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    Sunday
    Apr242011

    Miscellany

    Reminder: if you click the little RSS button under "Subscribe", you can sign up to get reminders whenever I update the site. 

    Not to worry - I doubt I'll be updating it often enough to qualify as spam...

    I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Dumbarton Oaks yesterday, arguably the best center for Byzantine studies in the Western hemisphere. Although the library was closed for the weekend, the museum was open - as were the gardens, in full springtime bloom. A few hours of strolling through a millennium of Byzantine art, jewelry, sculpture, mosaics, and religious artifacts gave me a quick shot of reality-grounding. After so many months buried in books, seeing things that people had actually touched, worn, and used - albeit centuries ago - made the world I'm trying to bring back to life a bit more concrete.

    On the flight to DC, I was able to step back from the research and put some thought into the themes I want to develop, and how my characters will play into it. There's something about being in flight, between places, that frees my mind to float and find connections that I hadn't seen before. I could say that I should do it more often, but flying has become such an annoying process in this day and age that I can't really have any interest in subjecting myself to it any more than I have to.

    Happy Easter, folks - and Hag Sameach to my Jewish friends, too. Take care.

    Wednesday
    Apr132011

    Constantinople, 717 AD

    One of the great challenges of writing historical fiction - particularly focusing on an era so distant from our own, in which so few original sources survive - is trying to bring a lost place and time to life, out of highly fragmentary evidence.

    Take, for example, the city of Constantinople, just to pick one at random. The site has been inhabited since ancient times, perhaps three millennia in total. Maybe longer. Today, there's a huge city on top of it all, a dynamic, crowded, cosmopolitan place which, much like any other modern megalopolis, has many things on its mind besides preserving one particular period of history for the archaeological convenience of people like me. I imagine a place like New York or London, but with an extra millennium or two of detritus layered underneath the modern city. And here I am, trying to pick one particular sample out of that history, no more than two or three years, and pulling that into focus, complete with buildings, streets, markets, harbors, palaces, parks, and all the rest of the things that make a city come to life. Smells. Recent controversies and urban development. Shifts in the "in places" - to eat, to live, to shop. What you would see. What you would hear. What sort of people would be on the street.Imagine, for those of you who live in a place like Athens, or Cairo, or Baltimore, a writer fifteen hundred years from now. How would they be able to figure out what the "hot" neighborhoods were? Where you ate when you were going out on the town, versus where you go when you're just picking up something for take-out. Where you buy your meat, your cheese, your bread - given that there were no super-markets at the time. It takes some real digging, more so for a culture like 8th-century Byzantium, where so few records survive.17th century artist's rendition of the Hagia Sophia as it might have looked when it was first built.


    My thanks, in this instance, to Paul Magdalino, whose "The Maritime Neighborhoods of Constantinople: Commercial and Residential Functions, Sixth to Twelfth Centuries" has been absolutely invaluable.

    Wednesday
    Mar302011

    Another dive into the research heap

    Okay, so I was a bit premature in declaring my "research phase" over and largely done with.

    True, part of my current repeat trip through my miniature Byzantine library is sheer avoidance. After all, reworking the outline for a novel as extensive and complicated as this one is turning out to be is... well, calling it "drudgery" wouldn't be far from the truth. Yes, I need to do it. Yes, the work will be all the better for it. No, it's not particularly fun. Or inspiring. Or interesting to talk about, to my wife or anyone else.

    Aerial view of Constantinople. Image by DeliDumrul (public domain).But then too, as I've worked on the outline and the scene concepts and the character profiles and the settings, I'm continually discovering things with which I just don't feel sufficiently familiar, yet. How many Byzantine monasteries in the early 8th century actually had orphanages, and were there any outside Constantinople? (Data's pretty thin, apparently.) How hard was it to cross over the border between Roman and Muslim territories, and what was life like for everyday folk in the "friction zone" where the two cultures rubbed together (and raided each other, and grabbed territory from each other, and tried to prevent the other from benefitting from lands they held, and so on)? Had iconoclasm started to pop up in small - or large - ways in the Byzantine religious establishment at the beginning of the 8th century, prior to its eruption into official policy with Leo III's massive push in the 720s, and if so, how did it manifest in the public eye, and how did the general populace regard it?

    So many questions. Luckily, I have many many books to turn to - unfortunately, precious little time. My writer friends counsel me to just keep writing, and go back to the research only later, to answer critical questions. The story is paramount, they tell me. Probably good advice. Still, I can hear the books calling me. Haldon's A Social History of Byzantium is sitting next to me right now, crying out for attention. It holds so many answers - the role of women. What monastic life was like. The interplay between rural and urban people. Class politics.

