The Art of Writing Historical Fiction



Interview with Richard Blake, historical novelist, on how to write fiction, and why to write about the Byzantine Empire

Interview with Richard Blake

Posted on July 23, 2014
by Jennifer Falkner
Richard Blake has so far written these historical novels, all published in London by Hodder & Stoughton, and all set in the Byzantine Empire of the seventh century:

Conspiracies of Rome by Richard Blake (2008)
The Terror of Constantinople by Richard Blake (2009)
The Blood of Alexandria by Richard Blake (2010)
The Sword of Damascus by Richard Blake (2011)
The Ghosts of Athens by Richard Blake (2012)
The Curse of Babylon by Richard Blake (2013)

What was your original inspiration for Aelric? 

Based on the similarity in their names, is there any special connection readers are meant to draw between Aelric and the historical figure of Alaric, the Visigoth who sacked Rome in the fifth century?

I think the first idea came to me in the February of 2005, when my wife took me for a long weekend break in Rome. This was my first visit to the City, and my first at that time of year to anywhere in the Mediterranean World. In both senses, the visit opened my eyes. It was cold – much colder than England. Though I “knew” otherwise from the sources, I’d had a fixed notion of the ancient world as a place of omnipresent sun and warmth. Stumbling round the Forum in thick overcoat and gloves brought everything closer to my own experience, and set me thinking about what the Romans wore in winter, and how often most of them really bathed, and what the air must have been like in a place where a quarter of a million houses were heated with charcoal.

More important perhaps was the state of what remained from the past. The Forum had a melancholy grandeur. The Colisseum was vast even by the standards of London. The Basilica of Constantine must have been bigger than St Paul’s. But, excepting the Pantheon, and those parts of buildings made into churches, everything was in ruins – noble ruins, I’ll grant, but ruins even so. Everywhere I looked, there was the sense of something that was over and done with.

But I found many churches than I’d expected going back to the sixth or fifth or even fourth centuries. Though always added to, or changed in other ways, these carried me back – far more effectively than the broken stones of the Temple of Jupiter – to the days of Antiquity. And they were often astonishingly lovely in their own right. Take, for example, the Church of St Mary Maggiore. Built in the early fifth century, and more or less unchanged in its interior, this was a place where the senatorial aristocracy had come to worship, and had been used in unbroken sequence ever since for worship.

If surprised, though, I wasn’t disappointed. Ever since my first reading of Gibbon as a boy, my interest had been as much in the end of Antiquity as in its great days. At university, I’d focussed so far as possible on the early Middle Ages. Since then, if in a desultory manner, I’d been going through the history and literature of the Byzantine Empire. Finding so many connections to it in Rome was an unexpected bonus to the visit. By the second day, my wife and I had given up on the usual monuments. Instead, with a new and bigger guide book, we explored Rome from the early Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Every time we came out from somewhere grand and wonderful, we asked each other what it must have been like to visit or live in a Rome when these buildings were new, but still surrounded by the intact if decaying remains of the Imperial City. That, I think, was the first inspiration for my Byzantine novels.

A few months later, my mother lent me half a dozen assorted thrillers set in Ancient Rome. I won’t say who wrote these, though none was by Steven Saylor – the Grand Master of the genre. A couple were excellent. I thought the rest were dire. “Can you do any better?” she asked when I’d finished sneering at the blunders of fact and atmosphere and plotting and characterisation. “Bet you I can,” I said straight back. “Go on, then,” she laughed. “Bring it round when you’ve done it.”

A few days later, I opened a new file in MS Word, and sat staring at the cursor. I was going to write a novel. I’d already written two novels in my twenties. But these had been about as dire as the ones I’d denounced to my mother, and were trapped on 5.25” floppies formatted for an obsolete computer. I was going to write an historical thriller. It would be set right at the end of Antiquity, and would take place in Rome. Where to start?

