Gordon Doherty on Writing and his Latest Project

Today I open my blog to the brilliant Gordon Doherty! I won’t lie.. i was pretty happy when he agreed to a guest post 🙂 Enjoy

Take it away Gordon….

The Time Machine

Everyone has a favourite yarn. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is probably mine. It evokes a sense of wonder, adventure, exhilaration and melancholy all at once. Imagine the possibilities and the untold knowledge that could be had if such a device existed. Writing, for me, is the closest thing to having a time machine of my own: it takes me a few steps further than reading or imagination alone. It’s the only place I can truly lose myself.

The first time I threw myself fully into the literary time machine I travelled back to the 4th century AD. This was a tale that was later to take shape as ‘Legionary’, the first volume in the eponymous series. Back then, I had lots of time, moderate expectations and a readership of zero. So I spent nearly six years reading and shaping my understanding of the world of the XI Claudia Legion and their stamping ground in the late Eastern Roman Empire. Although there were a few historical bloopers in there, by the time I published the first edition in 2011, I had a pretty solid grasp of the time period.

For my second novel, ‘Strategos: Born in the Borderlands’, I hopped into the time machine once more, travelled to the 11th century AD and delved into the mystical world that was apogee-era Byzantium. Now that was a mix of new ground and old. Byzantium was a direct continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, after all, but by the 11th century it had morphed into something quite unique: blending elements of its western, Latin heritage with its Greek present, its emperors dressing in attire more suited to Persian kings and its people unwavering in their worship of the Christian God. Equally, while the political landscape had changed between the 4th century of Legionary and the 11th century of Strategos, both tales were set in and around the city of Constantinople, and across the countryside of Anatolia (modern Turkey) and Thracia (modern Bulgaria). So, different as Byzantium was, writing the tale of Strategos felt as if I was expanding on my solid Eastern Roman foundations.

That was five years ago. Since then I have stuck faithfully to the two series. Late Rome and apogee Byzantium have been my ‘thing’. Now, however, I have come to a crossroads that I always knew awaited me. The Strategos trilogy is complete and the Legionary series has reached a brief interlude at the end of ‘act 1’ (five books so far). What next? Another Roman tale? Well I am midway through a Roman-era trilogy with my good friend, Simon Turney – watch this space for news on that – but that only takes up a small portion of my writing time.

But what’s my next solo project? Well, the time machine has been nagging me for a long while to take it somewhere – or rather sometime – different. Sometime far more ancient than the world of the Byzantines or the Romans.

I once read an old text chronicling the history of Anatolia. It spoke of ancient, misunderstood carvings and reliefs on the mountainsides and bluffs of Turkey, mighty stelai telling of a once-great power, lost in the fog of history. The Greek historian Herodotus thought some of these reliefs had been carved by a conquering Bronze Age Egyptian Pharaoh who had marched into and claimed Anatolia…

…he was wrong.

The Karabel Pass in western Turkey. Herodotus mistook the relief to be that of an Egyptian Pharaoh.

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The Fraktin relief in southern Turkey.

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The Haga emblem, emblazoned on the gates of Arinna, a city in north-central Anatolia. It was such a relief that Apion first saw when riding through Chaldia in Mansur’s wagon in Strategos.

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In Search of the Lost King

These markings are an echo from the Bronze Age, when the flame of antiquity was but young and bright, an age when Great Kings ruled the known world. Indeed, the rulers of Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia were gods incarnate. It is only in the last century or so that we have come to understand that these three divinely-appointed kings were not alone… for there was a fourth – a Great King who ruled Anatolia and whose artisans decorated his realm with reliefs like those above. His kingdom was known as the Land of the Hatti.

Together with the panoply of vassal states on its periphery, we know it as the Empire of the Hittites.

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1260 BC. The powers of the near east in the late Bronze Age. Note that the term ‘Hittite Empire’ is a debate in itself. The Hittites actually called their realm ‘The Land of Hatti’, and referred to themselves as ‘The People of the Land of Hatti’. The term ‘Hittite’ comes from the Hebrew Bible, which refers to a group of relatively insignificant tribes living in the hills of Syria during biblical times – long after the fall of the Bronze Age. Modern Archaeologists, realising that these biblical tribes were the fragmented remnant of ‘The People of the Land of Hatti’, thus took to using the term ‘Hittite’ to refer to the Bronze Age superpower as well.

And as for the Hittite Empire? It was not an empire in the modern sense, more a proto-empire: a kingdom that enjoyed a loose hegemony over a band of vassal states around its borders. So in my story, I could refer to ‘The Hittite Empire’, or ‘The Proto-Empire of the People of the Land of Hatti’. I think I know which I will use 😉

Also note that Babylonia – absent from this map – had by this time been conquered by its more-powerful Assyrian neighbour (the southern end of the Assyrian domain roughly corresponds to ancient Babylonia).

