Long Live the Tsar – by Joshua Scully

SICK LIT MAGAZINE

The Tsar was alive.

His wife and children were alive.

The story about their deaths in Yekaterinburg was fabricated by those hoping to liberate – rather than liquidate – the imperial family. Rescued by sympathizers from the basement of the Ipatiev House on a warm July night, the Romanovs were secretly handed over to the Czechoslovak Legion.

The Whites desperately desired to save Tsar Nicholas II. Following the abdication, the imperial family sought asylum as far as possible from fermenting revolution in the fatherland. The Whites allowed the murky tale of their execution to spread and assured the Romanovs that arrangements were in place for a comfortable exile.

The Czechoslovaks controlled the Trans – Siberian Railway and whisked the imperial family toward the east coast of Russia. Reports of a lone, antiquated locomotive leading a string of dilapidated passenger coaches over the Siberian plain reached Red leadership a few weeks…

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The Fountain

I hope you brought a change of clothes – preferably a youth size. We’re going into the fountain.

Twister Sister Lit Mag recently published “The Fountain”, a short story that I wrote in November of 2016. If you teach American History long enough, you’ll also start to find some interesting footnotes that the textbook never visits in a totally satisfying way.

“The Fountain” blends elements of historical fiction with fantasy (with maybe just a touch of the supernatural), although I do employ plenty of creative license. I didn’t want to use any actual historical figures – somehow throwing Juan Ponce de Leon into the middle of this story took away from the fantasy aspect.

That said, I do find the subject matter to be one of the more interesting tales from America in the 16th century – and that’s really saying something considering all the bizarre occurances in the Western Hemisphere during that century.

Click the image below to be taken to Twister Sister Lit Mag and experience “The Fountain” for yourself:

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Out of the Darkness

Norse Greenland is the setting for a novella combining elements of historical fiction with things that go bump in the night.

A few years ago, I started work on a novella set in Norse Greenland. If you are unfamiliar with the story of the Norse Greenlanders, I would suggest that you check out the following two links:

Greenland: What Happened to the Greenland Norse?

The Fate of Greenland’s Vikings

The Greenland Norse were also thoroughly examined in Jared Diamond‘s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

The mystery surrounding the Norse in Greenland is one of the greatest of the Middle Ages. I first became enchanted with the Norse Greenlanders over a decade ago when I really developed a fascination with Leif Eriksson and the Norse settlement of Iceland. Jane Smiley‘s The Greenlanders was the first novel that I truly loved and that work has been a source of great inspiration for me. 

I drew the maps below to go along with my novella set in Norse Greenland – Out of the Darkness. The fjord systems depicted are located along the southwest coast of Greenland. Out of the Darkness is set in the middle of the fifteenth century during the twilight of the Norse settlements in Greenland. A malevolent and seemingly supernatural force has appeared among the scattered farms of the Eastern Settlement (the maps below show districts, farms, and churches within this settlement). The Greenlanders must respond to this dangerous threat when several inhabitants of outlying farms disappear or are murdered (in a very specific way). As this menace emerges, several farmers in the settlement are looking to abandon their steadings in Greenland and attempt to begin a new life in Vinland (America). Much of the action takes place at Njals Stead, the farm of Thorolf Hafgrimsson, and in the Dyrnes district. As the novella progresses, the events of the story lead several characters to return to the deserted Western Settlement in pursuit of the evil that has terrorized the Greenlanders.

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The Last: Kýrie, Eléison

If you read one historical fiction novella about the Byzantine Empire this year, read mine!

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Theophilos Hatzimihail painted this depiction of the final battle for Constantinople. As in other Hatzimihail paintings concerning this subject, Constantine XI is featured on a white horse.

Writing The Last in June and July of 2014 was an exciting time for me. I started writing at the beginning of summer and the first draft was finished within 24 days. Two years and four drafts later, I have a historical fiction novella that I am genuinely proud to claim as my own work. The Last benefited greatly from several volunteer readers over the last two years. The feedback I received from those individuals spurred the various revisions that created the present novella. Insight from Father Bob Lubic was of considerable help. His suggestions and wisdom were of special worth to me and I greatly appreciate the time he invested with The Last.

The first draft of The Last was also the final piece of my writing that my grandmother read before she passed in July of 2014. She had always been the greatest advocate of my writing and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to share this one with her. 

I have seriously kicked the tires on making The Last the final novella in a trilogy of historical fiction pieces (each with a slight supernatural edge) concerning the Byzantine Empire. I had even seriously considered using the Battle of Yarmouk and the Byzantine Iconoclasm as potential foundations for the two other (“previous”) installments (the Battle of Manzikert and the Fourth Crusade are two other options). 

Researching for this project also opened the door for my love affair with Byzantine history. I am simply unable to read enough about the topic and I don’t intend to bring this romance to an end anytime soon. If you are looking for just a taste of Byzantine history, I suggest you start here.

The fall of Constantinople was one of those amazing turning points in history and I do believe I’ve captured the essence of that event’s significance in The Last. Below, I have shared quotes that really helped me capture the characterizations of George Sphrantzes, an imperial courtier, and Emperor Constantine XI Dragas Palaiologos. These quotes communicate a great deal about the foreboding that existed in Constantinople just before the Ottoman siege in 1453. 

“On the same night of May 28th [1451] I had a dream: it seemed to me that I was back in the City; as I made a motion to prostrate myself and kiss the Emperor’s feet, he stopped me, raised me, and kissed my eyes. Then I woke up and told those sleeping by me: ‘I just had this dream. Remember the date.’ ”

                                                                                 -George Sphrantzes

                                                                                   Roman (Byzantine) Imperial Ambassador

 

“But how can I do this and leave the clergy, the churches of God, the empire and all of the people?

