Saturday, 2 June 2018

It Takes Two

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been hitting the books and doing a lot of thinking, working out outlines, story concepts and characters. Not to mention re-reading Harold Lamb, which is always a pleasure – I’m about halfway through ‘Grand Cham’ right now, one of my favourites. Ultimately, I’ve evolved a series of character concepts for open-ended series of standalone novels. Not quite what I originally had in mind, but the key here is ‘standalone’. No extended ten-book epic sagas – I’ve done that before, and part of this is to test my conviction that we’re moving away from the series concept. Though giving a distinct ‘brand’ to a collection of books remains, of course, a good idea. Right now, I’ve got a selection of concepts in mind, each of which could easily sustain sequel novels.

The first is set right at the start of the Crusading period, in 1110, and features a Norman knight and a Viking warrior – yes, you heard me right. This series begins just after the capture of Sidon by the forces of King Sigund of Norway, who led what in all honestly looks a lot like a Viking raid on Outremer. (They sacked cities in Spain and Sardinia along the way – one Christian, one Muslim. Calling this a traditional Crusade is a bit of a stretch; I often think of this as the last of the great Viking expeditions.) Many of the warriors who fought with Sigund stayed behind, though there are few records of what happened to them – that’s an interesting historical gap to fill.

I know that this series starts with the fighting on the frontiers of the County of Edessa, in the middle of the turmoil taking place in that tenuous Crusader State – rival factions fighting for power while Turkish warlords attacked. That Edessa survived that period, lasted as long as it did, is something of a miracle. I intend this to be a ‘wandering’ series, with the general idea that the heroes will end up in Central Asia, in the great cities of the Silk Road, and if this sounds suspiciously like I’m trying for a Leiber-esque double-act, well, that’s because I am.

The second is set somewhat later, in 1170, and is my take on the ‘Van Rijn’ series of stories written by Poul Anderson. Yes, I know that they are science-fiction, and darned good science-fiction at that, but the concept of the ‘merchant prince and agent’ works very well. (With a few shades of Nero Wolfe, perhaps – I’m drawing from some wild and woolly places for this one!) The main character is a French troubadour, finding himself embroiled in the fighting between the Pisans and Genoese, working for a wealthy Pisan merchant based in Caesarea – with King Amalric’s attempts to conquer Egypt and the first moves of Saladin in the wings.

This one is much more intrigue-based, and I already have a few novels in this series plotted out – or perhaps I should say that I have a series of historical events to explore. The conflicts between Venice, Genoa and Pisa in Outremer are often underplayed, but it was primarily as a result of support from those city-states that the Crusaders could hold onto their lands as long as they did, and the influence of the Italian merchants grew stronger and stronger over the years. Why focus on Pisa? Well, I want to use Caesarea as ‘home base’, and that had a strong Pisan influence, and I think that city has been neglected a little in favour of Venice and Genoa over the years. Time for Pisa to have its day in the sun.

I have a few others in mind as well, though I have to confess that none is as well defined as these in my mind. One is set later, during the Barons’ Crusade, featuring a dispossessed noble struggling to reclaim his home from the Mamluks while protecting the widow of an old friend, under investigation by an avaricious Inquisitor seeking to see her estates and properties inherited by his brother. Another takes place in the early days of the Empire of Trebizond, right after the Fourth Crusade, focusing on the defence of that city from attack and the preservation of the outer limits of its Empire – I think this focuses on a mercenary soldier, a Saxon warrior perhaps formerly of the Varangian Guard, pledging his allegiance to the new Emperor. An early one is calling to me as well, set in Central Asia as early as the 9th Century, in the time of Ibn Fadlan, a nomad warrior selling his services to the petty nobles of the city states of the Silk Road.

It’s been tough to narrow it down, but I’m going to start with the first two stories – partly because they are singing to me at the moment, and partly because they will require somewhat less additional research than the others, at least at this stage – I’ve done more of the prep work with ‘Early Crusades’ in mind. (I do also want to cover the Mongols at some point, perhaps some of the later Crusades as well, but I don’t have any concrete ideas along these lines at present.) Both stories ‘go somewhere’ in terms of sequel novels – the first reaching deeper into Asia, the second continuing to mount the intrigue and delving into the disastrous aftermath of the final attacks on Egypt. That’s where I’m going to start, then, with two novels that ideally will be released together, on the same day. I’m pretty sure I’m going to write Norman and Viking (and there will be a better series name…) first, with the Caesarea series second, but I still want to release them together – in a future post I’ll put on my business hat and explain just why...

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Statement of Intent

It’s all down to Robert E. Howard, really. And Harold Lamb, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, H. Bedford Jones and a few others. Mostly names that have receded into history – but at the time, some of the most renowned and prolific authors of their era. I’ve been writing full-time for a few years now, and these writers have always been my greatest role-models; I maintain that we live in the age of the neo-pulp, taking a different form once again, but the principles of rapid, reliable publishing remaining the same. (Though I lack the abilities of some of the true greats, such as Erle Stanley Gardner, who in their prime wrote novels in a week...)