My answer was to make an Englishman the hero and narrator. You can give the lead in historical fiction to a complete foreigner. All you need is someone reasonably attractive to the readers. But I wasn’t sure how much ability I had. Besides, one of my favourite historical novels is Cecelia Holland’s City of God, which has an Englishman as the lead character. When I was a boy, I enjoyed Paul Capon’s Artor series, which, even in the volume set in Minoan Crete, has a leading character with some connection to this island. Also, when at university, I read a very good novel, written for children, about the Fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. The lead character in this was a boy from Bristol. So it was be a thriller set c600 in Rome, and the lead character would be an Anglo-Saxon. What next?

My answer here was to Google a list of Anglo-Saxon names. I didn’t fancy names like Edmund, Edward, Alfred, and so forth. Nor did I fancy names that no one would be able to pronounce. At last, my eyes stopped on Aelric. Almost but not quite familiar, and not impossible to pronounce. So I had my character. Now, what to do with him?

Here, I feel obliged to discuss how I write. Some novelists make up a detailed plan in advance, listing all the characters, and summarising each part of the story, or even each chapter. I can’t do this. After ten novels, I no longer feel ashamed to say that whatever plan I make will become obsolete within a few pages. Sometimes, I’ll start with an image of where I want to end. In Terror of Constantinople(2009), I started with the idea of Aelric, beautiful in white, standing on a boat as it moves across the shining but filthy waters of the Golden Horn. In Sword of Damascus(2011), I started with a vague idea of a climax in the Syrian desert. But that’s the best I can ever do. For the rest, I make the story up a chapter at a time. If it comes quickly, as it normally does, I can write a novel in four months. If it dribbles out like an old man’s urine – as happened with Curse of Babylon(2013) – I’ll take nine months.

The critics often say that my plots are unpredictable, but still manage to follow a logical course. The reason for this is that I generally write without knowing what will happen next, but keep going back to change what I’ve already written. Give me a pen or a typewriter, and I’d never get anything written. Let me die before finishing a novel, and anyone brought in to finish it for me would find a chaotic mass of words. The nice thing about living at the start of the computer age is that everything can be sorted as it approaches the end. The readers see only the finished product, and this is a coherent structure that looks as if it was all written to plan. When I read one of my novels, what I see is paragraphs and block of paragraphs, or just single sentences, that were written for one purpose and used for another. For me, It’s like looking at a set of geological strata that have been pressed and buckled by endless movements of the earth.

Back, however, to the first novel. I began with the idea that Aelric would be telling his story in extreme old age, and that he’d be writing about himself in his early or middle teens. I wanted someone of astonishing beauty, who’d be ruthless and uninhibited in his tastes, and who could be lusted over by monsters of both sexes. But early and middle teens didn’t work. I needed him also to be very strong and reasonably well-educated. Because I still needed youth and beauty, I spent the whole novel dithering over his age. I finally settled on nineteen. Except in Sword of Damascus, where he’s pushing a hundred, the whole series follows Aelric to the age of twenty five.

Once I’d realised the plot would reveal itself, I wrote the first novel six weeks. I wrote so quickly because I fell in love with the project, and worked on it on railway trains and even replacement busses. It took over my life, and I almost lived in seventh century Rome. Then there is the sad story of a friend’s terminal illness. He’d been complaining for several months about aches and pains legs and lower back. Everyone put this down to the fact that he was getting old – he was 55 – and his insistence on jogging and roller skating as if he were still in his twenties. But I felt an increasing sense of dread every time we met or spoke on the telephone. I couldn’t see it at the time. Looking afterwards at the photographs, however, it was plain that he had the mark of death on his face. I completed my draft two days before he told me that he might have bone cancer. My first Byzantine novel, then, was a kind of moral anaesthesia.

But you ask about Aelric’s double name. Here is the passage in Conspiracies of Romewhere it begins:

“Martin handles all my correspondence with the East” the Dispensator explained. “Though growing up in Constantinople, he is originally from an island to the west of Britain. I can assure you, however, he is neither a Celtic heretic nor a Greek semi-schismatic. He is a true son of the Church. He has my trust in all things. He has drawn an entry permit for the young man to our own library.”

