Like many of the classic sword-and-sorcery tales of our time, the story of Athalaric starts with a woman. A woman in distress, surrounded by a mob of angry villagers who wish her ill. But why? Who is she? Is she merely a plot device — the mark of truly lazy writing — or is there something more to her? And, more to the point, why does Athalaric care if the irate mob gets its way?
I’ve reached that point in my process where simple Q&A is starting to be too much for me to consistently remember, where answers begin to change based on the more information that emerges from my subconscious. Thus, I open a Word file and start typing:
541 AD. Near Krissa, in the vale of Phocis, on the road south to Corinth; Mount Parnassus looms over the vale, and the ruins of Delphi can be glimpsed on the heights, 2 KM off, through groves once sacred to the ancient gods. At a crossroad, Athalaric (Vandal wanderer and sell-sword, born at Carthage; an apostate who has turned away from Arian Christianity to embrace the gods of his ancestors) comes upon a mob of eleven men and women, villagers, intent on capturing another young woman – raven-haired and pale, after the manner of the ancient queens; she holds them at bay with a knife. A man similar to her in appearance is bleeding out at her feet. A gray-bearded elder stumbles from the fray, oblivious to Athalaric’s presence; he wears a brown cassock and sports a rough crucifix carved of wood. “Burn her!” he screams. “Seize the witch and burn her, lest Almighty God smite us in His wrath!”
“What goes, priest?” Athalaric says, his Greek made all the more harsh by his Gothic accent. What the priest sees is a thick-shouldered Vandal, golden-haired and sporting long mustachios weighted with beads of ivory and silver; his eyes are a cold blue-gray, like chips off a glacier. Mounted on a gray gelding, easily seventeen-hands high, he is clad in brown trousers, cross-gaitered, with soft doe-skin shoes, a green tunic embroidered in gold thread, and a short hauberk of bluish mail, made from iron from the Baltic. A long knife hangs from a sheath at his belt, and across his saddle-horn he carries a long-handled Frankish ax and a steel helmet chased in bronze with a red horsehair crest. A small round shield hangs from the back of his saddle, a black raven circling the iron boss against a red field.
Who is the woman? She is Greek, fey-eyed, a witch in more than name; she calls herself Thaïs. The man on the ground and bleeding out is her . . . brother? Her lover? Both?
She calls herself Thaïs.
That was unexpected. Names are a powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal; the right name can make or break a character. As a rule of thumb, names in historical-based fiction should be consistent to both the time and the language of the period you’re writing about. Like most rules, however, this is more of a guideline. Thaïs is ancient Greek, not medieval — the name of a courtesan who traveled with Alexander the Great’s army, under the patronage and protection of his general, Ptolemy. It was Thaïs, according to rumor, who goaded Alexander into burning the Persian capital of Persepolis. She calls herself Thaïs seems to point to it being an assumed name. And this Thaïs is Greek, fey-eyed, a witch in more than name. I’m envisioning a Dark Ages Circe, a medieval Medea:
Knowing this, certain other things come into focus: she is alluring, both in body and in temperament, which draws Athalaric to her — witness, she is holding the mob at bay; and, she is quite mad, which isn’t as readily apparent. That is enough to know, for now. The whys and wherefores will emerge once I begin the rough draft.
A Note on My Process: Conventional wisdom holds that short stories should be wrought in the white-hot throes of passionate creation. “Get it down,” people say. “You can work on it once the bare bones are on the page!” I used to work like that. My only result? Literally dozens of unfinished stories. I am, I discovered, quite good at building that first scene, but I lose steam quickly and my narrative focus wanders. Thus, I’ve developed a different process for writing short stories. I think it over, balance the idea, jot down notes, and then see if it can survive a conscious effort on my part to ignore it. If the itch to write it fades, then that’s another story I would have left half-finished in my wake. But, if it doesn’t, if that itch is still there after a week or three . . . well, there’s a tale I can tell.