Friday, October 17, 2014

Salah-ad-Din! - Excerpt 5

Ascalon, November 1177

“Salah-ad-Din!” the man shouted up to the lookouts on the ramparts of the barbican. “With his whole army!” He gestured wildly to the south with one hand while trying to drag a reluctant overloaded mule toward the closed Gaza Gate with the other. It was nearly midnight and the gates were locked and barred, but the watch peered down at not just one man with a mule, but dozens of people streaming toward the city by the light of the setting moon.

The captain of the watch squinted into the darkness, trying to estimate the number of refugees. Then he turned to the man next to him and said, “Better rouse Sergeant Shoreham. I’m not opening these gates without his orders.” He leaned over the ramparts and shouted down to the man with the mule, “Patience! We’ll let the lot of you in at once, not piecemeal.”

By the time Roger arrived, his hair sticking up in all directions, the crowd at the gate had grown to an angry, milling mob of nearly a half a hundred people, including squalling babies, whimpering children, and pleading women. “Salah-ad-Din!” the men kept shouting and gesturing. “He’s coming with his whole army!”

Roger gave the order to admit the refugees and, after hesitating a moment, also ordered the sounding of the alarm to call the garrison to the walls. The men stared at him in shock, but then one of them grabbed the bell cord and began vigorously ringing the heavy brass bell on the Gaza barbican with all his might. The sound seemed paltry in the vastness of the night, but it was quickly answered by the bells on the other gates―and slowly, haphazardly, as priests and deacons were roused from their sleep, the bells of the city’s churches took up the clangor. Within minutes St. Paul’s added its deep, heavy voice to the chorus of bells, and St. Mary’s, the main Orthodox church, seemed to be competing for the loudest clang.

The sound brought Balian from his sleep with a start, trying to remember what saint’s day it was. Then he registered that it was pitch dark, and he sat bolt upright in his bed as he realized the bells could only be ringing alarm. He had been Constable of Ascalon for fifteen months now, but this was the first time he had heard the bells rung in earnest. He flung off the light covers and jumped out of bed. “Arms! Bring my arms!” he shouted at a bewildered Dawit, just dragging himself out of his own sleep.

Balian flug off his nightshirt and grabbed his braies. He pulled them on and tied the cord, while Daniel stumbled to his feet to bring him his shirt. Balian pulled this over his head and snapped his fingers for his hose, which Daniel brought and helped him draw on and make fast to his braies. Balian was already in his gambeson and stuffing his feet into knee-high suede boots by the time a servant knocked on the door, shouting: “Sir Balian! Sir Balian! Sergeant Shoreham requests your presence at the Gaza Gate!”

“I’m coming!” Balian answered, and bent so Dawit could slip his hauberk over his head. He pushed his arms through the slack chain-mail sleeves while Daniel waited with his surcoat. He pulled this on, grabbed his sword from Dawit’s outstretched arms, and selected the lighter, open-faced crevelier rather than the heavy helm Daniel offered him. Finished at last, he ordered his squires to dress themselves, wake Sir Walter, and join him on the Gaza Gate.

By the time Balian reached the Gaza Gate, the number of refugees had swollen to nearly a hundred, and the ten Hospitaller knights had also mustered on foot. “They’re saying Salah-ad-Din is on the move with his entire army!” one of the Hospitallers called out to Balian as the latter jumped down from Jupiter to mount the stairs onto the barbican.

Balian handed his reins to one of the Hospitallers, asking: “How far away is he supposed to be?”

“Not more than twelve miles, they say. Most of these people fled early in the morning and have been making for Ascalon all day.”

“That would mean he’s marched past the Templar castle at Gaza,” Balian countered.

“These people are reporting one hundred thousand soldiers with Salah-ad-Din; the Templars only have five hundred fighting men at Gaza. Even they wouldn’t be mad enough to attack against those odds.”

“These people are panicked refugees. I’ll believe this is Salah-ad-Din’s whole army, and not just a raid, when I have better evidence than the panicked claims of fleeing peasants. How soon can you be ready to ride?” he asked the Hospitaller.

The man glanced back at his troops and then replied, “Ten minutes.”

