Working on what has turned into the ‘Outremer’ novel series - yes, it’s turned into a series of Alamo-length novels, the first one to be titled ‘Knight of Outremer’, provisional release date in October this year - I have been stumbling across a problem, and I think it is one that everyone seeking to write historical fiction will face at one time or another. To what extent is it possible to, well, make things up?
I think it was Scott Oden who suggested that if you are writing about events that take place more than few hundred years ago, you are effectively writing fantasy, as you have to make up so much of the detail that it becomes a matter of working within an established framework. Take the Crusades, for example. The source material we have is generally focused quite tightly on single people, narratives of those who were wealthy or famous enough that they were able to organize chroniclers. While there are a few more general histories, they are few and far between. Imagine writing a novel set in the Second World War, with your only resources being biographies of Churchill, Stalin, Patton, Zhukov and Rommel? You’d end up with completely the wrong picture.
Yet, the situation isn’t quite as bad as all that. There is ample archaeology to work with, though little is being done in that region at the moment, of course. Plenty of excellent histories have been written - I’ll give a shout-out to Sir Steven Runciman right here. My attitude is that the established facts must be in stone; the dates, times, places and people we have should be adhered to. There are so many gaps in the record that it shouldn’t be difficult to fit in whatever you want to add.
With the Outremer series, I faced two problems. The first was when to set it - the Crusader States lasted for two centuries, after all, and the second was where. The first proved relatively straightforward; I knew that my primary character was a second-generation Crusader Knight, and that I wanted to set the books when they were at their height, which suggested some time in the early 12th century, maybe fifteen years after the First Crusade. Somewhere in the 1110s, basically, the specific date to be anchored down later.
That was the easy bit. The second was a lot harder. I needed a castle, and a town, and I needed to have creative control over them - they are to be the heart of the setting for a lot of novels. Not hard to drop them into the map in a general sense, of course. That part of the world is littered with abandoned settlements going back six thousand years, and we know there are crusader castles unaccounted for. Here is something I don’t have any objection to from the sense of a reader; adding a few settlements here or there, as long as they stay within the established borders and territories, doesn’t seem to be that important.
And there lies the real problem. Making them fit. I’ve been reading Guy Le Strange’s ‘Eastern Caliphates’ lately, essentially a collection of writings by Islamic geographers of the region over about a thousand years, and it is a fascinating read. In the process, I became fixed with the idea of the Euphrates, one of the original ‘great rivers’ of civilization, and a key strategic point on the eastern borders of the Crusader States. One of the biggest problems that faced the Principality of Antioch and the County of Edessa was Aleppo, the major Muslim city of the region. It never fell, though Baldwin II almost managed it, and was a dagger pointing at the heart of both of the northern states. Key to this were the fords over the Euphrates.
At this time, the key crossing for Aleppo was at a place called Manbij, and control over this bridge and the fortress that controlled it was disputed. According to some sources, it was conquered for a time, others suggesting that its rulers were friendly with the Franks. Looking at the map, though - and taking at least a little advantage from my university education for ones, that War Studies degree coming in handy - I found another route to the north, at the ancient city of Carchemish, a settlement since the days of the Hittites. There is scant information about its fate in the medieval period, but we do know that it was in the borders of the County of Edessa - a crusader-controlled ford over the Euphrates.
My first assumption was that this was far too important to have been left to a minor lord, and I initially believed I was right. Access, the records show, was guarded by a great settlement at Turbessel, ruled by Joscelin, later Count of Edessa, among others. A look at the map convinces me that this is far from the whole story. This key settlement - and don’t get me wrong, it was definitely vital for securing the southern border of the county - is forty kilometers from the bridge. More than a day’s journey. It seems inconceivable that such an important location would be left to a fort that far distant.
Here is the gap, then. I find it impossible to believe that this location did not have at least some sort of garrison; yes, Manbij had a strong castle, and there was Turbessel, but I do not consider it likely that it can have gone unprotected. While it is true that there are no signs of Frankish building on the site, the surveys that have taken place there have revealed Byzantine and Arab remains - so someone built there. This suggests to me a fort that was taken over, rather than one that was constructed, or a fort built further away on the site. My inclination is a small Crusader fort, built on a position a little distance from the ruins, probably using some material from them. There it could oversee the town, the bridge, and the surrounding villages, and properly defend the vital route to Edessa.
That process has taken me the best part of four solid days’ work. As for the exact date, well, 1113 is obvious enough; around that time, the internal politics of the Crusader States were boiling over and they were coming under attack from all sides. Plenty of scope for drama. Which means that this fortress is wanted by the Count of Edessa, the Prince of Antioch, the Emir of Aleppo, the Emir of Manbij (who were not friends at this point…) and, well, a few others. I haven’t mentioned the ‘ruins occupied by Christian bandits’ I unearthed not far downriver, have I? Lots of fun…