Scott Oden: Weaving a Tapestry of Words: the Art of the Ancient Historical

A guest post by Scott Oden

There are millions of writers spread across the face of the earth, churning out tales both great and small; well over 200,000 of their books achieved the nirvana of publication last year, alone. A few hundred of them are considered successful at the game. And yet, out of this raucous horde of wordsmiths only the tiniest fraction of them engage in the writing of historical fiction set in Antiquity. Why the disparity?

The most-cited obstacle among those writers inclined to try their hand at ancient historical fiction is the difficulty in researching the times. The ancient historical is cousin to the created-world fantasy; both require vast amounts of detail in order to breathe life into their respective narratives. But, where fantasy is created from imagination that is reinforced with research, the ancient historical is built out of existing research that is reinforced with imagination. Thus far, for Serpent of Hellas – my upcoming novel about the battle of Artemisium – I’ve had to research the topography of Attika (that region of Greece under Athenian control), farming in the 5th century BC, and the social and legal ramifications of ancient Greek illegitimacy. Was I writing a fantasy, I could base my creative decisions on a mix of research and fancy . . . which is not as easy as it sounds. Fantasy authors cut their own puzzle pieces from the fabric of history; the good ones work hard at smoothing the edges of their created bits, ensuring what’s borrowed meshes perfectly with what’s imagined. The bad ones simply arrange their pieces willy-nilly, without thought for cohesion or logic.

Historical authors also assemble the pieces of our narrative puzzle from the fabric of history. But rather than cutting and shaping to meet our needs, we tease out the threads of a single tapestry to illuminate the colors and textures within. Some threads are bold, representing the deeds and personalities that resonate through time. Others are more subtle, muted, hidden, colorless, even forgotten. Themistokles versus the nameless soldier who lit the warning beacons on Skiathos; Thermopylae versus Artemisium. Each is important in their own right, unable to exist without the other, but one is given precedence in popular imagination while the other fades to obscurity. It becomes the job of historical fiction, then, to go where historians can’t – or won’t.

The worlds we write about are not necessarily the “real” world. True, many of the events that sustain our prose actually happened; our cast of characters includes men and women, who lived, loved, died, and were immortalized in history. But our portrayal of them, of their times, is no more real than Tennyson’s Arthur in Idylls of the King. It’s an illusion, you see. The phrase we use is historical accuracy, and it is as important to the genre as the willing suspension of disbelief is to fantasy. The world must appear real, torn from the pages of a text book, and the more real it seems the more latitude the writer has in introducing anachronisms. And ancient historicals require anachronisms; they require a touch of inaccuracy in order for the writer to translate the attitudes and mores of so remote a time into modern vernacular.

So, we come back to research, to peering at the tiny threads of a tapestry to understand the colors, textures, tastes, and smells of the world that created it. Much of the information we uncover will, if we’re subtle, appear almost invisible on the page. It will exist as a color palette, a vocabulary, a style of description; research is the stage upon which the actors deliver their lines: the skeleton of the theater, the boards underfoot, the costumes and set dressing. And when the research eludes us – and it will – imagination must fill the gap.

The unanswered questions can be great or small: what did Themistokles and Leonidas discuss the night before their respective forces deployed for Artemisium and Thermopylae, respectively? What did the temple of Artemis that lent Artemisium its name look like? In what year was the ancient monument to the battle at Artemisium dedicated? Barring hard facts, the answers must come from within – though filtered through the threads already known to us and shaped to fill that tiny void in the tapestry. The artistry is in making the created bits match so perfectly to history that only an expert can tell the difference. And that is also the beauty of the ancient historical: if done well, it informs the reader’s own studies on the time in question, breathing life into men and women who might otherwise be forgotten, making flesh the cold marble busts of great men, and lending a sense of blood and thunder to events that shaped our world.

