Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Writing Historical Fiction (Well)


Another Tumblr anonymous query whose answer I'm also posting here as of possible wider interest:

"What advice would you give to someone who wants to write about Alexander?" Sorry I didn't clarify, I was thinking of writing a fictional novel (but do not plan to publish it, lol)

Well, if you’re just writing for yourself with no plans to publish, you don’t have to worry about constraints like wordcount and publishability. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to sell mainstream historicals. Selling a genre historical is easier (historical fantasy, historical mystery, historical romance). But there’s a reason it took me 30 years to get Dancing with the Lion into print. Yes, some of that time I was actually writing it, but much more was devoted to finding a market for it, and notice that I did, finally, have to sell it as genre even though it isn’t really. (It was that or shelve it forever.)

Yet if you’re asking for my recommendations, I assume you want to write something that’s marginally readable. Ergo, what follows is general advice I’d give anybody writing historical fiction.

For historicals, one must keep track of two things simultaneously: telling a good story, and portraying history accurately enough. It’s possible to do one well, but the other quite badly.

First, let’s look at how to write a good story.

There are two very basic sorts of stories: the romance, and the novel. Notice it’s romance small /r/. A romance is an adventure story; in romances, the plot dominates and characters serve the plot. A novel is character-driven, so plot events serve character development. Dancing with the Lion is a novel.

Once you’ve decided which of those you’re writing, you have a better handle on how to write it. You also need to know where you’re going: what’s the end of the story? What are the major plot points? Writers who dive in with no road map tend to produce bloated books that require massive edits. That said, romances will almost always be faster paced, in part because “what’s happening” drives it. Whereas in novels, the impact of events on characters drives it. Exclusive readers of romances are rarely pleased by the pacing of novels. They’re too slow: “Nothing is happening!” Things are happening, but internally, not externally.

Yet pacing does matter. Never let a scene do one thing when it can do three.

You will want to pay attention to something called “scene and sequel.” A “scene” is an event and a “sequel” are the consequences. So let’s say (as in my current MIP [monster in progress]) you open with a fugitive from the city jail racing through the streets with guards following: he leaps the wall of a rich man’s house and ends up in the bedroom of a visiting prince. That’s the scene. The sequel is the fall-out. (House searched, prince hides fugitive, prince gets fugitive to tell him why he’s running.) Usually near the end of the sequel(s) to the first scene, you embed the hook to the next (a slave of the rich man has been found murdered outside the city walls). The next scene concerns recovering the body and what they discover (then fall-out from that). Etc., etc., etc.

That’s how stories progress. Or don’t progress, if the author can’t master scene-sequel patterns.

It also means—again—you need to know where you’re going. Outlines Are Your Friends. But yes, your plot can still take a sharp left-hand turn that surprises you…they almost always do.

When I sat down to write Dancing with the Lion, I knew three things:

1)     I wanted to write about Alexander before he became king.

2)     I wanted to explore his relationship with Hephaistion.

3)     I especially wanted to consider how both became the men they’d did.

With those goals in mind, I could frame the story. Because I always intended Hephaistion to be as important as Alexander, the novel opens in his point-of-view to establish that. And because I didn’t want to deal with Alexander as king, the novel had to end before he became one. History itself gives a HUGE and obvious gift in the abrupt murder of Philip. Where to open was harder to decide, but as I wanted to explore the boys’ friendship and its impact on their maturation into men, I should logically begin with their meeting, and decided not to have them meet too young. From there, I spun out Hephaistion’s background, and his decision to run away from home to join the circus, er, I mean Pages. 😉

IMO, Alexander’s story is Too Big to do in a single novel, or you get an 800+ page monstrosity like Chris Cameron’s God of War. The author must decide on what piece of the story she wants to tell. (Or, like me, view it as a series.)

So that’s (in a nutshell) how you construct a story.

As for the historical side, there are three levels here:

1)     What the world looks like (details).

2)     The events that take place.

3)     How people living in that world understand life, the universe, and everything.

