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Thursday, December 30, 2010

PROGRESS REPORT # 75 : SO IT ENDS


Ptolemy Soter

Prologue: Babylon, the 28th day of Daesius (June) 323 BC
Ptolemy, companion and illegitimate half-brother of Alexander the Great writes in his journal:

'Today, the 28th of Daesius ,an ominous darkness has descended over city. Alexander is dead. When I looked at him, he seemed to be at peace at last.  There was, in his eyes, a look of calm acceptance.  I have wept for him. He was a god and man. He will continue to live, I think, forever and ever, for thousands and thousands years.

Ptolemy wrote memoirs on Alexander's campaigns.  He was one of Alexander's most faithful companions and friend,  allegedly an illegitimate half brother of Alexander.  He could have tried to take over the army after Alexander died, but he chose instead to go to Egypt and establish the city of Alexandria as Alexander had wished.  He became the first Ptolemaic Pharaoh of Egypt and his dynasty lasted for many years. (The Cleopatra that we know in the histories was from his lineage.  'Cleopatra' was in fact a Macedonian royal name.)  In "Shadow of the Lion"  he is the royal blue thread in the tapestry,  telling Alexander's story in the prologue and epilogue and appearing throughout the novel.  Although some historians saw him as self-aggrandizing,  from what I have read and researched, I saw him as an honest, loyal and honourable man.  He is one of the sympathetic characters in the novel, and the 'uncle' who Iskander (Alexander's son) sees as a savior.

It has been a long, long journey for me writing this novel.  Many stops, starts, several hiatuses when I was working on other writing (plays, memoirs and travel writing.  Even some poetry related to the story, my collection of 12 Homeric Hymns "Hymns to Gods and Heroes").  But now, at last, my journey has ended.  The telling of the tale, for sure, but there's still work for the 'editor' to do: polishing, tweaking, cutting, looking for an agent/publisher.  Still, when I wrote the end this week I felt a great sense of accomplishment.  And I have a lot of people to thank for their encouragement and assistance.  There will be a page of acknowledgements in the front of the book when it's published.

The journey started in Babylon for my characters, taking them through the Middle East, Egypt, and finally north to Macedonia.  It was a journey of almost 13 years.  Mine took longer than that, including a year and more of research before I began;  an attempt to write it as a juvenile historical which I abandoned after a year when I realized the story was too political and complex. I spent a lot of time in Greece doing research, with the help of Classical scholars, the Greek Ministry of Culture, the secretary of the Society of Macedonian Studies and many friends there and here. There were a lot of halts on the journey, conflicts, problems,  joyous times and sad times.  But now, it's done.  Do I feel relief?  Am I sad?  Well, I have had the ending written right from the beginning, so I already knew how it would end, so it wasn't quite as much of a shock to me as it might have been had it been really 'fresh' writing.  I think when I wrote the end of the epilogue I felt the impact.  But it probably won't be for a few days yet that the full realization comes over me.  It's done!  It will be strange to not be thinking about it 24/7, jotting notes down in my notebook, getting up in the night to record lines of dialogue or setting detail that I suddenly thought of.  I have been living with these characters for a long, long time.  They are real people in my mind,  just as most of them were real people in history.  So, yes, I will miss them. 

Epilogue: Alexandria, the 28th day of Daesius (June) 310 BC 
Ptolemy has received word from Amphipolis, Macedon, and writes this in his journal:

'And now Alexander’s dynasty has ended. Such is life, the way of men -- that in the twinkling of an eye an Empire can collapse. We are driven by greed to win fame and power in unrighteous ways and the more we have, the more we covet, until greed and blind ambition destroys us.’


SO IT ENDS


Funeral urn containing the remains of a Macedonian Prince(When I asked the archaeologist at Vergina, the Royal Tombs, if they might be those of Alexander IV, he said they believed so, because he (my Iskander) was the only royal boy of that age, about 14, who had died at that time.)