Guest Writer Bio:
Scott Oden is the author of The Lion of Cairo, Men of Bronze, Memnon, and the forthcoming Serpent of Hellas. Hailing from the hills of rural North Alabama, his fascination with far-off places began when his oldest brother introduced him to the staggering and savage vistas of Robert E. Howard and Harold Lamb.Though Oden started writing his own tales at the age of fourteen, it would be many years before anything would come of it. In the meantime, he had a brief and tempestuous fling with academia before retiring to the private sector, where he worked the usual roster of odd jobs – from delivering pizza to stacking paper in the bindery of a printing company to clerking at a video store. Nowadays, Oden writes ancient historicals and historical fantasy from his family home near Somerville.

Songwriting as Storytelling

lennonI once heard a professional author explain, and I may have read it from another as well, that after decades of work they had run out of new stories to tell. They had actually, to some degree, run out of ideas.

Now granted, this was at a writing conference, and that same author later demonstrated a brainstorming technique with the audience and came up with a new, coherent and fleshed out plot line in a matter of minutes, so I feel as though I have to take this as a bit of false modesty. Oh but that we all could “run out of ideas” so flowingly…

I know that different writers have different problems. Some people can continue a story, keep it going with new twists and turns. Some people can really create the perfect ending, the perfect twist. For me, I overflow with ideas on how to start stories. I have this plot and that plot and the other idea. Frankly, being a new writer, I haven’t put enough down yet to know if the ideas are actually nonsense when you boil them down, but they certainly excite me when I think of them.

But being stuck in create-create-create brings with it the the liability that you never finish anything, which in turn means you never sell anything. Also, with too much runway, you can lose your verve or impetus, and never finish the piece you were on.

I’ve kind of hit that with the story I’m writing now; too many interruptions, and I feel as though I’ve mentally moved on and need to write something else. I already “said that” (even though I haven’t published it or even had that many people read it!)

However, recently I’ve been experimenting with an outlet for my creativity that is for at least the time being giving me a much better sense of completion: Songwriting.

As a would-be fiction writer, I at least have the good habit of recording details as I go through life.

I remember listening, many years ago, to an NPR episode where a survey team was commissioned to find out what people liked most about music. It turns out one of the surveyed favorite kinds of songs were “love stories”. I noted that carefully, and whenever I later worked on songs, I tried to incorporate stories, especially love stories, into them.

Later I was reading the liner notes for a re-release of the Beach Boys Pet Sounds and I found out that Brian Wilson co-wrote them with Tony Asher, an advertising copywriter.

I had written songs as a teenager and even took some basic pop songwriting theory classes (I was a keyboard guy, not a guitarist so I never started a band), but I really hadn’t created and recorded a song until about five years ago, when I was on a transcontinental flight with my brother (who did start several bands) and went on a writing rampage, blitzing out probably five or six songs for his consideration during the trip.

Several of them were too heavy-handed to be suitable, but one was an inspired love story about a girl my brother had dated (or at least my outsiders view of such).

So I kind of combined these few bits of advice I had heard over the years when I wrote the song:

  1. It should tell a story, preferably a love story
  2. It should have a good hook line, just like an ad copyist would write.
  3. You need to let them know what the song is about quickly

The story was basically the idea that your girl goes off to save the world, join the Peace Corps or some other important thing, and wants you to come with her, and you’re just not ready for that. Of course it could also be as simple as not being able to commit to moving to the next stage of the relationship.

The song is called “I’m not coming.”

It starts out:

I’m not ready, to sign my life away / I’m not ready, to plan out every day

Ever studied an advertisement closely? Those ad copy guys like clever, recognizable turns of phrase. Take a figure of speech, say “stitch in time saves nine” — and they’ll truncate it, mix it up, and tell you to “Stitch just in time”. Somebody probably already did that one; the point is, they so often take an expression, twist it up but rely on the recognition value.

So what I did to come up with a hook line was I took the recognizable line from hide-and-go-seek: “Ready or not, here I come!” and twisted it. You can guess what the lyric is.

The whole song can of course be interpreted various different ways. Naturally, as a songwriter, you leave it open so that the listener can contribute, too. And you can read double or even triple entendre into it, if you’d like. But the lyric kind of worked.

(In fact, I have it on good authority that the demo recording of this song was played for none other than Pete Townshend and that he commented, essentially, that it was a well put together song on the topic. As the one review I’ve heard about my song, I’ll take it!)

