Once again, The
Free Choice E-zine has the opportunity
to chat with author Ian Watson, who writes under the name I.A.
Watson, so as not to be confused with
another wordsmith of the same name.
So Ian, what have you been up to since our last conversation,
concerning your then recent release of ROBIN HOOD: FREEDOM'S
|Author I. A. (Ian) Watson|
I failed in last year’s publishing objective to average a title
a month. I managed to get ten things into print, but the sheer time
lag of writing to publication thwarted my goal.
Last time, we’d covered up to
my World War II adventure/superhero romp SIR
MUMPHREY WILTON AND THE LOST CITY OF MYSTERY, which was number seven
or eight. Publication-wise since then, in chronological order, there
“Sinbad and the Rakshasa’s Game”
in SINBAD THE NEW VOYAGES volume 4, pitting the swashbuckling sailor
against a dazzling damsel in a captive chess match where the loser
THE TRANSDIMENSIONAL TRAVEL COMPANY,
a contemporary SF weird science adventure novel featuring the staff
of the go-to company for getting your packages shifted to other
realities or parallel universes.
First out this year is SHERLOCK
HOLMES MYSTERIES, a massive Kindle only collection of seven stories I
wrote for the first six volumes of Sherlock
Holmes, Consulting Detective, plus an
additional unpublished tale, “The Adventure of the Failing Light”,
pitting our investigators against the real-life mystery disappearance
of three keepers from a lonely Outer Hebrides lighthouse in winter
1900. That’s about 130,000 words all together.
And by the time this interview is
allowed out for the appalled public (he says with tongue very firmly in cheek), there will also be SHERLOCK HOLMES CONSULTING DETECTIVE volume 7, which includes my
story “Spring-Heeled Jack”, pitting Holmes and Watson early in
their career against that notorious Victorian bugaboo–all Canon
friendly, of course.
All of this stuff is listed, along
with free stories and samples and various other bits and pieces, at
my author website at
TFCE: Airship 27 Captain Ron Fortier says you've submitted Sherlock Holmes mysteries through Volume 9 of that series.
I.A.W.: Really? I thought I had made it to Volume 10.
TFCE: Anyway, since you're comfortable in both genres, please recap for us the
difference(s) between historic and traditional fiction.
Historical fiction is clearly a subset of fiction as a whole. If you
mean traditional fiction as the sort of stories that have been
typically told in our narrative tradition, historical settings have
always been popular within that whole set. The Greeks and Romans told
myths of their ancestors–the Trojan War, for example. King Arthur’s
tales were set in a fictionalised part era, written from the 12th
century but assumed to have happened around in the 5th.
Robin Hood’s ballads were placed back in the days of old King Henry
II or his son Richard the Lionheart. Victorians liked to hearken back
a century to the era of pirates; like Treasure
Island. Pulp writers of the 1930s loved
the wild west setting of the 1880s. Nowadays the gangster era and
World War II seem to be the popular time-periods of choice.
|Classic Pulps for any taste|
The difference that makes it
historical fiction is the setting. The backdrop, and often the whole
plot driver, is some real or semi-real era of our past. Beyond that
the distinctions are whether the story is dependent on the setting
and how real that setting is.
For example, consider a romance story
that just happens to be set in the middle ages, versus an adventure
tale chronicling a soldier’s exploits at the Battle of Waterloo.
One requires the sets and costumes and takes advantages of the
manners and mores. The other depends upon established historical
detail to shape the events that the characters endure. Most
historical fiction lies somewhere between the two extremes of that
The authenticity of the setting is
also a dramatic choice. Few authors find it helpful to have their
historical characters speaking the actual language of the time, or
accurately portray their heroines with rotting teeth and pock marks,
or include 100% accurate social and intellectual attitudes; otherwise
the story becomes all about that. There is always a choice about how
much history to admit and what to discard.
Special mention should also be made
to that sub-genre, the alternative history, wherein a different past
is depicted based upon some imagined time line change. What would the
Victorian era have been like had James Watt invented space travel, or
had Napoleon conquered the British Empire?
Reasons for using historical settings
differ by author and story, but the main ones are, 1. to make use of
some period or event for a story that could only happen there and
then, e.g. the last days of Pompeii before the volcano; 2. as an
exotic location to offer a different kind of atmosphere that isolates
the cast from a mundane present; 3. to make use of historical figures
as fictional characters; 4. because a particular historical setting
has become a genre in its own right, as with the western or the war
During our last chat, I asked if doing the research for such projects
was a daunting/difficult task. Do you find it even harder as time
passes further beyond the period when your subject(s) lived?