Martin handed over a sheet of parchment covered in the smooth, clear hand of the Roman Chancery.

The Dispensator continued:

“He has also drawn an introduction to Anicius, an elderly nobleman of eccentric views who still has a library in his house. You’ll not find much there of spiritual sustenance. But one must read the pagan classics for their style.”

Martin handed over another sheet drawn in similar form.

The Dispensator paused, looking at Maximin. Martin remained where he was and coughed gently.

“Oh, yes. The young man”—he squinted at my name on the report—“Alaric, is it not? Is that a Gothic name?”

I didn’t correct the error. So began my life as Alaric rather than as Aelric. (Chapter 8)

Don’t ask me why I did this. It just came out as I wrote. Nor ask why, having done it, I left it in. Had I known this was the start of six novels, I’d have cut it out. On the other hand, Aelric is a name most Greeks and Romans would have had trouble pronouncing, and they’d have changed it to something else. Also, it comes in handy to mark when Aelric and Martin are speaking as friends in a language no one else can understand.

What, if any, are the challenges for you as a fiction writer in depicting historical figures as opposed to your own invented characters?  How do you overcome these challenges?

I don’t know how I’d write a novel about Hitler or Elizabeth I. With them, you’re stuck with known personalities. Showing them as other than wax dummies can be difficult. In my Churchill Memorandum(2011), written under another name, I bring in much of the mid-twentieth century British political establishment. But this is an alternative history satire, set in a world where the Second World War hadn’t happened. I can do as I please with my characters. In the real world of 1959, Michael Foot wasn’t a strangler who got rid of the evidence in an acid bath, and Harold Macmillan wasn’t a traitor and camp homosexual. In my alternative 1959, I could turn everyone who actually existed into a grossly defamatory caricature.

In my Byzantine novels, there are only half a dozen characters who really existed. The main ones are the Emperors Phocas and Heraclius, the General Priscus, and the King of Persia. Except they were rather unpleasant, we know very little about any of them. There was no Herodotus or Suetonius or Tacitus to tell us how they behaved or what they said. This means I can treat them as I please. Phocas is a kind of Stalin. Heraclius may be a clever politician or a dithering fool. Chosroes is a raving maniac. If Priscus were brought back to life, he might be flattered by what I’ve done with him. But the main answer to this question is that your problem doesn’t arrive. The real characters might as well be fictional for all I need to pay attention to my sources.

When it comes to researching the period, what are your main sources?  Are there any specific challenges in researching Late Antiquity?

The main challenge for my period is a lack of sources. Our main sources for the sixth century are Procopius and Agathius, who were first rate historians in the Classical tradition. For the early seventh century, our main source is Theophanes, an indifferent chronicler from a few hundred years later, George of Pisidia, an indifferent court poet, and a mass of fragments and ecclesiastical writings. Whether in translation or the original, you can master all the Greek and Latin primary sources in a couple of days. Throw in everything in Armenian, Arabic and Syriac, and you may need another week. The secondary sources are much larger in volume, and often useful. But you don’t have the shelf miles of books and newspapers and government records you need to go through to write a convincing novel about life and death in the trenches or the Blitz or the American Civil War.

What this means is that I have to use the more detailed records of adjoining periods to extrapolate. I need to write according to the spirit of what emerges from the sources. This gives me great freedom. At the same time, those facts that we do have, or can reasonably guess, must be given full respect. I can justly say that I know my stuff. I have read everything available in English, Latin, Greek and French on the period. Even hostile critics have never accused me of ignorance or deliberate inaccuracy. Indeed, I can promise that, if you are an undergraduate who needs a good introduction to the world of the seventh century, my Byzantine novels are a good place to start.

Do you do the bulk of your research before you begin writing the story or do you research as you go along?

In my case, it’s the latter. In Blood of Alexandria, for example, I read hundreds of pages on the government of Egypt and the various shades of the Monophysite heresybefore I started work. But I then read hundreds more as I worked.