“Good. Make ready,” Balian ordered (although he had no right to do so), and then plunged into the darkness of the narrow spiral stairwell leading up to the ramparts of the barbican.

When Balian stepped out of the stairwell onto the roof of the barbican, he quickly counted double the number of men usually stationed there, and recognized George Smith and Joachim Zimmermann among them. They were wearing leather jacks with hoods and had swords at their hips. Just as Roger had promised, it wasn’t just the garrison that had responded to the clanging of the bells.

Roger caught sight of Balian and went over to him. “You’ve seen the refugees, my lord? They’re saying Salah-ad-Din is on the march with his whole army.”

“What makes you think this is an invasion and not a raid?”

“I don’t know, sir. I would just rather be safe than sorry.”

Balian nodded his approval, but his guts were twisting themselves in knots. Salah-ad-Din had assembled his army to counter a threat posed by a Byzantine fleet sent to support the troops of the Count of Flanders and the Army of Jerusalem, but Flanders had quarreled with the Byzantines (ignoring Zoë’s advice, she confided in him), and now the Byzantine fleet had withdrawn and the Count of Flanders had gone campaigning in the north. This left Salah-ad-Din with his assembled forces on the southern border of the Kingdom at a time when it was virtually denuded of troops. The Saracens would be mad not to take advantage of the situation and attack, Balian thought as he followed Roger to the parapet. And Ascalon made the most tempting target. The Sultan must be itching to take it back and regain a base for his own fleet.

“There! Do you see the pinpoints of light on the horizon?” Roger broke into his thoughts.

Balian had to look very hard, but then he nodded. “Burning villages?”

“That’s my guess, my lord.”

Balian nodded again. “Roger, I want you to put the city on the defensive.”

“Yes, my lord, that’s what we’ve done.”

“Yes. What I meant is: I want you to take command of the defense.”

“But, my lord―”

Balian held up his hand and turned to Walter, Dawit, and Daniel, who had just arrived together. “Dawit, tack up Gladiator―with battle gear, the chain reins―and bring him here.”

“Do you need your lance and helmet, sir?” Daniel asked with breathless excitement.

“You aren’t going out there, my lord!” Roger gasped.

“The Hospitallers and I will ride reconnaissance,” Balian answered.

 Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Political Marriage - Excerpt 4

Jerusalem, September 1172

When the King still had not come to her more than a fortnight after her recovery, Maria Zoë took things into her own hands. She knew that Amalric, a conscientious monarch, met with his Privy Council every day at noon in the Tower of David. She ordered her ladies to dress her in her wedding gown with its extravagance of jewels, and she set the crown of Jerusalem upon sheer silk veils that shimmered gold and white over her dark hair. Then she sent for the herald. “Announce me to the King,” she ordered the astonished herald.

“But, your grace—” He broke off as she rose to her feet and met him in the eye.

“I am going to the Tower of David to see my husband. Go and announce me.”

The herald backed out of her chamber, bowing, and Maria Zoë could hear his boots as he ran along the gallery leading from the modern palace back to the ancient citadel. Maria Zoë moved slowly to give the herald time to warn her husband, but not so slowly that Amalric could escape her altogether. By the time she reached the exterior stairs leading up to the great audience chamber in the ancient tower, the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Constable, Humphrey de Toron, were exiting the grand chamber in apparent haste. Both men bowed their heads to their Queen, and Maria Zoë could feel their eyes boring into her back.

As she entered the grand chamber with the throne and a table for the council, two clerks were falling over themselves in their haste to put away their quills and inkpots and clear out. They, too, bowed deeply to Maria Zoë and beat a hasty retreat.

Amalric awaited her seated, his face impassive, his eyes following her alertly. Maria Zoë approached the throne and went down in a formal curtsy. “My lord,” she murmured as she righted herself. “Since you have avoided my presence these last two weeks, I thought it was time I sought you out.”

“Hmm,” Amalric remarked. “You are recovered, then?”

“I am recovered. And you, my lord, you are well?”

“As well as a man can be—after being presented with a second daughter at a time when the Kingdom desperately needs a male heir. People may not say it out loud, but Baldwin has leprosy. Very likely it disqualifies him from the throne altogether. A nobleman with leprosy must enter the Order of St. Lazarus. Can the law exempt a prince?”