What will the world think of me, I pray, tell me?

No, my lords, no: I will die here with you. ”

                                                             – Constantine XI Dragas Palaiologos,

                                                                in Christ true Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans

The quote from Constantine XI is really at the heart of The Last. The sense of responsibility and determination in that man must have been absolutely astounding. 

Including the prologue, a list of characters, and a handful of illustrations, The Last runs 13,473 words over 45 pages. 

The Emperor raised his sword into the air.

Kýrieeléison!” He called, “Lord, have mercy!”

The Last: Prologue

“The Last” reveals the reflections of Emperor Constantine XI during the final surge of Ottoman soldiers against the walls of Constantinople on May 29th, 1453.

I started to take serious my desire to become a writer in December of 2011. I had certainly tried my hand at significant writing before that – as early as 2001. However, life offered me plenty of distractions in the decade between those years, preventing the accomplishment of any noteworthy work. Even once I knew that writing was my passion, time remained in very limited supply. Between my career as an educator, coaching girls’ and boys’ basketball, and the handful of other jobs that I worked during the holidays and summer, I found that I struggled to consistently allow time for writing.

Between 2011 and 2014, I did complete a handful of short stories and novellas. Despite the feeling of accomplishment, I struggled to find time to return to those works for the purposes of editing and improvement. Quite honestly, there just wasn’t enough time in the day to write regularly during those years. My dreams waited.

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This is possibly the oldest surviving map of Constantinople. Created by Florentine cartographer Cristoforo Buondelmonti in 1422, the map shows the city as a shadow of its former glory.

That changed on June 9th, 2014. On that day, I began work on what I consider my best piece of writing to date. Less than a month later, I had completed the first draft of The Last. Writing this particular novella, a historical fiction piece, was a true labor of love. I thoroughly enjoyed telling the story of the Emperor Constantine XI and his valiant defense of the vestiges of the Roman Empire in the 15th century. My research for The Last spurred a great appreciation for Byzantine History. A quick glance at my bookcase will suggest that my fondness for this topic has only increased in the time since I first started writing on a warm June day over two years ago.

The Last is set on May 29, 1453 – the final day of the Roman Empire. This alone may come as a surprise to those recalling that the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century. The Last concerns the eastern region of the empire around Constantinople, which survived the fall of Rome and the western provinces by nearly a millennia. Those living in this surviving portion of the Roman Empire considered themselves Roman and the inheritors of all that Rome had represented and accomplished. These Medieval Romans must defend their identify and culture from the invading Ottomans or be lost to history. 

A What If? or Two

Some books just do wonders for the imagination. What if you don’t read these two?

Few books have done more wonders for my imagination than What If? by Randall Munroe or The Collected What If?, which includes the texts of What If? (not Monroe’s aforementioned book) and What If? 2. The Collected What If? is a compilation of essays authored by several different historians from a variety of backgrounds.

Munroe’s What If? addresses hypothetical situations concerning various fields of science, whereas The Collected What If? focuses on content that is historical in nature. I would strongly suggest either to even a casual reader. Both of these books are easy to pick up, read for a few minutes, and sit back down, while still invigorating the mind and offering some refreshing perspectives. The content of each, generally speaking, is outside the realm of the standard nonfiction text and is often humorous.

To say that I have enjoyed reading each of these books is a serious understatement. I have selected my five favorite “chapters” (and I use that term loosely) from each book. These selections are those which stayed with me the longest after reading, often making me seriously ponder some aspects of both my life and writing.

Randall Munroe’s What If? is divided by question. Munroe has selected several hypothetical science questions, many of which are very unique (and certainly not easy to answer), and does his best to offer a calculated and rational solution for each.

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What If? by Randall Munroe is definitely worth a read (and is that one of those alien dinosaurs?).

5. “Facebook of the Dead”

4. “The Last Human Light”

3. “Hockey Puck”

2. “Rising Steadily”

1. “Interplanetary Cessna”

I laughed while reading “Interplanetary Cessna” and shared that particular passage first and foremost with anyone noticing Munroe’s What If? in my home (and the cover does tend to catch the eye of visitors). As a whole, Munroe’s What If? does a wonderful job at offering some very literal outcomes to several “science fiction” scenarios.

The Collected What If?, edited by Robert Cowley, is divided by essay. The essays cover a very wide variety of hypothetical historical situations. For example, the textbook used for the American History course I teach for Uniontown Area School District, asks the students to identify possible changes in the culture and geography of North America if the French had managed to fight the British to a draw in the French and Indian War. Such a topic would be appropriate for this particular book, as that type of scenario (perhaps the French emerge victorious at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759) is imagined and investigated within each individual essay.

The Collected What If
The Collected What If? offers some very detailed alternatives to major events in history.

5. “The Dark Ages Made Lighter: The Consequences of Two Defeats” by Barry S. Strauss

4. “Day Day Fails: Atomic Alternatives in Europe” by Stephen E. Ambrose

3. “Unlikely Victory: Thirteen Ways the Americans Could Have Lost the Revolution” by Thomas Fleming

2. “Furor Teutonicus: The Teutoburg Forest, A.D. 9” by Lewis H. Lapham

1. “Pontius Pilate Spares Jesus: Christianity without the Crucifixion” by Carlos M.N. Eire

For anyone mulling a serious historical fiction writing project, The Collected What If? is the ideal place to start. This book offers the type of reading that will genuinely get the wheels ustairs turning.

There are a handful of other books that have really served as an inspiration to me, and I hope to post about those (including one very important title) in the near future. What other books serve as good fodder for the science fiction writer? Are there other titles that might really help an author seeking to write some realistic historical fiction?