Indeed, every now and again, a stray fact picked up while looking for others has found its way into the structure. In Ghosts of Athens, I found that I needed to know whether the Long Walls existed into the early Middle Ages. While going through a dozen journal articles, I noticed that, though part of the Eastern Empire and Greek-speaking, the See of Corinth answered to the Pope rather than the Patriarch of Constantinople. This gave me the idea of using Athens as the venue for a closed council of the Eastern and Western Churches.

Of course, the volume of research diminished as the series continued. In Conspiracies of Rome, you won’t believe the number of maps and chronologies I had open on my computer as I wrote. By the time I reached Curse of Babylon (2013), I had nearly all the factual background in my head. All I distinctly remember looking up was what people believed about astrology, and whether women could serve in the bureaucracy – oh, and reams of stuff about the reform of the silver coinage in 615.

It is a truism that historical fiction has more to say about the contemporary world than about the period in which the work is set.  Nevertheless, do you see any meaningful parallels between Aelric’s world and the present? 

I could write at length on this question, but won’t. I am monstrously opinionated about politics and economics, among much else. Everything I write has some connection with my libertarian-High Tory view of the world. I try to keep this under control in the novels. The trouble about political novels of any ideology is that they too often veer across the border between entertainment and propaganda. But I am an ideologue, and this shows through in my fiction. I believe that government is, in itself, a bad thing, and that most other bad things are made worse by government. The world would be a better place without all the vast structures of control that now constrain our lives. I hope you will see this belief in my fiction. I also hope it doesn’t hit you over the head.

What do you think is the biggest misconception among readers about Byzantium?

The biggest misconception appears to be that the Byzantine Empire was a sterile, gloomy place, devoid of interest to anyone but Orthodox Christians or historians who are the scholarly equivalent of train spotters. There is enough truth in this charge for it to have stuck in the popular imagination for the past few centuries. With exceptions like Cecelia Holland’s Belt of Gold, there is no Byzantine sub-genre in historical fiction. I can think of no British or American films set in Constantinople after about the year 600 – and few before then.

Undoubtedly, the Byzantines made little effort to be original in their literature. But they had virtually the whole body of Classical Greek literature in their libraries and in their heads. For them, this was both a wonderful possession and a fetter on the imagination. It was in their language, and not in their language. Any educated Byzantine could understand it. But the language had moved on – changes of pronunciation and dynamics and vocabulary. The classics were the accepted model for composition. But to write like the ancients was furiously hard. Imagine a world in which we spoke Standard English, but felt compelled, for everything above a short e-mail, to write in the language of Shakespeare and the Authorised Version of the Bible. Some of us might manage a good pastiche. Most of us would simply memorise the whole of the Bible, and, overlooking its actual content, write by adapting and rearranging remembered clauses. It wouldn’t encourage an original literature. Because Latin soon became a completely foreign language in the West – and because we in England were so barbarous, we had to write in our own language – Western Mediaeval literature is often a fine thing. The Byzantine Greeks never had a dark age in our sense. Their historians in the fifteenth century wrote up the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in the same language as Thucydides. Poor Greeks.

But you really need to be blind not to see beauty in their architecture and their iconography. Though little has survived, they were even capable of an original reworking of classical realism in their arts.

Above all, Byzantine history is a record of survival and even prosperity in the face of terrible odds. Between about 540 and 720, the Byzantines were hit by wave after wave of catastrophe. First, there was the Great Plague of the 540s, that killed around a third of the population. Then, in the first decades of the seventh century, they were attacked on every frontier by the Persians and the Barbarians. They saw off these challenges, but had no time to recover before the first eruption of Islam from the deserts. In almost a single bite, the Arabs swallowed up the remains of the Persian Empire. They conquered vast areas of the East, and, within less than a century, pushing into Southern France. But, if they took Syria and Egypt and North Africa, they never conquered the core territories of the Byzantine Empire.