And you will notice the land of ‘Ahhiyawa’ in the west, roughly equitable with modern-day Greece. Was this the land of Homer’s ‘Achaeans’? Were they a fifth great power? One thing is for certain – they had a massive part to play in the cataclysm that was to come…

The Hittites – a Bronze Age Superpower

The Hittite King – chosen by the Storm God and the Sun Goddess who stood at the head of their diverse and abundant pantheon – would have scoffed at the notion of Egyptians even setting foot in his homeland, let alone carving a victory relief upon its sacred rock. The Hittite army enjoyed a fierce reputation and defended their heartlands with their lives. Mighty Troy was but a minor vassal on the western outskirts of the Hittite Empire, its fine walls dwarfed by those of the Hittite capital of Hattusa – a sprawling fortress-city set firmly upon a craggy hillside high up on the central Anatolian Plateau.

A reconstruction of Hattusa, capital city of the Hittite Empire for long periods of its history.

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The site of Hattusa today, as seen from the west, with a reconstructed section of the lower town wall in the foreground and the craggy hillside upon which the city rested behind.

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Finding the Hittites

You can probably tell from my excitable language in the last few paragraphs that I’ve already answered the time machine’s call. For the last few years I’ve been studying hard to understand the world of the Hittites. And in the last few months a first draft has been blossoming… and is now complete!

There is a long way to go yet before I have a finished novel, but the experience so far has been like a breath of fresh, Anatolian air. A new era, an untouched timeline of kings, wars, glory and ignominy; a whole host of characters rising from the historical sources: principled warriors, dark heroes, venal kings and shadowy courtiers.

Yet for all this promise, the sheer scale of the Hittite world and all they became involved in during the last centuries of the Bronze Age has proved to be very daunting and at times almost overwhelming. Indeed, the ‘step’ backwards into the Bronze Age itself has proved to be a massive leap. It has demonstrated to me how much I have learned about the Roman and Byzantine eras, for at almost every equivalent turn in my Hittite writings, I have met a cyclopean or mud-brick wall etched with a big, fat cuneiform question mark.

How did they say hello? Did they pave their roads? How did they organise their armies? What did they eat? How did they wipe their… well, you get the picture.

9The Hittite Army returning from battle with a long line of POWs (who are set to be put to work in the barren mills, fields and uplands of Anatolia).

The Hittite realm – sometimes called the land of 1000 gods – is a mist-veiled riddle. Their world is alien in comparison to that of the Greeks or Romans: the technology, the language, the customs and values, and their Gods (though Hesiod’s Theogony has many parallels with the Hittite myth of the Storm God’s beginnings). It’s been an absolute whopper of a learning curve, but I love learning (and I love curves? Er… move on!), even when it means trawling books and websites for hours to find the location of an old temple or fort ruin. And that’s the joy of it – ever the Indiana Jones wannabe, I see myself as an explorer at the edge of a dark jungle. I feel fear in my belly at the size of the task ahead and excitement coursing through my veins to think of what wonders might lie within. I refuse to dwell on the former and it’s a pleasure to seize the latter. It has been a privilege to learn, explore and conjure a tale along the way as I journey through the Hittite world.

Oh, and they raised a clenched fist to say hello or at least to salute/greet. They didn’t have paved roads. They organised their armies into divisions, subdivided into thousands (and they didn’t have cavalry – at least not in the sense we might recognise today). Amusingly/disgustingly, they made people eat poo and drink pee as punishment. Oh, and bestiality was punishable by death… unless it was with a horse, in which case it was absolutely fine. There is more, much, much more, but as usual, probably only 30% of the massive vault of facts and figures I’ve compiled will find a place in the story – as a reader I don’t appreciate books that try to shoehorn detail into an otherwise flowing story and I try to make sure I never make this mistake as a writer. That said, I’d never sidestep a thorough research stage: I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve stopped writing because I’ve been posed a valid question mid-scene (e.g. did the Hittites use birthing stools?) and only had to leaf through my research doc to find the definitive, referenced answer. Off the cuff/on-demand research can work, but it can make progress somewhat jittery and unpredictable.
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Hittite Warriors in discussion outside Hattusa’s mighty walls.

