As the year winds down and I take stock of my accomplishments, I find myself reflecting more and more on my principal activity: creative writing. I've decided to share some of my insights about my own, personal process and goals in a ten-part series. Today Is start with the genesis of a book: the inspiration.
Above: my husband and I at the Mena House Hotel, Giza, Egypt. Somehow the pyramids seemed like an appropriate image for reflecting on the source of inspiration.
Since I write historical fiction, the fundamental idea or trigger for a book is almost always an event in history that excites my interest. I usually stumble upon these catalysts quite by accident — e.g. when on holiday somewhere new, or reading about something else. I cannot approach a new novel rationally as I would non-fiction project, by evaluating what topics would be most relevant or popular or valuable. Nor can a second person suggest a topic to me. Unless I am personally inspired to write about an event/era/incident, it is an utter waste of time to try.
Once I start a novel, however, I draw as much upon my own experience with and understanding of mankind as I do upon the historical record and scholarly sources. I novel requires credible and attractive characters, and no matter how they are dressed, where or when they “lived,” they need to behave in ways consistent with human nature as I perceive it today.
One of the best examples of this is probably my depiction of Leonidas of Sparta as a youth going through the infamous agoge. Most readers will be familiar with the horror depicted in the film “300” or more lurid — but popular — allegations of mindless brutality resulting in many deaths and a complete disregard for literacy much less music, art or other subjects. Yet the popular view of the agoge is not supported by contemporary sources. Most legends about the agoge date from the Roman period, more than six hundred years after Leonidas lived and after two major changes in regime.
Having examined the evidence for the agoge in the era in which Leonidas attended, I found that it was viewed by such Ancient Greek intellectuals as Chilon, Socrates and Plato as admirable and progressive. (Would Socrates have approved of children not learning to read? Would Plato have wanted his second most important citizens to be mindless brutes?) I also learned that Sparta in the age of Leonidas was famous for its singing and dancing. (Is that consistent with a society that flogged its youth to death?) I learned that philosophers visited and taught in Sparta. (Taught illiterate youth who were out fighting with the wolves to survive?) I could go on, but you probably see my point.
I threw out
the sensationalist (possibly propaganda) reports written by non-Spartans about
an institution that existed more than 600 years after Leonidas’ death
along with all the modern fantasies constructed on those ancient sources and
started creating a Spartan agoge based on contemporary or near contemporary
sources. (My newest source was Xenophon, 430-350 BC.)
Furthermore, I knew while Spartan youth were expected to be soldiers-only for ten years, after that, while still subject to military service, they were also expected to be bureaucrats managing a wealthy and diverse state. (See: https://spartareconsidered.blogspot.com/2017/10/public-administration-spartas-hidden.html) Full Spartan citizens needed many skills starting with basic literacy and numeracy and Sparta’s soldiers need to know more than how to march and kill.
Combining this knowledge, I hypothesized an educational system consistent with what was known about Sparta but based more on educational systems around the world today. E.g. an age-based curriculum designed to give children and youth the skills they would need as adults in the world in which they lived. This in turn enabled me to create a Leonidas with whom most readers can readily identify -- as would not be the case if he was simply a victim of sadistic cruelty for 14 years. The result is a novel, A Boy of the Agoge which has won wide praise for its authenticity.
Find out more at: https://www.helenapschrader.com/boy-of-the-agoge.html