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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

PROGRESS REPORT #74: When You Reach the Finish Line


Silver coin,  Alexander the Great wearing the horns of Ammon
(I wear a ring made of a copy of this coin, and also have it as a medallion)

I compare the writing of this novel, "Shadow of the Lion", to a long and arduous journey.  Like running a marathon, though I've made some rest-stops along the way.  The story itself is a journey, beginning in Babylon in June, 323 BC and ending in Amphipolis, Macedonia in June 310 BC.  And that journey itself took years!

Just like a marathon runner, a writer must persevere if you want to reach the finish line.  Sometimes you might stumble and almost fall;  sometimes you get so tired you might want to quit; sometimes you lag behind and wonder if you're ever going to reach the finish line.  But you keep on persevering, in spite of discomfort, obstacle, discouragements.  And finally you see ahead of you,  your goal!

Before you set off on this long, long race, of course you need to prepare  yourself,  "get into shape", know what's in store.  Writing a novel is a long project and one that requires discipline if you want to achieve your goal and finish.  Before I began writing Shadow, I did months of research.  I already had a lot of knowledge and a great love of my subject (Alexander the Great) and I enjoy doing research  -- a kind of brain 'gym' work,  getting prepared for the big 'race'.  Sure, you sometimes make a false start and have to begin over.  I actually spent a year writing "Shadow" as a juvenile historical,  thinking it would be a short run and I'd be finished the project in no time.  Then, as I delved deeper into the history and saw how complicated the events were, I realized it was not going to work as a story for youngsters.  It was far to complex and political.  So I was advised to start over. (That first year was just a 'training run').  And so I did.  I started over and wrote it with a multiple point of view, complicating matters, but allowing me to really develop the characters and tell the story of the fall of Alexander's dynasty with all the political complexities and scheming that finally brought it to the end.  Certainly, once I established the theme: How blind ambition and greed brought down a world power, the way became clear and I was able to tell the story the way it needed to be told.

Yes, it has been a long, long journey.  But this week I finally came to the end of the final chapter.  And now, before this week is over, I should have the Epilogue finished with a bit of extra work on the Prologue, tying it all in together. 

Was I excited and emotional about reaching the finish line?  I actually had the final chapter written almost from the beginning, so I knew how it ended.  But I had to proceed slowly when I wrote the final chapter, making sure I kept the tension high and not giving away the ending.  I wanted it to have an emotional but satisfying ending and hope I have achieved that.  At least I know I have given it my personal best.  This, of course, is not the grand finale.  There will still be some edits, rewrites and cuts to make.  And I won't be completely 'finished' until I write THE END when I finish the Epilogue.  My goal is to finish it this week, before the New Year.  Can I do it?  Yes, I can!


A painting of Amphipolis with Mount Pangeion, the lake and the River Strymon
(in my research I have visited here twice)











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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Progress Report #73: The Never-ending Task of Research

Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus


One of the things I always remind writers in my novel writing classes is that part of the job of the writer is also to do the research.  And if you are writing historical fiction this is no small task!  Even if you are writing fiction of any kind, make sure you know your subject and have a keen interest in it or you will soon became overwhelmed with the research that is necessary to make your characters realistic and your settings as accurate as possible.  This is even true with 'modern' settings.  For instance, if  you are writing about someone who is a nurse or a lawyer,  make sure you know what it entails to be in that profession.  Interview people who are, or read up on it.  If you are writing about a bag lady or a drug addict, you don't need to go out and sleep on the street or shoot up heroin but you must study and observe what it is to be like those individuals and perhaps chat with a few to find out.  (For instance, my play "The Street" was a cautionary tale about heroin addiction written after my boyfriend and his friends became hooked on the drug unwittingly back in the 1950's before any of us knew the dangers.  I personally saw what happened to these people when they became unfortunate addicts and as the play was set in the East End of Vancouver I knew the setting and period of time very well.) 

