Photo of John D. Cressler

The Role e-Technology Plays in My Historical Fiction Writing

 Novel Writing with e-Technology  Comments Off on The Role e-Technology Plays in My Historical Fiction Writing
Jan 282013

As my family knows well, as do my students, I have a love-hate relationship with electronics technology (e-Technology) in most forms (those ubiquitous e-Gadgets). While my laptop is an essential companion and I am addicted to e-mail as a form of communication, I do not carry a cell phone, and I do not text (the horror!). I find smart phones just too intrusive, and the constant interruptions of the insidious “ding” of an incoming text disturb my sense of balance and my need to reflect/think/imagine. But I have been musing of late on the role that e-Technology has played, and is playing still, in my novel writing. Let me explain.

While I grew up writing in longhand (which has since devolved into near illegibility these days!), and have kept a journal for most of my life in longhand, the demands of academic life quickly forced me to learn to compose on a computer using a word processor (i.e., MS Word). I found this cumbersome at first, then more comfortable, then absolutely indispensable, especially with respect to productivity in my writing enterprise (my research team has published over 500 scientific papers).

When I begin to compose I start by laying down a few lines, then editing it, often trashing what I just wrote, then starting anew for another variant, and I repeat this process until the words begin to smoothly unfold in a way that pleases me. Finally, I arrive where I need to be, I find my muse, my voice, and all flows from me rather fluidly at that point. But my habit with composition (especially with fiction) is to do a paragraph at a time, and then go back edit, re-edit, write another paragraph, then re-read/re-edit from the day’s beginning, slowly but surely advancing the wordscape (admittedly at a snail’s pace!). In short, composing is a highly iterative process for me, and one that requires a ton of changes to my prose as I go. When done, I may still tweak what I wrote from time to time, but I don’t rest well with a “rough draft” in a conventional sense, instead preferring to edit/re-edit until it is 95% of what I want (hopefully 100%). It is just my creative style.

During my research for Emeralds of the Alhambra, I traveled to Spain and spent two weeks on site (Sevilla, Córdoba, Jaén and Granada). To my intense chagrin, my laptop died only a few days after arriving. Major panic! At that stage I was already about five months into my writing. One of things I had really wanted to do while in Spain was not just note taking and absorbing, but also some composing, especially while on-site inside the Alhambra while that special world was at my fingertips.

Sigh. It was back to longhand. Wow, what a chore! I filled a whole notebook with scribbling, inked blue with cross-outs and arrows and annotations and whole pages chopped up to insert elsewhere. And the ache in my hand after even an hour of writing! That, I had forgotten. This forced rediscovery of the perils of longhand composition was no surprise, in retrospect, but it did make me step back and appreciate just what a productivity boost electronic word processing brings to the novel writing business. One obvious downside of e-composing? It is not easy to look back and study the changes to an author’s prose with the various drafts as they evolve (I just saw a new book on Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms that includes the various drafts and the word changes and strikeouts and key alterations – fascinating). To at least partially get around this I date-stamp and save my manuscript as I go (every couple of weeks), so that I can look back and see how things went if I ever need to.

What are the attributes to e-composing that I enjoy most? The breeze of cut-and-paste. A quick search to locate a scene from 166 pages back I need to instantly find and re-read, or typing a character’s name in to locate all the scenes they are presently hiding in. Spell checks. Word counts. Passwords.

And then there is Google. Wow! I find that as I write, especially with historical fiction, where so many facts and people and dates are involved, there are constantly things I need to know while writing that I do not know, despite my many months of research. I call these the “unanticipated must-haves.” For example: What types of chain mail were used by knights in the fourteenth century? What did crossbows look like and how were they used? How quickly could they be fired? What was on the flag of the Kingdom of Castile in 1367? How did coinage differ between medieval Christian and Muslim kingdoms? How do you say “good morning” in Arabic? “I love you”? What names were common in the fourteenth century for Muslims and Christians, men vs. women? What did the Sufis’ believe vs. mainstream Muslims in the medieval period? When did Rumi’s poetry make it to Spain? The list is positively endless!