There are deficits and benefits. Set the story in the 1950s and there
is a wealth of material to draw upon to get things right, including
many people still alive who lived through the time, thousands of
movies and books of the time, and a shared cultural understand to
which most readers will need no additional introduction. Set the yarn
in World War I and there is still a strong shared understanding of
the era, so long as the story is set in one of the “famous” parts
of World War I, and not in central Asia or somewhere. But settings
and circumstance are more open to author interpretation. Go back to
Victorian London and we’re close to a fictionalised consensus
reality that often digresses quite a bit from a purely historical
By the time we get back to the middle
ages or to classical periods we have rather less to go on. Readers
will bring with them a kind of mental summary of the times and
places, which can either be supplemented or contradicted by the
present story, but the author has to select which interpretations of
history are best relevant for the purpose of storytelling. In these
cases research can be harder but sources are fewer, requiring less
Recently I’ve been working on
three classical novels, a two-part historical fantasy called ST
GEORGE AND THE DRAGON, of which volume one is out in February 2015
and volume two in April 2015, and on a mythological fantasy,
OF HERCULES. The former is set in late 3rd
century North Africa, in the crumbling days of the Roman Empire, and
I’ve tried to paint in the culture, attitudes, beliefs, society,
and behaviours accurate to that time. The idea was to have one
fantastic element, a nigh-unstoppable dragon, drop into what is
otherwise a normal world of politics, economics, military strategies,
and social wranglings. What would a lottery of virgins to feed to the
wyrm do to
that ordered Roman society?
The Hercules story is set in that
semi-mythological continuity established over a millennium by Greek
and Roman writers, a collection of tales of heroes and gods as
connected and complicated as the modern-day exploits of Marvel and DC
comics superheroes. There are all kinds of parallels too; all written
over many years for changing societies, by multiple authors with
different emphasises, levels of skill, and regard for established
canon. My research for LABOURS OF HERCULES was partly about selecting
which versions of the source tales to give priority and partly about
rooting the fantastic elements of those stories into a consistent,
credible, and relate-able civilisation.
In the specific case of Saint George and
the Dragon, just how fictional or
historic is the legend? After all dragons, as they are portrayed in
fantasy novels today, didn't really exist, did they?
The core source of the legend is that medieval best seller The
Golden Legend, which at one point in
the middle ages had sold more copies than the Bible. The book is a
collection of wonder-stories about the lives of the saints, of which
St George is the best known and most remembered today. Based on that
success came many imitators, and St George became the exemplar of the
paladin knight, adopted as patron saint by England, Portugal, and
Since there's one in the United States, could you please clarify
referring to the Caucasan nation of Georgia, formerly part of the
the U.S. state of Georgia was named after English King George II, who
was named after King George I, who was named after... St. George!
George is or was also the former patron saint of Ethiopia, Genoa,
Milan, Beirut, Malta, Aragon, Catalonia, and Moscow. Moscow's ancient
coat-of-arms shows him slaying a dragon. He is the patron saints of
the Boy Scouts of America and of the U.S Army's armor branch.
So who was Saint George?
There are all kinds of arguments about George’s actually identity.
In my books, I go with the majority in identifying him as George of
Cappadocia, a senior Roman military officer who died under the
persecution of Emperor Diocletian at the start of the 4th
century. There are similarly arguments about where ‘Silene’, the
place where he fought his dragon and rescued a princess, actually
was. Much medieval tourist money depended on the outcome. I’ve
plumped with Cyrene, in modern day Libya, because that part of Africa
has a long and notorious association with serpents and
snake-monsters, and perfectly fitted the rest of the story’s
economic and political aspects.
As for the reality of dragon, there
are two ways one could take that aspect of the story. Libya still has
archaeological and documentary traces of a snake cult, with
subterranean carvings and classical accounts. One city of that time
in that area was Crocodilopolis, reputedly so named because prisoners
there were fed to a sacred crocodile. It’s not impossible to
imagine a society where ritual human sacrifice to a huge snake or
croc took place until the arrival of a militant Christian knight
ended the practice.
Or there’s the way that I took, to
dig back into prehistory. After all, reptiles ruled the Earth for
three million years, a hundred times longer than humans have managed
so far. What if dragons were the apex of dinosaur evolution,
sentient, intelligent, dominant, language-using, science-using,
what-we’d-call-magic using? What if one of them survived the
extinction cataclysm that wiped all traces of their civilisation from
the world? What if he awoke from eons of sleep to find a human
infestation has crawled across his planet? And what if he was a
really, deeply, truly evil bastard?
