Research, the foundation

The foundation of every good historical fiction novel is research. Your story needs to be woven onto the fabric of history itself. This doesn’t mean you have to teach your readers history by labouring through a list of dates or tediously enumerating every member of a royal lineage. It’s just needs the the smallest details scattered here and there that give the tale some authenticity by painting pictures in the readers head. If you need to name the entire household of a noble family or create an index of key dates, then do it as an appendix, like George R. R. Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’ to name just one example. That way the reader can decide to soak up the extra information if he/she wants to.

Here’s an extract from my notebook. When I was doing the majority of my research, I kept a ring-bound notebook which contains lots of scribbling that including a couple of maps. Rob Cooper has asked for more maps and so has Mel.

Map extract from research

Page from research notebook including a sketched map

How accurate is this map? Probably not very accurate. It’s build from some descriptions of the temple complex in Tenochtitlan and a few poor sketches I’ve seen and it’s built using some facts but more importantly, it’s useful as a reference to help me stay consistent when I return to a place I’ve described before.

Calendars, Gnostics and Fear

To understand the importance of the ceremony called ‘New Fire’ or the ‘Binding of the Years’, you have to first understand how the dual, interlocking calendar works and then you have really ‘see’ that the ancient astronomers of the Mayan and Mexica (Aztec) people were the Gnostics of their time. I’ll try to explain both as succinctly as possible as I suspect that the average time anyone spends reading a blog post is about 30 seconds. Here goes:

The Calendars
The tonalpohualli is a ceremonial calendar of 260 days that can be visualised by rotating two interlocking cogwheels together, one of 20 named days and the other of 13 numbered days. Doing this, you will produce 260 unique combinations of number-names before the cycle repeats.
The xiupohualli is the seasonal calendar that matches closely what we know of as a year, that is 365 days. This elapsed period is arrived at by allowing the cogwheel of 20 numbered days to rotate fully 18 times and then, adding five days of padding, a time called Nemontomi, required because the astronomers were able to track the motions of the stars to that level of accuracy.

Now, the end of any year was a little bit of a worry but the really big concern came every 52 (18980 days) years because that is the interval required for a 260 day cycle to mesh with a 365 days cycle and come full circle back to the start. This was quite literally the end of days and this is where we turn to the Gnostics.

The Gnostics
The workings of the calendar were undoubtedly the cutting edge of ‘science’ – if we can think of it that way – in Mayan and Mexica calendars. If you want to find a parallel in modern times, the astronomers and priests who understood the measurements that led to these findings were the equivalent of particle physicists. Everyone understands that these people are exploring fundamental truths about our universe. So imagine if the people who just proved the existence of the Higgs-Boson told us in worried tones that additional research showed that the elusive particle turned inside out every billion years, releasing vast amounts of x-ray energy and annihilating all known organic life! We might be sceptical, but the very first question we’d ask in querulous terms would be “When is the next inside-out event due?”

How did I do? Still reading? If you want, there’s loads more information on the Mesoamerican calendar on the internet. The Mayan calendar includes the concept of the long count which recognises that people actually need to be able to track historical events beyond the 52 year boundary. Try www.wikipedia.com and www.azteccalendar.com among others.

Whole of chapter one

Two new things posted tonight…

Firstly, the third and final scene of chapter one is online. Read it here >> or get the PDF version here.

Secondly, thanks to the lovely Michelle Glithero, I have a Spanish translation of the first scene of chapter one.

Please leave a comment. Everyone registered on this site on the 1st of October 2012 will be entered into a prize draw for one of ten signed copies of the book.

Gird your loins! Publishing is the easy bit.

This weekend I’ll be posting scene three from chapter 1 and I’ll also be posting scene one again but in Spanish! More on this later. In other news though, thanks to David de la Harpe for being so generous with his time and thanks to Dave Scott for sharing the contact with me.

David de la Harpe is the self-published author of Power Pups who is gearing up to wage a PR war and he’s committed a great deal of time to researching the subject. He schooled me on the likes of Robert Ringer, Patrick Lennon and John Locke, all self-publishing success stories in their own right.

David appears to be carefully plucking the key ingredients from the above authors’ strategies and combining them in a sort of marketing wine press designed to extract an elixir of success. I must admit to feeling a little humbled when I’d put the phone down. I have been aware for a while now that to simply publish an e-book and expect it to be a success is equivalent to laying a grain of sand down on a beach and waiting for someone to find it, but what I haven’t really worked out is just how hard I am prepared to work to change that! Standing on London Bridge and handing business cards to all and sundry is a fun stunt, but not at all well targeted and therefore – very probably – a waste of time.

Anyway, good luck to David. I wish him luck and success. I have some thinking to do. Did I just want to write a great story or did I intend for lots of people to read it and if so, just how am I going to bring this about?

Practice makes perfect

‘That was your cue to gently cradle the kindling next to the embers you witless turd!’ Spittle sprayed as Cloud Face ranted on. ‘If you dump that stuff all over the fire-drill at Colhuacan we are all going to die! Do you understand?’

Snake Eyes nodded but it wasn’t enough. The high priest of Huitzilopochtli spat contemptuously and glanced down at the gangly youth on the altar, or what was left of him. Something deep inside the shattered human remains was trying to stay alive. The jaw worked and the eyes rolled down and looked up at the skeletal frame of Cloud Face looming above him. The high priest transferred the dark knife to his right hand and bent over his victim, then slowly, almost tenderly pushed the knife down through the boy’s eye socket until the hilt jammed against his face. The body spasmed weakly and then lay still. Cloud Face retracted the blade and examined it as though trying to understand why it was covered in blood and then he advanced on Snake Eyes.