One of the greatest expressions of this pulp era, in my humble opinion, is this historical adventure story. The historical swashbuckler, if you like, a genre that has faded somewhat into history as the trends towards the long series, the doorstop book have gathered momentum. I am of the opinion that this is changing; while writing science-fiction, I have followed the model of the ‘commuter read’, books designed of a length that they can be read in a week of lunch breaks and train rides, with chapter lengths sufficient to allow frequent breaks from the action when the unfortunate necessity of work rears its head. I base this largely on my own reading habits from my commuter days, and with the rise of e-readers, my belief is that the pendulum will start to swing back in this direction.

Not that this is anything new. One of my greatest regrets is that I was born far too late to attempt to write for some of the great magazines of the past, for Adventure itself, or Weird Tales, or Oriental Stories or even Golden Fleece Magazine; the writers that filled those pages remain some of my favorites, and they subscribed to the same philosophy; fiction in bite-sized chunks, to be consumed at the convenience of the reader. (I have on occasion even contemplated attempting the resurrection of one of these publications, but I know my limitations! And those of the market; similar attempts in other genres suggest that the attempt would be problematic. We are in the age of the novel – though I suspect increasingly the age of the shorter novel.)

Today is my birthday, and marks around five years since I published my first novel. (My forty-fifth came out at the end of April – I have done my best to practice what I preach.) The time, I think, has come to make an experiment, and throw away established wisdom. Traditionally, in the new world of publishing, there are several key themes – to write in series, to publish frequently, and so on. I’m going to attempt ditching the first of these, and I’m not pulling the idea out of a hat. I’ve noticed latterly that there is an increasing reluctance on the part of readers to dive into long series, and that sell-through is not what once it was. Books that stand-alone, I think, might be making a resurgence of their own, though the maintenance of an ongoing theme still remains critical. The key here is to have multiple entry points into an author’s work – as someone who wrote a twenty-eight-book series, I can testify that sales of the first book outweigh those of the last by almost fifteen to one.

The theme is obvious. Robert E. Howard’s historical stories have always been among my favorites, and Harold Lamb’s tales of the distant lands of Central Asia are phenomenal. (Seriously, forget about reading this post – order yourself some of the recent reprints right away. I have the whole set, and it’s one of the best purchases I ever made.) That’s the theme, then – the lands of Outremer, the Near East, Egypt, perhaps Al-Andalus and the steppes of Central Asia, around the time of the Crusades. Say 1050 to 1300, roughly. It’s the time I have most interest in, and aside from the rapidly-expanding genre of Roman military fiction, the area I enjoy reading the post from a fictional point of view. I have no intention of writing long novels – sixty to ninety thousand words will suffice, and though I might revisit characters from time to time, my goal is to write standalone historical swashbuckling adventure. A genre that I believe is desperately calling for a comeback. I suppose there’s only one way to find out.

When it comes to concepts, I suppose I can to some degree echo the words of Robert E. Howard himself, when he said, “And Babar the Tiger who established the Mogul rule in India—and the imperial phase in the life of Baibars the Panther, the subject of my last story—and the rise of the Ottomans—and the conquest of Constantinople by the Fifth Crusade—and the subjugation of the Turks by the Arabs in the days of Abu Bekr—and the gradual supplanting of the Arab masters by their Turkish slaves which culminated in the conquest of Asia Minor and Palestine by the Seljuks—and the rise of Saladin—and the final destruction of Christian Outremer by Al Kalawun—and the first Crusade—Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin of Boulogne, Bohemund—Sigurd the Jorsala-farer—Barbarossa—Coeur de Lion. Ye gods, I could write a century and still have only tapped the reservoir of dramatic possibilities. I wish to Hell I had a dozen markets for historical fiction—I’d never write anything else.”

More than a few of those have great appeal to me; I’ve yet to see a good take on the Norwegian Crusade, and given that is as close as you’re going to get to Vikings on Crusade, right down to raids along the coasts and islands of Europe along the way, it’s almost irresistible. The Fall of Acre has been done well enough, but the Fourth Crusade and the aftermath, perhaps less so, and there are stories aplenty in the coming of the Latins to that land, and the establishment of the Byzantine remnant states, such as the Empire of Trebizond. (And the Siege of Trebizond in 1461 – the last ghost of the Roman Empire passing into history, lost on the shores of the Black Sea, almost demands a book.) Edgar Atheling in the First Crusade, fighting perhaps for the remnants of Saxon glory, the Crusader raids on the Red Sea, and the advance of Zengi, of Saladin, of Baibars – the fall of Edessa, the coming of the Normans to Italy, a hundred tales to tell – and many of them, I believe, far better served in the standalone book than by a series I would be forced to pad to longer length.

To begin with, I have plans for a book entitled ‘Dragon of Outremer’, focusing on a Cambro-Norman knight fighting in the early days of Saladin, in the wake of one of King Amalric’s abortive attacks on Egypt – the loss of the only port the Crusaders held on the shores of the Red Sea, abandoned and lost, as well as one tentatively titled, ‘Knight of Trebizond’, covering the foundation of that land in the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade. (Given the paucity of material on Trebizond, that will be a challenge, but I have some useful sources to work with from Russian scholarship at least.) After that, I’ll probably attempt the Norwegian Crusade, then perhaps something that takes me into the early conquests of the Mongols...