Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Fascinated by times past J.P. Bowie

I have always been fascinated by history. From the time I was a tot, just managing to read, I devoured historical sagas, fiction and non. I still read historical bios, battle strategies of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, along with the love stories and betrayals of the Romanovs and the Tudors. Some of them are blood curdling, some are inspirational.
When I started writing for real I thought how great it would be to put my own spin on some historical  moments - do the research, make sure it sounded genuine, or 'could have happened' if not factually correct. Some periods in time especially fascinate me - Ancient Rome, the Wild West, Victorian England - quite a broad spectrum. Here's a taste of what I've concocted  a couple of times after reading the real (or close to real) details of events.

In The Officer and the Gentleman, Robert MacDonald, a wealthy young Scotsman meets a dashing cavalry captain, Charles Wentworth, at at London soiree. After a brief friendship the captain is sent to the front to join forces with the French against the Russians and takes part in the ill fated charge of the Light Brigade:

 Balaclava, Russia: October 1854

Charles frowned as Major General, the Earl of Cardigan, addressed his officers in his usual snobbish and off-handed manner. He had gathered them in his tent to issue new orders.
“Lord Lucan’s given us the job of taking out the Russians’ first line of defence. Blighters have taken over our cannons left behind by those worthless Turks who ran at the first sign of Russian cavalry. Shouldn’t be too much trouble. They’re no more than rabble really. Totally unprepared for an attack such as we’ll give ‘em, eh lads?”
His smile was supercilious and marked him as a man very sure of his self-inflated sense of worth, one who listened to no one’s advice. Cardigan was an unpopular commander and had proven himself to be foolhardy in the past, needlessly risking the lives of his men with his inability to use caution instead of reckless daring.
“Muster your men then, and let’s get on with it,” he rasped dismissively.
“Where exactly are we going, sir?” one of the officers asked.
Cardigan waved a hand in a vague gesture. “Wherever the Russians have decided to entrench, I expect.” He muttered something under his breath then strode from the tent, the officers following. In a matter of minutes, the Dragoons, the Lancers and the Eleventh Hussars, the core of the Light Brigade were mustered and ready.
They had been at the front for several weeks, and Charles had already seen a considerable amount of action. The Turkish army the British were defending had proven itself to be unreliable and without strong leadership. Time and again, the Turkish troops had turned and fled before the Russians, and now this latest fiasco had cost the British army some of its valuable, and extremely scarce, armaments.
Often enough, Charles found himself reflecting on the words he’d spoken to Robert on their last night together. This was not to be the short war he’d predicted, mostly for Robert’s sake, to soothe his fears and make their parting easier. As his horse snorted and pawed the ground beneath him, Charles was suddenly filled with a feeling of unease and foreboding.
“Well, there they are, straight ahead of us,” Cardigan now yelled. “Wentworth, bring your Hussars up behind me. And at my command. Cha-a-a-rge!” And like a shot from a gun, Cardigan spurred his horse forward, drawing his sabre and letting out a loud “Huzza!”
There was a moment of confusion as the startled officers watched Cardigan gallop off by himself then Charles raised himself up in his stirrups and signaled his men to follow.
“With me, Hussars! Charge!”
At that, the entire Light Brigade surged forward, each division anxious to keep up with the rest of the cavalry. Charles drew his sabre as his horse plunged forward. He felt the rush of the wind in his face and the thundering of his horse’s hooves beneath him as he rode at breakneck speed towards the enemy lines.
All at once, a lone rider broke from the trees to his right. Who the devil?
Charles gasped as he recognized the horseman as Captain Louis Nolan, one of Lord Lucan’s men. He was waving and gesticulating wildly. It looked like he was trying to change the direction of the charge. Was the man mad? A tremendous boom and crash almost deafened Charles, and he watched with horror as Nolan and his horse disappeared in an explosion of blood and shattered flesh.
Dear merciful God! What was happening? Suddenly the air was filled with the sound of cannons roaring, the ear-splitting scream of cannonballs whistling overhead and the crash and thump-thump of mortar fire that seemed to surround him from every direction. The line of ‘rabble’, as Cardigan had described them, had become a full-fledged and highly co-ordinated bombardment. The Light Brigade had charged into the midst of what would surely result in total carnage.
But there was no stopping now, no turning back. Charles waved his sabre over his head and urged his mount on, while behind him, the Brigade did not falter for one moment. Men and horses fell amidst a barrage of cannon fire and splintering shrapnel. The screams of mortally wounded men and animals almost drowned out the awful roar of the Russian weapons which kept up salvo after relentless salvo.
Charles was almost abreast with Cardigan now. Amazingly, both he and Cardigan were uninjured and, even more amazingly, were nearly upon the enemy line. Charles saw the lookof mystified surprise on a Russian gunner’s face as he bore down on him, sabre slashing. He was followed by those of the Brigade who had survived the charge and who had now broken through the Russian ranks, laying about them with lance and sabre. The surprised and shocked Russians bombardiers, incredulous that the British cavalry had actually breached their line, fled in confusion. The Russian cavalry commanders, thinking earlier that they would not be needed in the conflict, finally galvanized their men into action, charging into the fray to stop the British from completely routing the Russian troops.
The sheer press of numbers on the Russian side began to wear down the British soldiers. The order to withdraw was given by someone, Charles could not discern who it was above the screams and gunfire and the clash of sabres. He wheeled his mount around to face a charging Russian who had levelled his lance directly at Charles’ chest. Charles spurred his horse forward, slashing at the lance with his sabre. The lance was knocked aside, but the two horses collided with such force that both men and animals crashed to the ground. Charles rolled clear of his horse’s body and leapt to his feet, reaching for his sabre. The Russian was not moving, obviously crushed under his horse as it struggled to rise. He grabbed his horse’s reins and thrust one foot into the stirrup. He heard the shot before he felt the searing pain as the bullet passed through his scalp. He staggered back, blood spilling into his eyes then fell, unable to rise again, aware only that someone was standing over him, lance raised to thrust.
Then he knew no more.