“My lord, I am as disappointed as you are that my child is a girl,” Maria Zoë answered steadily. “But I cannot decide the sex of my child.”

“No, so I’m told,” Amalric admitted grudgingly.

“The only solution is for us to try again.” Maria Zoë had practiced this line in her head a hundred times and she tried to sound bold, but her voice quavered a little nevertheless.

“Oh, really?” Amalric asked sarcastically, making Maria Zoë blush. “Somehow, I never had the impression you were very enthusiastic about sexual intimacy—at least not with me.”

Maria Zoë gasped. “You cannot think I have been unfaithful to you!”

Amalric considered his bride and smiled cynically. He had always preferred married women to girls, precisely because virgins were rarely enthusiastic partners in bed. Maria Zoë’s beauty had seduced him at first, but her unresponsiveness—often with a twisted face and gasps of pain—had soon dulled his appetite. She seemed to dislike physical intimacy so intensely that he truly found it hard to imagine her risking her crown, her head, and her soul for the sake of carnal pleasures—unlike Agnes de Courtney, who was always eager for variety in fornication. Nevertheless, he reasoned that it didn’t hurt to let his wife think he doubted her, so that she would be frightened as well as disinclined. In answer to her reply, he merely weighed his head from side to side and remarked, “You’re a beautiful young woman—and as such, weak and easily seduced.”

“Never!” she declared indignantly, her cheeks flushed. “And how should another man have a chance if you are there?”

“Where? You mean in your bed? Ah, well, believe me, it’s quite possible to make love in other venues—but that is a topic best saved for another time, and not exactly the reason you are here, is it?”

“My lord, as you said, the Kingdom of Jerusalem needs a male heir, and only you can sire him.”

“Indeed, but not necessarily with you.”

So the rumors were true, Maria Zoë registered, and he was considering setting her aside.

“I am your wife—”

“Perhaps not. If my marriage to Agnes was valid, then my marriage to you is bigamous, and you are nothing more than my concubine.” He let this sink in, enjoying the look of horror on Maria Zoë’s face. Like all Greeks, she considered herself fundamentally superior to other races, and Amalric took a certain pleasure in pointing out the weakness of her position. “I’m sure I could find a priest—even a bishop—who would argue the case. Should I so desire …” Amalric threatened with a mild, unfriendly smile.

“I’m sure you could, too, my lord,” Maria Zoë answered steadily, having recovered from the insult of being called a concubine. She wasn’t, after all, entirely unprepared for his line of attack. She was no fool, and she had given much thought to where this conversation might lead. Since he had played this trump, however, she drew hers. “And I’m just as certain that my great-uncle would see such a move as an insult incompatible with his status as your overlord.”

“The Greek Emperor is not my overlord,” Amalric retorted sharply.

“No? I thought that was the purpose of your trip to Constantinople last year—to renew your lapsed oaths of homage,” Maria Zoë pointed out coolly. Although Amalric had not seen fit to include her in his meetings with her great-uncle, her father had been present, and he had assured her that Amalric had dutifully acknowledged that he held Jerusalem as a vassal of Constantinople.

“The Greek Emperor generously offered me his protection, and I assured him of my goodwill—no more than that,” Amalric insisted, frowning sidelong at his beautiful doll-wife, who had never dared talk to him like this before.

Maria Zoë recognized that she could not argue this point, and changed her tactic. “Whether my great-uncle is your overlord or not, neither he nor my brother-in-law of Antioch will allow me to be set aside without consequences for Jerusalem.”

Amalric snorted in exasperation—because she was right. The Emperor in Constantinople had made it very clear that he considered himself the center of the universe and would take any slight to his prestige as lèse majesté, while Antioch had tied himself to Constantinople because he needed Greek support to keep the Seljuks at bay. This dependency was reflected in his marriage politics: Prince Bohemond’s sister Mary was the Emperor’s current wife, while Bohemond himself was married to Maria Zoë’s sister. In short, Amalric’s two most powerful allies would both side with his wife in any public dispute, and Jerusalem could not afford to fall out with both Constantinople and Antioch.

