Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Great Horse 7 – the plot thickens

There is a theory that plots for historical novels are easy. Want to write a historical novel about Alexander the Great? Just grab any book about Alexander, and you’ve got the plot more or less ready made. All you have to do is research his battles and dramatise them... well, sort of.

It’s true found this book easier to write than my fictional fantasies. For one thing, Alexander’s world was already quite detailed, so all I had to do was read up on the history. Most of my characters also already existed in fairly rounded form, thanks to the many dedicated historians of the period. The basic plot was, therefore, simple enough: After his father is assassinated, Prince Alexander sets out to finish the war with Persia, gets a taste for battle, thinks he’s the son of Zeus and goes on to conquer the rest of the world. Easy enough (at least on paper!)

Again, sort of.

Having the historical events set in stone certainly made plotting this book easier than plotting an entirely fictional story. As explained in a previous post, I divided up Alexander’s journey into Hoofprints (chapters) and listed all the main scenes, starting with his taming of Bucephalas at the palace in Pella, covering his first campaign to secure Macedonia’s borders, then the audacious journey across the Hellespont into Anatolia, down the coast to Egypt, east into Persia, up into Soghdiana(Afghanistan), across the Himalayas to India where Bucephalas is fatally wounded in battle against the elephants, and ending with the long trek back to Babylon where Alexander died.

But don’t worry if you haven’t read the book yet and think this post is going to spoil the story for you, because of course these events alone are not enough to make a book into a novel. They’re just WHAT happens - dry historical accounts littered with names and places and dates and numbers of dead, and the main reason I hated history at school! (Muse: This is true. Katherine gave up history in Year 9 in favour of doing Art for O level… she says if history had been taught in a different way at her school, concentrating more on the people and children’s lives back then, she might have liked it better.)

The real trick of plotting a novel is to ask WHY something happens. Why exactly did Alexander set out to conquer the world? Was it to prove himself to his men, to escape his mother's influence, his spirit of adventure, his fear of treachery such as that which killed his father, an enormous ego, or maybe even naïvety in believing himself the immortal son of Zeus? Add to Alexander's story the “whys” of all the other main characters in your story, and you’ve got something approaching a plot.

For example, when Charmeia sees Bucephalas fighting his grooms on the riding ground at Pella, I made her fall in love with the horse and set out to look after him. A girl’s instant love for a horse is believable enough, but being a fantasy writer I decided to make this a bit stronger by giving her a magical “horse bond” with Bucephalas (which Alexander also has). I worked this fantasy element into my historical plot to create conflict between Charmeia and Alexander, and also to make the times when they and the horse were separated more tense. With minor characters, simple revenge or friendship was often enough. Others were more complex. It might sound strange, but I actually found Alexander the hardest character to work into my plot – some of the things he did seemed reckless and unbelievable, and those were areas where I decided the official historian had invented a few white lies.

But just sometimes all the elements of my plot fell neatly into place, all the WHATs and WHYs working beautifully together. There is a scene during the epic battle against the Persians at Gaugamela, where Alexander, after completing a clever cavalry manoeuvre that gets him and his personal guard behind the Persian lines, has a chance to finish the war by killing the Persian king. But he turns back from the chase in order to help the rest of his army, led by General Parmenio, who are in difficulties at the far side of the field. In the heat of the moment, within spear range of King Darius and with the battle madness on him, I did not quite believe Alexander would hear a messenger chasing after him on a slower horse at this point, let alone be persuaded in the confusion of battle to turn back. So I “invented” something that might delay him… his best friend Hephaestion, riding at his side as always, takes a bad enough wound to shock Alexander out of his single-minded chase after the Persian king. When he stops to help his friend, Darius’ chariot draws further away, and by the time the messenger arrives Alexander realizes the chase is doomed. I honestly believed this wound to be entirely fictional until months later, when I read a different account of the battle and discovered that at Gaugamela Hephaestion took a nasty wound to the thigh… it’s these moments of serendipity that send a shiver down an author’s spine.

I should probably say something about battles before ending this post. I love battles. They are very exciting to write with lots of action and look great in films. But again, they are just WHAT happens. A whole book of endless fights and battles would be extremely boring if you didn’t know WHY the characters were fighting and didn’t care who lived and who died. So while there are plenty of battles in my book (the main ones being at the Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela, and the Indus) much of my story concentrates on building conflict between the characters, both human and horse. Conflict between the human characters leads Alexander into battle. Meanwhile, Bucephalas has his own lesser (but to him just as important) battles with the other stallions in his herd, fighting over the mares.

From the feedback I've had so far about "I am the Great Horse", I think part of the reason some readers don’t like historical novels is that the plot is to a certain extent predictable. The closer you stick to a historical figure such as Alexander, the more predictable it becomes. If you write historical novels, the Muse would be interested to know how YOU make your plots come alive?

Next: Ending a book.

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