In the old days, one was forced (I suppose) to construct a list of daily information needs and then spend time locked in the library chasing things down. Today, I pop up Google Chrome, do a Google Search, then find a Wiki entry or a map that tells me everything I need to know. The world at my fingertips. I have found that there is a real knack to a quick data track-down of “unanticipated must-haves.” The interruption to my composition process of this search? Minimal. Five minutes to find and absorb and then I am back elbow-deep in my prose and moving forward. I cannot begin to imagine how much slower the writing process would be if the internet were not at my fingertips.

Do I maintain a love-hate relationship with e-Technology? I do. Am I a hook-line-and-sinker subscriber to e-composing with the internet at my fingertips? I am. Believe it!

Interview with John D. Cressler

 Author John D. Cressler  Comments Off on Interview with John D. Cressler
Jan 202013

One doesn’t normally put ‘engineering professor’ and ‘historical fiction author’ in the same sentence. How did Emeralds of the Alhambra come about?

No argument there! I have always enjoyed writing, and while it has actually been a lifelong dream of mine to write a novel, somehow I never quite felt ready. Novel writing is an intimidating business! I have always been an avid reader, and after a high school/college infatuation with science fiction and fantasy, I moved into more mainstream novels and to this day that is all I read. With each new novel I would find myself wondering what it would be like to try my hand at fiction. Interestingly, however, the opportunities for writing non-fiction books seemed to materialize naturally as a part of my career as a professor. And it is MUCH easier to get non-fiction published! When I finished my first book, a graduate-level textbook in my research field, I found the process deeply satisfying, and wanted more. My 4th non-fiction book, Silicon Earth, was a little different in genre, in that it was for a general, non-specialist audience, and I got permission to use a non-traditional, breezy and fun narrative style. That worked so well that when I finished it I decided it was finally time to explore whether I had a novel in me. The whole prospect was a little scary because the canvas is so large. What type of fiction? I have a deep love of history and really enjoy well-executed historical fiction, so I took the plunge and started there. It was love at first sight!

How does writing non-fiction compare with writing fiction?

Good question. They are very different in many obvious ways: tone, narrative style, subject matter. I find that writing fiction requires much more contact with your material, an obsession of sorts. I think what I most enjoy about writing fiction are the nearly constant unanticipated discoveries in plot and character. The creative energy this produces is profound! Let me give you a feel for this. In writing Emeralds, I first mapped out the synopsis in a few pages, to bind the themes and characters and historical events that I wanted to address. Then I expanded that synopsis into a chapter-by-chapter draft, each of which was maybe a quarter page of what factually happens in that chapter. This allows me to make sure all the plot twists and timing angles gel properly with the overall story trajectory. I did this for the whole book before beginning my writing. Then, when it was time to compose, I took the first chapter summary and expanded it into the various chapter scenes, fleshing the chapter out to about a page, no more, so that I had a good sense of the story that would transpire. Then I set this aside and began composing. The magical part of the process is that inevitably the characters and plot threads begin to deviate from the plan, assuming a life of their own. I love this! Almost on a daily basis, as I was driving to work, thinking about my characters, it would jump into my head, “well, of course, she needs to do this!” or “obviously this needs to happen!” Things I had never anticipated before actually doing the writing. That creative element is unique to fiction and I find it deeply satisfying.

How did you end up with medieval Muslim Spain as a setting for your novel?

Well, after I narrowed it down to historical fiction, I spent quite a bit of time on the web just exploring history. I have always loved European history, so one magical day, I stumbled upon medieval Muslim Spain. The more I explored the more amazed I was, particularly since it is a period of history so rich in its message for our modern world and yet so little appreciated by most people. Imagine, a period of over three hundred years with Muslims, Jews, and Christians living in harmony! An existence proof we owe it to the world to recall. I was quickly locked in on medieval Muslim Spain. At that point, I ordered a ton of books on medieval Iberia and began to immerse myself in the period, to learn the history. I was after a short span of years that was of pivotal importance, and yet contained the themes I was after. That led me to Granada, the Alhambra Palace, Sultan Muhammad V and Ibn al-Khatib, and the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369). I was set for historical backdrop. I knew I wanted to wrap the book around a love story between a Muslim and a Christian, and that fell right into place.