Over the last two years, I have been working in bursts on a magnum opus fiction novel. In fact, that’s how I came to be connected with the Fictorians. And having successfully published several books of the nonfiction variety, I knew the challenge I was taking on. And it’s not that I lack the stamina.

Rather, I think I am learning that some of my creativity may be better suited for other outlets. Instead of carefully compiling decades of pithy observations into an enormous tome that once published may amuse only me and a handful of friends, I think that some of my observations about life and love and conflict and politics and the role of spirituality and government and games and friends and contests and mind/body might be better conveyed in a 3-5 minute MP3.

Songs certainly lend themselves to completion. And if you have some musicians who can write listenable music to breathe life into them, it can be quite rewarding.

Late last year, “my” first album came out (I wrote or co-wrote two of the songs). One of them, they gave me only the music and the title, “Best Summer Ever”, and I had to come up with the lyrics.

I stuck to what I knew: Love story, catchy line.

When I first wrote the song, boy it was elaborate. It was not a short story, it was a LONG story. I told my brother about it: “There’s this girl you see and she’s in this relationship but the guy is clueless because he’s trying to experiment and he gets this really bad advice and another girl gets involved and makes things totally complicated and he blows it and then there’s this other part where they meet again later during the summer and…” There were lots of details and subplots.

But this isn’t a novel! You don’t have to put everything you’ve ever seen go wrong in a relationship into this song for heaven’s sake!

And so my brother was actually a bit let down when I handed him the lyrics. “What’s this? What happened to the part where the other girl…”. And even worse, my hook line was WAY too simple:

Fell in love with a perfect girl / I should have noticed and tried to pay more attention to her. 

Just like you need a great opening in fiction, I had heard over and over that it’s even more critical for songs. Well, I hadn’t even thought about it but I just listened to the first two lines and they are textbook. That’s just creepy.

My brother later admitted that he was simply embarrassed to be singing the lyric, it sounded too corny or something.

In any event, it turned out alright, more than alright; he also later admitted that it is a favorite of female fans.

More and more, I’m finding that the stories I have to tell fit in this ephemeral song format quite nicely. Again, it helps to have a band that puts great music together for them, but in fact I don’t think it’s hard to find great musicians anywhere in the world.

I started this blog post as a sort of confession that I’ve been a derelict fiction writer, but in walking through the process I’ve come to the realization that I am finding an outlet for my art and succeeding in getting published. They’ve even done a video of the other song I worked on, Famous For Dying, and according to YouTube over 10,000 people have heard what I had to say there.

(WARNING: The video is gory, so listen, but don’t watch it, if you’re squeamish).

Before wrapping up, one more link that may be helpful. I was researching “songs as stories” and in the process I came across this link to “26 songs that are just as good as short stories”.

If you ever have something you’d like to say – something that doesn’t need a whole book to say it – perhaps you could write a song.








When is a writer a Writer?

When people ask me what I do, I mention my day job and also state that I am a writer. It took me a while to feel comfortable calling myself a writer even though I’ve been writing for years because I haven’t published any novels yet. I wasn’t sure I could rightfully call myself a writer until I’d reached that golden moment.

So, when is it all right to assume the title? I’ve settled on five things that I consider helpful in distinguishing the “writers’ from the “dabblers’.

1. You complete a manuscript

Half the people I meet, when they hear I’m a writer, say, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a story.” Few actually sit down and try to write it. Of those who start, only a fraction actually complete their first manuscript. Joining this group is a huge step forward.

For me, my first manuscript took over four years and countless restarts to complete.

2. Write your ‘million words of crap’

Estimates vary from half a million to a million words, but the message remains consistent: you have to write a lot before you write well. Writing is a profession that requires a lot of blood, sweat and tears before any return on that investment is seen. This is a hard truth that many wanna-be writers don’t understand. Sometimes I wonder if I had really understood the long road I was embarking on when I sat down and typed “Chapter 1″ would I still have done it?

One of the most dangerous temptations for writers with the new easily accessible e-publishing option is to publish a story before it’s ready. It’s easy to convince yourself your story is far better than it really is. Unfortunately, the e-bookstores are inundated with this kind of wishful thinking.