Amalric considered his wife again through narrowed eyes, registering that she was not as fragile, weak, or docile as he had taken her to be. She was clearly growing up. He grunted a second time. He was stuck with this wife for political reasons—and truth to tell, it was not such a difficult duty to get her pregnant again. “I’ll tell you what,” Amalric suggested, leaning closer to Maria Zoë and lowering his voice. “You make me feel welcome in your bed, and I’ll think about spending as much time there as we need to make a son together.”

 Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!

Friday, October 3, 2014

If God has seen fit to make the heir to Jerusalem an leper... Excerpt 3

Jerusalem, May 1171

William, Archdeacon of Tyre, led Balian along the interior gallery toward the Jaffa Tower. The Archdeacon was not yet an old man, but he was no longer young, either; Balian had heard that he’d spent sixteen years studying in the West before returning to the city of his birth to serve the King. Balian judged he was roughly half a century old. He wore long ecclesiastical robes and soft doeskin slippers, so his feet were silent on the checkerboard of light and dark marble paving stones. “He is a very bright boy,” the Archdeacon told the young knight. “He is exceptionally quick to pick up on things, and he has a sharp analytic capability that often surprises me. More than once he has made observations that would honor a grown man. If it weren’t for his illness, I would rejoice that the Kingdom of Jerusalem had been blessed by such an intelligent boy as its heir.”

Balian nodded, and the Archdeacon looked at him sidelong. “You fear contagion,” he concluded.

Balian took a deep breath. “Shouldn’t I?”

“You should, for despite what the King says, the boy is almost certainly struck by leprosy. The King does not want to believe that, and as long as we can pretend it might be something else, we do. But in your shoes, I would assume it is leprosy. That said, the danger of contagion is far less than many people believe―especially under the circumstances. You see, the son of a king can afford what commoners cannot: to be bathed morning and night, and to have fresh bandages and fresh clothes each day. The bandages and clothes removed at night are boiled in large vats with salts that sterilize them. I personally wear cotton gloves when I am near Baldwin, and I change my gloves each day, sending the dirty gloves to be sterilized in the same way. I would strongly recommend you bathe nightly as well. I make no promises―after all, none of us know how Prince Baldwin became infected―but there is no reason to see this assignment as a death sentence.”

Balian glanced at the churchman with a wan smile. “Am I so easy to read?”

The Archdeacon laughed. “In this case, yes―but mostly because it is what everyone thinks. Only slaves attend Baldwin, because—I am ashamed to admit—none of the Christian servants were willing to take on the duties of looking after him.”

“The Prince of Jerusalem is surrounded by Muslim slaves?” Balian asked, shocked.

“And you and me,” the Archdeacon reminded him with a smile, but then he grew serious and halted. They were still a good ten paces from the entrance to the Prince’s suite of rooms, guarded by men-at-arms in the livery of Jerusalem. The Archdeacon lowered his voice and looked Balian in the eye. “You and I will be working closely together in the months, maybe even years, ahead. I wish to know more about you.”

“I am the third son of the first Baron d’Ibelin, the younger brother of Barisan de Ramla―”
The Archdeacon cut him off with a shake of his head. “I know who you were born, Sir Balian. I am not interested in your bloodlines and estate, but rather in your character. I would like to know why you accepted this position―since evidently you consider it a death sentence.”

Balian looked down, embarrassed.

“Would you feel more comfortable in a chapel?” the Archdeacon asked, leaning past Balian to open the doors to a room immediately off the gallery. It was hardly more than an oratory, really, with room for no more than two or three people to kneel before the altar. But Christ was here, the Eucharist candle hanging by silver chains above the altar. The Archdeacon closed the door behind them, and Balian was cornered. This was a confession, only facing the priest.

“There is nothing wrong with admitting you took this position for the rewards the King offered, for I’m sure he offered you something valuable,” the Archdeacon told Balian with a smile, as if trying to make this easier for him.

“No, I didn’t take it for rewards, since I question whether I will live long enough to collect,” Balian answered honestly.

“Then why did you take this position?”

Balian fixed his eyes on the Eucharist rather than the churchman. “Because I thought that if God had seen fit to make the Prince of Jerusalem a leper, then who was I to think I was too good to serve him?”