Number two is probably the easiest. Numbers one and three require deeper research on all sorts of things. Sometimes historical novels spend all their time on number one and completely forget number three exists.

The past is a foreign country. Just as you wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) write a novel set in Japan (if you’re American) without learning something not only about the physical country but also the customs…same with stories set in the past.

This is why the Oliver Stone movie failed. He put modern people in a costume drama. He didn’t understand how ancient Macedonians (or Greeks or Persians) thought. So he committed crazy anachronisms like the oedipal complex between Alexander and Olympias. Freud may have named his theory after a Greek hero, but it’s largely a foreign idea to the Greek mind. (Whether it’s valid at all is a topic for another day).

The author has to let ancient people be properly ancient.

Problem: what do you do when they’re SO foreign they’re impossible to understand for modern readers—or their attitudes are outright offensive?

Well, if you don’t plan to get your story published, you don’t have to worry about that. Or not as much. But if you want to share it with others, you might still want to consider it.

There are two basic approaches:

1)     Introduce your world through a “stranger” who enters it.

2)     Spread out more “modern” views among various characters in the story, to give modern readers something familiar to hang onto.

The first of those is by far the most common. So in Outlander, Claire Randall—quite literally a modern woman—introduces the modern reader to Jacobite Scotland. As she learns about her new world, so does the reader, and in Claire, the reader has a voice to express both their fascination and their horror of that world. In Judith Tarr’s Lord of the Two Lands, she uses Meriamon, an Egyptian priestess, to enter the Macedonian world of Alexander. Judy can then contrast Egyptian and Macedonian cultural values in order to explain them. Meriamon asks questions the reader wants answers to—or Niko (or Alexander) ask questions of her about Egypt.

The second choice (which is what I did in Dancing) is to identify cultural mores likely to offend modern readers: indifference to slavery, glorification of war and conquest, Greco-Macedonian attitudes towards women, and Greco-Macedonian attitudes towards sexuality. Then to assign one of the characters to voice a more modern view. Alexander gets to be a proto-feminist, and I gave points of view to two women. One of those women, I made a slave. Hephaistion gets to express a more modern view regarding the horrors of war. Sexuality was a bit tougher, but I used the boys’ atypical relationship—that the younger is the one of higher status—to illustrate Greco-Macedonian assumptions about what a male-male relationship should look like.

That approach presents more hurdles, but for my purposes, I preferred it.

I harp on this because it’s the biggest problem for historical fiction: not having historical characters! It wrecks what might otherwise be decent research into the details. No matter how much you look up what they ate, how they dressed, the way their houses were laid out…if you have them behaving anachronistically, it’s a bad historical. Or if you have circumstances that just wouldn’t occur.

Let me give an example. I’ve said before that, when I started writing the novel in December of 1988, Dancing always began with a run-away boy (Hephaistion). But in my initial version, he showed up in Pella incognito. The more I read about Macedonia, however, the more I realized that was virtually impossible. There just weren’t that many Hetairoi. He’d have been recognized, and probably sooner rather than later. So I went back to the drawing board and, instead of having him try to hide, he comes right out and says who he is, and that he wants to join the Pages. It might take away the “mystery,” but set up more interesting dynamics: would Philip let him stay? What would his father do? Etc.

That requires the author know enough about the culture to know what’s possible, probable, and impossible. It also requires the author to be willing to change original plans in order to reflect reality, not insist on doing ___ anyway.

A good example of jettisoning history in favor of “what I want to do!” can be found in David Gemmell’s Lion of Macedon. So many, many things wrong with that book, starting with his choice to make Parmenion a Spartan for no historical reason whatsoever—but (I assume?) because Spartans Are Sexy. Parmenion likely belonged to the royal house of Upper Macedonian Pelagonia. Although even if he didn’t, absolutely nothing suggests he wasn’t Macedonian, and quite a lot says he was. The whole duology (with included The Dark Prince) was essentially Blue Boltz ™ Epic Fantasy Does Greece. The fact he actually included a bibliography in back, and got weird, isolated details right only added insult to injury.