Tell me about the Alhambra?

The Alhambra, what a magical place! The Alhambra is the best preserved medieval Islamic palace in the western world, perhaps in the whole world. It is located in Granada, in Andalusia (al-Andalus in Arabic), in extreme southern Spain. “Alhambra” refers to the entire walled fortress that clings to the long and narrow red-soiled ridge overlooking Granada. The red hill itself is the source of the palace’s name (‘al-hamra’ is Arabic for ‘red’). Unlike today, in the fourteenth century the towers and walls of the Alhambra would have been white-washed and the hill laid bare for defense, a stunning white on red contrast. The fortress is compact, as dictated by the terrain, about one hundred yards wide and seven hundred yards long, and is nestled within the walled and garrisoned city of Granada. The Alhambra complex contained the Royal Palace of the Sultan, the complete functioning town that supported it, all of the judicial and administrative services required to run the Nasrid Kingdom, and a separately castled garrison. The Alhambra and the walled city of Granada itself were, for all intents and purposes, impregnable, and were never captured by force of arms, only surrendered (in 1492 to Isabel and Fernando, the “Catholic Monarchs”). The Alhambra’s population in 1367 was roughly two thousand, including a garrison of perhaps three hundred elite troops, compared to about sixty-five thousand inhabitants in Granada proper, a very large city by fourteenth century standards.

Tell me about the research you did for the book. Did you visit Spain?

I spent almost nine months on background research before laying pen to paper. The credenza in my office at home where I write is lined with over ten feet of references on all things al-Andalus which I digested. As I describe in my blog entry, in the fall of 2010 I spent two weeks in Spain doing on-site research: Seville, Córdoba, Jaen, and Granada. I had all I needed factually at that point, but I still needed to absorb the scenes, burn them into my minds’ eye. See the sky, the landscape, the architecture, and most importantly close my eyes and bring the palace to life as it would have been six hundred years ago. There is no substitute for this type of on-the-ground research. I virtually lived in the Alhambra for six days, and that proved invaluable when writing. Fortunately, the Royal Palace itself is mostly preserved in the same form it was when my story takes place.

What are your writing habits?

Like most novelists, I find that I need significant “face-time” with my characters and story. I am a morning person, up at 5:15 am during the work week. After prayer time, breakfast and the paper, I retreat to my office by 7:15, and work without interruption until about 9:30-ish. Monday through Friday. I do not write on the weekends, but instead prefer to do some mental mull-over of my characters and story. Each morning when I start writing, I first re-read and tinker with my previous section or two, then I begin new material once I have found my groove. I repeatedly write, re-read and revise as I compose, so I manage only a few pages a day. I aim for a chapter a week. Slowly but surely the novel grows. I wrote Emeralds in about fifteen months. When I close down each morning, I do a quick catch up on email, then off to campus. I still manage to beat all of my graduate students into the office!

Tell me about your prose style.

I utilize a third-person/objective/limited narrative scheme. The narrator sees all but does not know all. It is a very visual style. The reader stands with the narrator and is invited to observe and draw their own conclusions of what they see (the so-called camera-eye perspective). The action unfolds in the present tense, which I find lends dramatic weight to the story. I lean towards impressionistic descriptions of places, sights, sounds, and smells. One of my major jobs in writing historical fiction is to create a well-developed sense of the time and place in the reader’s mind, and I find this impressionistic approach works well. I also adopt a modest amount of magical realism, choosing to bring certain inanimate things to life – in Emeralds, for instance, the constellations are participants in the story. My writing style is perhaps a bit unusual, but I think it works quite well.

Which fiction authors most inspire you?

There are so many wonderful novelists working today, so inspiration is never hard to find. I try to read them all, with a steady diet of all the major fiction award winners. Some contemporary standouts for me include: Michael Ondaatje, Mark Helprin, Hillary Mantel, Tim O’Brien, Alice Munro, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Rachman, and Colum McCann. The list could go on and on.

Who are you reading right now?

I just finished Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule, the 2010 National Book Award winner. Absolutely brilliant! Her prose is remarkable, with a lovely impressionistic style that I much admire, and her characters are just beautifully crafted.