Like this? Read chapter one by clicking here. Stay tuned. I intend to post third scene of chapter one this Sunday.

Pushy, pushy, pushy!

This week’s initiative is to have some business cards made out like this…

Images for 'New Fire' Business Cards

Book launch business cards

…and hand them out on the train in the morning and maybe even stand on London Bridge for 10 minutes giving them out! Now that’s what I call ‘forward’.

For anyone who has read scenes one and two, the third and final scene of chapter one will be posted here this weekend.

Not just an eBook

Do you think it feels the same to say “I’m a published author” if you don’t have a physical, printed book in your hands? I certainly think it would be nice to have a copy sat on my bookshelf, and to know that there are a couple of libraries in the country where someone might wander in and pick it off the shelf.

Five agencies out there have yet to respond, have yet to send me an email like this last one that I received on Monday…

“Many thanks for sending us this proposal, which I read with interest. I considered it carefully but I’m afraid on balance it just doesn’t quite grab my imagination in the way that it must for me to offer to represent you. So I must follow my instinct and pass on this occasion. I’m sorry to be so disappointing, but thanks for thinking of us. Of course this is a totally subjective judgement, so do try other agents and I wish you every success.”

[Agency Name Withheld]

Then, on Friday, I received this from Book Guild Publishing in Brighton…

“Further to our email of 11 July, we have completed aninitial assessment of the submitted sample material. We very much enjoyed the opening chapters to New Fire. The set-up is excellent, and your descriptions of the city and the activities that go on there are lucid and memorable. With vivid characterisation and a strong narrative right from the start, this material certainly whets the reader’s appetite, and we look forward to reading the complete novel. Please submit the MS to this email address.”

Now, the difference here is that Book Guild Publishing have a ‘partnership’ programme which builds a package for each author and requires the author to share some of the costs of publishing. Book Guild really seems to have grasped that their industry has changed forever and that the costs of printing no longer require the extraordinary levels of risk-mitigation that the old industry needed. In this modern, internet enabled world with print-on-demand, the barriers can be lowered a little and the readers be empowered to decide what they want to read. ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is a fine example of a book that would probably never have seen the light of day twenty years ago. Now, fee-paying readers have the choice. It may not be a literary masterpiece, but hey, 95% of readers don’t ever read a Booker or Pulitzer prize winner.

Where was I going with all of this? Oh yes, if I can raise several hundred pounds, I might just make that physical copy a reality and stand in Waterstones all Saturday with a winning smile on my face.

Helpful people

I have been sending emails out to all my friends and business contacts in my bid to take this ‘viral’. I’ve had some lovely messages in response, one of the most helpful was from an ex-colleague called Alan Richardson who is an established author in the field of software testing. Apparently he’s working on two new books (!!!) and his advice included:

He also said, “Just get it out there. Once you publish as Kindle you can upload new versions and people will get updates for free.” I wasn’t aware of that but I think that while it’s a useful feature for technical manuals, I doubt many people will invest the time re-reading a story that was imperfect or incomplete the first time around.

Thank you for your time Alan! Alan’s work can be found at www.compendiumdev.co.uk/selenium


Thanks also to Cindy Vallar who read the fragment, Before the Ambush, that I posted a few days ago and wrote a long email to me (that must have taken a while) and gave me advice on perspective. Cindy has also shared her experiences of ePublishing online.

Scene 2 – A little earlier than promised

Tomorrow night (12th July) was probably not a great night to promise to release scene two of chapter one since I’ll be running the J.P. Morgan Chase in Battersea Park and won’t get home until late. So here it is, a little earlier than promised.

The PDF version includes scenes one and two : New Fire – Chapter 1 – Scenes 1 and 2

Click here to see scene two in HTML.

Scene two introduces us to our hero Heart of the Jaguar (Ocelotyolotl in Nahuatl). His friends call him Jaguar. Jaguar’s closest friends are Obsidian Crocodile (Itzcipactli) and Precious Flower (Tlazoxochitl or possibly Quetzalxochitl depending on the context).

Before the ambush

This blog is really starting to be useful. Thanks to Geoff for reading the first section and coming up with some great editorial comments! Thanks to Safder for the encouragement too. Scene two from chapter one will be posted on Thursday. In the meantime, here is a short extract from chapter two.

Jaguar watched his friend examine his sword, checking each of the blades in turn to make sure they were tight. He felt queasy and decided to check his own weapon in the hope that it would calm his nerves. He slung a bag from his shoulder and took out the shield and his own sword. Jaguar’s was the traditional style, with none of the garish embellishments that most warriors favoured. Some carved the wooden hafts and tied colourful feathers to the head, but Jaguar’s father had shown him that clean lines and unfussy design allowed a warrior to check the weapon for faults more easily. He turned it over in his hands a few times, feeling the balance. It was a beautiful piece of work by Achcauhtli, the clan’s armourer. Six razor-sharp shards of polished obsidian gleamed even in the gloom of the ravine. The cutting stones were mounted in two rows of three, set on opposite sides to give a clean slicing action and to allow the weapon to be carried safely.

Jaguar cursed himself, irritated because of the fear that crawled over his skin.

Suddenly, Archer Eagle pulled back from the rift opening. He made a flattening motion with his hand and the warriors shrank back further into their hiding places. The enemy was close.