Yet Gemmell was a best-selling British fantasy novelist who knew pacing and how to spin a good yarn. For a reader with zero knowledge of Alexander, it would stack up as a predictable but tolerable fantasy set.

Remember that as an historical fiction author, your job is to practice the art of getting it right. If that isn’t important to you, please God, write something completely made up.

At the spectrum’s other end is Showing Notecards on Every Page. You’ve done ALL that hard research, and you’ll be damn sure the reader knows it!

Um, the reader doesn’t care. The reader wants to be transported to another world. They don’t care how locals in that world shoed horses (or if they shoed horses at all). That matters only if your main character’s a farrier. And even then, it matters only if said-farrier is having a conversation with someone else while shoeing a horse.

If people want all the little details of history, they’ll read a history book.

Now, how much detail is “too much” can vary from reader to reader, and often has something to do with the genre.

Regular readers of historical fiction are fans because they enjoy history. So they’ll expect proper world-building. But they don’t want the Dreaded Information Dump. Weave in details. The Dreaded Information Dump is a common beginning-author error across the board, but especially bad in certain genres, such as historicals, fantasy, and SF.

What’s an “information dump”? It’s where the author provides details the reader doesn’t need at that point in the story. What the character looks like, is wearing, their family background, what they had for breakfast….

As mentioned, details should be woven into the story organically. What your character had for breakfast matters only if, later, it’s giving him/her gas: “Damn those beans in my breakfast burrito!” Some details may be useful to set a scene and prevent characters from walking around, having conversations in a void, but again, a light touch.

Similarly, One scene, One head. We do NOT need to see everything from each character’s point of view. No, really. We don’t. And dear God, please don’t “head-hop” inside of scenes (unless you’re writing omniscient, but be sure you know what omniscient IS). Drives me BUGGY.

Anyway, back to the Notecard Showing Problem. As noted above, genre expectations and reader preferences often dictate what IS “too much detail.” Generally, historical Romance (the genre) and historical mysteries go lighter on detail than historical fantasy or plain historicals. That’s because the former two have genre conventions that work against it. Romances preference the love story front-and-center at all times, and mysteries have a mystery to unravel. E.g, they’re plot driven. By contrast, historical fantasies tolerate more world building because world building itself is a feature of fantasy (and science fiction too). And the appeal of mainstream or literary historicals IS the world building, so you get massive novels like Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth.

I’m blathering now, but hopefully this gives pointers not just about writing Alexander, but writing fiction period, and historical fiction in particular.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Traditional Offices at the Macedonian Court: Hetairos, Page, Somatophylax

 On Tumblr, I received the following two anonymous queries (maybe from the same person, as they seemingly relate). I chose to post the answers here, as well, as figuring out the finer points of these offices can be problematic. Wikipedia entries are not to be trusted.


Do we know for certain when Hephaistion became Somatophylakes? I read somewhere that it might have been after the "naming of the Sidonian King". Do you think there was a specific reason behind his appointment (some military or administrative achievement)?

Sorry, this might be a bit dumb to ask but... what exactly did the rank "Bodyguard" (Somatophylakes) entail? They had military positions in addition to their "Bodyguard" station, but... where they in charge of Alexander's security? How exactly did they get this title and was it the "highest rank" they could get? I get so confused between the "Companion" and "Bodyguard" terms.


The best way to answer this question is to talk about the roles and offices at the Macedonian court more broadly. I will say at the outset there’s no universal agreement on these matters. I’m detailing what I find to be most logical, based on the evidence we have. Argead Macedonian court politics is “my thing.” When I get specific about what I do, it’s court dynamics and prosopography. People often refer to me as the Hephaistion specialist, and that’s fair enough, but my real expertise is broader; he’s just part of that larger web.

As we have no surviving source that clearly outlines what these offices entailed, we must reconstruct them from implication embedded in what our sources do tell us. To complicate things, common nouns are sometimes used generically, sometimes titularly.