This answer took even the Archdeacon by surprise. In a spontaneous gesture that was very rare for the learned cleric, he embraced Balian and murmured, “My son!” Then, as if embarrassed by his own gesture, he stepped back and held Balian at arm’s length, looking him in the eye. “Do you know what the Byzantines call leprosy? They call it ‘the holy disease.’ You must understand: lepers are not punished for the blackness of their souls! You will understand that better when you meet Baldwin. Rather, leprosy is a sign of His grace. Lepers have been singled out to suffer as He did—and to give other Christian men an opportunity to demonstrate their faith through service to these poor souls. I see that you understand that, and I am certain the Lord has blessed you, young man. But remember, he who is blessed by the Lord is not guaranteed health or prosperity in this life, but surely in the next. He will be with you always!”

“May I do nothing to offend Him, my lord.”


Buy now in paperback or Kindle.

Friday, September 26, 2014

If Only Jewels Could Make A Woman Happy - Excerpt 2

Royal Palace of Jerusalem, March 1171

If only jewels could make a woman happy, Maria Zoë Comnena thought as her ladies prepared her for yet another state dinner. Her great-uncle, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I, had sent her as a bride to the King of Jerusalem, laden with jewels as a way to demonstrate his wealth.

Maria Zoë remembered all too vividly what it had been like when she arrived in Jerusalem at the age of thirteen. The marriage had been celebrated just two days after her arrival, before she had had any chance to recover from the arduous journey. Although she had been given French lessons to prepare her for her marriage to Jerusalem, at the time of her wedding she still needed to concentrate very hard to understand rapidly spoken French. She had been utterly exhausted, from the constant use of a strange tongue and from wearing the heavy, jewel-encrusted gown, long before her husband consummated the marriage.
he next morning she was presented to the court again, this time as a married woman, and she had been so tired she could hardly keep her eyes open―which sparked much jocularity and teasing, and the King had beamed with pride. Amalric had been proud of his little Byzantine bride. She was as pretty as a doll, with curly black hair, big amber eyes, a nubile white body, and the riches of Byzantium draped upon her.

That was five years ago. Now Amalric was also proud of her learning, particularly the fact that she could read and write in Greek, Latin, and French. The King had even been known to brag about the fact that she had read Aristotle and Plato. But such bragging was because he felt her learning, like her bloodlines and her beauty, reflected well on him. These things did not fundamentally alter his attitude towards her. Except in bed, he treated Maria Zoë with the greatest of courtesy, and her authority was never publicly undermined, but he never sought her advice or interacted with her on an intellectual level. She was his Queen, not his companion or friend.

As his Queen, he expected her to be immaculately dressed, coifed, and made up whenever she appeared in public. This started with a daily bath in rose water, followed by skin creams. Her fingernails and toenails were manicured. Then she was dressed in silk undergarments, over which came silk gowns and surcoats embroidered with bright silk, gold, and silver threads. Last but not least, she was laden with jewels: hairpins with pearl or rolled amber heads, earrings that dangled almost to her shoulders, necklaces with multiple strands of gold or beads of precious stones, bracelets as wide as an archer’s leather brace, and rings on every finger. A Syrian Christian had been employed for the sole purpose of outlining her eyes, rouging her cheeks and lips, coloring her eyelids, and styling her hair, which was never entirely concealed under the sheer silk veils that she wore.

The result was dazzling to the observer, and utterly stifling to Maria Zoë. She could not move naturally in her clothing, nor sit comfortably, nor relax even for a moment. She was transformed into a doll, her thoughts and feelings completely buried behind the façade.

Amalric of Jerusalem had once been a handsome man. Now, although he was only thirty-five years old, his once powerful body had become flabby to the point of obesity, and his once fine, blond hair was receding. His hazel eyes, however, were hawkish, and they lit up at the sight of his wife. He smiled as he came forward to kiss her on each cheek. “You look lovely, my dear! Absolutely lovely! You’ll have all the bachelors swooning at your feet—and my barons as well.”

Didn’t it ever occur to him that I don’t care about that? Maria Zoë wondered. What good are hollow conquests based on attraction to a façade?

