Q&A with historical fiction author Gordon Doherty

Posted on Monday 23rd December 2013


Gordon Doherty is a Scottish writer, addicted to reading and writing historical fiction. His love of history was piqued during spells living and working close to both Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall, sites of rich history winding back through thousands of years. The later Roman Empire and Byzantium hold a particular fascination for Gordon.
Warfare caught up with Gordon to chat about his already published novels, his future plans and his tips for fellow history-lovers who fancy penning their own novel.

Tell us about the Legionary series, who and what are the books about, when did you start writing them, where did the idea come from?
Legionary is set in the late 4th century AD in the Eastern Roman Empire. These were days when the perceived invincibility of the empire was long gone. The legions were thinly-stretched and ill-equipped. The network of roads and forts that had been the backbone of the empire for so long had fallen into disrepair. Then came the catalyst that changed the world forever: the Huns descended from the steppes, displacing and driving masses of 'barbarian' peoples towards the banks of the Danube and the Rhine, demanding entry into the empire.
The series follows Pavo, a raw recruit in the XI Claudia - just one of the beleaguered border legions (known as the limitanei) stationed along the River Danube. He and his comrades must stand firm as the empire's borders begin to crumble under the hooves of invading Goths and Huns. The latest volume, 'Land of the Sacred Fire' sees Pavo and the XI Claudia offered brief respite from the troubled Danubian hinterland when they are summoned east, to the Persian frontier, by none other than Emperor Valens. Pavo and his comrades know little of what awaits them. They know only that they are to march into a burning land of strange gods. They whisper tales of the mighty Persian Savaran cavalry and pray to Mithras they will see their homes and families again. All too soon it becomes clear to them that this is no ordinary mission - indeed, the very fate of the empire might rest upon their efforts...
About eight years ago, I was reading up on the later Roman Empire and its evolution into Byzantium. I found the story utterly intriguing and it conjured up a storm of ideas. I imagined over and over how it must have felt for the men in the last of the legions, knowing that their empire was on the cusp of collapse, seeing the hordes gathering on their borders, praying to their old gods that their lands and families would remain safe. Thus, Legionary was born!
I started writing the first book in the series in the late summer of 2005. The script lay untouched on my computer for a few years and I was simply happy to have completed a novel-length work. It was the advent of the Kindle publishing platform that convinced me to bring it out again, polish it and test the water in the 'real world'. That was a life changing moment. Despite that first edition being somewhat rough around the edges, the response from readers was hugely positive. Since then (2011), I've never stopped. Happy days indeed.

What's your background, how did get started writing historical fiction, how did you become interested in this area of history? Do you write about any other periods of history?
I've always been a writer. I doodled cartoons when I was a boy, then I turned my hand to adventure and sci-fi shorts, before moving onto comically angst-ridden songwriting in my teenage years. After that, there was a lull in my writing for a while as I acclimatised to the world of work (IT - enough said).
One way of escaping the dull reality of the day job was to read, and I found myself devouring historical fiction voraciously. Then, while holidaying in Greece a few years ago, I had my epiphany moment. I had just finished 'Helen of Troy' by Margaret George - a fantastic tale that captures the underdog spirit I adore. I put the book down and realised my mind was spinning off in a hundred different directions, continuing the story, exploring alternative endings and filling in the origins of the characters. I grinned wryly, realising how long it had been since I had last written. That was when I knew I was going to put my all into writing a historical fiction work of my own.
I love ancient history in general, but, as mentioned previously, I found that my attention 'snagged' on late antiquity: the centuries around the fall of the Western Empire and the dogged survival and revival of the Eastern Empire as it evolved into the Byzantine Empire.
I also have a trilogy set in 11th century AD Byzantium. Strategos follows the life of Apion, a troubled Byzantine general, as he fights tooth and nail to protect the Byzantine Empire's eastern borders from the growing Seljuk threat. While the worlds of the 4th and 11th centuries are markedly different in so many aspects, the 'twilight of empire' theme remains.

How do you go about researching your novels?
For my Legionary novels, I usually have a story premise or two in mind, and I then look to my history bookshelves to see how I can weave this into the events of the era. I'll settle down to sift through a few staple primary (or fairly close to primary) sources - such as Jordanes, Zosimus, Ammianus Marcellinus - to provide me with a good backbone of authenticity. I'll then read through the secondary and modern sources - Gibbon, Kulikowski, Lenski, Heather - to supplement this. I'll then spend time blending all I have found, juxtaposing various coherent or - more often - contradictory accounts of the same event until I have a rich and (hopefully) treacherous backdrop to pitch my characters into!