The dragon is the one fantastic
element in this book. There are other monsters, and magic, and rites,
and visions, but all the overt supernatural elements process from
that one point. The dragon is the change to “proper” history.
That said, the time period contains
its own changing belief systems about the world and about
supernatural things. In those dying days of empire, when the Romans
had all but abandoned Rome and were fighting schismed wars over
Byzantium and Nicopolis while barbarians nibbled away their borders,
the official Roman pantheon was in decline. New heresies such as
outlawed Christianity were growing in strength. It would be
impossible to do even a vaguely historic account of St George and the
Dragon without addressing issues of faith.
|Painting by Briton Riviere|
There are no overt miracles in ST
GEORGE AND THE DRAGON, either from the
Christian God of George’s
father and of George’s humble monk companion (George himself is not
speaking to God at the start of our story, for reasons that become
apparent later), or from the Greco-Roman deities of Lady Sabra,
so-called “princess of Libya”, daughter of the Roman Cyrenean
governor. Those of Christian or pagan faiths will be able to make a
case for divine interest in the story anyway, as they do in actual
history. Those who would prefer different explanations will be able
to comfort themselves with mundane solutions. That is the way faith
That doesn’t stop our
protagonists having things to say about religion, though. One of my
favourite scenes is Princess Sabra formally addressing her gods to
curse her enemies in the way we know from archaeological and literary
sources often happened in that era. One might
argue that the gods heard her prayers; but the gods help those who
help themselves. Another scene I liked has humble Brother Jacob
absolutely baffling the dragon’s charms and temptations by
contemplating the 23rd
Psalm. Dragons so rarely encounter religious poetry as a means of
fending them off.
How many times has Saint George and the
Dragon been covered in literature
before? And how accurate were those past recountings?
It’s hard now for us to grasp how big a character George was in
middle ages writing. The sheer volume of copies of The
Golden Legend and its imitators that
have come down to us today illustrates how widespread circulation
must have been.
|By Hans Acker, circa 1440|
As for George, as well as being the
patron saint of England, Portugal, and Georgia, he is recognized as
saintly by the Catholic, Anglican, Lutherian, Oriental Orthodox and
Eastern Orthodox churches. He’s listed as one of the Fourteen Holy
Helpers whose intervention Catholicism holds to be particularly
efficacious. He is particularly good with leprosy and sexually
transmitted diseases. Patronages of Saint George also exist in
Aragon, Bulgaria, Catalonia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, India, Iraq,
Lebanon, Lithuania, Macedonia, Palestine, Romania, Russia. Serbia,
Syria, and Ukraine, as well as many cities and the Scout Movement.
His red cross on white background has contributed to the flags of
England, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain. And yet, as one
early pope said of him, he is amongst those saints whose actual acts
“are known only to God”. The church no longer makes
dragon-slaying claims for him.
The Victorians were the last people
to really like writing St George stories. There’s even a volume
about the patron saints of England, Ireland, Scotland, France, and a
bunch of other teaming up as knights to go fight evil. It’s that
period that emphasises additions like a villainous Moorish knight who
kidnaps Princess Sabra, requiring a second lengthy rescue while she
must continue to invent ways of preserving her virtue. I’ve ignored
these later accretions, not least because of their disturbing racist
undertones. If Silene was Cyrene then there’s a pretty good chance
that their princess was a person of colour anyhow.
As for accuracy, given that we can’t
agree on who “the historical” George was, or where his encounter
with “the dragon” took place, it’s hard to judge how accurate
various stories were. The middle ages tendency to dress historical
figures as then-contemporary knights and to assume that customs and
manners were the same in the third as the thirteenth century doesn’t
There are some clues to help
us, though. The traditional Roman legionary soldier was more or less
gone by the third century A.D. A new class of horse-mounted, armoured
officer has arisen, the equites–the
knight. There were even cataphractii,
heavy mounted knights, the tanks of the battlefield. Okay, they
hadn’t yet invented things like the stirrup, but they were a good
way towards the medieval conception of a knight in shining armour.
They even wore cloth surcoats over their mail, so a white tabard with
red cross on it is far from impossible.
