Posts Tagged ‘Historical Fiction’

Not Kemaleddin, but his nephew, Piri

As happens when one writes historical fiction, sometimes the lines blur.  I am in a blurry area now in The Necromancer’s Grimoire, the sequel to The Hermetica of Elysium.  I have introduced a character who was a real man in 1495, Ahmed Kemaleddin Reis, newly appointed admiral of the Ottoman fleet.  So I must do my research to make sure I do not dishonor him by keeping him alive when he was dead, or killing him while he was alive.

I have found precious little about this man.  This is good and bad.  It is good because it gives me a lot of room to write about him.  It is bad because the more I learn, the more I wish there was more.  Kemal Reis was widely respected in his day for his seamanship and his honor.  He was one of the first to arm his fleet with cannon.  He was sent by his sultan to Spain to  rescue and evacuate more than a thousand Jews from Cadiz after Ferdinand and Isabella made it lethal to be a Jew in that country.  He was known for his encyclopedic memory of the coastlines of the Mediterranean and of the waves and the wind.  He was a dreaded privateer in his youth, and men fought to be members of his crew on his ships.

Which brings up issues about historical fiction in the first place.  The Reis lived long enough ago and in such as faded area of history that if I keep the known facts correct, I can probably enjoy some freedom with his personal life.  But because he was such a magnificent man, part of me feels guilty messing with him.  In my imagination, his much more famous nephew, Piri Reis, looks down on me from history with a stern no-nonsense expression.  Piri became his uncle’s shadow at the age of 13.  Most likely they were rarely separated and everything Piri knew he learned from his father’s brother.

As I researched Kemal Reis,  I found a eulogy written by Piri by way of the introduction to his magnum opus, the Kitab-ı Bahriye This poem was so lovingly contructed that even in translation one can hear his grief.  When I read this the first time, I said to myself, I must put this man Kemaleddin in the novel and resurrect him.  He cannot just be a slight mention or a chance meeting in Istanbul.  Kemal must come alive again.

And so he will.  You will meet him up close and very very personal.

Here is the eulogy:

Good friend, I want you                                        

To remember us in your prayers,

And remember Kemal Reis, our master,

May his soul be content!

He had perfect knowledge of the seas

And knew the science of navigation.

He knew innumerable seas;

No one could stop him…

We sailed the Mediterranean together

And saw all its great cities.

We went to Frankish lands

And defeated the infidel.

One day an order from

Sultan Bayezid arrived.

“Tell Kemal Reis to come to me,”

It said, “and advise me on affairs of the sea.”

So in 1495, the year of this command,

We returned to our country.

By the sultan’s command we set out

And won many victories…

Kemal Reis sailed hoping to come back,

But was lost at sea.

Everyone once spoke of him;

Now even his name is forgotten…

The angel of death caught him

While he was serving Sultan Bayezid.

May God give peace to those

Who remember Kemal Reis with a prayer.

Kemal died and went to the next world

And we found ourselves alone in this.


Kemal drowned in 1510 around the age of 60, 15 years after that letter from the sultan asking for his advice.  His ship went down with several others during a violent storm in the Mediteranean.  He was commanding a fleet of 35 ships and protected a shipment of iron, wood, arrows, guns, gunpowder, and copper from Istanbul to Alexandria.  His loss was a severe blow to the Ottoman navy.

(Piri has been brought to life again in Assassin’s Creed, though the game description of him that I read took great liberties with history.  I love the costume, however.)

Piri Reis as video game character

Piri Reis’ beautiful maps

The wonders of unknown history

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James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary

I have always read historical fiction.   When I was a child I associated fiction with times and places far removed from my current suburban routine, from the Little House books to the Great Brain series.  As I grew up my fiction continued to be historical.  I graduated to the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen.  As a teenager I read the Mists of Avalon, which crossed me over from history to fantasy and I took a side path into science fiction.  As an adult I became interested in the actual history, and my reading took me all over the world in all times while I enjoyed learning about what people did when it was not the twentieth century.

I have been so used to the idea that a story is set long ago or far away that when I began to imagine my own stories it never occurred to me that they would be contemporary.  There is not as much excitement in taking a cab as there is in being swept up by a knight on a war charger pounding its way along a dirt path into adventure.

I’ve been in a cab.  I’ve been on a horse.  No contest.

I chose the late medieval period for my story about books and knowledge because of the richness of the background of the times.  The Turks had captured Constantinople about 50 years before, and the city’s fleeing scholars flooded Europe with the ancient manuscripts they carried away from the carnage.  My characters are hunting these books and scrolls. Perfect timing.

Because I have had so many years immersed in history, it was not difficult to set my characters there, nor did I struggle to remember what had been invented yet.  Anachronisms are a constant challenge, but handy references can prevent embarrassment.  The most important reference I have for avoiding them is the Oxford English Dictionary.  The OED has extensive etymological information on every word.  I use it when I want to mention something, but am not sure if the item or the concept has even entered the vocabulary at the time.

Sensitivity to anachronism is vital for an historical author.  The readers are smart, and they will find a mistake even editors may miss.  In one of my favorite books there is a scene where the castle ladies are out picking fruit…in Scotland in April.  In real life they would be lucky to see blossoms on the trees at that time of year.  They would never be picking fruit.  It is a time-travel story, but not that kind of time.  In another book the beautiful heroine is feeling lonely in her castle tower in the 1150’s.  She muses at the window and then lays down her sketchbook.

Maybe there was a window.  Maybe.  Though the writer did not elaborate upon the incredible wealth of this heroine’s father.  Glass windows existed, but were more commonly seen in cathedrals at that time.  Paper was so expensive then that it was equally unlikely that this teenager was given quantities of it for sketching.

Small mistakes like these can shake a reader from the imaginary world of the characters and interrupt the flow of the story.  What was happening was real in the reader’s mind until they were stunned by an out-of-place sketchbook.  It hurts.  Even in science fiction, the weirdness of the environment must be explained by the author.  Small questions like, “How do they breathe?” and “What do they eat?” can nag at a reader until the author relieves them with an explanation.

I try to have my characters breathe and eat and sleep and scratch and grumble about the weather.  These small details connect them with readers who also have the occasional itch and hate being cold and wet.  Placing light sources within a scene is also a detail I often use to emphasize the time period.  In modern times we take light for granted, but before power stations and incandescent bulbs it might not be so easy to read the expression on another’s face, and shadows were prevalent.  We don’t see shadows so much anymore.

I try to draw the reader into the past with those details they share with the characters, rather than go out of my way to describe the differences.  When Nadira is hungry, I hope the reader feels a little urge to go to the fridge.  When she is cold, I hope the reader tucks her feet under her on that comfy sofa and pulls her sweater around her shoulders.  When Montrose bends down to kiss her, I hope the reader feels the rough stubble on his chin.  I know I do.

Another tool is language.  This is more difficult to achieve.  I want the reader to play the story in their imaginations, not stumble over thee and thou.  I also want to evoke the time period, so I cannot allow any idiom or slang from other centuries.  I choose the dialogue very carefully, keeping in mind that the purpose of the words is to convey information and emotion.  Those are the elements of the story; I don’t want so much historical accuracy that I have to insert words that will annoy the reader.  One can read a book about Chaucer’s time without having to read it in Middle English.

I was pleased when a recent review of The Hermetica of Elysium praised the language.  It was an aspect of the book I had worked very hard to create.  This reader, at least, had been able to both enjoy the story with ease as well as stay in the medieval atmosphere.  This is due partly to my trusty OED, and partly to my own desire to get on with the adventure.

Here comes that charging horse…

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