[The following is an email interview I conducted with Eileen Stephenson, author of Tales of Byzantium: A Selection of Short Stories. It’s a very enjoyable book, and a great introduction to an unjustly-neglected time period. Ms. Stephenson’s answers are very helpful for independent authors, especially those writing historical fiction.  Enjoy!–BG]tales of byzantium

Q: How did you first become interested in Medieval Byzantium?

A: It was all because of the 2-3 hours I spend commuting to the day job. I came to rely on audio books for my sanity. One Saturday at the library, searching the shelves I came upon John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium. I didn’t know much about them, and expected little. Then in the introduction, the author says that the one thing you could never say about the Byzantines is that they were boring. “Oh, really?” I thought skeptically. He was right, though, as the three bookcases I now have filled with Byzantine history will attest.

Q: The third story, “Alexiad” is about Anna Comnena writing “The Alexiad”. I liked that it focused on a woman as the central character. Can you tell me a little about women in Byzantine society?

A: Medieval women anywhere usually had few rights and less education. However, 11th and 12th century Byzantium saw literacy, even for women, become common down into the middle classes. There were women doctors – paid about half as much as the men, and expected to work twice as many hours, but still far ahead of western Europe.

The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) had three women ruling empresses. The first was Irene the Athenian, the 8th century widow of an emperor and mother of another emperor. However, her reputation is tainted by the fact that she blinded her son to take the throne. The next was Zoe in the 11th century. She was the oldest surviving child of an emperor and married three men who each took the title of emperor at their wedding. After Zoe and her last husband died, Zoe’s sister, Theodora, succeeded them and ruled alone for 19 months before dying.  

During the Comnene era, from 1081 to 1185, women frequently influenced events, starting with the heroine of the novel I’m working on, Anna Dalassena, even if they never fully ruled in their own right. There were more than a few women of that period who left their mark in history.

Q: Both Anna Comnena and Constantine VII, who features prominently in the first story, seem to have been very notable because of their writing. Do you think that history is often, as you write in the notes to “Alexiad”, “told by the writer”? And if so, to what extent do you think that their perspective skews our understanding of history?

A: History is definitely told by the writer, although often the writer is paid by the winner. I think in Anna Comnena’s case she wrote partly because, with her intelligence and education, she needed something to do in the long years of her confinement, and partly to honor her father. Anna’s brother, the Emperor John II Comnenus, was a notably modest man and kept no historian on staff to record his accomplishments, so there is little history of his reign.

A better example of writers skewing perspectives is the 6th century historian, Procopios. A courtier in Justinian I’s reign, he wrote a typically bland official history and then he wrote his Secret History, a salacious retelling of every possible mistake and ugly rumor concerning Justinian and his wife, Theodora. I’ve never looked for a copy of his official history, but his Secret History is in paperback and still quite a read. That’s the one that people remember now.

Q: What is the most challenging thing about writing historical fiction? How do you balance historical accuracy vs. well-paced narrative, if the two conflict?

A: The most challenging thing about writing historical fiction is the writing. Grasping the elements of grammar is a start, but then there’s the need for a well-crafted story holding the reader’s attention. You can’t build a sturdy house just knowing how to hammer a nail.

Balancing historical accuracy vs. the well-paced narrative can be challenging but my reading of some stars of the genre – Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, Colleen McCullough – have provided examples of how to do it. Often it means having long periods of time pass between some chapters, while other chapters occur in close time proximity.

Q: What is the number one reaction you would like readers to have to your book? Do you want them to be more interested in studying history, or do you want them gripped by the story/characters?

A: Reading historical fiction as a kid made me want to learn more about the history. With the Byzantines, it was the history that came first, and when I found little fiction about them, I knew that was what I had to write. The reaction I hope my readers have is that the story and characters so grip them that they want to learn more about the history.

Q: What other authors in the historical fiction genre influenced you?

A: Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, and Colleen McCullough would be highest on that list. Others are Bernard Cornwell, Thomas B. Costain, Philippa Gregory. I’ve been fortunate to meet other historical novelists in the Historical Novel Society and many of them have been kind enough to share their wisdom with me. It’s been a great experience.

Q: If you were to write an “alternative history” story about Byzantium, what historical event would you like to change?

A: I think most historians would wish the outcome of the Battle of Manzikert to be different. But Manzikert was just the result of forces put in play thirty years earlier when Empress Zoe chose as her third husband a frivolous spendthrift who disastrously weakened the empire. So I would probably say my alternative story would be a better husband for Zoe than Constantine IX Monomachos.