* * * *
London, three weeks later...

In Slaves to Love, I imagined a gladiator fight between Spartacus and Callistus one of the lead characters in the story. Lucius, a young tutor, fascinated by Callistus's prowess as a fighter goes to the arena to see him fight:

Once again, the stands at the arena were filled to overflowing. It took much pushing, shoving and having curses rained on my head for me to finally reach a point where I could see the entire arena. The sky was overcast that day, and the rumbling boom of thunder could be heard in the distance.
After the dancers had finished the opening routine, and exited to a smattering of applause, the trumpets sounded, and about twelve gladiators marched into the arena. I saw him instantly, despite the fact his face was entirely covered by a helmet’s visor. I could never mistake his imposing physique for anyone else’s. I smiled with happiness as he raised the helmet visor, his eyes searching the faces in the crowd.
Again, I felt as though he was looking for me. Why else would he scan the stands each time he was in the arena? None of the other gladiators ever showed the slightest interest in who was watching them. Only he stood, his head tilted back, as if searching for a familiar face—mine! I jumped up and down, waving my arms above my head so he could see me. No matter how ridiculous I may have looked, I wanted above all else, for him to know I was there, cheering him on. I almost died from happiness on seeing him incline his head slightly, in an apparent acknowledgement of my presence.
Something different was happening this day. Ten of the men formed a circle, surrounding two others who now faced each other in combat. This meant that they could not use the whole arena, but had to fight within the confines of this human barrier. Each time one of the men backed into someone in the circle, he was pushed forward, toward his opponent. Because of this, those who used fleetness of foot as their method of defense could not escape the other combatant’s sword thrusts. It made for a shorter, though more violent duel, one where the weaker man was quickly overwhelmed.
We were treated to three of these tests. Five badly injured men were carried from the arena, while the remaining seven now faced off against one another. The odd man out stood watching and waiting for his turn when eventually, a man would fall, and he would be signaled in by a trumpet blast. This went on until there were only two men left in the arena.
My heart beat faster. Callistus faced Spartacus, each man touching his opponent’s sword in salute. The crowd, having roared their way through the previous fights, now fell silent, watching these two favorites circle
one another, short swords and shields positioned at the ready. A clash of metal rang out. Spartacus was driven back by a breathtaking series of slashes and jabs from Callistus’ sword. The crowd roared its approval, while I stood transfixed by the sight of these two magnificent men now locked in deadly combat.
Spartacus rallied, pushing Callistus backward so hard he stumbled, falling heavily to the ground. Spartacus was on him in an instant, his sword battering furiously on Callistus’ shield.
“Callistus!” I yelled, trying to be heard over the screaming of the crowd. A man next to me picked up my call, then another, and another.
“Callistus, Callistus!” His name was torn from hundreds of throats, and I yelled in triumph seeing him roll from under the relentless barrage of blows on his shield, then jump to his feet, seemingly none the worse for his narrow escape. The crowd was now screaming, the air filled with shouts of “Spartacus!” and “Callistus!”
The men fought on, parrying, thrusting, with great skill and daring. This was probably the most exciting fight anyone had ever witnessed in the Capua arena, or I’d wager, in Rome itself. On and on they fought, the air rent with the clashing of their shields and swords, until it seemed that they would simply wear each other out, as neither man would give quarter, yet could not quite overpower the other.
Then, as if someone had called “Halt!” both men suddenly stopped fighting, threw away their weapons, and held each other’s hands above their heads in triumph. The crowd roared its approval again, admiration for the courage and dexterity of the two gladiators, overcoming the need to see blood spilled.
I breathed a huge sigh of relief. He would live to fight another day. I stood very still, praying that before he left the arena, he would look my way, and bestow upon me that wonderful smile of his. I was not disappointed, but he did much more than that. Picking up his sword, he walked with a deliberate tread straight toward where I stood. I think my heart stopped beating as he stared up at me, before raising his sword to me in salute.
Someone, standing beside me, whispered in my ear, as I smiled and raised my hand in acknowledgement of the Gaul’s salute. “Are you his sponsor?”
“Uh...something like that,” I muttered back, all the while unable to tear my eyes away from the Gaul’s captivating smile. He turned on his heel, and marched away, flinging his arm around Spartacus as they left the arena together.
I thought my heart would burst with pride.

My fascination with different time periods has led me to write a lot of historical novels, and although my last few books have been set in contemporary times, I still have the urge to write a sort of Game of Thrones type saga - one that encompasses several ages and maybe several books.


  1. You're brave to write historical fiction, JP - though I must admit that a well-spun historical yarn IS fascinating, there are so many details just waiting to trip you up!

  2. Yes, and I've fallen into that pit a couple of times - usually minor trips fortunately!

  3. Like Lisabet, I give you kudos for taking on historical topics—especially in such diverse time periods and locations. I've done some historical short stories, but the amount of research I've put in to sustain even a 5,000 word story makes me quail at the thought of sustaining the detail over tens of thousands of words. I've always thought I'd only be able to pull it off if I specialized.

    Hope you do your game of thrones type thing someday!

  4. You are quite gifted in writing action, JP. Great, edge-of-your-seat stuff. As the others have said, I wouldn't even attempt historical fiction, or historical anything for that matter. Too lazy.

  5. I love writing historical fiction! You have all the complexities and colorful background of a world different enough from the present to be intriguing, all set out for you as though it were a book by a great author. All you have to do is research, and nobody can accuse you of plagiarism.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.