Let’s begin with the most basic, and probably oldest rank: Hetairos (Hetairoi, pl.).

The word hetairos just means “companion.” Back at least into the early iron age, Hetairos was used as a generic title for the land-owning elite, as they were the fighting/hunting/drinking companions to royals. In Macedonia, the full title was Basίlikoi Hetaίroi. We cap and don’t italicize foreign words when used titularly. So hetairos (“He’s my traveling companion.”) but Hetairos (“He’s one of the King’s Companions from Almopia.”). But this mixed usage can cause problems in identification.

Similarly, a small circle of personal advisors around the king were called Philoi: Friends (Philos, sing.). As with Hetairos, it had titular import. (Not unlike the Roman emperor’s Amici.) Again, when is a friend a Friend? That matters for someone like Hephaistion. He was a friend of Alexander’s in youth, but by the end of Alexander’s reign, he’s also a Friend of the king.

Anyway, in Maceedon, being an Hetairos was largely hereditary, linked to a festival (probably held in spring) called the Hetairideia. (If you’ve read Dancing with the Lion, I mention it a few times; Hephaistion’s Single Combat competitions are set during the Hetairideia.) Unfortunately, most of what we know about it comes from the Antigonid era (post-Alexander), not the earlier Argead, although it probably dates back into the dim recesses of Macedon’s formation.

If the rank of Hetairos was traditionally hereditary, it was also in the gift of the king, who was bound to his Hetairoi by oaths, renewed each year. So if the son or sons of an Hetairos usually became Hetairoi in turn (thus Hephaistion takes his father’s cloak in Rise), the king maintained the right to strip the title, or make new Hetairoi. The latter was more common than the former. Archelaos famously made Euripides an Hetairos and Philip gave it to several Greeks, as did Alexander. If I recall right, Alexander annointed Darius’s brother Oxyathres a Hetairos too. These appointments probably went along with land grants, at least down to Philip. When he took Amphipolis, he gave out a lot of land to Hetairoi, some of whom would already have had land, but some were non-Macedonians ethnically, such as Nearchos.

 All that dates back to the original connection of Hetairos as land-owners who agreed to fight for the king, mostly on horseback. The Macedonian lowland was (and is) horse country, as were areas of the highlands, especially Elimeia and Eordia with their wide mountain valleys. Elimeia had a crack cavalry better than the lowlands at several points in history. Remember, those upper Macedonian cantons were initially independent kingdoms. It was Philip who bound the highlands securely into the larger Macedonian orbit.

Airopos of Lynkestis (but not his sons) is an example of a nobleman stripped of his title, and exiled by Philip sometimes during the campaigns in the Greek south, whereupon he fled to Athens. That’s one reason why the Lynkestian brothers were implicated in Philip’s murder later. To have the title removed would have been a HUGE blow to their father’s timē (personal, public honor). Murder was, indeed, a possible response; it was that serious. (It’s likely that, when Philip exiled Nearchos, Ptolemy, Harpalos, Erigyios, and Laomedon after the Pixodaros Affair he also took their titles too, but Alexander would have returned them when he recalled them.)

So Hetairoi made up the wealthy landowning class. We’re not sure how many there were. Gene Borza estimated them at about 100; the stone row of seats at the Aigai theatre (with the king’s “throne” in the middle) was likely for Hetairoi, and about 100 butts can fit on it. LOL. Sons of living Hetairoi would be “Hetairos class,” but it’s unclear if they were also Hetairoi until their father was dead. E.g., so while Parmenion lived, were Philotas, Nikanor, and Hektor also Hetairoi? They seem to have been, at least Philotas and Nikanor, but it’s never made clear, nor at what age they would have been named in addition to their fathers, if they were.