The reason for this is that the Byzantine State was ruled by creative pragmatists. The Roman Empire was a ghastly place for most of the people who lived in it. The Emperors at the top were often vicious incompetents. They ruled through an immense and parasitic bureaucracy. They were supreme governors of an army too large to be controlled. They protected a landed aristocracy that was a repository of culture, but that was ruthless in its exaction of rent. Most ordinary people were disarmed tax-slaves, where not chattel slaves or serfs.

During the seventh century, the Byzantines scrapped almost the entirety of the Roman heritage. Much of the bureaucracy was shut down. Taxes were cut. The silver coinage was stabilised. Above all, the landed estates were broken up and given to those who worked on them, in return for service in local militias. Though never abolished, chattel slavery became far less pervasive. The civil law was simplified, and the criminal law humanised – after the seventh century, the death penalty was rarely used.

The Byzantine Empire survived because of a revolutionary transformation in which ordinary people became armed stakeholders. The inhabitants of Roman Gaul and Italy and Spain barely looked up from their ploughs as the Barbarians swirled round them. The citizens of Byzantium fought like tigers in defence of their country. Now, this was a transformation pushed through in a century and a half of recurrent crises during which Constantinople itself was repeatedly under siege. Alone among the ancient empires in its path, Byzantium faced down the Arabs, and kept Islam at bay for nearly five centuries.

Don’t tell me this isn’t an inspiring story. I could have written yet another series of novels around the Persian War or the murder of Julius Caesar. But, if you can take the trouble to master your sources – and never let them master you – I really can’t think of a finer background than the early flowering of the one of the most remarkable, and effectively democratic, civilisations that ever existed.

What other writers inspire you, in terms of genre, craft or both?

Where historical fiction is concerned, I grew up on Mika Waltari and Mary Renault and Robert Graves. More recently, there was Gore Vidal and Patrick O’Brien and Steven Saylor. But I can’t say how many historical novels I’ve devoured. When I was in my teens, I could read three or four a week. For other novelists, I admire Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard. Oh, and there’s Rafael Sabatini and the Baroness Orczy. But there really are so many, living and dead.

But what I like in a novelist or whatever kind is a good story and a sense of realism – even when, as with Rider Haggard, the story is pure fantasy. This is my chief objection to literary fiction. I simply can’t enjoy D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and all the others. Their stories are depressing and unrealistic. Their style is obtrusive and self-referential. For all her later faults, I think Barbara Cartland was a better writer than Iris Murdoch.

Readers and aspiring writers are always interested: what was your path to publication?

I’ve said I wrote two novels in my younger days. Full of hope, I sent these off to dozens of publishers and agents. Of course, I got nowhere. Most didn’t reply. Most who did got my hope up by asking for the manuscript only so they could drop it in the nearest bin and keep the return postage.

I could have tried self-publication, but this was too expensive. Even if I avoided the vanity press sharks, and went to a reputable printer, it was expensive. It involved various kinds of typesetting and proofing, and printing and binding. Once these fixed costs were taken into account, you had to order several thousand copies to get your unit costs close to a viable retail price. And how was I to sell these? Newspapers and magazines didn’t review self-published books. The main booksellers didn’t stock them. Getting into the bibliographical databases was beyond me. Without an ISBN, a book couldn’t be ordered. I’d have had a hundred heavy boxes to store, and a marketing strategy that was confined to lineage advertisements and taking a dozen copies at a time to conferences and other meetings where I might find readers.

Since no one would publish me, I gave up on fiction, and turned to political pamphleteering. Then, in the 1990s, I took to the Internet, and published about a million words on my own websites. This was all rather controversial, but it got me a name and an audience, and it was free. I didn’t realise at the time that I was getting ready for my next entry to the fiction market.

When I wrote Conspiracies of Rome,I took it for granted that no one else would publish it, so decided to bring it out myself. By now, the information technology revolution had brought down unit costs even in small runs. I had already published out several books of my Internet writings, and was pretty good at formatting in MS Word, and in designing covers in MS Publisher. So I called my novel The Column of Phocasand sent it off to a printer in the West of England.