[My thanks to Ms. Stephenson for her time and very thoughtful answers.  You can get Tales of Byzantium here.]

A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Crowther, the secretary of the W.S. Gilbert society, tweeted:

My initial reaction was that the reason for this was that Gilbert’s works are inaccessible to modern readers because he was sometimes a bit of chauvinist, and most publishers aren’t keen to push the works of another straight, white, male Victorian writer.  Modern readers are looking for more diversity.

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W.S. Gilbert. (Image via Wikipedia)

I was about to say this, but then I realized it wasn’t true–and my own literary interests showed why.  (You can see my whole exchange with Mr. Crowther here.)

Specifically, I thought of H.P. Lovecraft, the early 1900s horror writer, whose influence on modern horror seems to be ever-increasing.  His ideas creep into films like Alien and The Thing, his famous monster Cthulhu is the shorthand for Ultimate Evil in some parts of the internet, and there is an entire genre of horror named after him. Only yesterday I wrote a review of a horror novel clearly influenced by him.

And Lovecraft is way, way less accessible to the modern reader than Gilbert. Gilbert, as I said, was a bit of a chauvinist.  Lovecraft openly sympathized with the Nazis.  His letters, while in other respects brilliant and insightful, show a man prone to almost genocidal racial screeds, and his books often contain appalling racist diatribes and descriptions.

Everyone who reads and enjoys Lovecraft’s work ultimately has to grapple with this undercurrent of White Supremacist venom that runs through it. (For the record, here’s where I did it.)

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H.P. Lovecraft (Image via Wikipedia)

So, if a racist Nazi sympathizer can have such an influence over modern writers, why can’t a lovable old Victorian dramatist have the same?

The answer is that Gilbert’s main claim to fame are the comic operas he wrote with Arthur Sullivan, and comic opera is out of fashion.  In fact, not only is comic opera out of fashion, but the form of musical theater that evolved when it fell out of fashion is also out fashion.

Gilbert’s other famous work, the Bab Ballads, are witty, short poems in a style that is, once again, out of fashion.

Thinking about the Lovecraft v. Gilbert issue was what really brought home to me how out of fashion metered, rhyming poetry is.  Because Lovecraft also wrote poetry, and yet, for all his influence, his poems don’t seem to get reprinted nearly as much as his short stories and novellas.

I have a collection that purports to be “The Best of H.P. Lovecraft” in front of me.  It contains mediocre tales like “Pickman’s Model” and “In The Vault” , but not his great poem “Nemesis”. If Lovecraft had only written horror poetry, probably he would not have one-tenth the influence he does.

So, why did poetry fall out of fashion?  I have no clue.  It’s easy to memorize (that’s part of the point) and tends to be shorter than the sprawling novels that students in schools get assigned.  And yet, poetry–or at least, rhyming and metrical poetry that adheres to rhyme schemes and other rules, is distinctly out of fashion.

(As an end note/bit of self-promotion: for those readers who like both Gilbert and Lovecraft,  I once wrote a short horror story entitled “The Revival”, very much in the Lovecraftian vein set around an amateur production of Ruddigore.)

Yesterday, I got the first bad review of my novella, The Start of the Majestic World.  My friends were consoling me about it, but the funny thing was, it actually made me happy, for two reasons:

  1. Criticism is the only way you can improve as a writer.
  2. It meant somebody actually read the book, and cared enough to review it.

The only thing about it that made me feel bad is that I’m sorry I couldn’t deliver a better experience to that reader.  If somebody takes the trouble to buy and read something I wrote, I want them to enjoy it. So, dear reader, know that I will do better with my next book, thanks in part to your input.

This brings me to my second point, which is that I try to get in touch with and thank all my readers, whether they like the book or not.  Reading a book takes time and costs money, and I appreciate that they are willing to invest both in mine.

But, thanks to the nature of the product, it’s hard to get find out who my readers are, unless they go out of their way to tell me.  This is rare.  When was the last time you wrote to some author to tell them what you thought of their book? Most people never write a review at all, let alone contact the author.

Also, my publisher has a strong policy against collecting user data.  This makes sense, because users hate having their data collected.  They worry that it will be sold, or that they will lose their privacy.  That is totally understandable.  Before I got into making and selling products, I felt the same way.  I hate the idea of some company gathering information on me.

