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    Entries in Historical Research (8)


    The end of the adventure approacheth

    The journey is nearly over.

    In the past three weeks, I’ve visited more than 40 Roman and Byzantine-era sites. Driven more than 2500The Alahan Monastery, high in the Taurus Mountains near Mut kilometers. Taken at least 3,000 pictures, and filled a 300-page journal and most of a college composition book with notes on what I’ve seen. Spoken to archaeologists, historians, nautical preservationists, and many, many Turks and foreign travelers. It’s been a phenomenal adventure.

    Rarely have I found direct evidence of life in the Byzantine world of the early 8th century. For the most part, what remnants of the deep past are still evident are either much earlier – Roman, Greek, even Hittite – or later, Seljuk and Ottoman. The Byzantines of the early 8th century were in a period of profound instability and retrenchment. They had little time to build great monuments or establish new settlements. For the most part, they reused and repurposed the great works that came before them. Later, when their civilization recovered some of its former glory and established secure borders, they would again create astounding works of art and architecture – the mosaics of Chora Monastery, for example, or the frescoes in the Dark Church in Göreme. To judge by the remaining archaeological evidence – what has been unearthed to date, at least – the Byzantines of the early 8th century lived in a time when economic disaster, plague, invasion, loss of territory, and a series of massive earthquakes in the 6th and 7th centuries had reduced their world to a state of constant instability.

    Part of the ongoing excavations at Amorium, capital of the Byzantine Anatolikon themeAnd yet… I’ve come to believe – and some emerging archaeological and multi-disciplinary research on complex adaptive systems seems to support this view – that the so-called Dark Ages of Byzantium were not completely dark. Constantinople, for example, may have had a much smaller population in the early 8th century than it did in, say, the early years of Justinian I’s reign, 150 or so years before. Large areas of the city had been given over to orchards and vegetable gardens, the great monumental buildings were sometimes not maintained, little new building was going on aside from repairs to the defensive walls, and the mansions of earlier generations of the aristocracy may have been subdivided into smaller apartments. Yet this makes sense for a city adapting to vastly different circumstances – we just have to look at Detroit for a contemporary comparison. Over time, the Byzantines repurposed the structures of the great city Constantine had built and made them relevant to their new circumstances. In the process, they made the city more self-sufficient and resilient in the face of threat. A city with a smaller population and its own resources for food production – orchards, gardens, fisheries – is much more able to withstand external threat than is one bursting at the seams with overpopulation, dependent upon distant provinces for its basic sustenance, with sprawling suburbs outside the city walls whose people would swell the already overwhelming numbers of hungry mouths inside the defenses in times of crisis.

    What ruins I did find that were directly attributable to my period or that would clearly have been in continuousThe ancient citadel at Afyon (Akroinon), which goes back at least as far as the Hittites occupation throughout it – say, the great city of Amorium, or Syllaeum (Syllium) on the Pamphylian plain – show that the Byzantines had not lost the ability to thrive and build upon the inheritance of their forebears, where the circumstances allowed. Elaborate stonework is in evidence at Amorium, a city built in the early Byzantine period that was the capital of the Anatolikon theme – the strongest and most strategically vital of all the Byzantine provinces – throughout the period I’m researching. Syllaeum awaits serious excavation, which may reveal many heretofore hidden secrets about its progression from Hittite stronghold to Greek city-state to Roman town to Byzantine fortress, and onward. Even inside Constantinople, sites like the Yenikap─▒ harbor excavations reveal that maritime trade may have continued to thrive, albeit perhaps on a more regional scale compared to the height of the Roman era. Other sites relevant to the early Byzantine period, such as the church of St. Mary of Chalkoprateia in Istanbul, have yet to be retrieved from their currently neglected state – in this case, hidden behind a sidewalk café, used as a lighting backdrop and otherwise left to crumble into further ruin – remain to be explored.

    A half-buried inscription at AmoriumI’m certain that if the same kind of passion and resources that the archaeological and historical communities have devoted to the Greek and Roman eras were applied to Byzantine sites, we could learn much about the lives of these people struggling to adapt to rapid changes in their economic, social, religious, geopolitical, and even ecological environments. I have no doubt that much of what we’d find would challenge pre-existing assumptions about the “Dark Ages” of Byzantium.

    Meanwhile, for lack of the wealth of evidence that I would have found were my book set, say, 7 centuries earlier, I must rely on my own imagination and the work of a few pioneers in early Byzantine studies to re-create the world in which my characters might have lived. This journey has provided invaluable fuel for that leap of the imagination. All that’s left now is to tell the story.