North African history in the latter
half of the third century was characterised by a gradual decay of
Roman central authority, a series of revolts from Roman rule, civil
war, and a slow climate change that saw formerly fertile farmlands be
claimed by the spreading Sahara. It seemed credible to me that under
such circumstances there would be no help from central authority for
a governor with fantastic claims of draconic attack, especially when
his prefecture was so late in making due tax returns. We know that
various troop withdrawals left these African provinces dangerously
vulnerable to barbarian raids and piracy. We know that the declining
economy, mounting security issues, political instability, and
religious upheavals were tearing those areas apart. I saw those
realms as one big dragon away from reverting to horrible customs of
Was it necessary to take any liberties with the character(s) that
others didn't, or fixed any past misconceptions/mistakes?
George’s main source material comes from an era when
characterisation wasn’t that emphasised. He is portrayed as the
perfect Christian knight.
Of course, that makes for rather
tedious modern reading. It also requires an absolute assumption that
George was right in his assertions of faith, in his crusader-like
zeal, and in his pious actions. I felt it better to offer a George
behind the middle-ages P.R., a rather more flawed and reluctant
saint, dragged unwillingly into a situation where he must choose
whether to be a good man and do the right thing at incredible cost.
We call people who make the difficult right choices in such
Hence we start with George playing
Han Solo or Sam Spade, a wandering mercenary knight. He’s been let
down by the world, betrayed by his empire and emperor, and has become
bitter and cynical about the faith he was brought up in by Christian
parents. I think that’s a position many readers will be able to
True Christian faith is represented
by his travelling companion, Brother Jacob, a young monk who would
never get lauded as a saint but who, in the New Testament sense,
undoubtedly is. Jacob believes his job is “to believe for George
until George is ready”. Jacob is as annoying as any earnest
door-knocking evangelist, but redeemed in my view by his utter,
simple, kind faith and total dedication. Jacob does not have answers
for George’s complicated theological questions. He just believes,
in God and George.
The other issue with the source
material is the princess who is rescued. She isn’t even named until
later in George’s publishing history. She gets no dialogue. Her
only role is to get chained to a post to be eaten by a dragon and to
be rescued by the hero.
That doesn’t fly for modern
audiences. It doesn’t sit well with a modern telling of the tale.
Why is she at that dragon-post? Was she volunteer or victim? What was
she thinking? What did she want? What events had led her to this
place and this doom? What did she feel for George? Why should we care
about her, other than a very basic woman-in-peril reflex from male
readers? Sabra needed work. Sabra needed to be a person, not a plot
Sabra got the work. Sabra has as many
scenes as George. Sabra has enemies to deal with and a plot line all
of her own. Sabra is bloody lethal.
The Saint George saga takes place earlier than the legend of Robin
Hood. Considering the difference in eras, how “politically correct”
were things back in the 1400s, compared to how they are today?
The middle ages were characterised by a stratified society. The
European feudal system placed people very clearly in classes, each
with their own laws and duties. While there was, famously “one law
for rich and poor alike that forbids begging and sleeping under
bridges”, there were in actuality ecclesiastical courts reserved
for clergy, royal courts for nobles, trial-by-combat, and a whole
range of other legal recourses that the powerful could invoke over
Slavery still existed, which classed
people as animals that were property of others. Serfdom was not much
better, forbidding the serf from leaving the land to which they were
“tied”, denying them ownership of possessions, the right to marry
without their lord’s approval, and other freedoms. It was a world
away from our contemporary self-reflections about whether we treat
people different from ourselves fairly. Many believed, or purported
to believe, that feudalism was God’s natural order.
Women were generally treated as
inferior to men, with a very few remarkable and fascinating
exceptions. Certainly women of low birth were not accorded much power
or respect. Noble women were most valued for their dowries and
alliance prospects and as breeders of legitimate heirs. Indeed,
medieval law on rape says nothing about the harm done to the female
victim but is concerned about compensation due to her male relatives
for her loss in value.
The sort of free-speaking, educated,
socially-enlightened heroine beloved of our romantic and adventure
fiction was very rare in actuality.
Perhaps the most distinctive
difference was the utter societal belief in its right to impose its
needs and values over those of rivals. Modern critics of the crusader
movement tend to judge the Christian knights by different ethical
criteria than the Moorish adversaries they displaced. Actually
neither side conducted itself well by modern standards, but both were
considered exemplary by their own cultures at the time.
The middle ages included first
encounters between Europeans and a range of other cultures,
especially in Africa and the East, because scholars vary about
whether the New World was reached. I find very little primary
evidence that either side of these conformations gave much
consideration to the culture or needs of the other.