    If only my characters were so insistent. Sure, they call to me too. But it's more a vague muttering, easily lost in the cacophony from the source materials. Maybe this is a sign that I need to lock the books up for a while - preferably in a soundproof room - and focus on the actual writing.

    It doesn't help that I have recurring dreams about some graduate student in Byzantine history phoning me up in the middle of the night two weeks after the book hits the stands and telling me I got it all wrong about Leo, and that if I had just read this monograph, and that article (available only in Russian, but still, it was published in 1894), and visited this archaeological dig in Damascus, I would have known better. But maybe that's just me.

    Tuesday
    Mar222011

    Digging for gold

    There are times, working on this project, when I feel more like an archaeologist than a writer.

    True, I'm working with information, not rock and dirt, and my tools are my laptop and my 4x6" cards, rather than pick and brush. Still, I find myself sifting through layer upon layer of historical detritus, accumulated assumptions and broken chains of evidence, searching for a few kernels of confirmed fact. Or at least, some degree of probable plausibility. There's no question that I will have to hang a great deal of my own guesswork and narrative imagination around the sparse framework of fact and probability that I dig up, but there are times when I feel like a paleontologist trying to imagine an entire dinosaur - bone structure, skin texture, diet, mating behavior, life cycle, and all - from a single knuckle bone.

    I really have no one but myself to blame. After all, it's not as though someone held a gun to my head and forced me to write a book about early 8th century Byzantine and Arab history. Still, it's hard to resist the temptation to whine a bit about the dearth of primary sources. Even secondary sources covering the Siege of 717/8 are few and far between - which surprises me, since there seems to be fairly wide agreement that it was one of the pivotal events of the medieval period, at least as significant in the broad flow of world history as the Battle of Tours, which has received significantly more attention.

    So I dig around the edges of the topic, searching for clues that will help me bring the period to life. And every now and then I come across nuggets of pure gold, veins of it even. One of these came this morning, when I found articles from an entire colloquium on Constantinople that Dumbarton Oaks hosted in 1998. Now, mind you, I've come across quite a number of Dumbarton Oaks publications prior to this, and have made thorough use of some of them - particularly the Economic History of Byzantium, which, while dry as dust at times if you're not utterly in need of the information it contains, is a precious resource full of an incredible wealth of insight on how people related to one another, in trade and taxes and social life, across the whole broad scope of Byzantine history. Still, I had somehow missed this colloquium on Constantinople. The oversight made me dig more deeply, wondering what else I had missed. I wound up spending several hours this morning going through the entire catalog of their past publications back to the 1960s - and there's still more to do, twenty years or so before that. (When you're researching something that happened 1300 years ago, scholarship that is a mere half-century old is considered "recent," folks.)

    The Jewel of Muscat. Photo by AsianYachting.A narrower, but more captivating find came a few weeks ago, when I stumbled upon the Jewel of Muscat Project - an enormous trove of video, photographic, and historical information about medieval Arab shipbuilding techniques, tied to an upcoming National Geographic documentary about the reconstruction of an early medieval Arab treasure ship found off Singapore. (Thanks again to Mitch Williamson for setting my mouse on the path to discover this one.) Sure, it's probably overkill to get this deep into medieval Arab naval architecture, given the relatively small role it plays in my novel - but I'm sure the detail will prove invaluable at making the relevant section feel real.

    I'll get to work on adding a "Resources" section to this site shortly - as well as a set of links to the friends, mentors, and contributors who are actively helping me bring this book to life. Including Matthew Herbst, Director of the Making of the Modern World program at UC San Diego and star of a series of podcasted lectures that I've been enjoying, who spent probably more time than he could spare talking to an aspiring author about Byzantine history and serving as a sounding board for my crackpot ideas about Leo III, Maslama, and the role of fiction in illuminating history.

    Back into the mines, now. I'm hoping to add another segment to the site soon, where I can share some of the more interesting tidbits and stories that I've come across in my archaeological dig - like how I think Justinian II snuck into his own capital city with a few good men and retook it from the successor-usurper to the man who deposed him. Skullduggery worthy of James Bond, surely, especially when you consider the fact that Justinian had a golden nose. (Or perhaps had had plastic surgery at the hands of, most likely, an Indian doctor. Both are entirely plausible.)

    Saturday
    Mar052011

    Tinkering

    I've been thinking of a comment I made in a writing workshop once, trying to describe what my creative process feels like. The image I came up with was of driving a car at 70 miles per hour down a half-built highway while installing the steering wheel, with the chassis more or less solid (you think) but no seats yet - there's a plan for them, and you even have a sketch of the seat covering, but you haven't gotten around to building them - and only a few body panels, several of those borrowed from old cars or new ones that were never quite finished. But there's a damn good radio, and the music is rockin, and you have a road map, kind of, even if you're not sure whether or not some new detours have been added since you last looked at it.