From this Hetairoi class, the king drew the King’s Boys (Basilikoi Paides), usually referred to in English as the Royal Pages (or royal pages, although I prefer the cap). They’re closer to squires, in a medieval sense. Again, we aren’t sure how many there were, probably varied, but again, c.100 would make sense. It was at once an honor as well as a way to hold the boys hostage for their fathers’ loyalty. They seem to have served from 14-18 (give or take), after which they were reassigned to various military units as junior officers, or took a turn in the Royal Hunters (sacred to Herakles Kynagidas). We’re not sure what they did, perhaps rural police? The (duty) Pages fought beside the king in combat, and served him daily outside it, performing duties (such as emptying the chamber pot!) normally performed by slaves. Only the king had Pages. It was a sort of officer training school for the elite. (Other officers might have had slaves and junior staffers, but not Pages.)

Princes had their own circles of companions called Syntrophoi, all or the bulk of which were sons of Hetairoi, and might be selected by the king rather than by the prince in question. So in Becoming, Philippos assigns a number of boys to go with Alexandros to Mieza, but also lets Alexanros pick some of his own (Hephaistion and Ptolemaios among them).

Use of Hetairoi gets confusing where it intersects with the military. So the Companion Cavalry (Hippeis Hetairoi) are also called just Hetairoi in our sources. Once upon a time in Macedonian history, the two would have been the same. Only the Hetairoi and their sons could have afforded horses to serve as cavalry, riding with the king.

By Philip’s day (or perhaps earlier under Archelaos), military changes had opened up cavalry beyond nobility. Also under Philip, regular pikemen were called just pezes (Foot), but his special infantry who guarded the king in combat also got a special title: Pezhetairoi: Foot Companions. E.g, the infantry equivalent of the Companion Cavalry. We’re told Philip chose them for size and fighting ability, not necessarily noble birth, although Waldemar Heckel argues that especially the agema (e.g., Royal) unit was composed of young Hetairoi class on the fast track to command. Yet here we begin to see the rise of men on merit, not birth.

A Foot Companion wasn’t necessarily an Hetairos. And increasingly, not all Cavalry were either.

Alexander renamed the special unit Hypaspists (which just means “Shield Bearer”) and extended the honorary Foot Companions to the whole infantry—who certainly weren’t noblemen.

So when we write about Philip and Alexander, at least some Macedonian specialists refer to the army units by English translations, while using the Greek Hetairoi for the political title. I did the same in Dancing with the Lion. But this isn’t a universal usage.

As to the special seven-man unit called Bodyguards, or Somatophylakes (Somatophylax, sing.), like the Pages, it was more political-civic. The Somatophylakes guarded the king’s person, but inside, while the Pages were stationed outside (his tent or chambers). Kings would never have been alone unless demanding it for some particular reason. Yes, even in the bedchamber, even during sex; they weren’t nearly so prudish as we are. It also seems that one Somatophylax was the official taster for the king’s food and drink. (Ptolemy Lagus had that job at one point for Alexander.) During royal supper parties, they were the only armed people in the room. (When Alexander murdered Kleitos during a brawl, he grabbed the spear of a duty Somatophylax.)

So while they did have actual guard duty, it was very much honorary, and they did more than just guard, including act as gofer. As with the Pages, the fact it was for the king turned jobs “beneath their station” into an honor instead of an insult. (This is also why nobody but the king had them. Princes might have guards, but they weren’t Somatophylakes.) It’s not only possible but likely the king had additional guards besides the Seven who were closer to a Secret Service. The Somatophylakes often had other, quite prominent offices, which may have been tough to keep up if also standing guard on the king all night.

We think both the Somatophylakes and Basiliskoi Paides were inspired by Persian court practice. We’re not sure when they emerged. Under Alexander I, who, recall, was a Persian subject in the Persian Wars? His reign ended c. 450. Others date the institutions later, to Archelaos (d. 399), or even Philip II (d. 336). Archelaos introduced numerous advances anticipating Philip II, but his reign was only about 14 years, after which Macedon sank back into crazy successor wars until Philip.