Once I started selling things, I saw the other side of the issue.  That is, when you sell stuff–books, apps, whatever–it’s helpful to know who is buying it and why.  That way, you can figure out what drives sales, and get more people to buy your product.

So, the question is: how to gather that information from your users (readers, in my case) without seeming like a creepy, intrusive, dystopian corporation?

I was cleaning today and found an old list of possible titles I jotted down for what became The Start of the Majestic World. Here they are:

  • Thuban AM
  • Siege Mentality
  • Civilization Under Threat
  • Classicism and Decadence
  • Equally Jests
  • Concerning the Cancellation of Thuban AM
  • Upon What Meat?

Re-reading this, it’s clear to me that I made the right decision. Note that the last title on the list is from the same scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that includes the phrase “the start of the majestic world”, which gives you some insight into how titles get selected.

What do you think?  Do you agree with my pick?

Years ago, I was working on a screenplay for a dystopian movie. I ultimately shelved it to work on books instead, though I did put some elements of it into The Start of the Majestic World.

There were two plot threads in the movie: one was the personal story of the main character, his girlfriend, and a rival for her affections. The second thread was about change in society generally, and how it goes back and forth from hedonism to brutal tyranny. The idea was that the “societal” themes formed a backdrop to the more personal story. I called the two threads “micro” and “macro”.

The macro plot involved a popular, charismatic and transformative President at the end of his term, campaigning for his chosen successor. And his successor was a member of his administration who had worked well with him, but who had the dull personality of a bureaucrat.

But his successor faced a surprise challenge from a radical candidate, who was dangerous and reckless, but also very charismatic and popular. The challenger wanted to dismantle all of the old administration’s policies.

In the second act, the challenger won in spite of the government’s best efforts to stop him. After which, everything went to hell.

My working title for the screenplay was “The Fall Guy”, because the main character ends up taking the fall for a lot of stuff done by the original administration once the challenger takes over.

I set the screenplay aside about 6 years ago, mostly because the dialogue had gotten too heavy on political philosophy for a movie. But I’ll admit, I’ve recently thought about revisiting it…

One of the early titles I considered for my novella The Start of the Majestic World was “Caligula in Washington D.C.” This was inspired partly by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famously discarded title “Trimalchio in West Egg”, and also partly because that was how I originally envisioned the villain of the story, Colonel Preston.

I was asking the old “can it happen here?” question, and trying to come up with a way that it might. I have read about the way various dictators came to power, particularly Napoleon Bonaparte, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, and those were all major influences on Preston’s plot in the book.

But Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin were all members of political/ideological movements. The extent to which they agreed with the original goals of their political movements varied, but they all at least used political movements to seize power. I wanted Preston to be somebody who was not a member of any political movement. I wanted a crazy but very intelligent person who was capable of largely cloaking his madness except to people who knew him well.

The idea of Preston being in the military was based mainly on Napoleon, and also to a degree on Julius Caesar, because that command structure and loyalty was something they exploited to take over the government. But Preston’s methods and his cruelty are more based on Caligula, Hitler and Stalin.

One idea I didn’t explore as much as I wanted to, but vaguely hinted at, was the idea that Preston is getting so out of control that his loyal followers are dwindling, and he is coming to rely more and more heavily on combat automatons to do his bidding.

The other thing I wanted to add was a small humanizing touch. Preston is close to being a complete monster (I actually toned him down a little from early drafts, believe it or not) and that can get tiresome. So I wanted to have a little bit of a hint that he hadn’t always been this way–something happened to him.

Strong villains are tough to write, mostly because it is easy to be lazy and let them be evil with no explanation. At the same time, I didn’t want to delve too much into his motivation, because that removes the mystery and takes away from the intimidation factor. I tried to give the reader just enough clues to imagine his motives for themselves.

Did I succeed?  Read the book and tell me.

I’m an argumentative kind of guy. I also hold a lot of controversial opinions about movies. So I tend to get into arguments about movies a lot.

One thing I’ve learned from these arguments is that people seemingly can’t tell the difference between bad acting and bad screenwriting.  If people decide they don’t like a character, or they find them boring, they usually assume it was the actor’s fault.

Take my old favorite: the Star Wars prequels.  People complain the acting in those is bad, but it’s actually pretty good, aside from Hayden Christensen in Episode II.  The problem is that the writing is bad: the lines are awkward and sometimes nonsensical.  The amount of acting talent in those movies is incredible, and it got largely wasted by a script that was very bad.  No amount of good acting makes the line “what’s wrong, Ani?” work.

