I first got interested in Alexander the Great when I was still a teen-ager, and spent several years reading whatever I could about him. My first Alexander themed novel was written in my last year of high school. Through the years I collected books on Greek history, specifically about Alexander, and read everything Mary Renault wrote. I read her trilogy about Alexander (“Fire From Heaven”, “The Persian Boy” and “Funeral Games”) multiple times.
It wasn’t until 1979 that I finally went to Greece for the first time. On that trip I started out in Thessaloniki and went directly to the museum where the grave finds of archaeologist Manolis Andronicus were on display including the skeleton allegedly Philip’s as well as amazing grave treasures. Then I visited Pella, the royal city.
In 1983 I went to live in Greece and continued my ‘search for Alexander” which included trips to sites on the Aegean Coast of Asia Minor in Turkey including Troy and Ephesus. Everywhere I went I made notes in my journal or in the notebook I always carry with me.
I wanted to write a novel about Alexander, but how could I outdo Renault? However, her last book, “Funeral Games” written before she died, seemed to lack something so I decided to delve further into the history of what happened after Alexander’s death. In particular, what happened to his son and only legal heir, Alexander IV? The historians have written little about this boy and I was determined to find out more.
I first started writing “Shadow of the Lion” as a juvenile historical about Alexander IV, who I named “Iskander”, his Persian name. But in a short time, I realized it was too political a story for a young adult book, and was advised to start over, this time writing in a multiple point of view. Not only was I delving into the lives of Alexander’s generals and Companions, but also the lives of the women such as Olympias, Alexander’s mother, who most historians dismiss with unflattering commentaries. But the more research I did, I realized that these women were strong and formidable and played an important part in history. This expanded the details of the story and amped up the amount of research I’d need to do. I had no computer at the time and relied on the library for my information, making copious notes
In 1993 I was offered a free flight back to Greece by the Greek consulate in Vancouver to continue my research. This included a chance to interview the secretary of the Society of Macedonian Studies in Thessaloniki. I also was able to do research at the Gennadius Library and British School Libraries thanks to Classical scholar friends in Athens. I haunted museums and made notes of everything I saw that pertained to my novel. The British Museum in London had artifacts from ancient Babylon and Persia, places I could not visit, and there were still many sites to explore in Greece.
I returned to Greek Macedonia and went to the tombs at Vergina where the artifacts found by Andronicus had been replaced in situ. This was a huge thrill especially seeing the tomb next to that alleged to be Philip II’s which is the tomb of a young prince. The archaeologist on site told me it was likely that of Alexander’s son. The grave finds are on display and include a pair of greaves which I imagined might have once been Alexander’s. I also went to Mieza, the school where Aristotle taught Alexander and his Companions, visited Dodona in Epirus, home of Alexander’s mother. On two occasions I’ve even gone to ‘Hade’s’, the necromanteion where the ancients used to communicate with the dead. And one magical visit was to Samothraki, the island where the joint-kings dedicated a small temple to their fathers, Philip 1 and Alexander.
I still kept hand-written notes but eventually I got a computer and this made my searches much easier. I have a biography file for each of my characters and read all I could find about them. For special characters, such as Alexanders’ half-brother, Arridaios, who was brain damaged and suffered seizures, I did a lot of research about epilepsy. For the villain of the story, Kassandros, from what I read about him I realized he could have likely been a psychopath so I did research on that subject. Everything had to be recorded: the cultural life, the food they ate, clothes they wore. I had books about the Macedonian army and my expanding library contained Diodorus, Plutarch, Robin Lane Fox and many others. My notebooks were full of on-the-spot records of sensory details whenever I visited a location that I wanted to describe in the novel. I pin-pointed actual living people who reminded me of my characters and made careful notes about them: gestures, physical appearance etc. This helped me ‘tag’ the characters realistically so they became ‘alive’ on the page. When I needed to research boar hunting I was lucky to find several You-tube videos of boar hunts, some with children the same age Iskander would have been in the novel. I also researched things like a child’s ability to ride a horse and climb a mountain. A co-worker’s son had climbed to the base camp of Everest when he was 12 so he came to my house so I could interview him about his experience. I found a site on line (www.pothos.org ) where the contributors are all lovers of Alexander and that history, so often I’d ask a question there and get a quick response.
By the time I finished my 15 year journey (Yes! It took fifteen years to write Shadow!) I had boxes full of files, news clips, photos of sites, journals, maps and information plus shelves full of research books that I had added to my home library. When I went through the boxes recently I was amazed at the content of information and especially the hand-written journals I had kept with valuable at-the-site detailed information.
Research is a crucial part of historical fiction writing. Little details must be as correct as you can get them. Of course it is ‘fiction’, so your interpretation of the characters is your own, but based as closely as you can on what you have read about them by the historians. I was lucky to have access to all the sites in Greece with an archaeological pass given to me with help from the Finnish Institute of Athens. I also made friends with several Classical scholars who helped me with information.
I still return to Greece nearly every year and I’m currently researching the Greek/Celtic connections so this has included trips to the Salisbury Plain in England. Last summer at the hotel where I stayed on Zakynthos, the hotel manager was a history professor. When I told him about my current work-in-project he willingly offered me lots of fascinating information about the connections of the Greeks and Celts. So don’t be afraid to ask questions!
A tip for those of you who are doing research: I found that if I made a list of exactly what I wanted to find out at that particular time I didn’t get side-tracked with all the other amazing and interesting things there were to read about or see. When I go to museums, for instance, I go to see particular displays pertaining to my research. And when I research on-line I do the same thing: look for only what you need to know right then. This rule helps you keep from getting side-tracked. Otherwise you’ll spend more time on researching than you do on the actual writing!