Welcome back, Tim Taylor, fellow Crooked Cat author, who has valiantly risen to my challenge and shares with us how he surmounted the problem of settings in his two excellent historical novels.
Hello Jane! Many thanks for hosting me!
I understand that the theme for your Tuesday blog is the setting for novels. My two books posed rather different challenges in this regard. Zeus of Ithome charts the historical struggle of the Messenian people to liberate themselves from their Spartan neighbours, and was set in southern and central Greece in the 4th century BC. It was important to convey a vivid sense of place as my central character Diocles, a runaway ‘helot’ slave, travels around Greece seeking support for his cause and returns to Messenia to begin the revolt. But there was a problem. I had been to some of the locations that feature in the story, such as Delphi (a magical place, half way up a mountain), but there were others, including Sparta and Thebes, that I had never visited, and sadly my budget did not run to an exploratory trip to Greece!
The solution? Step forward Google Earth! This overlays satellite imagery on a 3-D terrain map, and allowed me to follow in the footsteps of my characters, seeing the landscape more or less as they would have seen it. It also allows you to access numerous photos, not just of landscapes but of buildings and objects. Combining that with wider research, memory and a little imagination (since much has changed or disappeared, especially buildings, in the intervening millennia) I was able to come closer to putting myself in 4th century Greece alongside my characters than I had ever thought possible.
To illustrate, here’s a short scene from the book. Diocles arrives at Delphi, where he is to consult the oracle how the Messenians can achieve their freedom.
When finally he arrived at Delphi, he found a room in one of many kapeleia in the little town which sprawled outside the walls of the sacred precinct. After a brief rest during which he consumed the last of the bread and cheese that had been packed for him, there was time for Diocles to explore. He was greatly struck by the beauty of the place, with its fine buildings set into the hillside so that, seen from above, they were silhouetted against the surrounding mountains and the plunging valley below. In this panhellenic shrine, every state in Greece seemed to have vied with every other to contribute the most elegant buildings, the most imposing statues, the most precious artifacts. He understood now why the sacred enclosure was surrounded by a tall stone wall. Most impressive of all, though, was the great temple of Apollo in the centre of the complex. It was here where, on the following day, the Pythia would breathe of the vapours emanating from a deep crack in the earth at the heart of the temple and speak her prophecies to those who had travelled to Delphi to hear them.
You can find more excerpts from Zeus of Ithome on its page on my website.
By contrast, Revolution Day is set in a fictional Latin American country. It follows a year in the life of ageing dictator Carlos Almanzor, clinging doggedly to power as his vice-president, ostensibly loyal, orchestrates a complex plot against him.
The setting needed to be plausibly South or Central American, but beyond that there were no constraints. This was both liberating and a little intimidating, as I had to rely mostly on imagination – albeit stimulated by some browsing of real places in the region (again with the help of Google Earth) – to construct the backdrop against which the events of the novel take place.
Here’s a brief excerpt as an example of what I came up with. Carlos’s estranged wife, Juanita, has been under house arrest for sixteen years (and is secretly writing a memoir which chronicles his regime’s descent from idealism into repression). She is gazing at mountains she can never visit …
When the sun is bright and the air is clear, I have a view from this window over successive green waves of tree-covered hills as far as the mountains on the horizon. If it is a sunny morning, I always come here after waking to see whether they are visible. When they are, I may sit here for an hour or two, drinking coffee and listening to music, imagining myself hiking along that rugged skyline. I managed to persuade the guards to let me have a small pair of binoculars, pretending that I was interested in birdwatching. In reality, I use them not for that, or even for spying on the sentries who are always posted discreetly on the road outside the house, but for following the mountain ridges on those special days, slowly tracking from one end to the other as if I were watching someone walk the route. I know every crag, every snow field like a close friend.
Unfortunately, those days are all too rare; usually either the mountains are covered in cloud, or the air is so thick with haze that over the fifty kilometres or so between my bedroom window and the horizon it becomes quite opaque. There have been just seventeen days so far this year when I have been able to see the mountains. Today it is hazy, so I must content myself with a view of the main highway out of the city and the forest beyond. Even when the mountains are not visible, I often spend time here, just sitting on the bed and watching the cars and trucks moving from right to left, left to right, and the occasional plane unzipping the sky above them.
You can find more excerpts on the Revolution Day page on my website
Revolution Day is one of our publisher, Crooked Cat’s featured books this week, and both books are currently available at only 99p/99c!
Thanks again for hosting me today, Jane!
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/timtaylornovels
Tim was born in 1960 in Stoke-on-Trent. He studied Classics at Pembroke College, Oxford (and later Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London). After a couple of years playing in a rock band, he joined the Civil Service, eventually leaving in 2011 to spend more time writing.
Tim now lives in Yorkshire with his wife Rosa and divides his time between creative writing, academic research and part-time teaching and other work for Leeds and Huddersfield Universities.
Tim’s first novel, Zeus of Ithome, a historical novel about the struggle of the ancient Messenians to free themselves from Sparta, was published by Crooked Cat in November 2013; his second, Revolution Day in June 2015. Tim also writes poetry and the occasional short story, plays guitar, and likes to walk up hills.