The late Roman setting for ST GEORGE
AND THE DRAGON offers a different set of social standards. Higher
born women had more rights. They could hold property, could divorce,
and were often highly educated. Many of them held secondary religious
roles within their families or at local temples at some time in their
On the other hand, slavery was a
fundamental part of Roman culture. The economy depended upon it. Some
estimates suggest that one quarter of the population were slaves.
Although a huge body of law existed regarding slavery, most of it was
about protecting an owner’s asset or establishing how someone might
become or cease to be enslaved. The slave him or herself had few
personal rights, including any right to object to sale or to sexual
exploitation, or even to being killed by their owner. Brother Jacob,
an ex-slave himself, has some thoughts upon this in the novel.
One modern prejudice that we
rarely see evidenced in Roman literature is skin colour. Emperor
Septimus Severus, born in Leptis Magna, Tripolitania, who ruled A.D.
193-211 was of Berber heritage. That probably meant he was
dark-skinned, so he is often cited as “the first black Emperor of
Rome”. If so, then the five Emperors descended from him may also
have had Black African complexions. Likewise Cleopatra may have been
dark skinned. That we do not know is a good indicator of how little
it mattered to writers at the time.
What about your other historical projects you mentioned last time,
like the Women of Myth and the possibility of tackling King Arthur?
LABOURS OF HERCULES is historical, if one is willing to allow
mythological elements into the story. I’ve tried to be faithful to
what we know of the society in which those events were described as
taking place, as the hundred or so footnotes to the novel attest.
WOMEN OF MYTH is already book length
but I’d like to add a fourth story to the collection if I can ever
find the right way to tell it. One of those stories could easily be
classed as a crossover with the Hercules novel since it features some
of the same characters, including Hercules.
I already have four or five book’s
worth of King Arthur material ready to go. I’m just waiting the
right time and market.
|Cover to Volume 1|
In addition to those, some
material I wrote for Pro Se press will be hitting the shops sometime
soon. “The Curse of Urania” is a story of the 1920s occult
character Semi-Dual. I just proofed a final version of that for an
anthology, so it’ll hopefully be coming soon. Likewise a novella
called “Race Against Death”, featuring 1930s aviator detective
Richard Knight, will be appearing as THE NEW ADVENTURES OF RICHARD
KNIGHT volume 2. Also scheduled for release are four more
alternate-history novellas set in a 10th
century where Christianity never happened and magic never vanished,
the BYZANTIUM series. Next up in that run is BYZANTIUM: FIRE AND
Also written and sent off are
two more stories for Sherlock Holmes,
Consulting Detective volumes 8 and 9,
another Holmes story set, remarkably, in Elizabethan England, and two
different jungle action stories set in the 1930s. I’m really
trying for that twelve publications thing this year!
Lurking on the hard drive is THE FALL
OF BABEL, a fair play murder mystery set in the Biblical tower just
before it comes down. It’s Conan Doyle does Conan. He’s a
barbarian king, she’s a sacrificial virgin, together they fight
crime! That one turned out so well it’s sitting there for now so I
have something to offer if a major publisher ever knocks on the door.
My problem usually isn’t turning
this stuff out, it’s getting it to print.
By the way, I hope I'm not out of line asking this, but has there
ever been a footnote you didn't like? I've even come across a couple
Transdimensional Transport Company.
That has certainly become something of a writing mannerism, to the
utter frustration of my various publishers. There was even a
reference to footnotes I made in my non-fiction essay volume WHERE
STORIES DWELL which had a footnote that read “Because footnotes are
I started using them in fiction
because I use them all the time in my factual writing and find them
so useful. They’re great for offering explanations that allow
readers to understand material that may not be common knowledge any
more, for offering attributions to facts and quotes, for translating
from English to American English for the benefit of trans-Atlantic
readers, and for adding to the fun for those who like that kind of
diversion but not in-story. So I use ‘em.
Also, they completely baffle Kindle,
requiring hours of additional prep work for people assembling my
My inspirations for how to do
historical material are Robert Graves, author of I,
the God, The
Golden Fleece, Homer’s
Daughter and other fine works, and
George MacDonald Frasier, author of the Flashman
series and other period pieces. Both of them include copious
footnotes and appendices, so I never really questioned whether I
should do the same.
I think writers write best when they
play “their natural game”. Unfortunately my natural game includes
All of author I.A. (Ian) Watson's work is available either through Amazon.com or at http://www.chillwater.org.uk/writing/iawatsonhome.htm
Image sources: I. A. Watson, Wikipedia's Public Domain file sharing system, and Clip Art.