Emeralds of the Alhambra is book one of a series called Anthems of al-Andalus. What comes next? And when will book two be out?

Yes, Emeralds in the first in a series of at least three novels dealing with medieval Muslim Spain. Book two is called Shadows in the Shining City, and is set in late tenth century Córdoba, at the height of the Golden Age of the Umayyad Caliphate. A remarkable period of cultural and intellectual enlightenment. This period is also the pinnacle of convivencia (coexistence), the time when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in harmony. So Anthems of al-Andalus is not a trilogy in the traditional sense, with one book following the next chronologically. Book three will come back to Granada, but in the late fifteenth century at the fall of the Nasrid Kingdom. There will, however, be a linkage between all three books, so don’t despair! I am presently 250 pages into Shadows, with a target delivery date of next August. I expect it is be released around the end of 2013. A fantastic story of epic proportions that I lifted straight out of history. Stay tuned!

Are all of your novels going to be centered on love stories?

Absolutely! The timelessness of love is the most riveting subject I can imagine writing about. Big, epic themes wrapped about love stories. My life’s blood!

The Alhambra Palace

 Background to Emeralds of the Alhambra  Comments Off on The Alhambra Palace
Jan 132013

Much of the action in Emeralds of the Alhambra revolves around the resplendent Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, during the Castilian Civil War (1366-1369). The Alhambra is the best-preserved medieval Islamic palace in Europe, if not the world, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“Alhambra” refers to the entire walled fortress that clings to the long and narrow red-soiled ridge overlooking Granada. The red hill itself is the source of the palace’s name (al-hamra is Arabic for ‘red’). Unlike today, in the fourteenth century the towers and walls of the Alhambra would have been white-washed and the hill laid bare for defense, a stunning white on red contrast.

The fortress is compact, as dictated by the terrain, about one hundred yards wide and seven hundred yards long, and is nestled within the walled and garrisoned city of Granada. The Alhambra complex contained the Royal Palace of the Sultan, the complete functioning town that supported it, all of the judicial and administrative services required to run the kingdom, and a separately castled garrison.

The Alhambra and the walled city of Granada itself were, for all intents and purposes, impregnable, and were never captured by force of arms, only surrendered (in 1492 to Isabel and Fernando, the “Catholic Monarchs”). The Alhambra’s population when Emeralds of the Alhambra begins was roughly two thousand, including a garrison of perhaps three hundred elite troops, compared to about sixty-five thousand inhabitants in Granada proper, a large city by fourteenth century standards.

Historical Backdrop to Emeralds of the Alhambra

 Background to Emeralds of the Alhambra  Comments Off on Historical Backdrop to Emeralds of the Alhambra
Jan 062013

Emeralds of the Alhambra is set in Granada, Spain, during the Castilian Civil War (1366-1369). Here I offer some historical background leading up to the beginning of the novel.

Following the power-vacuum created by the Christian-led collapse of the Berber Ahmohads who ruled al-Andalus, Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar ibn Nasr (Muhammad I), of the Arab Banu Nazari clan (the Nasrids), contrived in 1232 to set up a small kingdom centered on the lovely, mountain-girded city of Granada. At its largest, Muhammad’s kingdom is a mere one hundred mile wide swath of land at the extreme southeastern tip of Spain, stretching from the Mediterranean coast north of Almería, through Málaga, to Gibraltar. Inevitably, in 1245, reconquista (reconquest of Muslim Iberia by the Christians) knocks on the door, and Fernando III of Castile lays siege to Jaén, the well-fortified northern-most Muslim stronghold only forty miles north of Granada. To make peace, Muhammad reluctantly surrenders Jaén in 1246 and agrees to become a tribute-paying vassal to the king of Castile, ensuring at least a temporary halt to reconquista in the region. In hindsight, this was a profoundly shrewd move. The Nasrid Kingdom of Granada is born, and will prosper, wildly, through twenty Sultans and two-hundred forty-six more years, the last great seat of Muslim power in Iberia.