The Art of the First Draft

So how does one write a first draft? Well, some call it the ‘vomit-draft’, which is self-explanatory. I prefer the following analogy:

Gordon’s writing analogies #5617: Research and planning is like identifying a quarry site in the hills and selecting your chisels. The first draft is akin to hacking a big ugly chunk of limestone out of the hillside and dragging it down to your workshop.  The second and subsequent drafts and edits are where the artisan hews, sculpts and polishes the block, eventually producing a gleaming marble statue.

Putting the first sentence of my Hittite tale on the page was very, very difficult. Not because my mind was blank or short of ideas, but because I had a thousand different voices in my head, hectoring and squabbling over the how, where, when and why of that opening line. Yet I got there and it was like breaking the seal on a coffee jar. The first ten thousand or so words just spilled out of me after that, without much thought or doubt, other than to remember not to use the words steel or iron as much as I usually do!

Further along the line I hit some bumps and potholes. As usual, these came in the form of contradictions where one plot line made another impossible, or where I found a hole in my research that needed to be filled in. I stuck to usual practice when this happened: fixing the small issues there and then, but anything that was likely to take more than, say, ten minutes to fix, I’d just add a comment to the relevant section and move on. These comments then serve as a task list to be looked at after the first draft is done (indeed, that’s my next job!).

Some bumps are bigger than others. I was assaulted by a ‘fact-bomb’ just last week: hours after writing the final few lines of the first draft’s concluding chapter, I found a PDF excerpt from an academic paper that summarised the life of my main character and it proudly and smugly (okay, maybe not smugly) asserted that he was born 14 years AFTER my estimate of his birth date. And, as sod and his cursed legal code would have it, my book focuses on the first 14 years of the character’s life… 14 years of events rendered irrelevant to the character by the sneering, triumphant PDF. I’ll fix things though, by reworking the plot (AKA open-heart surgery, which has to happen at least once per book). And I’ll get my revenge on the PDF (by disabling Adobe updates – ha!).

When it comes to character-development, slipping into a pair of Hittite boots (leather, toes upturned) with this first draft has been a reinvigorating experience. I’ve ‘walked’ the ancient Anatolian routes and ‘seen’ that long-gone world through the eyes of the people who will live again in my tale. This, being the first book in a new series, puts me in the unfamiliar situation of having characters not neck-deep in effluent from the previous volume and needing to find a way out. My job, therefore, is to get them into the crap as soon as possible (and when you read the prologue, you’ll see I waste no time in doing so). Some of the characters have played out as planned, but not many. As usual, some of them blurt something out unexpectedly: loyal friends become dark-eyed and jealous; brave warriors suddenly find their guts turning to water, and cool-blooded generals make hot-headed judgements, only to suddenly find themselves in the jaws of disaster.

10The thick of battle: a Hittite chariot crew of a driver, a warrior and a shield-bearer.

Watch This Space

So, I hope that gives you a taste of things to come from me. I really hope this all comes together into a tale that readers out there can enjoy as much as my previous books. All being well, and assuming the time machine keeps running smoothly, I expect volume 1 of the new saga to be out in autumn this year. Watch this space for updates!

It’s been great talking with you, David. Thanks for having me.

www.gordondoherty.co.uk

Twitter: @gordondoherty

Facebook: Gordon Doherty

The Legionary Series:

The Strategos Trilogy:

 

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Gordon Doherty on Writing and his Latest Project

  1. prue batten

    This was fascinating. To make such a quantum leap into an area of unknown! I admire your guts, Gordon, and sympathise with the ‘areas of unknown’. I felt the same with 12th century Constantinople. I needed help to locate the Patriarch’s Palace because there is no real evidence of where it was apart from a loose ‘somewhere to the south of the Augusteion’. Even Byzantium 1200 couldn’t help. And I daresay there is little or no virtual reality of the Hittite Empire. And yet you have already found so much information! Looking forward to the opening salvo of Chapter One.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Gordon Doherty

      Cheers, Prue. Indeed, there are many, many blanks to fill in. It’s all part of the fun, but I also need to be careful I don’t bridge certain gaps with something that sounds too Roman.
      As for Byzantium, it certainly took me a long time to feel like I had cracked it and was finally ‘there’. Pierre Gilles ‘Antiquities of Constantinople (drawn to my attention by Mr. Simon T!) was probably what tipped it for me: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Antiquities-Constantinople-Italica-Historical-Travel-ebook/dp/B005TOXJCI/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1459178888&sr=1-1&keywords=pierre+gilles
      Have you tried this yet? It does labour certain things by giving inch-perfect measurements of each toppled stone, but there are some real gems in there that can instantly inject colour and scale into your impression of Constantinople in its pomp.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  2. scott Riedle

    love your writing. cant wait for the. ee work. i also will be eagerly looking for the work you do with simon turney i think its a great partnership !!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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