In any case, the Somatophylakes should not be understood as an ancient Macedonian Secret Service. The minutia of how they functioned daily is unclear. I suspect part of our problem is that the unit evolved over time, and the bulk of our evidence comes from the reign of Alexander, who fundamentally changed the military.

One important point Heckel makes is that the unit was honorary, and like other high military offices, a new king couldn’t just sweep out the old to bring in the new. These are not men you demote, not if you want to stay king (and alive). Alexander replaced his father’s only as they died, and even then, he advanced his New Men into those slots slowly. He was just 20 upon taking the kingship, and far from secure in it.

Do not trust the Wikipedia list of names and dates for Alexander’s Bodyguard; only the last two years are correct, as the full Bodyguard was named only once, by Arrian (6.28.4), upon Peukestas’s extraordinary appointment as #8. (And yeah, I just edited it to warn as much.) Prior to that, we know them mostly via a mention here and there, so the complete compliment at any one time is guesswork. For Philip, it’s even worse. We have only a couple names, Balakros being one.

Somatophylakes weren’t necessarily the highest of the high, however. Neither Parmenion nor any of his sons were among them, nor was Krateros, Koinos, etc. That said, by the end of his life Alexander had appointed several of his inner circle to the unit, including Leonnatos, Lysimachos, Perdikkas, Ptolemy, and of course, Hephaistion. Hephaistion was never replaced after his death, so the number returned to seven. In fact, it’s possible that he left the Bodyguard when made Chiliarch, if that appointment did happen late, in, say, Babylon, as such an office would have required a hell of a lot of time—hard to do if you’re also guarding the king’s bed chamber. With Peukestas, Alexander would still have had seven Somatophylakes.

Another point of confusion concerns the distinction between the Seven, and the king’s guard in combat. The Pezhetairoi (for Philip) or Hypaspists (for Alexander) were the king’s personal guard on a battlefield. Somatophylakes did not serve together as a unit. They served (or more often commanded) their own units. So when Hephaistion is called “chief of the king’s bodyguard” at Gaugamela, that means he headed the agema unit of the Hypaspists. Similarly, when Pausanias (who assassinated Philip) is called the king’s “bodyguard,” more likely he was a member of the Pezhetairoi. A king—even one as wildly successful as Philip—couldn’t kick a man out of the Somatophylakes just to replace him with another. Notice that when Alexander wanted to honor a man that way, but had no open slot, he ADDED Peukestas. He didn’t demote anybody.

When Hephaistion joined them is difficult to say. He doesn’t seem to have been a Somatophylax at the time of the Philotas Affair (nor were Krateros or Koinos, the other two who tortured Philotas). See my comment above about Alexander moving slowly in replacing his father’s top men. After the fall of Philotas, and Parmenion, we see increasing upward movement for the “New Men.” Even so, Alexander appointed Kleitos along with Hephaistion to command the Companions, and not long after, following Kleitos’s death, reorganized them all into battalions. Hephaistion commanded one, but only one, albeit the most important (apparently the one with the agema, or royal unit).

That still leaves us in the dark as to when he became a Somatophylax. He was one by Carmania, post-Gedrosia. That’s the best we can say with certainty. Same problem with his Chiliarchy. He was Chiliarch by the last year of his life, but how long before? Alexander engaged in a never-ending revision of army and court, and only sometimes are we told precisely when the changes occurred.

I don’t put Hephaistion’s elevation to Somatophylax early. Waldemar’s right. Alexander couldn’t hand out plum positions to younger men too soon. After all, he still had a Somatophylax in Baktria who led a plot to assassinate him! Demetrios was almost certainly a holdover from Philip’s day. It’s possible Hephaistion got the slot then, but maybe not. He received half the Companions, so making him Somatophylax as well could’ve been perceived as too much.

Back to what our sources don’t tell us. Appointment to the Bodyguard assumed the death, or retirement, of a former Bodyguard. It’s more like a reward and acknowledgement of very high standing at the court than a “promotion.” That’s why Peukestas got the exceptional eighth position: he’d saved Alexander at Malia.