The famed “Vega de Granada” surrounds the city, at once a source of the kingdom’s pride and strength. The Vega is literally the floodplain of the river system emerging from the Sierra Nevada mountains. It becomes the fruit and vegetable and bread basket of Granada, flanked by miles upon miles of verdant grazing land, the envy of all of Europe in its culinary opulence. Stretching outward from the city walls far into the surrounding countryside, the mountain-rimmed Granadine Vega is breathtaking by medieval standards; flat, fertile, and lush. Irrigation is the lynchpin. Without it, Granada is practically a dustbowl. Sophisticated hydraulic systems lift and lower precious water at will from the convergent Darro, Genil and Beiro rivers. Irrigation dams within the fields channel water among the thirsty rows on a weekly rotation.

The splendor of the Vega is remarkable: Wheat, barley, rice, sugar cane, cotton, artichokes, eggplant, beans, endive, spinach, chard, radishes, leeks, carrots, beets, celery, peppers, onions, asparagus, figs, cherries, apples, pears, grapes, olives, oranges, lemons, limes, pomegranates, apricots, dates, almonds, pine nuts, hazel nuts, saffron, hot peppers, cumin, aniseed, mint, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, parsley, garlic, mustard. A Granadine feast. Typical European fare stands bland by contrast, centered on roasted meats, breads, grain gruels, and roots; spices and seasonings are available only for the rich. Cattle, horse, goat, sheep and chicken dung recharge the Vegan fields (pigs are forbidden in Islam). Arab mastery of irrigation, fertilizer, crop rotation, and fallowing precedes Europe by centuries.

Bickering among the rival Christian kingdoms, predictable exhaustion of coffers, and the threat from the emergence of the Muslim Marinids, yet another set of Berber clans who in 1244 conquer the Ahmohads to rule the Maghreb from Fez (in modern Morocco), stymies the Christian advance and reconquista comes to a grinding halt. Meanwhile, Granada thrives. Predictably, the Nasrids ally themselves with the Marinid Empire, and begin a long, slow, swaying dance as thinly sliced buffer between Christian Spain and the Muslim Maghreb, at the same time vassal of Castile and ally of the Marinids. Interesting times for the diplomatic corps!

Now to some specifics surrounding Emeralds of the Alhambra. Enter Muhammad V in 1354, age 16, eighth Nasrid Sultan of Granada. In 1358 the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon (in northeast Spain) bicker and finally come to blows, and Granada, as vassal to Castile, lends its support (both financial and naval) to King Pedro of Castile (later nicknamed Pedro the Cruel), earning great favor at the Castilian court in Sevilla. Aragon bitterly resents the meddling by the Moors in Christian politics.

The plot thickens. Young Muhammad V falls victim to a coup led by his brother Ismail II on a sultry August night in 1359; sadly, orchestrated by Muhammad’s own mother, Maryam. Muhammad barely manages to escape with his life to Fez to live in exile with the Marinids. Ismail II is in turn assassinated in 1360 and replaced by Muhammad VI, their ambitious cousin. In 1362, Muhammad V, secretly encouraged and assisted by his unlikely ally, Pedro of Castile, crosses the Gibraltar Strait to reclaim his throne. Muhammad VI, in a painfully naïve move, races to Sevilla with his entourage and throws himself at Pedro’s feet, begging for help. Pedro welcomes him with open arms and a slap on the back, feasts lavishly with his Arab guests, then promptly has all thirty-seven arrested, stripped of their valuables, and two days later Pedro personally executes Muhammad VI. Pedro the Cruel. Muhammad V reclaims his throne and receives a welcoming gift from Pedro – his cousin’s head.

With Muhammad V successfully restored to power, a welcomed stability returns to the Granadine court and the kingdom flourishes under his benign rule. Muhammad V completes the glorious Alhambra, the lavish fortress-palace of the Granadine Royal Court. He even sends his masons to assist Pedro in remodeling his own palace in Sevilla in the Granadine style.

Alas, in 1366, after only four years of calm for Muhammad V and Granada, Enrique II of Trastámara launches the Castilian Civil War, and with the support of Aragon, France and the Pope, attempts to wrestle Castile away from his brother, King Pedro. As vassal of Pedro, Granada is once again reluctantly thrust center stage, ironically pinioned between the dueling Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon.

The stage is set, our story tiptoes close.