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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Writing about Thermopylae: Part I

The Leonidas Trilogy has been in the making for roughly five years, and – obviously – from the very start I knew that the final book would end at Thermopylae.

OK, I admit, there were some days when I thought: “Do you really have to do that? Hasn’t everything already been said? Wouldn’t it be enough to end the book as Leonidas marches north?”

But reality always set in relatively quickly. People read about Leonidas because of Thermopylae. They want to read about Thermopylae. If I didn’t write about Leonidas at Thermopylae, my readers would feel cheated. It wouldn't matter that my declared objective was to write about his life, not his death. So, I accepted my fate. I would have to write about Thermopylae – but first I had all the rest of the book(s) to write….

It was wonderful. With each chapter I came to know – and like – Leonidas better. I met his friends. Watched Gorgo grow up, become an alluring woman and partner for Leonidas. The project grew and evolved. There was so much to tell! But with each completed chapter, I was a step closer to Thermopylae.

At some indefinable point I started to unconsciously drag my feet. Oh, I had lots of good excuses. I had guests. I had to work on many weekends. I was even Acting Consul General for a while. But in reality I was procrastinating. I didn’t want to face Thermopylae.


Well, frankly, I don’t like killing people. Certainly not people I like. And I like Leonidas – and Alkander and Prokles and Maron and…. You get the picture.

The far greater problem, however, was the competition. Precisely because so many people from Herodotus onward have already written about Thermopylae, my readers have expectations. Unlike most fiction, where the author’s only burden is to carry an inert reader along, fiction describing a familiar incident means dragging the reader in directions they may not expect to go. In the first case, your reader is on a raft and you are the current of the river. In the second case, the reader is in a power boat trying to go in the direction he wants based on the charts provided by descriptions familiar to him.

The direction of the river, of course, is set by history. I can’t change that. (Well, some novelists do, but I’m a historian.)  I can’t have Leonidas escape alive – and I wouldn’t want to. So the first thing I did was sit down and read as many accounts of Thermopylae as I could readily get my hands on. I make no pretense of reading everything, but I believe my reading covered a sufficient spectrum to be called comprehensive, starting with Herodotus, Bradford, Fields, and Holland. I also visited the physical site and walked around the battlefield myself.

The combination of research and personal inspection gave me the skeleton for the story. I knew the geography, climate, and the bare facts. That was the easy part.

The greater challenge, however, was confronting the literary aspects of the story.  But enough for today, I’ll talk about the literary challenges in my next post. 

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