Writing historical fiction though, is a much more daunting project.  Again, you really need to be passionately interested in the subject you intend to write about, read everything you can about that period (including other novels), and be prepared for lots of unending work.  I was introduced to Alexander the Great when I was still in high school and spent a good deal of my last year of school researching and writing an Alexander themed novel. (Nearly failed because of it!).  There were no computers, videos, movies (other than that horrible one made during the 1950's starring Richard Burton where even the sets were phony) so I relied on library books.  Nowadays you can research on-line as well as at libraries and the sources are endless.  However, to get a real feeling of the locations, wherever possible, it's a good idea to go and visit.  Of course, when I started to write about Alexander I relied only on book research however when I eventually visited Greece many years later I was astounded to see how accurate some of my descriptions had been of locations.  For my current novel, "Shadow of the Lion", I was not only able to research in libraries and on-line, but I have some very valuable contacts who are Classical Scholars and was able to visit most of the locations in northern Greece (Macedonia) and some in Turkey.  Of course, getting to Iraq was impossible (and the first part of my novel takes place in ancient Babylon) but I at least was able to view videos and get a pretty clear idea of what it might have been like. 
Pella, the royal city where Alexander was born.

In researching my novel I have visited as many of the sites where Alexander lived that I was able to.  I got a real feeling of 'place' by doing this.  Of course a vivid imagination is also a valuable asset, however I always try to be fairly accurate in descriptions so I can get across the sense of 'being there'.
So it was a thrill to visit Pella several times. (The site of the palace is still being excavated but I was at least able to get an idea of the layout of the city and imagine it.)  I have also visited Dodoni, where Alexander's mother lived in the mountains of Epiros, the island of Samothraki where she met her husband Philip, King of Macedon and Alexander's father, and the town of Pydna where part of my story takes place where the royal family (Olympias, and Alexander's Soghdian widow and son were staying while the city was under siege).  I have also been twice to Amphipolis, an important site for the last part of my novel.  Someone said that Classical Greece is dead.  But it isn't.  Certainly there are a lot of things that are no longer there and sometimes the landscape has been altered, but when you walk among the ruins and see the lay of the land you can visualize it as clearly as it once existed.

If you are writing a more current story,  set in New York city, for instance, and you've never been there (especially if you're from a small town) you should treat youself for a visit, as New York city is an experience like no other and to capture the essence of it is part of the exciting detail you'll want to add to your story.



Mieza, the school Philip built where Aristotle taught Alexander and his Companions.

But getting the settings right is only half the battle. There's all those other details too,  like what did people eat back then?  What did they wear?  What was their mode of transportation?  How long did it take to get from point A to point B on horseback?  It's never-ending.  I seem to be always stopping to check some tiny detail.  As someone once told me,  "If you have them eating potatoes in the first chapter and potatoes didn't exist at that time, it will shoot down your credibility."  My Classical scholar friends have made sure even things like the way sacrifices were made was accurately portrayed.  And all that meticulous detail is what often makes historical fiction take so long to write.

Some tips for doing research are necessary.  I learned a long time ago to make a list of what I needed to know at that moment and only research those subjects.  It happens I love doing research and can spend far too many hours browsing books or surfing the net.  So I usually only look things up as I need to know them and keep a file with notes, photos or whatever I need to keep on hand.  Then, when you are doing the writing, use only what you actually need.  Don't bog your story down with too many details no matter how fascinating they are.  Just ask yourself, "is this necessary for the plot?"  If it isn't, don't use it.  (Sometimes, a book can be so full of meticulous research details that it becomes boring.)  Remember, you're not writing a history text, you're writing a story. So you want to keep it interesting as well as informative.









Saturday, December 18, 2010

PROGRESS REPORT # 72 : DREAMING


Lately I've been having a lot of unusual dreams.  I used to be diligent about recording any significant dreams in my journal, because often you can look back on them and 'interpret' what they possibly meant.  Sometimes dreams can be visitations from people who have passed beyond.  Other times they are reflections of our lives,  stressful periods or joyful times.  I find dreams fascinating.  Even the unpleasant, scary dreams (nightmares) we sometimes have are interesting if you try to analyze just why those frightening images came to disturb your sleep.

