It can be said that a writer needs must possess three traits: talent, luck, and perseverance. Without talent, one can get by on luck and perseverance; without luck, talent and perseverance can win the day. But without perseverance, all the talent and luck in the world isn’t going to help you. perseverance is the key ingredient, in my opinion, behind the success of any writer: the ability not to give up when the sky continually opens up and rains bowel and bile down upon you.
Then as now, any talent I might have possessed was entirely subjective. I could string words together to make a decent sentence, then braid those sentences into some semblance of a story. More often than not they weren’t good stories — they tended to be derivative and somewhat clumsy reflections of whichever author I felt under the influence of at the time. I had no luck, definitely. By the late 90s, I’d had four short story sales to non-paying markets. One folded before it ever published my story; the other three were to a friend who had started a quarterly magazine. My work was not in demand.
But I had perseverance. I had that by the bucket-load. Every rejection I took as a challenge. Oh, they stung. Rejection is never easy on the ego. I’d sulk and mope about for a day or two then strike back with renewed vigor. I was meant to be a writer, you see. It was my calling. Everything else was simply an obstacle to be overcome.
My friend Byron’s critique spun me around. It was something I should have considered, but I was too caught up in doing what I wanted to do to consider the real-world ramifications. After a good, long sulk I went back to the drawing board. I wish I had a precise accounting of my thoughts, back then. I wish I could point to a calendar and state without hesitation that this was the day Hasdrabal Barca was born. Alas, I cannot. My only evidence is a torn scrap of legal paper, undated, listing the traits Conan of Cimmeria possessed that I wanted to emulate in my protagonist, and a scrawled note in different colored ink: “Not fantasy. Maybe ancient Rome??”
Maybe ancient Rome. Maybe historical fiction. While I can’t recall precisely the moment of Barca’s creation, I DO know what was going through my mind when I decided to change genres: my fantasy work up till that point reeked to high heaven. My world-building was anemic and derivative; my characters were cardboard cliches, cut from the long shadows of better writers like amateur silhouettes. I despised history in school, but as an adult I had a fondness for historical fiction. So, I remember thinking, what if Conan were a product of a real ancient culture? What would he be like? How would he act and react? What would his story be?
With that in mind, I lifted the plot of Conan: Shadow of Vengeance from the Hyborian Age
and set it down in the waning days of Babylon, during the reign of Nabonidus. Menaphrates
became an Egyptian sorcerer who had cursed the Babylonian king with madness; the
protagonist became a Phoenician named Barca (a name I lifted from the pages of Harold
Lamb’s 1958 biographical novel Hannibal: One Man Against Rome), a down-on-his-luck
mercenary who is dragged into this war of the powers. Again, I dithered. But, rather than
start over, I decided to monkey with the setting.
I tried pre-Islamic South Arabia, with Barca as a Byzantine renegade, Afghanistan in the
1100s AD with Barca (called “Baldwin” in this iteration) as a renegade Crusader from
Edessa, even Islamic Spain with Barca as a renegade Gael. Then, one night in 1999,
depressed and heartsick over a failing marriage and continual failure as a writer, I turned
on Turner Classic Movies late one night and caught the opening of The Egyptian with Victor
Mature. I watched, enthralled, and by sunrise I knew Barca would return to being a
Phoenician, and his story would be set in ancient Egypt — Howard’s Stygia would serve as
the backdrop for my historical version of Conan.
And as my 11-year marriage crumbled, I threw myself into the study of ancient Egypt . . .
To be continued.