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...