The King took her hand through his elbow to lead her out of the chamber. “I swear, my dear, you become more beautiful with each day,” he assured her. Evidently he thinks women care only about being beautiful, Maria Zoë concluded with inner resentment.

Because she did not respond with blushing delight at his compliment, Amalric asked hopefully, “Is something the matter, my dear? Are you indisposed?” He associated indisposition with pregnancy.

“No, my lord. I am only anxious that the Assassins might take advantage of this gathering of all the important men in the Kingdom.”

Amalric’s face darkened instantly. He had recently concluded a treaty with the Shiite sect based in the Syrian mountains, who were famous for sending out assassins to eliminate their enemies. The treaty had been a significant coup for King Amalric, but the Knights Templar had shown their contempt for the King of Jerusalem by striking down the sect’s ambassadors during their return journey. The diplomatic consequences were still unforeseeable, but the impudence of the Templars had provoked a domestic crisis. Maria Zoë knew that her husband had tried to seize the Templars responsible for the murders and punish them, but the Templars had met the officers of the King with open defiance, insisting they were subordinate to the Pope alone. In a rage, Amalric had sworn to teach the Templars a lesson. He had even threatened a military confrontation with the mighty Order. In the end, however, cooler heads had prevailed. He had been talked into sending a letter to the Pope demanding that the Templars responsible for the murder of the ambassadors be punished—and demanding that the Order as a whole be chastised and disciplined. Maria Zoë knew all that—but not from her husband.

Her attempt to provoke her husband into discussing the issue, however, failed flatly. Despite his scowl at the mere mention of the incident, he patted her hand and urged her not to “worry her pretty head” about the Assassins. “I promise you, we have everything under control.”

Maria Zoë gave up. This was not the time or venue for a renewed attempt to get her husband to view her as a mind, not just a body.

Buy Now!

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Landless Knight - Excerpt 1 from "Knight of Jerusalem"

Ibelin Castle, Kingdom of Jerusalem, March 1171

Barry snorted. “And what about you? What are your plans now?”

Balian shrugged. “Hugh suggested I go to Jerusalem.”

“Don’t tell me you still have romantic notions about winning fame and fortune by great deeds?” he asked with contempt. Then he added condescendingly, “It’s time you grew up, Balian, and recognized that earning honor with great deeds is for the romances and the songs of troubadours, but not relevant in today’s world. Face it,” he continued: “nowadays kingdoms and baronies are inherited rather than won by the sword. Look what happened to Reynald de Châtillon when he tried to seize Cyprus by force.”

Balian bristled at the suggestion that he was a man like Reynald de Châtillon, a brutal adventurer with no respect for the Church or his feudal overlord. “I have no desire to imitate Reynald de Châtillon!” he snapped at his elder brother.

Barry laughed, and too late Balian realized his brother had been baiting him. “Even in our father’s day, winning a fortune by the sword took longer than the alternatives.”
When Balian refused to answer, Barry continued, “Your problem, Balian, is that you’re not acquisitive enough. You need to be greedier if you’re ever going to make something of yourself.”

“Greed is a deadly sin, Barry,” Balian answered, echoing what he had said to Henri only a few hours earlier, and adding before Barry could make any snide remarks, “I think I’ll go to Jerusalem as Hugh suggested.”

“Jerusalem,” Barisan countered, “is full of younger sons from every noble house in France, England, and the Holy Roman Empire. You don’t have a chance of standing out in that crowd. You should go to Antioch. Prince Bohemond is still young and hasn’t been in power very long. He will be in need of men to support him―and the competition isn’t as stiff in Antioch.”

Balian smiled crookedly. “Thank you for your faith in my abilities, Barry.”

“Oh, don’t be so thin-skinned! You know I didn’t mean it that way. I just want you to be successful. After all, the more successful you are, the more successful we are as a family.”

“I’ll try my luck with Jerusalem.”

Barisan shrugged. “As you wish, but don’t come crawling to me if things don’t go according to plan.”

“No, Barry. Never.”

 Buy now!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Reading About Things We Know -- Another Book about Anne Boleyn....

