Writing Sparta

© David.C.Azor - Fotolia.com

 

A Spartan warrior is a ferocious individual. But a phalanx of Spartan warriors is greater than the sum of its parts. ... what a terrible thing it was to fight the Spartans.

Author T.S. Chaudhry offers a new spin on Spartan history in his novel, ‘The Queen of Sparta’. As an editor, I’ve seen this novel develop through multiple drafts and have also seen Chaudhry move from indie publisher to partnering with a traditional publishing house, having signed with historical fiction imprint Top Hat Books. So, what kept him motivated to complete his 110,000 word manuscript, and how does he write such thrillingly authentic battle scenes?

Hi T.S., thanks for taking part in this blog series. Can you tell us when you first had the idea for your novel, ‘The Queen of Sparta’? 

As a teenager, I read Herodotus’ The Histories’ for my Ancient History ‘A’ Levels. After reading his account of the Persian Wars, I concluded that Herodotus did not give us the whole story. He did not tell us how the Greek resistance was organized or by whom. Leonidas dies earlier in the campaign so it was not him, and Themistocles was focused on the naval aspect of the struggle and could not have organized the whole defence. No other male candidate emerges from any historical records. The only person left was a young Spartan Queen, whose wisdom Herodotus himself acknowledges. And so for me the story of Gorgo, the Queen of Sparta, was one that had to be told.

‘The Queen of Sparta’ is 110,000 words long. How did you find the stamina to complete it? What kept you going?

Once I got started, the book was written over a period of four years with at least three major revisions. The main thing that kept me going was that I actually enjoyed writing it. I have a stressful job and writing this helped to relax me. I had a habit of spending one hour every day writing the book and this helped me stay the course. What was even more helpful was that I got a chance during my travels, both for work and pleasure, to squeeze some time to write parts of this book. The chapter on Rome was actually written in Rome; the same for the city of Byzantium, which is now called Istanbul. Parts of the novel written during long transits at airports such as Schiphol (Amsterdam), Heathrow, Dulles, and Arlanda (Stockholm) to name a very few. Some lines were written by banks of the river Cam in Cambridge, or in Harvard Yard, in the other Cambridge, at a Starbucks along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, beside a Fjord in Norway, at the foot of the Himalayas in Pakistan, in shopping malls in places as far apart as New Jersey, Dubai and Cape Town. Except for the sad part that this novel about Greece was not actually written in Greece, the journey of writing the novel is as memorable to me as the novel itself. 

Can you tell us a little about your research process? Were there any fascinating details which didn’t make it into the final draft?

A reader commented that the first draft of this novel was as something akin to a PhD thesis, and indeed two well-known scholars of Ancient History were kind enough to help with the research. So the initial version was quite academic. As the novel developed I had to shed much of the academic information in favour of plot and character development. Later, I had to further focus the novel by dropping some of the back-stories, like the story of Gorgo’s mother, and the tale of her husbands first wife. Perhaps I will get a chance later in the series to revive some of these stories.

I remember editing an early draft and feeling full of admiration for your battle scenes. Can you let us in to your secret there?

There are three things I do when preparing to write a battle scene. The first is to study the battle thoroughly, using both primary and modern sources wherever available to get a sense of what happened. The primary sources are perhaps not good in describing the battle, for most of the authors (with some notable exceptions) were not present where the action took place, but they explain the main events and their significance. A good modern source will try to fill in the blanks and give a realistic picture of might have happened. 

Next, I talk to real soldiers, modern soldiers who have experienced battle. Though technology has changed, the landscape of warfare, and, I believe, the human emotions, are much the same. So a modern warrior will tell you things that I think even an ancient warrior would find hard to disagree with, because in essence the human experiences are not too different. 

Finally, I talk to re-enactors. It is useful to get their perspective. They are (in most part) neither real warriors nor have actually been in a real battle, but they can provide interesting insights, like how difficult it is for them to wield a heavy eight-foot-long spear or how sweaty it can become when you are wearing thirty pounds of armour on a hot summer afternoon. 

For my part, I do have some first-hand experience of warfare and I know what it is like to run under fire in heavy body armour. While I do not recommend other authors to go through the same experience, I can say with certainty that the above three things are enormously helpful in creating your impression of a battle scene and making it feel authentic in your writing.

 

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Great tips, T.S.! Thanks for sharing these fascinating insights into your writing process. For anyone interested in learning more about how to write a great battle scene or simply after a brilliant read, ‘The Queen of Sparta’ is available in print and as an e-book from Amazon, Blackwells and Waterstones. 'The Queen of Sparta' also has a popular Facebook presence, where you can hear about the next books in the series.