Sunday, November 28, 2010

[Beyond the Wordcount] Chris Evans on Historical Accuracy

Do you wonder how a book is made? If you are an avid reader and the sight of a book makes you glow, then you probably have wondered about a novel’s journey from idea to hard/softcover delight on your local bookstore’s shelf. Did the author discover the story whole and intact? Did the story need countless revisions? How much is researched and how much is the product of the author’s imagination? What did the author have to go through to publish that novel you just love? Beyond the Wordcount is the feature that will give a behind-the-scene look to the story behind the story, the things that you will never guess as they stay off the pages.

In this installment I have invited author Chris Evans, who penned the wonderfully entertaining Iron Elves series. I utterly enjoyed A Darkness Forged in Fire [REVIEW] and The Light of Burning Shadows [REVIEW] for their adventurous charm as well as uncharacteristic for epic fantasy world.

Bio: CHRIS EVANS was born in Toronto, Canada and now lives in New York City. He’s earned degrees in English/History, Political Science, and a Masters in History with Distinction specializing in military history. Before moving to the U.S. he was a military historian and conducted battlefield tours of Europe in addition to being the military historical consultant on a television documentary on the First World War. Chris started his commercial publishing career as an editor with Ballantine/Del Rey of Random House and is currently the editor of history and current affairs/conflicts books at Stackpole Books where he launched the Stackpole Military History Series which now has over 120 titles in print.

Blurb:

Konowa Swift Dragon, former commander of the Empire's elite Iron Elves, is looked upon as anything but ordinary. He's murdered a Viceroy, been court-martialed, seen his beloved regiment disbanded, and finally been banished in disgrace to the one place he despises the most -- the forest.

Now, all he wants is to be left alone with his misery...but for Konowa, nothing is ever that simple. The mysterious and alluring Visyna Tekoy, the highborn daughter of an elfkynan governor, seeks him out in the dangerous wild with a royal decree that he resume his commission as an officer in Her Majesty's Imperial Army, effective immediately.

For in the east, a falling Red Star heralds the return of a magic long vanished from the earth. Rebellion grows within the Empire as a frantic race to reach the Star unfolds. It is a chance for Konowa to redeem himself -- even if the entire affair appears doomed to be a suicide mission...


and that the soldiers recruited for the task are not at all what he expects. And worse, his key adversary in the perilous race for the Star is the dreaded Shadow Monarch -- a legendary elf-witch whose machinations for absolute domination spread deeper than Konowa could ever imagine....

Task: Since I am a worldbuilding junkie I wanted to know the following. To what degree did you use the historical accounts about the Napoleonic era in your world and where did you decide to fashion that period into something more fantastic?

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I think historians and authors share many traits, not the least of which is something I call the 100 to 1 ratio. Basically, it means that for every 100 hours of research you wind up with about a page of material that goes in the book. OK, the ratio isn’t always that extreme, but it often feels like it is. The disparity between the volume of research I conduct and what ultimately winds up in the book is usually a product of my fascination with a topic once I start to delve into it. I’m just naturally curious. Even if I’ve found my answer I often read on, curious to see what else I might discover, or simple to finish the chapter or article and learn something new.

Writing the Iron Elves has definitely been a learning experience. I specialize in 20th century conflicts, but the series is inspired in large part by the Napoleonic Wars, and to a lesser extent Victorian England and the American Civil War. As I’m not writing historical fantasy, but rather fantasy inspired and informed by history, I have the leeway to incorporate bits and pieces and craft them into something new in my world. It’s a lot of fun and also challenging. The key question when I write is does it make sense for the world I’ve created.

The experience of the soldier throughout history is universal in many respects. Weapons and tactics have changed over the centuries, but the basic experience of the infantryman, and now woman, has remained fairly constant. I focused mostly on memoirs from the Napoleonic era in order to get that period feel. I wanted to know what black powder tastes like and what they used to polish their boots. I studied period manuals on tactics covering everything from cavalry charges to the famous British square. I read up on Napleon’s expedition to Egypt in order to get a sense of fighting in the desert. More books were devoured on Waterloo, young Wellington in India, the fighting in Portugal and Spain, recipe books from the late 1700s, social studies of life in London, Paris, and other European cities during that time, and Napoleon’s foray into Russia and the disastrous retreat that followed.

With all that research in hand I then consulted with some of my authors who happen to be combat vets from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq and Afghanistan. They gave me more insight into the sights, the smells, the privations, and the overall feel of being in harm’s way. One of the reasons I decided to write the Iron Elves was my desire to show an epic fantasy adventure from the regular soldier’s perspective. We’ve read so many stories that focus on farm boys who become kings and intrepid bands of traveling heroes that it seemed to me the plight of the common soldier wasn’t really being acknowledged very much.

So with all this research in hand the question becomes how to use it? The answer, at least for me, is sparingly. One or two well-placed details can hint at a whole world beyond them. First and foremost the story has to move. The danger in doing all that research is the desire to show it all in the novel, but to do that is to turn a story into a reference book. I didn’t set out to write a series on Napoleonic warfare, so I’m not going to dump tons of research into the novel on the different caliber muskets or the myriad types of uniforms and what each bit of braid and color signified. I write more in terms of directing a movie. I see the shot, then write it for the reader, giving them a few clear places to focus which I hope creates enough of an image that their imagination is able to fill in the rest.

As the series is fantasy the question of how magic is integrated into the story is equally key. One of the core realities of all war that I hadn’t seen covered very much in fantasy was the condition now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD. In previous wars it was called Battle Exhaustion, Shell Shock, Lack of Moral Fiber, and too often, and incorrectly, cowardice. Through the use of a magical oath binding the soldiers of the Iron Elves to the regiment even after death I was able to illustrate this condition by having the survivors literally having to carry with them the shades of their fallen comrades. It’s dark, and at times disturbing, but that’s the experience of war and that’s what I wanted to bring to a fantasy. Of course, just like in real life, soldiers find ways to combat these feelings and one of the most effective is comradeship and laughter. I read numerous accounts of soldiers finding humor in even the darkest of situations and realized I could weave that into the series and hopefully create a balanced and exciting take on the traditional epic fantasy adventure.

Cheers,
Chris Evans

1 comment:

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