Once, when I was in my teens, I had one of those 'non-dreams' where you really can visualize something has happened.  In this case, my sleep was disturbed and I woke to find two men standing by my bed.  One was an oriental man, the other a tall man wearing an overcoat and fedora.  They didn't speak, just stood by my bedside grinning at me.  Of course I was frightened and I sat up and cried out.  Then they vanished.  Who were these two men?  I can still see them as clearly as if it were yesterday.
The most mysterious part is, when some years later, I told this 'dream' to a friend, she related exactly the same incident happening to her at about the same age.  She described two similar men.  Where they guardian angels?  And why did they appear?

I have often used dreams in my novel "Shadow of the Lion".  In ancient times, dreams were important and were part of the psycho-therapy used in the healing shrines.  The person who came to the shrine to seek advice was given wine or some other potent drink,  wrapped themselves in an animal skin and slept. In the morning the priest of the sanctuary interpreted their dream and give them advice.

There have been a couple of times when I had a dream but realized that dream really belonged to one of my characters.  It's important though, if you use dreams in your stories, that you use them carefully so that they meld in with the story.  You must never write a story and in the end say "Then she woke up. It was all a dream!" That's a cop-out.  So if you use dreams in your story, they must make sense as if they are a dream your character might really have, and for what reason?
 
 There are 'waking dreams' too...those moments when our mind drifts off to other worlds or fantasies.  "Imagining", while we are awake.  These moments can also be used with your characters.

Dreams can be curious, playful, wishful-thinking, memories, visitations or powerful foreshadowing.
Here's a dream sequence belonging to Roxana,  the Soghdian widow of Alexander and mother of his only heir, Iskander (Alexander IV)  She and her son, heir to the throne, are held in a fortress at Amphipolis under the guardianship of Kassandros, one of Alexander's enemies, until Iskander comes of age and can legally take over the throne of Macedon.

Roxana and Alexander the Great

Roxana  went to her dressing table and took the combs out of her hair letting it tumble loose. She sat awhile, holding her bronze mirror as she wiped the paint from her face. She was barely

past thirty and already felt like a beaten old crone. The mirror’s reflection showed her pale complexion, the tiny lines around her mouth and creasing her brow. There were dark pouches under her sad eyes. She saw herself as a dowager, not Alexander’s proud widow, mother of the future king of Macedon. All her hopes had been dashed. Alone in the silence she shed tears of remorse.

That night as she slept, a horrible vision came to her.

She sees a cavernous room with walls of alabaster and floors of black marble. In the centre is an open sarcophagus and inside it lays the corpse of a man. She sees him clearly, the serene features are familiar to her: the nose, cheeks, the coppery hair springing from his forehead, the hands folded over a shield that bears a lion’s figure. Alexander. Then she sees Iskander ascending the steps, slowly, reverently. He approaches the casket and reaches out his hand, then bends over to touch Alexander’s face, and slowly as if performing a ritual, he climbs into the sarcophagus. She sees him lying there, and now it is no longer Alexander, but her son who lays in that marble casket.

She woke drenched in sweat, her heart pounding. The dream was so real that it felt as if she had flown to Alexandria and beheld it herself.

Trembling, she crawled out of bed and bent over a basin by her bedside. A wave of nausea came over her and she retched.

Was the dream an omen?

It was a dream ….only a dream. She repeated this until the spinning in her head ceased and she felt her heart beats slow. She decided not to tell Iskander.

It was a dream, that is all, she told herself. I cannot alarm my son when he needs to keep his thoughts clear.

*  *   *

This week in my novel-writing coaching group I asked the writers to choose one of their characters and write a dream that this character might have,  then relate it to an incident in their character's life, possibly a foreshadowing.  This proved to be a very useful exercise.  Try it yourself!  Those dreams will tell you many things about your characters -- or even yourself! 











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Friday, December 03, 2010

SOME INSPIRATION FROM THE MUSE


SAPPHO

This week I had some unexpected encouragement about one of my works-in-progress that has been shelved for the last couple of years:  my play about Sappho, the lyric poet,  titled "House of the Muses".