I’ll just say, take the time to do it right. It’s a shame to see a book released too soon. It’s almost worse to see a book that’s almost really good than to see one that is terrible. If only the author had taken just a little more time. But I’ll explore this topic more in-depth in a future post in order to do it justice.

3. Make the hard decisions

Kill your darlings, and kill them as soon as they get in the way of the real story.

There’s a saying in business: “If you’re going to fail, fail fast.” It means identify flaws, learn what you can from them, and then move on. Don’t waste time bemoaning the fickle muse or the cruel fates.

The not-yet-professional writers don’t like to recognize this. Darlings might be favorite characters, scenes, conflicts, anything that makes up the story. Initial ideas morph as you progress down the journey of writing and ‘find’ your story. The story you find is often not the story you expected. That’s when the hard decisions must be made. To have any chance of succeeding, we must be true to the real story once we know it. Remove any extraneous material, no matter how dear to us.

For me it was a dark day when I realized my first book, the manuscript I poured my heart and soul into for four long years could not work in its current state. There were fatal flaws I did not recognize earlier because I lacked the mastery of story craft to see them. I faced a crossroads in my writing career that day. I could no longer pretend I was on the cusp of selling that book to a publisher. If I refused to kill that darling, I might never have progressed. To move forward, I either had to start an entirely different story; or I had to throw away that manuscript and redesign the story from the ground up.

I started again. The new book, using many aspects of the original story’s world-building and characters, is ten times better than the original. This new story is the one that landed me an agent and real hopes of a publishing deal.

4. Write the next book.

With everything else done, it’s important to know when a manuscript is complete. There’s still a lot to do even then. If you’re trying the traditional publishing route, there’s the long, painful submission process. If you’re going the e-publishing route, you still need professional editing, cover art, cover quotes, and a marketing plan.

Don’t let these tasks delay for too long the most important next step that a writer needs to do: write the next novel, and then the next.

5. Learn to enjoy the process.

Being a writer is not an easy road to travel. It is long and often discouraging. Most people don’t understand what it takes and can’t understand what we do. And yet, we write because we must. Writers are driven to write and we love it. The process of developing a manuscript for eventual release to the public is challenging, and also rewarding.

This is a journey filled with growth and exciting milestones. The road behind us may be littered with discarded manuscripts, cut scenes, and tens of thousands of words sacrificed to the editing red pen, but when we stand with a work worthy to be called our best effort in our hands, it’s a magical moment.

In the end, we keep writing. It’s what we do.

When did you first start calling yourself a writer? How did you know it was time?

Take Note of Inspiration

Have you ever been out and about and something, could be anything, makes you think -ooh, that’s a cool story idea? Did you write it down, note it in your phone, leave yourself a voicemail about it… anything… so you don’t forget?

You should.

I was in my local used book store and the clerk looked perfect for a romance hero. I told him and he let me take a picture that I can now use that for inspiration. I love that. Sometimes, my boyfriend actually tells me things I think are perfect for a romance hero to say. Yes – I write them down and save them. They’re gems. It could be a piece of dialogue you overhear, a character (literally and figuratively), an outfit, a setting, a feeling, a mood, a reaction, a hairstyle, a building, a show, or any of a million other things.

I hear a lot that ideas are cheap and this is true. I wrote about it in my post Ideas are Cheap and Everywhere. Now, I’m telling you… write them down!

We’re writers… it shouldn’t be difficult 🙂

Take note because you never know when that idea will inspire something great. Someone told me they only wrote them down if the idea wouldn’t go away. I can see that. If it’s persistent, then maybe it’s really good.

BUT, what if that tiny little nugget of an idea – like the enormous icicle hanging on the tree outside my window falling on someone’s head and creating a seemingly weaponless crime once it melts – is interesting to me today but when I look at it in a year, it inspires my next book? You just don’t know.

I think if you have a fleeting idea, picture, scene, character – whatever – jot it down and every so often pull those notes out and look at them. You just never know when a random little seed idea will spawn a complete freakin’ tree.

You have nothing lose, Fictorians, and everything to gain. Write it down and see what happens. Anyone already had this happen? I’d love to hear.