Entering Your Own Story
By Theodore Brun
Author of A Burning Sea
Volume 3 of The Wanderer Chronicles
Out November 7th
Istanbul has been the setting for many a great novel (and some not so great ones). I suppose when it comes to creative inspiration about a particular place, usually one experiences the place and then conceives of the story. For me it was the other way round.
My current series, The Wanderer Chronicles, is about the adventures of a Northman in exile, set in an epoch (the early 8th century) when the main catalyst for change – across the Old World at least - was the birth of Islam and the subsequent Muslim conquests across vast swathes of territory previously the domain of the Persian and Byzantine Empires.
At first, this might seem to have little to do with the fate of my established characters from the first two books in the series, who hail from the frozen north of Scandinavia. But in this third book, several of them become embroiled in the climactic showdown between the armies of the Caliphate and the beleaguered Roman (or Byzantine) Empire. The historical centerpiece for the novel is the Siege of Constantinople in 717/718 AD – when a host of over a hundred and twenty thousand Arab troops and a fleet of more than two thousand ships encircled the Great City - there, to deliver a final death-blow to the once great Roman Empire. The future of Europe, and arguably the world, hung in the balance. Certainly contemporaneous sources believed that to be true, as do most historians of the period that I have read.
|RECREATION OF CONSTANTINOPLE – 4TH TO 12TH CENTURY.|
Anyhow, this crisis seemed sufficiently dramatic to me - with its intrigues and betrayals, its pivotal battles and the Byzantine’s horrifyingly effective secret weapon known as Greek Fire - to make for a good story. And by the time I landed in Istanbul I had already drafted almost three quarters of the novel, with only the final act climax to do.
EXTERIOR OF HAGIA SOPHIA
One of the things that I always found frustrating about studying archeology, back in the days of my degree, was that there was always for me an unbridgeable gap between whatever one was looking at or reading about and the actual lived experience of that time: particularly if that time lay in the very distant past. What I really wanted was a time machine – or failing that an iMax movie directed by Ridley Scott. It took me a good fifteen years to discover that writing historical fiction was the solution to my problem. Where the lived experience of a world, albeit in one’s imagination, fills in the gaps and, most importantly, provides the motives and emotions of real characters with real goals and real obstacles in a particular period and place.
|INTERIOR OF HAGIA SOPHIA|
Never was this lesson more powerfully driven home than during my brief visit to Istanbul. Everything I saw, I had already experienced through the travails of my characters. I found myself feeling what they must have felt. To experience these places, to see these wonders with my own eyes was like a sudden super-inflation of everything I had struggled to imagine. Whether it was walking into the looming expanse of the Hagia Sophia where one’s gaze floats up into the abyss of air that fills the massive dome; or to walk the open market squares once filled with columns and statues of New Rome’s greatest emperors; or where the Blue and Green factions screamed their lungs out in support of their charioteer teams whirring round and round the Hippodrome; or walk the busy shopping street that used to be the “Mese”, imagining that I could still smell the spices and perfumes of a thousand years ago on the traffic-clogged air.
|LOOKING SOUTH ACROSS THE GOLDEN HORN|
Or standing on the upper deck of tour-boat like every other tourist who comes to Istanbul, chugging noisily out of the Golden Horn but feeling the Wanderer’s adrenaline surge as the dromon oars rose and fell and the drums beat hungrily, bearing him out onto the Bosphorus into the horrors of Greek Fire. Perhaps the most striking of all these impressions came from walking the massive Land Walls, which defended the western approaches to the city, and successfully held off (nearly!) all comers for the best part of nine centuries, and only truly fell with the invention of gunpowder.
|EDIRNE GATE – PART OF THE THEODOSIAN WALLS - built in the 5th century.|
All this provided a welter of retrospective inspiration - while for several hours a day I was cantering along to the climax of my own story, typing away on a hotel terrace from which, with a glance to the left, I could see the hefty splendour of the rust-red buttresses of the Hagia Sophia; and to the right, the shimmering waters of the Bosphorus straits and the misty hills of Asia beyond.
|WRITING OVER THE BOSPHORUS|
A few days, but they made all the difference. I tapped out the words “The End” about ninety seconds before the stewardess told her passengers to shut down their electrical devices on the flight home.
As I closed the lid of my laptop, I felt a deep gratitude to this ancient city for the gift of being able to enter my own story. Istanbul is as alive today as it ever was, still riding the restless fault-line of its history and geography. My own tale is but a single snapshot - and a pretty obscure one at that – from the almost unlimited universe of stories that Istanbul has to tell. To have that connection with that place, or any place, is surely one of the rewards of the sometimes painfully hard graft of writing a novel.
Two months later, the redraft is done and my manuscript submitted. To celebrate, I’m giving away a unique, signed copy of this first manuscript. To enter the draw for this, simply Like and Retweet this blog entry.
A Burning Sea is published by Corvus Atlantic on November 7th.