Oh, the arrogance of doing that! I’ve said I wrote the novel in about six weeks. I sent it off to the printer after the briefest and most negligent proofing. It came back with missed full stops and dropped speech marks. There were fragments of sentences that I revised as I wrote and left undeleted.I had an eccentric taste in punctuation. In particular, I didn’t see the point in putting a comma before a closing speech mark in an unfinished sentence. I was also rather hazy about whether full stops should be inside or outside closing speech marks. Note: they can be either – but you must choose one standard, and stick to it.

Worse, its pace is variable. Unless you’re a genius, this is something learned by practice. The story in a modern novel must be told almost wholly by way of dialogue and action. Speaking about novels in general, every sentence must contribute to the plot. Digressions that don’t somehow contribute must be ruthlessly cut out. I didn’t know this at the time. I told myself I was writing fiction set in a virtually unknown period, and that the occasional digression was needed if readers were to understand the plot. I do this better now. When I started, I barely understood the difficulties.

And there is too much swearing. Yes, I know that characters in an historical novel must speak mutatis mutandis as if they were alive now – “’Gadzooks,’ quoth he, ‘thou hast thyself well-acquitted this day,’” is unacceptable. But did I need quite so much effing and blinding? I think the answer is no. Since then, I’ve become more varied in my dialogue. In my latest novel. The Break, there is no swearing at all.

Nevertheless, the book was a hit. I sold a thousand copies to my mailing list, and got some good reviews. One day, feeling more than usually pleased with myself, I dashed off a letter and sent it to a few dozen publishers. I explained that the novel was doing well, and it might do better still with a real publisher behind it – and that we might all make a tidy profit from this. Within a week, I had three replies and two offers. I signed with Hodder & Stoughton, and Conspiracies of Romeis a substantial rewrite of The Column of Phocas – a rewrite in which I was nagged into correcting all the faults I now find in it.

I’ve now done six novels with Hodder. These have all had nice reviews, and have been translated so far into Spanish, Italian, Greek, Slovak, Hungarian, Indonesian and Chinese. Other languages will follow. I used to feel embarrassed about calling myself a writer. But If this doesn’t make me one, I don’t know what else will.

I got my break into the mainstream by lucky accident. My letters arrived at just the right time. I don’t know if the strategy I adopted will work for someone else – though I’ll not discourage anyone from trying it. I got in before the big financial crash, and before the publishing market began to turn upside down in response to the rise of e-books. Times have fundamentally changed even in the past few years.

But times have changed fundamentally in the interests of authors. I won’t knock Hodder & Stoughton. My editors there have taught me many things I might not otherwise have realised I needed to learn. The company has exposed me to a much wider audience, at home and abroad, than I’d ever have been able to reach by my own efforts. All the same, we live in an age of disintermediation. Authors are no longer obliged to beat themselves against the door of the corporate publishing industry like flies against a window pane. We can do it ourselves. Between two of my Hodder novels, I wrote my alternative history satire, The Churchill Memorandum. I didn’t even think to offer it to a publisher. It went straight to Kindle, and has been doing well ever since. My latest novel, The Breakis a post-apocalyptic thriller which is also a brutal satire on our leftist managerial state. This also I brought out myself. It came out in July 2014, and has already been nominated for the 2015 Prometheus Award.

So, good luck if you can get a juicy publishing contract. But you probably won’t, and the future is to do it yourself.

Are there other historical periods that you want to write about someday?

I’ve been considering a thriller set in 1690s London – another underused period full of excitement and colour. The protagonist will be a woman playwright caught up in a mystery about a sealed package of documents. Depending on other commitments, I may start work on this next year.

What question do you wish I had asked but didn’t?  How would you answer it?

Bearing in mind the length of the answers I’ve given so far, it may be for the best if I pass on this question.r

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