Here is an example of actual bad acting: in the “picnic” scene in Episode II, Anakin (Christensen) is teasing Padme (Natalie Portman) about a boy on whom she had a teenage crush.  He asks what happened to him, she says “I went into politics; he became an artist”,  and Anakin’s reply is “maybe he was the smart one”.  A good actor would play this flirtatiously, since the two characters are supposed to be falling in love. But Christensen for some reason delivers it in an angry, almost accusatory manner.  That is bad acting.

I’m probably sensitive to this because I am a writer, and so I tend to watch movies, plays, TV etc. with my focus on the decisions the writer(s) made.  I think most people don’t really think about the fact that people actually write these things–if something doesn’t work, they blame the actors. An actor is the face that the audience associates with the character, and so they tend to think of them as “being” that character, without remembering that in the majority of cases, somebody else wrote the character’s lines.

Once in a while, good acting can rise above a lousy script–Apocalypse Now is the best example I can think of–but generally, a bad script dooms you from the start.  It’s like sports: if you have superstar players running badly designed plays or formations, the results will be bad, no matter how flawlessly they perform them.

For example: there is a scene in the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin where Dr. Iannis (John Hurt) is arguing with his daughter Pelagia (Penelope Cruz) about plans for her impending wedding at the start of the scene and then–with no new characters or information being introduced–concludes the scene by telling her she can’t get married because the Axis forces are about to invade, and handing her a pistol to use on them or, he adds darkly, on herself, if necessary.

John Hurt is a great actor, and he delivers all of his lines in this scene very well.  But it does not work, because there is no way a person would start a conversation discussing wedding details and then seemingly suddenly remember “Oh, yeah and the Nazis are invading–you might have to kill them or yourself.” In journalism, they call that “burying the lead”. In script-writing, they call it “dreadful”.

This is one big reason why dramatic productions have directors: their job is to make the script and actors work together.

It reminds me of a quote from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame.  But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”

If lines don’t make sense, if character motivations are not clear, then the writer is to blame.  But if they do make sense and are clear, and the scene nevertheless does not work, then it is the fault of the actors and the director.


Thanks for reading this post. Hope you enjoyed it. If so, maybe you’d also like to check out my book, which contains no bad acting, and hopefully no bad writing either.

Via Paul Graham, a WSJ article on teaching kids to write by banning them from using certain “boring” words, such as “good” “bad”, “fun” and “said”.  To quote from the article:

“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” said (or affirmed) Ms. Shelton, whose manual “Banish Boring Words” has sold nearly 80,000 copies since 2009.

Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

This reminded me of novelist Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing, one of which was: “Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.”

And people wonder why kids have trouble learning to write.

So then, who is right: the teacher or the novelist? My answer: it depends.

There are times when using something other than “said” is appropriate.  This is especially true with humor–saying “burbled” is so much better than “said” if you want people to laugh.

That said, you can go too far with it.  And since Leonard’s goal was to make the writer “invisible”, I would say in that case sticking with “said” is usually a good idea.

My rule of thumb: if it sounds right, use it.  If “said” doesn’t sound right, but “called” does, use “called”.  But don’t spend your time trying to find some other bizarre word if “said” will do.

Take this exchange from my novella, The Start of the Majestic World:

Maynard and Brett sat outside on the steps that led into the headquarters.  Brett was studying schematics of a sniper rifle on his tablet.  Maynard stared straight ahead, deep in thought.

“I’ve received no communication of any kind from anybody at the Bureau,” muttered Brett. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Yeah, it does;” said Maynard slowly. “This is a Dead Zone.  They are blocking any signal they don’t want getting in.”

Brett nodded.  “And most likely any they don’t want getting out, too.”

“Yes.”

“But D.C. would know it was being blocked.  Any decent Intel machine would—”

“They want it blocked,” she said. “They don’t want to know, and he doesn’t want to tell them.  It’s better for everyone that way.  I’ve seen it a million times—I’ve just never been on the wrong end of plausible deniability before.”

The two agents sat in silence for a minute.

“They have to be listening to us,” said Brett.

“Probably,” said Maynard. “But they don’t give a damn what we say.  They figure there’s nothing we can do.”