    “All.” As if that weren’t everything.

    As of today, I have a complete draft of Part One. Part Two awaits when I return home. Onward.

    Some of the better pictures I've taken over the course of my 2500km journey from Antalya to Cappadocia can be found here.


    Fresh from the trenches of the early 8th century, we have this update

    Yes, the novel is still plugging along. A few updated statistics on my progress:

    • Current version of the manuscript: 48,000 words (about 130 paperback-formatted pages)
    • Total written thus far, including partial scenes and rough-rough-rough drafts: 135,000 words (about 490 pages)
    • Bibliography: more than 100 primary and secondary sources researched (no this does not count Wikipedia)
    • Dents in desk from banging of forehead: too many to count

    The work has benefited enormously from both of the advisors under whom I've studied thus far in Pacific University's Master of Fine Arts program, Mary Helen Stefaniak and Frank X. Gaspar. I can't say enough about how incredible these two people are, as mentors, writers, and unbelievably generous, patient human beings. When you add in the other talented writers who have touched this manuscript in various ways, large and small - Mike Magnuson, Elizabeth Kostova, James Hynes, Pete Fromm, and Bonnie Jo Campbell among them - I've been extraordinarily blessed. I can only hope I don't embarrass any of them in the end, though I strongly suspect Mags will moan over every split infinitive and dangling participle no matter what I do.

    Over the past two weeks I've been working primarily on structure and pacing. My method: roll out an 8-foot length of plotter paper, jot down each plot point for each major character (point-of-view and otherwise) on a color-coded sticky note, and lay them out in time sequence. This has helped me sort out who was where when between the beginning of the story (October 714) and the end (late 718). It also works well as a visual tool to identify clusters of action and conflict, weaknesses in the pacing, and the major milestones in each character's story arc. 

    The only issue: even rolled up, this beast is kind of hard to carry around to the various coffee shops that serve as roving offices when the kids are besieging the house. That, and I've discovered that 3-year-olds love re-organizing Post-Its, when left unsupervised for more than 45 seconds. 

    Note that I've added a new page, listing the most useful reference sources I've located thus far. It's a fairly extensive list - so much so that I suddenly figured out where all my time has gone over the past two or three years - but I make no claims about its completeness. It is, after all, as idiosyncratic as my book (or, indeed, as I am myself). Still, someone out there might find it useful. 

    Note also that I've finally, officially become a Twit. (My sister will claim that this is not news.) You can sign up for my Twitter feeds by looking up @KDavidSmithAuth, or by subscribing via the widget on the sidebar. I'll do my best to tweet updates and interesting tidbits about Byzantium, early Islam, writing, and/or General Life Stuff as I stumble upon them. Joy!

    And that, folks, is all the news that's fit to print. For now.


    Rumors of the book's death have been greatly exaggerated...

    The ruins of Anazarbos, a former Roman city that served as the launching pad for Muslim raids into Asia Minor by the early 8th century (courtesy of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut)I'll spare you the lengthy explanations of all the delays that have interfered with the timely completion of my project on the Second Siege of Constantinople and the clash between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Umayyad Caliphate. That kind of hemming and hawwing might work for George R. R. Martin, but somehow I doubt it'll help much.

    On the other hand, I don't have fans by the millions making death threats if I don't hurry up and complete it. So there are pros and cons, I suppose.

    The novel does continue, let's leave it at that. I draft a bit, research a bit, hack off extraneous subplots (which tend to sprout like suckers around the trunk of a pear tree), and draft a bit more. Along the way I learn every day about the deep and complex cultures I've chosen to inhabit during the writing of this sprawling work. It's hard to say whether I find the Romaioi (Eastern Romans, Byzantines) or the early Islamic peoples more fascinating. Half the battle is trying to remain true to the different worldviews of those two distant cultures - each distinct from the other in profound ways, and both utterly unlike our own.

    One day, I'm an amateur archaeologist, sifting through summaries of projects spanning much of southeastern Europe and northwestern Asia. The next, I'm trying to get a grasp of numismatics, or medieval economics, or comparative linguistics. I've found myself delving into the history of food and agriculture, metallurgy, shipbuilding and navigation, cartography and the methods and materials used by early medieval scribes. Comparative religion... always top of mind, for better or worse. I constantly have to remind myself that the research is merely the means, not the end. The book still has to get written.

    And here I said I wasn't going to make excuses...

    I'll be starting to work on a Master's in Fine Arts degree in Writing at Pacific University in June. A major element of my work there will be to make significant progress on this novel, with the help of some of the best mentors in the business. Stay tuned. Both of you.


    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.


    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.