog over the years will probably roll their eyes when I state that I intend to post here frequently, but I do intend to actually use this blog, and with a better schedule than once or twice a month; a minimum of two posts a week is the current plan, and as I approach the final stages of what might be called the pre-production process, with about eight weeks remaining as I write this before work will begin on my first draft. I've got a lot of reading to do in that period, as well as several places I want to visit to get the feel of the world as closely as I can. (Current events might prohibit my visiting locations in the Middle East, but I can certainly look at the sites in Wales I wish to use for the books.) All of that should make some good material for the blog as well, both book reviews and little tours of the sites I intend to visit – as well as a few other local locations that might be of interest. I've got a new digital camera and plan on getting good use out of it!