Today I’m delighted to be talking with Gordon Doherty, author of ‘Legionary’ and ‘Strategos: Born in the Borderlands’.
Martin: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was there a specific event that made you decide?
Gordon: Tolon, Greece, summertime 2004: gazing out over the Aegean as the sun dipped behind me, I envisioned a dusk raid by a fleet of triremes. I could see the armoured hoplites dropping onto the shore, I could hear their armour rippling as they rushed across the hinterland and I could sense the fear of those defending, higher up the beach. Then I stopped for a moment and thought; ‘Damn, I miss writing stories. Why did I ever stop?’
In my childhood, as a means of storytelling, I would (badly) mimic my elder brother’s excellent skills as a cartoonist. Then I started to write stories with the odd illustration every few pages. Finally, the pictures disappeared altogether as I turned to traditional short story writing. A misspent youth meant I wrote little more than angst-ridden poetry and songs for many years after that. It was a few years after I eventually settled down into a ‘normal’ career that I reached that epiphany moment in Tolon.
You write historical fiction. Why this genre in particular?
Historical fiction is the ultimate escapism for me. One minute I’m ruminating over some gritty detail I have to address at work the next day. Then I pick up a David Gemmell, and in no time at all, I’m on a dusty track, winding downhill towards ancient Sparta, the sun beating on my back and the cicada song emanating from the olive groves all around me. You can’t beat that, you really can’t. As a writer, I can only aspire to produce magic like that.
Ancient Rome is a popular choice for novelists yet you have chosen to concentrate on the Eastern Roman Empire at two critical times, one of them far into its long history. What are the reasons for this?
Pivotal moments in history intrigue me, particularly those which prove to be the twilight of something that was once great. Moments like the Gothic Wars or the Battle of Manzikert present irresistible sources of conflict, and it is not hard for my characters to come to life given such turmoil. For me, early Rome is magnificent, but later Rome is irresistible.
What made you decide upon your protagonist? In what ways has he most surprised you?
Apion, the protagonist from Strategos, had a pretty torrid time of it as I developed his character and then reworked him a few times (usually to his detriment!). He started out as an autobiographical character, but I felt a little uncomfortable with some aspects of that, and so I shifted him around a little, and found that a really striking character emerged – one that surprised me, particularly towards the end of the first volume of Strategos, where I felt almost disengaged with my fingers as they typed furiously.
What surprises me most is that, in the time I have been away from writing about him, I genuinely miss him (time to call in the men in white coats?).
If you could spend time with your favourite character where would it be and what might the two of you do?
I’d sit on the sun-baked Anatolian hillside with Apion. I’d chat with him; I’d break bread with him. Perhaps by the end of the day we might both feel a little happier.
Alternatively, I’d love to go for an ale or two with Pavo and the veterans of ‘Legionary’. Some of their banter is merciless…
How do you research your novels? Do you do it before you start to write or do you research on an ongoing process?
I try to devote some time up front – say a month – to collating a pile of books and websites and then poring over them to compile a dossier on every aspect of the era: clothing, food, drink, weather, civil strife, political upheaval, military events, religious stance . . . the list grows and grows. The idea then is that, armed with these facts, I can then focus solely on storytelling.
In reality though, it is not long before the writing of my story teases out a bucketful of specific questions which require a return to the books. In that respect, I think it has to be an ongoing process – you can only competently ask questions of an aspect of history when you are armed with a firm frame of reference.
Which research tools, sources and web-sites do you find most useful?
Each period has a few de-facto sources (Legionary – Jordanes, Kulikowski, Gibbon, Goldsworthy; Strategos – Treadgold, Norwich, Dawson) which I’ve returned to time after time. I see these works as the ‘spine’ of my research. Also, Osprey’s series of military manuals is concise and packed with evocative illustrations, some of which have even helped inspire my cover artwork.
On the web, the list of sources I’ve consulted is huge. One that stands out is Historum, an interactive forum where scholars and enthusiasts (like me!) postulate on every era of history. Many times, when a written source has proved elusive, the Historum users have helped point me in the right direction.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
As soon as I wake up, my mind starts turning over the next chapter, the next plot rework, the next revision. Actually, I’m lucky if I don’t have writing dreams (I did actually have a nightmare about publishing a story where the Roman protagonist had a USB key!).
What I’m trying to say is that it’s easy for writing to dominate every heartbeat of my day. So, I try to be disciplined and channel my efforts into ‘blocks’ of writing time. I’ll go into the spare room which doubles as my office, close the door (very important) and set my Pomodoro timer for thirty minutes . . . then I write.
What’s been your favourite moment in your writing career?
Legionary has a dedication to my late aunt. When I gave a copy to my uncle, and saw how much it meant to him, that made all the hard work and long hours worth it.
Mountains or Sea?
Superman or Spiderman?
Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter?
What is your next writing project?
The sequel to Legionary, ‘Viper of the North’, is nearing completion and should be released in the next few months. I think fans of the first book will enjoy it as it pivots around the outbreak of the Gothic Wars, so the action is intense.
After that I will start work on the sequel to Strategos. I feel like I left poor Apion in a very dark place at the end of the last volume, so I look forward to taking him forward from there.
Thanks very much for talking with me, Gordon.
You can find out more about Gordon in these places.
Strategos: Born in the Borderlands: http://www.amazon.com/Strategos-Born-Borderlands-ebook/dp/B006LPQZ52
Next Friday I’ll be talking with James Wilde, author of ‘Hereward’ and ‘Hereward: The Devil’s Army.’