Who are your favourite historical fiction authors, who is your work influenced by?
My books are heavily influenced by David Gemmell. I find that he, more than any other author, knew how to bring fiction alive. His characters are unforgettable, and rereading his work feels like meeting up with old friends (and enemies!).
Simon Scarrow really snares me with his gritty tales of life in the legions in his 'Eagle' series, and I love the attention to detail shown by Sam Barone in his 'Empire' books. There are many others consistently producing top-notch tales: Ben Kane, Douglas Jackson, Anthony Riches and Simon Turney to name but a few.

Do your books feature real historical figures? Is your work inspired by anyone in particular?
While I tend to create fictional characters as my protagonists, I see it as essential that the real-life figures of the day are part of my stories as well. The Legionary series sees Pavo come face-to-face with Emperor Valens, the rival Gothic Kings Athanaric and Fritigern and Shapur II (the Persian Shahahshah) to name but a few. The Strategos series pitches Apion alongside Alp Arslan, Tugrul, Emperor Romanus Diogenes and the odious Michael Psellos.
There is no one figure that inspires my work. I'd say it is more the spirit of the times that drew me to write about them. Desperate times with people fighting to save their world.

Do you have a favourite anecdote concerning the Roman Empire that you have come across during your research and writing?
There are many - some humourous and some rather gruesome. While writing 'Land of the Sacred Fire' I read of one occasion when Shapur II, the Persian Shahahshah, defeated a rebel tribe in the desert. The rebels surrendered then prepared to be shackled and taken into captivity. That would have been grim enough, but Shapur was feeling particularly mean that day and ordered that the prisoners should have their shoulders pierced through and that rusting chains should be fed through the weeping wounds. If the story is true (it comes from Lactantius in an invective piece aimed at the Persians), I doubt many of the poor wretches chained like that survived infection let alone made it into captivity!
Another memorable one involves the Roman orator and advocate, Hortensius. After his successful yet somewhat turbulent career was all but ended following a clash with Cicero, he retired to his villa where he led a hermit-like life, spending his time crafting the most opulent gardens and fish ponds. He quickly became known as 'the fish charmer'. Rumour has it that when one of his fish (I think it might have been a carp) died, he wept and lamented the gods for days on end, then spared no expense in organising the most lavish funeral for the creature, including gilded chariots to carry the scaly creature to a tomb he had built for it specially!
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Gordon Doherty.

The latest book is the third in this particular series, are there plans for anymore, what are you working on next?
There will be at least two more novels in the Legionary series. There may even be more, but I'd like to finish the series with a bang as opposed to a whimper. The latest volume 'Land of the Sacred Fire' is set in 377 AD. Those who know their history might foresee a rather large, dark cloud on the horizon for the Eastern Empire?
I'm currently researching and planning the concluding volume of the Strategos trilogy, as well as working on a highly-encouraging joint project with Simon Turney. These two projects should keep me busy until autumn next year. After that, Pavo and the XI Claudia will return for Legionary 4!
Do you have any advice for any budding military history novelists?
Quite simply, focus on the parts of history that you love. Writing a historical novel is hard going at times. It can take many months or years of your free time, so make sure that in those taxing late nights of editing and redrafting that you're working with a subject matter that is more than just a passing interest.
As for the military aspect - there's lots of fun to be had here! I love to draw out maps of the battles from late antiquity that I'll be writing about. I can sketch out manoeuvres, unit placements and terrain. This is not only very enjoyable, but it also helps ensure my battle narrative comes across clearly to the reader - far too often battle scenes in books can become tangled and confused.
In terms of writing, the best advice I've had was to just keep going. Start small - a short (5k words or less) is a good way to get to grips with seeing a story through to completion. Experiment with styles until you find one that flows for you. This is sometimes called 'finding your writing voice'.
And finally, reach out! There are loads of budding writers out there who can help you improve rapidly by critiquing and sharing ideas. Certainly, my writing improved dramatically after working with a small and friendly group on the (now sadly defunct) website YouWriteOnline.

More about Gordon Doherty's novels:
"My Legionary series is set in the Eastern Roman Empire circa 376 AD and follows the adventures of the border legions as the empire begins to waver under the relentless crush of barbarians from the east and the north. My Strategos trilogy is set around the build up to the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 AD and follows the dark and troubled life of a Byzantine general in a land riven with bloodshed and doubt. In the coming years I hope to write more about these eras and to explore antiquity to the full. So, as long as the ideas keep coming to me, there will be many more books to enjoy.
"All of my novels are available from good online stores in paperback and eBook format."
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Gordon's latest novel, Legionary - Land of the Sacred Fire.

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