    If I remember right, one of the workshop participants thought about it for a bit and said, "Remind me, if I ever need a ride home from your house, to take a taxi."

    This, I provide to set the context for what my work has been like for the past week or two.

    I honestly think my wife is more or less completely bewildered by what I mean when I say I've been "working on my book." I try to flesh out the details for her and give her a better picture of what I've been doing on any given work day - "I did some updating of my outline and moved around a few scenes," say, or "I did some research to get a better understanding of what the folk traditions of medieval Asia Minor would have been like," or something of that sort. Or, at my best, "I banged out 2,500 words on a new chapter, and got most of it onto the page before I had to go pick up the kids from school." She's come to understand, I think, that that last is code for "I had a very productive day," because quantitative scales are easier to work with and she's been around long enough now to develop a rough understanding of the kind of productivity range that I work within. She knows that if I say I wrote 600 words, I was struggling and tongue-tied and battling my own mind just to get anything done at all; and that if I managed 4,000, or 4,500, or (on one memorable occasion) even 6,000, it was an epic day and I'm flying high, and hated to see my time run out, and probably wound up collapsing onto the couch to take a nap and recover.

    But overall I'd have to say that the behind-the-scenes aspects of this "job" that I've thrown myself into so much lately are pretty much a mystery to her. Probably to just about everyone else around me as well.

    Honestly, it's still a process that feels messy and improvised even to me. But I'll just have to live with it. Lacking the kind of life that would let me sit down at a desk at a regular time every day and plow ahead for six or eight or ten uninterrupted hours, and then pick up where I left off the next day neatly and cleanly, I simply have to manage the best I can. So I write a little, structure a little, research a little, and just keep trying to keep it all hanging together somehow.

    Most recently, I've been working on the technical underpinnings that hold all this information in a form and structure that I can work with. I use a wonderful little program called Scrivener to do most of my writing. It's designed especially for creative people who work with complex documents - poets, journalists, novelists, academics, screenwriters and so on - and provides a wide range of tools to make the creative process simpler, more flexible, and less messy than it would be with traditional word processors. I love it, and it's made my life a great deal less complicated. Above and beyond all the nifty mechanical gadgets that it provides, the best aspect of it is that it makes structuring (and restructuring) a complex document such as a novel far simpler than it would be with a program such as Word or Pages. It also contains tools that make research and notes and source materials easy to capture and access, as well as features that simplify the process of formatting and compiling a manuscript for editing, submission, or even publication on e-readers or the web.

    All in all, a great tool. Of course, my process isn't that clean or simple. I wind up capturing a lot of my images and ideas on 4x6" cards, or sticky notes, or scratch paper. Sometimes I'll be grabbed by a scene concept when my laptop isn't handy, and I'll have to scrawl out whatever I can in whatever notebook is most handy before I lose it, and trust that I'll figure out how to get it into the electronic manuscript eventually. I've got source materials referenced neatly on note cards, others that are bookmarked on my shelves, and others that are no more than a vague scrawl reminding me to go look at page x of book y.

    You see where my image of the half-built car barreling down the highway comes from...

    So, much of my work the past couple weeks has been focused on slowing the actual writing down long enough to solidify the structural and technical underpinnings. This means making sure my references are cleanly noted down in my filing system. Taking my latest outline from 4x6" cards and getting it into Scrivener, and then bringing over the existing drafts and synopses and notes from my manuscript-in-progress to make sure my work to date is put to good use while still reflecting my latest concept of how it will all fit together. Looking through the hurried scribbles I made while listening to 12 Byzantine Rulers or Matthew Herbst's Byzantine history lectures in the car and following up on the basic research to flesh out the ideas they inspired. Finding details on places and architecture and clothing and language to let me bring settings and scenes to life. Making sure I've crossed-referenced dates and source materials to make the underpinnings of each element of the book solid.

    To be honest, it's dull, difficult work - hard to stay inspired while plugging along on this stuff. But it's critical, not only to make sure I'm being faithful to the history (or what's known of it) but also to keep my creative process running smoothly. Here and there I manage to get a little bit of actual writing done, just to keep myself motivated. It reassures me that the book itself is moving forward, even while I spend most of my time tinkering with the chassis and the wiring harness. And I tell myself that once I plow through this grunt work, I'll be cut loose to charge ahead with the more inspiring work, where I can hear the trees swaying in the wind and see the light shining on my characters' hair and feel grit and dirt under my fingernails, across a gulf of thirteen centuries.

    Soon, David. Soon.