I had begun writing this play after being encouraged to do so by an artistic director/actress I know and before I began I got a membership in the Playwright's Centre so that I could qualify for some workshops.  I even made a special trip that year when I was in Greece, to visit Myteline (Lesbos) and to go to the town where Sappho once lived (Eressos).  I did tons of research before I was prepared to begin writing.

This was another period when I basically stalled work on my novel, "Shadow of the Lion",  at least I was working a bit on both, putting most of my energy at that time into the play.  I got the first act written and was prepared to begin the second act when the whole thing kind of caved in.  The people in the workshop, and mainly the director of it, simply didn't get what I was writing, perhaps because I was styling it like the Greek dramas (because, after all, Sappho's story is a tragedy).  A couple of the workshop members made a few critiquing suggestions but basically the director dissed it and told me that the way it was it was unproducable.  He did not offer any suggestions as to how I could fix or improve it.  I was crushed, after all the months I had put into it, so I decided to shelve it and focus entirely on the novel.

Here's a brief explanation of what the play is about:

The story of Sappho is a classic story of betrayal and unrequited love.  Sappho has been misunderstood in modern times. She was not simply a lesbian who wrote love poems to some of her girls. She was a widow, a mother, a woman with male lovers, and most importantly, she was a political activist and a musical super-star of her time. At her House of the Muses private girls school on the island of Lesbos, Greece, she taught the young daughters of wealthy Asians and Greeks the art of music and poetry. Music seems to have been the natural mode of expression and the intimacy of the group was such that there was no secret that could not be shared, no subject that could not be sung. Soon these girls would marry, and it was to this end that their accomplishments were acquired.


In Sappho’s house they learned that virginity kept was glorious, while virginity lost in a wedding bed was an even more splendid thing. One had to be both pure and desirable and the balance was not easy to keep for chastity was provocative. The need to marry well was what brought the members of the Sapphic group together, but marriage also made them move apart again and once they left they could never come back again, could never be girls again. Their change of status (marriage) was as total and as irreversible as the loss of virginity.


So it was with Sappho, when she was sent into exile far from the House of the Muses. Her life was never to be the same again, and when she returned she found her world turned upside down, her school in chaos, her land taken by the tyrants, her most beloved friend gone. Because of her political stance against the tyrants and her love of the girls in her school, she was accused of disorderly conduct and being a ‘woman-lover’. She was slandered and defiled, and most of her poetry was destroyed. In end, betrayed by her young male lover and deserted by her goddess, Aphrodite she committed suicide.


Sappho’s tragic story is a classic story of unrequited love. Her quest for love, acceptance and lasting friendship is what we all seek. With Sappho died some of the world’s most profound and beautiful poetry.

I haven't looked at the script since that time I shelved it until a week after I returned from my holidays in September and was asked to be guest poet at a Sunday poetry reading, Poetic Justice.  At that reading I read the opening monologue by Sappho.  It was greeted with enthusiasm and one of the women in the audience who is an actress expressed that she would love to perform it.  That gave me renewed interest in the project.  Maybe it wasn't as bad as I had been led to believe!

Then the other day  I happened to be in a conversation with another woman, also an actress, who was bemoaning that she hadn't landed any roles lately and considered quitting acting.  It suddenly struck me that this woman would be perfect to play the role of Sappho.  So I asked her if she'd like to read the script. 

I got a phone message from her a couple of days ago and she was very enthusiastic about what she had read so far from the script.  She said that she was 'right there' and really related to all the action etc. She asked if she could do some editing on the dialogues for me (which was just what I felt the script needed). So I am now waiting to hear her opinion about it once she's finished reading Act One.  If she thinks it's worth pursuing then when I am finished Shadow I should go back and finish Act Two.  It would be exciting even if I only got a reading done of it.  I had put so much energy into the play it seems a shame for it to be tucked away in a manuscript box never to see the light of day or hear some talented women reading the lines I have written. (I used as many of Sappho's own words in the script as I could, too!)

So, you just never know.  Sometimes the work you think is worthless turns out to be alright. You just have to give it time.  And put it into the right hands.














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