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.
TFCE: So Ian, what have you been up to since our last conversation, concerning your then recent release of ROBIN HOOD: FREEDOM'S CHAMPION?
|Author I. A. (Ian) Watson|
I.A.W.: 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.
“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 dies. And...
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of seven stories I wrote for the first six volumes of Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective, plus an additional unpublished tale, “The Adventure of the Failing Light”, pitting our investigators against the real-life mystery disappearance of three keepers from a lonely Outer Hebrides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 http://www.chillwater.org.uk/writing/iawatsonhome.htm
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.
I.A.W.: 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 scale.
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 story.
TFCE: 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?
I.A.W.: 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 portrayal.
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 broad reading.
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,rd 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.
TFCE: 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?
I.A.W.: 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 Georgia.
TFCE: Since there's one in the United States, could you please clarify which Georgia?
I.A.W.: Certainly. I'm referring to the Caucasan nation of Georgia, formerly part of the U.S.S.R.
However, 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!
St. 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.
TFCE: So who was Saint George?
I.A.W.: 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 theChristian 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 works–or doesn’t.
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.
TFCE: How many times has Saint George and the Dragon been covered in literature before? And how accurate were those past recountings?
I.A.W.: 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 help.
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 human sacrifice.
TFCE: Was it necessary to take any liberties with the character(s) that others didn't, or fixed any past misconceptions/mistakes?
I.A.W.: 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 situations heroes.
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 identify with.
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 point.
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.
TFCE: 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?
I.A.W.: 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 the poor.
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 life.
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.
TFCE: What about your other historical projects you mentioned last time, like the Women of Myth and the possibility of tackling King Arthur?
I.A.W.: 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 STONE.
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.
TFCE: 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 in The Transdimensional Transport Company.
I.A.W.: 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 good”.
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 books.
My inspirations for how to do historical material are Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius, Claudius 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 many footnotes.
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.