As a novelist, I have always favored something novel. I strive to be original in both my style and my subject matter. As a historical novelist, I am drawn to the "untold stories" of history. I like to "discover" historical events that have been forgotten or neglected, and bring to life historical figures who have been locked away in dry and dusty history books but not handled in literature. 

This may explain why my success to date is so modest.

Readers much perfer to read about someone they "know" than someone they've never heard about. It's the natural tendency of all people to be more interested in gossip about their neighbors than in strangers. If you don't "know" someone, why should you care about them?  In the same way, an audience prefers a familiar tune to a new one. Even if we don't particularly like a melody, we'll still find ourselves tapping our feet or nodding our head in time to the tune; we'll hum or whistle or sing along. But if we've never heard a song before, we can't do any of that and so it's more likely to be ignored or switched off altogether as mere noise. Performing artists understand the need to mix new songs in among older songs to get their audience to listen until the new becomes familiar.

With books the interest is more cerebral than instinctive. Just as we go to see a new production of Shakespeare's Hamlet because we want to see how the director and actors interpret the familiar plot and dialogue, we read books about familiar historical events and people in order to she how the author has portrayed them. Thus reviewers often compare authors/books about similar subject matter. "This book makes character x much weaker than author y did in his book z...."

The result, as publishers well know, is that readers are more likely to buy the 101,000th book about Anne Boleyn than the first book about - say - Anne of Bohemia. The more famous the historical person, the more successful a book will be. Richard the Lionheart trumps Ethelred the Unready every time. It also explains why readers perfer to read about their cultural heretage: English history is much more popular to English-speaking readers all across the world than Chinese or Ethiopian history. 

From the point of view of novelty and "discovering" the "untold stories" of history, Ethiopia has much more to offer than England, but since I want people to read what I write, so I'm not going to go there. Unfortunately, I'm bored to death by Anne Boleyn and even Richard III at this point so I'm not able to write a single word about them. Instead, I float on the less familiar (but hopefully a little familiar) fringes of Western European history, with my up-coming biographical novels of Balian d'Ibelin and, later, Edward the Black Prince. 

Friday, September 5, 2014

Write About Things You Know – Not About Yourself

English teachers and other instructors of creative writing classes are in the habit of telling aspiring young writers to “write about things you know.” There’s a good reason for this. If they didn’t make this seemingly obvious suggestion, they would have a lot of students coming to them for ideas or failing to write a single sentence because they “didn’t know what to write about.”

The problem with this practical piece of advice is that, while useful in the classroom, it is too often transferred out of that context. “Writing about what you know” is a way to get started. It is a way to practice and exercise, to develop skill and style. It is not – repeat not - the finished product.

A finished product is a piece of writing that you wish to share with a wider public than your teacher, classmates, close friends and relatives. And this is where it is important to make a very important transition.

If you are writing for public consumption – i.e. if you plan to publish in a magazine, on the internet or to publish a book – then you should not confuse “writing about things you know” with writing about yourself. Yes, if you’re already a celebrity, people might be interested in you, but, if not, the chances are that no one who doesn’t already know you is going to be interested in reading about you. Do you go out and buy autobiographies of people who have never done anything exceptional or heroic? Do you read books about people who have not achieved fame or fortune?  And if you do, how many have you bought? Have you read a dozen, a score, a-hundred-thousand? Believe me, the market for autobiographies by John and Jane Doe is very limited indeed. In fact, it is limited to about the number of copies John and Jane Doe are prepared to buy themselves to try and give away.

“Writing about what you know” does not, however, necessarily mean writing about yourself. It can mean writing about a familiar environment, or abstracting from personal experience to more universal experiences. In this sense, “writing about what you know” can indeed be useful component in a finished product. The point is simply that the finished product is unlikely to use this knowledge one-to-one as in autobiography, but as part of a larger, more universally appealing story.

In short, while it is perfectly legitimate to try to learn writing skills without a particular message in mind, no one should aspire to be a writer unless he/she has something to say.  In fact, no one should aspire “to be a writer” at all because being a writer is meaningless; the message is everything. Writing is a means to an end, not an end in itself. In the same way, writing “about what you know” should be a means to an end: either a way to learn writing skills or a way to deliver a more profound and universal message in a convincing manner.