The first time Brett speaks, I used “muttered” to indicate he was still looking at the rifle schematic, and not thinking fully about talking.  When Maynard responds, it becomes “said” because now they are just having a conversation.  And I dropped “said” or any variants after that, and left it to the reader to follow.

Leonard had some other interesting rules.  I took particular note of these two:

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

As I wrote recently, I used to believe this too.  Then I wrote a collection of short stories that contained very little description, and my readers complained that there wasn’t enough description.

I thought there must be some other problem.  So I wrote a novella that contained very little description, and my readers complained that there wasn’t enough description.

Was Leonard just wrong? Seems unlikely–he was an award-winning novelist. I am guessing it’s more that once you are a really good writer, it doesn’t take much effort to describe someone or something.  It barely feels like you are doing anything when you know exactly what words to use.  There have been great authors (John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald) who could take things that were not very interesting in themselves, and write gorgeous descriptive passages about them.

One of the most common criticisms of my fiction has been that there is not enough description. I’ve heard this from both P.M. Prescott and Jonnah Z Kennedy, as well as other readers who don’t have websites I can link to.  It was not an accident that there is so little description.  I had a hypothesis that most fiction contains too much description, and that this was particularly a problem in horror fiction, when describing things detracts from the horror.

I think my aversion to description goes back to when I read the following in Paul Graham’s essay “Taste for Makers”:

Good design is suggestive. Jane Austen’s novels contain almost no description; instead of telling you how everything looks, she tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself.

That sounded good to me.  And hell, I thought,  it’s even more important to avoid description when you’re writing psychological horror than when you’re writing a comedy of manners.  Horror, I’ve always said, is all about the unknown, and nothing screws up the unknown like describing it.  So I made a conscious effort to not describe stuff; the idea being that people would fill in the details for themselves.

Based on the feedback I’ve received, this was a mistake.  Keeping description to a minimum was not a formula for success, at least not in my stories. Now, maybe there are other issues as well–maybe I didn’t tell the story well enough that readers could fill in the blanks.  But all  I know for sure is people specifically complained about the lack of description.

Fair enough.  So, how is it best to describe stuff?  Should I say:

The pale blue Autumn moon shone its faint light on the cemetery.  A passing cloud would now and again cast the ancient graveyard into darkness.  A howling of some distant animal echoed through the surrounding wood, and the bewitching southern wind wafted the leaves over the long-forgotten tombstones.

Or:

It was a dark cemetery.  The moon was occasionally obscured by clouds. It was windy, and a dog was howling far away.

The former is poetic, but it takes forever to convey a fairly simple scene.  The latter communicates the same information more quickly, but it seems boring and dry.

“Well, it depends what you’re writing!”, you say.  Ok, but in the above example, it’s the same basic point both times: to show the reader that we are in a graveyard at night.  And it’s creepy.  But what’s the best way of doing that?  Normally, one would think conveying that in as few words as possible is best.  And yet, writing: “They were in a graveyard at night” seems a little bare, doesn’t it?

As promised, I’ve been working on my next book.  I hit a bit of a rough patch where I wasn’t sure how much exposition to give.  It’s a new thing for me because previously I’ve only known two different scenarios in my writing:

  1. Writing a section that is just really fun to write.
  2. Writing a section that I need to have, but am not enjoying and am just slogging through.

Needless to say, the things in category 1 are much better done than those in category 2.  The latter inevitably end up needing to be revised.

But I reached a point in my new book that was really neither.  I felt like I could go either way on this section; I could linger a bit and give some more atmospheric exposition, or I could just say what I needed to say and move along to the next part.  I’m torn about how to go–part of me wants to move on, and I have read advice for writers that says not to put in unnecessary stuff.

On the other hand, I think (and have been told by multiple readers) that my earlier stories fell into the trap of moving too quickly and not lingering enough on certain things to set the scene.  So I am inclined to spend more time on stage-setting than I ordinarily would, to try to correct for this tendency.

One thing this forces me to do is really picture the scene in my mind.  This is harder than you would think.  In the past when I have written stuff, I have had a general sketch in mind, but nothing too detailed.  This caused me to try and get away with saying some pretty vague stuff.  This way, I’ll now have a more firm idea in mind, and can communicate it better to the readers.

The scene I’m currently writing is also important because (not to give too much away) it is setting up a location that the protagonist will return to later, where the majority of the action in the story will take place.  So it’s a good opportunity for some foreshadowing, and I don’t want to miss out on that.